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An Open Letter to US College Students

I’ve been getting quite a few emails from students asking very similar questions, although the very similar questions are about rather different issues, over the last few months. I bet I’m not the only blogger getting them, either.

Obviously this is an approach that somebody is recommending to you, but can I tell you what it feels like to me? It feels like you are asking me to do your homework. That’s not what tertiary education is supposed to be training you to do.

When your professor/instructor/tutor gives you an assignment to find something out about how a particular issue is addressed on the Internet, and wants you to find some extra details about the author and their personal sentiments on the issue, I don’t actually believe that they want you to just ask the author of an online article those questions in an email instead of doing the background reading for yourselves. It’s pretty much all right there on people’s websites, and most site authors have enough to do without regurgitating stuff they’ve already written on cue, for you.

These are matters of established netiquette when engaging in the interactive, collaborative space of the Web 2.0 spaces of the Internet. You are supposed to click around a site’s internal links and do some reading before asking questions, on the basis that Frequently Asked Questions are very likely to be addressed in those links. If your instructors really don’t understand that, then they need to learn this so that they stop telling you to approach these assignments in ways that violate netiquette. Communications that violate netiquette tend to get ignored or nastily rebuffed, depending on the mood of the receiver. Here are my recommendations to you all:

Firstly: that introductory paragraph

… where you tell me about how you’ve been given an assignment on the relevance of [topic extensively covered on this blog, which is exactly why you found it using a search engine] today etc? And the bit you’ve been told to include about why you feel it’s important to you personally?

Be aware that anybody who runs a blog discussing controversial social issues has an extremely fine-tuned sense of when someone is not using their own words to communicate with us, because we have so many disruptive comments submitted by trolls and cranks relying on cut-and-paste screeds. If your introduction seems formulaic and insincere, you will set off alarm bells and your requests will be viewed with suspicion and possibly resentment, right from the start.

Now, those questions:

#1 – Your name and a little about yourself? (for the purpose of a credible source and to give life to your name in the article)
Websites, especially blogs, usually have an “About” page where there is more information about the author(s). This is the page that your instructor is/should be expecting you to read. Blogs (and most other Web 2.0 websites) are designed so that their About page is easily findable using a prominently placed navigation menu. Read the About page. If you need to know more, show me that you know something about me already and I’m more likely to tell you more.
#2 – Do you believe that the issue of [topic extensively covered on this blog, which is exactly why you found it using a search engine] is an issue? What can feminism and what is feminism doing to prevent or/and discourage this issue?
Hmm, you could, I dunno, actually read the article that the search engine results gave you? And then read what the comments from other people responding to the article say? This is what your instructor is actually expecting you to do (or if the instructor really expects you to get individualised responses from authors without doing your own research, then that instructor is steering you down a very wrong path).
#3 – Why do you believe, if you do believe, that this is an issue?
See response to #2 above.
n.b. If it’s not clear in the article, why not leave a comment and ask your question there, so that it adds to the discussion?
#4 – What has caused this issue to still occur commonly today?
See response to #3 above.
#5 – What should a female do when [issue extensively covered on this blog] occurs?
(a) female is an adjective, not a noun. I am a woman, and I am a female human. If you’re only going to use one word, woman/women is the one to use.
(b) See response to #3 above.
#6 – Have you ever been effected by this issue?
(a) You really need to learn the difference between affect/effect and affected/effected here (and maybe so does your instructor).
(b) See response to #3 above.
#7 – Is there anything you wish to cover that was not covered in these questions please state here.
I wish to see a modicum of respect, from students and from their instructors, for the following facts:

  • blogs already tell people about their authors
  • blogs are easily searchable to find what the authors have written on certain issues
  • it’s very, very easy to ask clarifying questions in comments to a blog article that show that you have actually read the article
  • it’s actually just simple good manners to actually contribute something to the existing and ongoing discussion of an issue if you have a question that needs clarification

Now, if and when it’s clear that a student has actually done their own background reading and is simply seeking some clarification on a few matters, then website authors are generally likely to be happier to answer questions, even when it is in email rather than on their blog. But generally, ask your clarifying questions on the relevant post on the blog, and be honest about the fact that you’re doing it for a class assignment (and, if appropriate, be honest that it’s an assignment you’re not all that deeply engaged with and just want to get out of the way), mmkay?

Most of us have been in the same position, even if it’s a memory-stretch for us. Honesty elicits sympathy, especially when you show that you are willing to do your own work.

Thank you,
Viv Smythe aka tigtog

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About tigtog

writer, singer, webwrangler, blogger, comedy tragic | about.me/vivsmythe

One comment on “An Open Letter to US College Students

  1. Although I have not yet attracted students with my tiny blog, I sympathise with those who have. This is an excellent response. :)

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