At least once a year I get an e-mail from a high school or middle-school student working on a project for National History Day. The student’s teacher requires that the student interview an “expert” in the field. A couple of years ago I did an interview with a group of students working on a project about the Greenwich Tea Burning. Last year I was asked to provide “expert commentary” on a project related to the founding fathers. I have always tried to reply to such requests, but I have noticed that the number I receive each year seems to be growing.
Margaret MacMillan, the Warden of St. Antony’s College at Oxford and the author of Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History, is growing impatient about these requests. In an article recently published at History News Network she writes:
The result is that I am now feeling like a hunted deer. I am an historian, you see, and have written books on twentieth-century history. Every week, so it seems, the plaintive emails come in, from California to New York, most from the students themselves, once memorably from a mother who told me that her son’s life would be ruined if I didn’t answer his questions. At the moment the volume is particularly high because of National History Day and its competitions. This year’s topic, so I have been told repeatedly, is Debate and Diplomacy, and unfortunately I am in the sights of the eager young because I have written both about the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Nixon’s trip to China in 1972.
My correspondents are usually polite and, no doubt, enterprising but their emails are nevertheless infuriating. To begin with, they ask questions which even a cursory knowledge of the subject should make unnecessary. Why should my time be taken up with telling students, as I have been asked, which countries were represented at the Paris Peace Conference, or whether Adolf Hitler disliked the Treaty of Versailles? I do not mind answering thoughtful questions from people of any age with an interest in history but I don’t need to stand in for Wikipedia. If I thought that the students had done some reading to acquaint themselves with a topic, puzzled over tricky issues and really wanted answers, I would not be so impatient. But they haven’t and they don’t. What they want are snippets of information to save them the trouble of searching for themselves and handy quotes from their “expert” to stick in their assignments. I don’t want to be the icing on the cake for an assignment or the strange object brought back that wins the scavenger hunt—or in this case the National History Day competition….
I am usually flattered by these requests, but I apparently do receive as many as professor MacMillan. She takes out here anger on teachers who require students to interview an expert. She claims that by falling back on experts students do not learn how to formulate questions and weigh evidence, they do not learn how to read longer passages, and they become disingenuous and sycophantic.
I used to answer my emails, I like to think politely, by telling students that I have pretty much said everything I want to say on a particular subject in my writings and that they should search for answers there. I now simply hit the delete button; the number of requests I get are simply too many (and quite frankly too irritating). And I write mainly about international history. I hate to think how many American historians must get. If I were an expert on George Washington or Abraham Lincoln I would be inclined to abandon email altogether and head for an island in the Hebrides.
Tom Van Dyke says
Why should my time be taken up with telling students, as I have been asked, which countries were represented at the Paris Peace Conference, or whether Adolf Hitler disliked the Treaty of Versailles? I do not mind answering thoughtful questions from people of any age with an interest in history but I don’t need to stand in for Wikipedia.
Heh heh, John.
I'm no professional, no academic.
But when somebody challenges me on an elementary point of fact that is Google- or Wikiable, I want to ask, What did your last slave die of?
Look it up yrself.
This isn't actually a workable reply, but mebbe it should become one. If you look it up for yrself, mebbe you'll find something everybody else missed. That's really the whole point of research, eh?