No, child, asking random questions is not “research”

How do you respond when a student, following a teacher’s instructions, sends you a question indicating absolutely no preparation?

From my email in-box:

Dear Mr. Mark Kliemem,

My name is [——-]. I’m in the 6th grade attending [——] Public Charter School. I am in my Research and Techonology class and we had to do a project on any topic. My topic is Drug trafficking. I went on amazon and I had to find a expert on the topic, and I found your name. Can you take the time and answer the follow questions? What made you write about drug Trafficking? Have places where drug trafficking is located? What Is drug trafficking, and is it located all over the world? Thank you for your time. I look forward of hearing back from you.

Sincerely,


I’ve gotten perhaps a dozen versions of this, though never before from a primary-school student. And I’m almost always at a loss as to how to respond. If the student has formulated a reasonably precise question that reflects some effort to figure out the topic, I’ll happily spend a few minutes answering as I would answer a colleague. But that’s seldom the case. Something like the above is closer to typical: “My teacher told me to find an expert. I haven’t bothered to learn anything. Please answer my ill-formulated question.”

My impulse is to reply with a hearty “… and the horse you rode in on!” But I never do, because it would be directed at the wrong person. The student is just following instructions, and couldn’t reasonably be expected to consider whether doing so was unreasonably imposing costs. The teacher, on the other hand, is teaching his or her students not just bad manners but also bad research technique.

So how should I respond, given that my goals are to (1) not hurt the student’s feelings (2) not spend an excessive amount of time (3) encourage interest in the subject and (4) hint that some preparation would have been in order?

Here’s what I actually sent the sixth-grader. Comments welcome. I’d like to do better next time.

Dear ——-:

Thanks for writing. Many years ago, I went to work for the Justice Department because one of my favorite teachers had taken a position there and asked me to come work with him. I wound up doing a project involving drug trafficking, and that led me to take it up as a research topic. It wan’t what I planned to study, but I’ve never regretted it. There are lots of interesting problems in the world, but smart, dedicated people to work with are hard to find.

As to your questions about my research, they’re mostly covered in the book I wrote with my friends Angela Hawken and Jonathan Caulkins: Drugs and Drug Policy. It’s written for a grown-up audience, but it’s in question-and-answer format and I think you’d find it accessible. If you still have questions after reading the book, I’d be happy to try to answer them.

Mark Kleiman

Footnote When it’s a journalism student wanting to do an interview as a class assignment, I figure they’re old enough to know better, and just ignore them unless the invitation suggests that the student has done some homework first. So far that’s never happened.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

19 thoughts on “No, child, asking random questions is not “research””

  1. The reading assignment will be a shock to the lad’s system, but you were actually responsive to the answerable question.

  2. I had the same assignment in. grade school. I wrote to Ronald Reagan. I asked something pertaining to the news of the day, like why did he fire the air traffic controllers when they were concerned about safety. I got back an autographed picture of him on a horse.

  3. I like the thrust of your response, but if you are going for a challenge rather than a brush-off, this one seems overly stiff for a sixth grader, who probably has a fairly short deadline. I think it might be more realistic to suggest specifically a good recent article, preferably accessible on line, about a more focused topic — Colorado and Washington, for example. Then a more plausible challenge would be, “If you have some good questions based on what you have read, I will try to answer them.”

  4. I’m thinking like Ken D.

    The plug for the book isn’t a bad idea, but it seems the teacher is falling down by pointing at Amazon and not Wikipedia. So I would think an additional paragraph something like:
    “A research tip: the first thing you want to do whenever you are coming cold to a subject is to look at the Wikipedia page or other general reference on the subject you have to cover. Your teacher may frown on this – and they’d be right to do so if that’s all the research you did and you just rehashed the Wikipedia page. That said, it’s always good practice to have an overview of a subject, so the first place you would want to go on this subject would be to go here (In this case: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illegal_drug_trade). After you have read that and figured out what part of the subject you need to look at, then you would go to Google for related articles (or use the links on the Wikipedia page). Then you could go to Amazon and (hopefully!) pick up my book or a similar book on a related area. The reason you go to the book first is usually the best answer from any expert is in their books and articles – usually when rewriting the answer isn’t going to come out as well. And then you would come back to your expert (in this case, me) and ask a specific question if you needed to do so, since there are always things I had to leave out of my book.”

    He’s a sixth grader. A college student shouldn’t need the spiel. Or maybe they do.

    max
    [‘Any shards of that paragraph you want are yours.’]

  5. Have you forgotten what it’s like to be a 6th grader? I have it on good authority they are not quite as good at research as college professors.
    (on the other hand, they should at least spell your name right. And ask grammatical questions.)

    1. Again, I’m not blaming the 6th grader. I’m blaming the teacher, and trying to figure out how to guide the 6th grader. I like Max’s response above.

      1. If you conclude or suspect that the teacher’s actions are blameworthy, ask for the teacher’s contact information and communicate that directly. If you choose to respond to the 12-year-old, you should, as you appear aware, communicate with that in mind. I continue to believe that any version of, “Go read an adult book” is very unlikely to be productive. If communicating with sixth graders is unfamiliar territory — not blameworthy for a childless college professor — I am sure you can readily find experienced consultants.

  6. These things are indeed difficult to deal with in the age of email, even moreso when you are a clinician as well as a researcher, because you get “I live in Togo and my husband drinks too much. I heard you talking about alcoholism on BBC World Service. Please tell me what I should do about him”.

  7. “The teacher, on the other hand, is teaching his or her students not just bad manners but also bad research technique.”

    What evidence do you have of this? Did the student email you the instructions?

    I think you’re probably assuming too much about the teacher, Mark. Not all students do what it is their teacher has actually asked. Some leave it until the last moment and scramble; some disregard the instructions and try to get others to do the thinking for them. I have my doubts that the teacher would approve of what you saw in your email, but I guess it’s possible.

    In any case, you did a nice job of handling a delicate request.

    1. I also think Mark did a fine job, his private feelings notwithstanding. However, I think there is one possibility that Mark never considered in re: the student, the teacher, and the eventual outcome of a sixth grade “research project.”

      By coincidence, it was the sixth grade where I had to write a report on “Travel in the United States.” My teacher had deliberately left the title very vague and general, to allow each student to work up to his own talent level, and to focus on some particular specific aspect of the general topic. I had no idea where to start, to I wrote to the Travel Editor of the NY Times. I explained (just as Mark’s correspondent did) that I had this project to do, and I would appreciate it if he could tell me (a) what is his favorite state to travel in, (b) are there any particular attractions that stand out in his mind, and (c) did he have any particular good advice he would pass on to a first-time traveler there?

      I did NOT rehash his answers as my report. Rather, I took his answers as my starting point. I used them, in turn, as a jumping-off place to write to the Washington State Tourism Office as well as the Seattle, Walla Walla, and Spokane Chambers of Commerce, requesting a wide range of specific information from each of them. By the time I was finished compiling, digesting, and organizing the wealth of information I had gotten, I had to leave out a lot of it just to get my report finished by the deadline.

      So maybe Mark read the situation right–the kid was just looking for an easy way to fill a few pages. But perhaps the kid is really bright, and really wants to do a bang-up job, but the topic of the title is too big for one scholarly book, let alone a sixth grade report. So maybe the kid did what I did–shot an arrow into the air with the idea of following it wherever it happened to land.

  8. I think the response which I think is wonderful (really, congratulations on putting together such a fine answer) belies the a**hole thoughts that they engendered. I don’t blame the teacher or the 6th grader; I blame Mark Kleiman for his annoyance.

  9. I think alnval, Ken D. and max offered great suggestions. You might as well have a couple of canned responses ready, that you can adjust quickly by age. For a college student, you could (politely) ask, so what about my article “__ ” or my book _______ did you find interesting? That is more of a gentle hint. A lot of people simply have no clue how to behave, because *no one ever tells them.* Personally I give people until age 25 to even *begin* pulling their head out of whatever they were born into. So much of culture and behavior is inherited.

    Or, one can ignore them, too. Either of the above is better than being rude, imho. I’ve been on the other end and it does real damage. Your job — if/when you choose to do it — is to educate, no matter where the person is starting from. You don’t have to do it, but I’m glad you weren’t mean! (And I agree, there’s no evidence to blame the teacher here.) I have a serious beef with that “you’re not good enough so I’m not going to even talk to you” attitude, though of course, this is just during work hours.

    Actually, you could also be proactive and stick some sort of instructions on your faculty webpage.

  10. A couple of times a year, I get e-mailed questions like this (sometimes, alarmingly like this!) from law students, since my name comes up in internet searches as an expert in the subject areas in which I practice as a lawyer. I generally respond by asking whether the professor of the class for which the student is doing the research has authorized or encouraged them to reach out to an expert for a sample of his/her professional work, or whether the student is expected to do her/his own research in primary sources (as I would have expected when I was briefly a law prof, 25+ years ago). And I ask for the name and contact information of the student’s professor. That usually works. Of course, law students are (ostensibly) graduate students, not sixth graders.

  11. Would it be snarky to notice that this is a charter school?

    What strikes me is that the questions seem completely disconnected from the topic, as if the kid had no idea what drug trafficking actually is. (Which in turn seems odd for a 6th grader.) Whether that is about the kid or the teacher is unclear.

    (Meanwhile, I still treasure memories of the response I got back in high school when I wrote a letter to a professor at Caltech; it only took till the middle of my second quantum-mechanics course to understand the answer. So I definitely praise you for responding.)

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