TITLE: Reflection on Zimmer's Open Letter and Student Questions AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 03, 2013 2:52 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Carl Zimmer recently wrote an open letter to science students and teachers to address a disturbing trend: students cold-mailing him to ask for information. He stresses that he and his fellow science writers like to interact with students, but only after students have done some work on their own and have started to develop their own questions. The offending messages can be boiled down to the anti-pattern:
I have homework. I need information from you.
The actual messages can be a lot more entertaining. Be sure to check out at least the opening of his piece, which reprises a multi-day exchange with a random high school student. I'm not an accomplished popular science writer like Zimmer, but as a CS professor at a public university I receive occasional messages of the sort Zimmer describes from high school students across our region. I try to help out as best I can, and the volume is not so large that I get burnt out trying to guide the student to a more fruitful exchange than "Tell me something" followed by "Here is some information you could have read for yourself". Fortunately, most of the messages of this sort that reach my inbox come from students in my own courses. Well, it's unfortunate that I receive these messages at all, because they are often a symptom of laziness and presumptuousness. Most often, though, they are simply a sign of bad habits learned in their previous years of schooling. The fortunate part is that I have a chance to help students learn new, better habits of intellectual discipline and discourse. My approach is a lot like the one Zimmer relates in his exchange with young Davis, so much so that a former student of mine forwarded me a link to Zimmer's piece and said "The exchange at the beginning reminded me of you." But as a classroom teacher, I have an opportunity that internet celebrities don't: I get to see the question-askers in the classroom two or three times a week and in office hours whenever students avail themselves of the resource. I can also ask students to come see me outside of class for longer conversations. Talking face-to-face can help students know for certain that I really do care about their curiosity and learning, even as I choose consciously not to fulfill their request until they have something specific to ask. They have to invest something in the conversation, too, and demonstrate their investment by having more to say than simply, "I don't get it." (Talking face-to-face also helps me have a better idea of when a student has done his or her work and yet still is struggling to the point of not knowing what to say other than "I don't get it." Sometimes, I need to go farther than halfway to help a student in real need of help.) Most students are open to the idea that college is different from their past experience and that it's time for them to start taking more control of their learning. They learn new habits and are able to participate in meaningful exchanges about material with which they have already engaged. A few continue to struggle, never moving far beyond "Give me information". I don't know whether their previous schooling has driven them into such a deep rut that they can't get out, or whether even with different schooling they would have been poorly suited for university study. Fortunately, these students are quite few among our student body. Most really do just need a gentle push in the right direction. -----