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.
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.
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.
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.