Just a few questions on Sen, please

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 19, 2007

Today I received an e-mail from an undergraduate student (whom I don’t know) who asked if he could pose a few questions on Amartya Sen’s work:

1. How has Sen’s thought changed traditional development?
2. How has his thought affected on development frameworks and fields?
3. How is his thought evaluated?
4. Is Sen’s thought practical and feasible in the development projects? If it is not practical or feasible, what would be the cause?
5. If there any shortcoming of Sen’s thought or his theory, what would it be?
6. Will be it possible for Sen’s thought ( in particular, capability approach) to be accepted and adopted as the main concept in international development in the future?
7. Is there any concept or thought which replaces Sen’s thought ? Or is there any cocept or thought which was affected by Sen’s thought and which has made Sen’s thought more effective?

I think this student beats “Kieran’s correspondent.”:https://crookedtimber.org/2006/11/13/a-correspondent-with-a-future-in-management/

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don't ever ask questions to university professors « Onwards and Forwards
04.20.07 at 6:38 am



Matt 04.19.07 at 8:31 pm

When you’re done with this, can I get you to write a chapter or two of my dissertation?


Steven Chabot 04.19.07 at 10:12 pm

Kind of low. You are making fun of him, but who is the adult?


Rob 04.19.07 at 10:22 pm

Since he is an undergrad, he is.


jet 04.19.07 at 10:26 pm

I wonder how they rationalize it to themselves.


radek 04.19.07 at 10:29 pm

If it was a request for SOURCES which address those aspects I think it would’ve been a perfectly reasonable request.

Why not reply to him, in very general terms, and then use the reply as a blogpost?


gmoke 04.19.07 at 11:24 pm

My friends videotaped a short speech by Amartya Sen for a conference in Paris that he couldn’t attend. You might want to take a look and go directly to the source.



Jason Bourne 04.19.07 at 11:37 pm

As an undergraduate I sent an e-mail to a British prof. who had recently written a book on deliberative democracy (and critical of rational choice). I read it on my “free time,” not for any class or assignment, and I asked him a few questions. He never replied. I thought the book contained exciting arguments, and wondered how he’d deal with a few lingering questions.

Of course, that situation might be different to the one here in that I directly contacted the author, not some other academic. I wonder if he ever received my mail, or if he laughed at it. I’d written it suspecting he’d be more flattered than anything. I made certain to compliment him in my opening and conclusion, and to demonstrate in the body that I had in fact read the text. What a bastard.


BroD 04.19.07 at 11:48 pm

Man, that”s the easiest test I’ve ever seen!
The answer is “no.”

Can I have my Ph.D. now, please?


bob mcmanus 04.20.07 at 12:07 am

I went and checked and all those questions are answered at Wikipedia. Lazy undergraduate.


Backword Dave 04.20.07 at 12:26 am

Jason at #7 ‘What a bastard.’ You tried to flatter. He ignored flattery. Good for him. Prof: ‘What a cocksucker: bin.’ Academia is dog eat dog. Write a book which shows him to be a half wit who should never have learned to read and he’ll notice you. Get real, son.


vivian 04.20.07 at 1:00 am

I would be tempted to reply with a brief, encouraging note, and a pointer to some sources he could find without a subscription to pricey academic journals. Pointers to one or two websites with reprints, etc. Or even just advice on how to find pdfs of things for which the journal publishers charge obscene amounts of cash. Advice on how to google on things like papers amartya sen development and the like – or how to recognize crackpot pages if I knew of any.

Of course, I’m not on the tenure clock at the moment, and can afford to be supportive of strangers on the chance that they’re serious, but don’t know the right language to show they’re not lazy undergrads.


kind-hearted doctoral student 04.20.07 at 1:26 am

Rather than making fun of the undergraduate in a public forum, wouldn’t it have been more effective to briefly explain the weaknesses in his approach to research and then point him in the right direction? Although, then you would have had to forego this opportunity to bask in your superiority.

Without knowing anything about the student, it’s difficult to assess why he may have thought asking so many detailed, open-ended questions was appropriate. However, knowing a little about your role as a professor, it’s easy to assess your behavior as unbecoming.

I hope the student somehow comes across your post and loses the respect for you that inspired him to seek your opinion in the first place.


Daniel 04.20.07 at 2:11 am

Rather than making fun of the undergraduate in a public forum, wouldn’t it have been more effective to briefly explain the weaknesses in his approach to research and then point him in the right direction?

I think that this one falls into the well-known category “rhetorical questions whose answer is ‘no'”.


Daniel 04.20.07 at 2:12 am

further to which:

Without knowing anything about the student, it’s difficult to assess why he may have thought asking so many detailed, open-ended questions was appropriate.

but the hypothesis “because he’s a lazy little bastard” certainly can’t be ruled out. Why don’t you do the work for him, if you’re so bloody kind hearted?


hilzoy 04.20.07 at 2:36 am

“Is there any concept or thought which replaces Sen’s thought ?”

Yes. That thought is: “Lo! undetached rabbit parts!”



josh 04.20.07 at 3:30 am

My own response, on the rare occasions I’ve goten similar sorts of emails, has been to thank the sender for the compliment of asking my advice, and say that I regret that I don’t have the time to reply to their questions as I’d like to — and that I’m also afraid I’m not sure that I even wholly understand their questions. Depending on the sense I get of the person, I might take a stab at partially answering their questions, to the extent that I can make sense of them and they seem reasonable — or if I’m not sure that I understand a question, but think that it might be something I can answer fairly easily, ask them if they can clarify it. Or just point them to references that would help.
In this case I don’t think there’s any way to translate these questions into something that one could reasonably try to address, even in part. And I’m not sure if there’s anything I could suggest the student read that would do the trick. So, were I in Ingrid’s shoes (and thank God that, at the moment, I’m not), I think I’d just say thanks, and sorry that I’m too busy to deal with so many big and difficult questions.
(All of that said: my own, somewhat indulgent, approach to these things is modeled on a former teacher of mine, who now gets regular emails from a paranoid-sziphrenic welder/poet. So maybe if you don’t have anything to say, it’s best not to email at all.)


Western Dave 04.20.07 at 4:15 am

My favorite response is: a)who are you and b) what is this for? Response rate to these e-mails, almost nil. In the one case, the reply I got was from a student trying to do an opinion survey and had no idea how to go about it. He apologized profusely, realizing his survey was undoable and sent a much more doable version later. Got my name from some database at my institution at the time.


amelia 04.20.07 at 4:50 am

the correct answer is “i’m glad you’re interested. why don’t you do a little extra research, propose some answers to those questions, and then make an appointment so we can discuss them.” (see, the cool part is that that doesn’t discourage the actually-interested, but it weeds out most of the lazies.) unless i’ve got it wrong and teaching isn’t part of your job description?

also, #10: folks who don’t respond, at all, to e-mails are indeed bastards. that is a very basic piece of etiquette that you don’t get out of by being ivory-tower-famous. if academia is so “dog eat dog,” it needs a hell of a sanity check.

then again: i went to a liberal arts college.


Dæn 04.20.07 at 5:03 am

Someone should really come up with a nice boilerplate reply-message for this kind of naive inquiry . . . something that does due diligence to the academician’s commitment to educate but also ensures through its tone that the sender never makes the same mistake again.


Katherine 04.20.07 at 9:12 am

Come now. This undergrad could be the tender age of 18 and be completely unaware of what he’s done. A quick reply pointing this out, as others have suggested above, would probably take less time to type and send than this post. And in the time that the commenters have taken to either (a) sneer at or (b) feel sorry for the chap/chapess, they could probably have answered the questions by now.


Ingrid Robeyns 04.20.07 at 9:25 am

before I wrote this post, I replied to the student saying that I am sorry that I don’t have the time to respond to his questions, and that I do in fact think that these are the kind of questions which a student himself should try to answer by reading through the literature and reflecting upon it. I then went on to recommend looking at the work of a few authors whose work may be relevant, and at looking at two journals which will have relevent papers. I ended by wishing him good luck with his research.

My e-mail was polite but not warm. That is because these kind of e-mails do create increased time pressure and I am often a little stressed to find time to respond to them. I do try to respond to all such e-mails (I receive several e-mails asking for (literature) advise from unknown students each week), but students seem not to realise that academics (in any case those who are are actively pursuing research and are having a life outside the university) are working under rather strong time pressure.

I understand jason bourne’s (#7) anger at someone not even bothering to answer. I shared this view (and the anger!) when I was a student, but I am becoming increasingly sympathetic to the point of view of those who don’t answer. There are only 24 hours in a day, and most academics are under constant time pressure. If you have developed your own theory in a monograph, responding to an e-mail which engages with that theory may be very time consuming. Given this time pressure, e-mails that ask questions that take a long time to respond, or that seem inappropriate (in the sense that the student is asking the academic to do his/her work), are the least likely to be responded to.

And then, I am a relatively unknown and junior scholar. Imagine how it must be for ‘famous’ scholars to open their e-mail box. A very senior/famous scholar recently told me that he receives 200 e-mails a day (that is, personal e-mails, not e-mails from e-mail discussion lists etc.) It shouldn’t be difficult to see that they can’t respond to all the e-mails that they receive, even if bright students or colleagues have carefully read their work and have found some flaws.

I think there is a general question here about what we can reasonably expect from a university professor or scholar in terms of responding to e-mail queries. Is it the professional duty of a professor to respond to all students’ queries, or only to those from his/her own classes, or only from his/her university, or only to those that clearly show that the student did his/her homework? Are these duties different for professors than for scholars who don’t regularly teach? (I don’t think so, and I am in the latter category).


Ingrid Robeyns 04.20.07 at 9:32 am

Katherine (#21): no, that’s really not true. At best, a very superficial answer to these questions would have taken me at least an hour or two. A less superficial response to these questions would have cost me a full day, or more. I’m not as pessimistic as Josh (#16), but these are indeed huge questions on which there is no literature available that will neatly answer them.

Moreover, I am raising this case not because of the case itself, but to generate discussion about the questions that I wrote at the end of #22.


Zephyrus 04.20.07 at 9:41 am

Two things, from the perspective of an undergrad in the hard sciences:

(1) I’ve always been terrified of emailing profs. Even ones whose classes I’m taking. I’ll think about some topic and sometimes comes up with some question or another. I’ll put reasonable effort into trying to find out the answer–say an hour or two–but often I won’t even know where to begin to look.

But then I’ll just stop pursuing the question, because I know that if I ask it more than half the time it’ll be shot down by the sneering prof who’ll demand I find the answer on my own time, even if all I’d like is to know where in the literature to start looking. After all, it’s not like it’s their responsibility to teach or anything!

I’ve learned that the lectures students happen to find professors giving are just unfortunate burdens foisted on them by the university. I just hope you academics forgive us lowly undergrads for making the all too easy mistake of thinking a professor has some part to play in helping their students learn.

(2) In all fairness to the original post, the student’s questions are vague and hard to answer, and it’d be wrong to expect someone you don’t know to answer them out of the blue. So why not politely tell him that and that his approach isn’t conducive to meaningful discussion, instead of sitting back and mocking him with your fellow professoriat?

I have to respect your honesty, at least. Better being direct about hating students, instead of passive aggressively refusing to fulfill your obligations as teacher.


Ingrid Robeyns 04.20.07 at 9:55 am

Zephyrus: this is not only very unfair, but also very rude. You don’t have to project your frustrations with your nasty professors on me. I do not hate students, and in fact in the last years have spend a lot of my leisure time on lecturing and advising for free to students who are not my own. I just don’t have the time to respond to all the queries I receive, and I am surprised that some students think that they can e-mail someone in another university, another country, and expect them to spend a few hours answering their questions.

Why not answer to my questions about what obligations professors and scholars have (which I wrote at the end of # 22)?. Do you think that I, being paid by the Dutch tax payers through the Dutch Research Council to spend my working time doing research, have a duty to provide elaborate e-mails to questions by students who are unknown to me from different universities?


aaron_m 04.20.07 at 10:08 am


I do not think that the only problem is that all professors hate students and teaching (by the way if everybody else sucks maybe it is time for some critical self-reflection).

Maybe part of your the issue is this,

“I’ll put reasonable effort into trying to find out the answer—say an hour or two”

Get real!


Zephyrus 04.20.07 at 10:34 am


I was projecting my own vision of the nasty professor that I have from experience and more ranting against it than you. It was unfair, and I apologize. I also started writing my comment before your 22 and 23, and so was not aware of the full situation. I interpreted your initial post as being purely at the expense of the hapless student, and not as your clarification in 23. My comment was still unduly nasty, though.

The question you bring up at the end of 22 is good, and I’m not sure if I have a good answer. It isn’t fair to expect someone to answer cold emails from students from different universities; a short, curt response explaining why their email is unreasonable is all that is needed.

What might be a good rule of thumb is that if someone is actually willing to make the effort to set up a physical meeting instead of merely shooting off a perfunctory email, some obligation exists. At the least, it will make sure that the person being helped has also invested time and effort into it. Most students would also have the shame not to come anything but fully prepared for such a meeting.

aaron, is two hours really that unreasonable? I don’t think it’s fair to expect a motivated student to spend 10 hours looking for something that someone well-versed in the area could answer (or point out where the answer is) in 10 minutes.


aaron_m 04.20.07 at 11:15 am

“I don’t think it’s fair to expect a motivated student to spend 10 hours looking for something that someone well-versed in the area could answer (or point out where the answer is) in 10 minutes.”

This is not the issue at hand. Questions that only take a few minutes to answer get answered. But the number of questions that can actually be answered in a few minutes is pretty marginal. If the question will take me an hour to answer how many hours should I expect students to spend? I do not think that you will find many teachers that think that 10 hours is unreasonable.


hilzoy 04.20.07 at 1:17 pm

zephyrus: In real life, I am a professor who actually tries to be decent and approachable to my students. However, I’ve gotten emails like the one posted here. Their salient feature is not that they are emails from students, it’s that they are emails from students I don’t know, asking questions that indicate that they themselves have not seen fit to devote any time at all to thinking before they email a complete stranger asking for help.

To me, there’s a big difference between: Hi, you don’t know me, but I read your article on X, and I was puzzled by Y; could you help? (which indicates that the person has thought before writing), and: Hi, could you please tell me what are the major themes of Kant’s work? or: what are the main schools of thought about morality? (I have gotten emails like this, from complete strangers.)

The second sort of email seems to me to indicate that the writer has not done any work of his or her own before writing to a complete stranger asking that stranger to answer questions that cannot be answered without devoting a considerable amount of time to the task.

I have no problem with my own students asking me more or less any question they want, and no problem with students I don’t know asking me questions that indicate that they’ve put some thought into it, rather than thinking of me as a sort of walking Cliff Notes. I do have a problem with students I don’t know wanting me to do their work for them.


Frowner 04.20.07 at 2:06 pm

Hi all,

Just an idle suggestion, since I’m a secretary at Large United States University–if you get such questions routinely and you have (as many academics do around here, anyway) secretarial support from someone with a college degree, you might be able to work with a secretary to write some boilerplate with a few general research hints/major sources/Google techniques and simply ask the secretary to respond to student queries. If your secretary works with you on grants or copy-edits your publications, he or she may even be able to produce a list of suggested reading or research advice on his/her own–I know I could do that pretty easily.

If you’ve got a typical over-educated and under-employed university secretary, he or she may well jump at the chance.


Matt 04.20.07 at 2:19 pm

When I teach I usually set two rules for emails from my own students. (This is besided the rule of thumb that they should be clear on the difference between ‘reply’ and ‘reply all’!) First, if something can be told from the syllabus I won’t answer that in an email. (A always post the syllabi on a course web page.) The same rule applies for questions about, say, when the final exam is. Since they could find that out the same way I would (looking at the registrar’s web page) they ought to do it. I announce these rules in class and re-announce it the first time someone tries to break it. Secondly, for substantive philosophical questions (that is, pretty much anything that I can’t answer in a paragraph) I ask them to come to my office hours to talk to me or to set up another time to do so. I don’t mind them emailing the question beforhand (that even helps) but especially with students it’s easier to do such work face-to-face and that’s the reason why I have office hours. Since I am of no renown at all I don’t often have people emailing me out of the blue for help. But even having 10 people a week emailing asking what the assignment for next tuesday will be (when that’s on the syllabus) starts to cut into one’s blog reading, er, work time pretty heavily.


Matt 04.20.07 at 2:22 pm

Also, the flip side of this sort of thing is professors (law professors seem to be the worst offenders though I’ll not name any names) with blogs asking their readers to do the research for them. (“does anyone know of any cases like this…”) Note that this is differnt from, say, Kieran or Henry posting a link to a paper and asking for comments, since in those cases they have already done the work.


Walt 04.20.07 at 2:28 pm

The issue with this kind of email is not that students who are total strangers email professors with questions. In a better world, I think it would be reasonable for professors to make themselves available as experts to anyone who asks. The real issue is that 99% of these emails are students who are total strangers asking professors to do their homework for them. Presumably the professor who assigned that list of questions wanted the student’s answer, not Ingrid’s.


harry b 04.20.07 at 2:42 pm

Can I put in a slight plea to students reading this (prompted by zephyrus’s comment about being terrified of emailing profs who are his/her actual teachers)? Profs have office hours, and are present before and after lectures. TALK TO THEM! I don’t mind being emailed by my students, but I’d almost always sooner have them speak directly to me. Some professors would rather not speak to you, but most would!


Wax Banks 04.20.07 at 3:05 pm

Ingrid@25 sez:

Do you think that I, being paid by the Dutch tax payers through the Dutch Research Council to spend my working time doing research, have a duty to provide elaborate e-mails to questions by students who are unknown to me from different universities?

Aah, that’s weasel-wording and you hopefully know it. The original student is asking you to provide an ‘elaborate’ email (and perhaps not realizing what he’s asking), but no one here thinks that’s reasonable. But a short response is: I type at a reasonable-for-my-weird-peer-group 100 words per minute, give or take, and could have produced the email you described – ‘polite but not warm’ – in two or three minutes. It sounds like you did your duty to the student by recommending readings to answer his questions – brava – and then felt it would be fun to invite your fellow scholars to piss on him in a public forum. And it’s reasonable to question whether that’s appropriate.


eszter 04.20.07 at 3:24 pm

Wow, you can really see in the responses who never gets random questions from strangers.

Ingrid, you have every right to be frustrated by this email.

My one dilemma in such cases is whether I should advise the person about a better approach to correspondance. At least now I can point people to this piece I wrote. Also, one of these days I hope to get around to writing a Web page about how people should contact me. If they can’t take the time to read the page then I won’t feel guilty about not taking the time to respond.

And yes, my new rule is that if a student doesn’t give me enough information, but I’m inclined to respond, I ask for the name of the course and the professor.

In a better world, I think it would be reasonable for professors to make themselves available as experts to anyone who asks.

This is an interesting attitude that not only students, but people in the private sector also seem to have. They’ll contact you for all sorts of advice and assume (on what basis?!) that you’re there to give away free advice, because .. well, because why exactly?

We all have projects to work on, papers to grade, many of us have graduate students to advise, committees to sit on, conferences to plan, papers to review, where in all that are we supposed to have time to do all this? And even if we did have the time, why should we respond to people in the private sector for free?

Would you say the same thing about a lawyer? Should lawyers be available to answer questions freely to anyone who asks? How about accountants? I could go on and on, obviously.

What is it about professors that makes people think we are supposed to be available to all free-of-charge at any time?


harry b 04.20.07 at 3:27 pm

wax — had ingrid named the student it just might be fair to make this accusation. In fact she hasn’t; she has appealed to us to help her interpret the email. For me it smacks of a student simply not understanding (and frankly zephyrus doesn’t seem to understand this either) that his or her assignnment requires her to spend many hours reading and thinking alone and with his/her peers. No surprise to me.

There’s a different issue, which is about the management of correspondence in email, something which I (as Ingrid knows from experience) have a lot of difficulty with, and am starting to feel unhinged about! My students in my classes take priority over strangers in my chaotic e-life.


Wax Banks 04.20.07 at 3:28 pm

What is it about professors that makes people think we are supposed to be available to all free-of-charge at any time?

‘Students,’ you mean. ‘What is it about professors that makes “students” think we are’ etc.

It seems churlish to fault undergraduates for not having a strong grasp of how awful the life of the scholar is, eh?


Eszter 04.20.07 at 3:31 pm

Wax, no, I meant people in general. If you read my entire comment (granted, lengthy), you’ll note that I refer to much more than just students, because I have plenty of experience with more than just students making these assumptions. Also, Walt’s comment seems to suggest a broader base as well.


Katherine 04.20.07 at 3:39 pm

Ingrid @ #23 – all I was suggesting was an email pointing out that he had asked you inappropriately open questions that he should be researching instead. i.e pointing out what he had done. It appears that you in fact did exactly that. Which is nice.


radek 04.20.07 at 4:25 pm

Wow, you can really see in the responses who never gets random questions from strangers.

Uh, it’s not really fair to make that assumption.

As it happens I get random questions on fairly regular basis from students I don’t know. If they’re well formulated and succinct I take the 5 or 10 minutes necessarry for an adequate reply. If they’re broad and “lazy” I point them to sources or ask them to ask a better question.

Furthermore, when I was an undergrad and a grad on a few occasions I wrote professors I didn’t know, including some ‘big names’, and got a good number of replies (in retrospect I’m a bit ashamed at how goofy some of my questions were).

They’ll contact you for all sorts of advice and assume (on what basis?!) that you’re there to give away free advice, because .. well, because why exactly?

I don’t know about the civilians but I believe for students this is part of the job description. I think amelia above makes a good point. A part of this is about the institutional culture and expectations. I imagine that at research schools attending to students’ questions can be seen as of secondary importance whereas at liberal arts colleges you’re expected to engage and help out much more.

And then there’s the general whining (in comments here generally) about how busy professors are. You know, it is a job after all, not a vacation where you get to sit around thinking all the time. If there was no need for an intermediary between students and knowledge acquisition everyone would just read the books and there’d be no need for human contact. But that ain’t how it works.


Wax Banks 04.20.07 at 4:46 pm


If you read my entire comment (granted, lengthy), you’ll note that I refer to much more than just students, because I have plenty of experience with more than just students making these assumptions.

No no, I understand this point – and though I have strong feelings about scholars’ responsibility to share their findings with the general public in a mode that’s useful to the public if at all possible, I agree that the nature of scholarly work is not well-understood by the public, and questions of scholarly responsibility tend not to be well thought out. But I don’t think you’re right about there being a broad perception that scholars’ time should be free for all, not even close. Employees of public universities are one thing, maybe, but I think your last sentence in #36 veers toward a weirdly self-pitying view common to scholars but unjustified by numbers. (I wonder whether blogging under one’s own name strongly affects the number of such inquiries one receives.)

In any case, Ingrid is talking about a student, and in the case of students I think the question is a little more clear-cut: Ingrid’s handling of the student’s question seemed sensible and worthy of emulation, but discussion seems to have brought out less pleasant attitudes, even if only slightly so.

Would you say the same thing about a lawyer? Should lawyers be available to answer questions freely to anyone who asks? How about accountants?

Of course! I wouldn’t expect a lawyer or accountant to spend more than a couple of minutes answering a friendly question – and I know no one likes to talk shop, say, at the urinal – but it seems absolutely @#$%ing reasonable to expect someone possessed (nominally) of expertise to share that expertise. If a well-intentioned question can be answered easily, dismissing it as ‘none of your business’ seems a bit nasty. And for what? But then I find talk of the immense time pressures on scholars somewhat disingenuous for a host of reasons, a feeling best left to another conversation entirely.


I agree – I think I tend to want to give students the benefit of the doubt when such questions arise (I’m not a teacher, I mean in discussion). And it bugs me to see such questions turn so readily into a referendum on whether scholars should have to answer questions posed by anyone who isn’t paying to ask.


Walt 04.20.07 at 5:42 pm

I see that the corporatization of the university is complete, when even professors don’t think they have any duty other than their job description.

Wax Banks: students who ask other people to do their homework for them deserve to be publicly humiliated.


eszter 04.20.07 at 5:48 pm

My impression was that this student was not from Ingrid’s institution (but she didn’t give us details so that may be the wrong assumption).

I consider student mentoring and communicating with students very much an important part of my job. Just ask students who receive emails from me at all hours of the day. (I am on leave yet I’m constantly providing students feedback on their work even now.) But that concerns mainly students at my own institution. Are you really suggesting that I should be equally available to any student from any institution all the time? That is just not realistic!

For the record, I regularly respond to queries from undergraduate students and graduate students alike both from my institution and others. I also respond to others frequently about all sorts of issues.

My point above was to challenge the assumption that it is professors’ obligation to do so regardless of the effort (or lack thereof) put into the inquiring message even if the sender is not at the person’s institution.


lindsey 04.20.07 at 5:50 pm

As an undergrad, reading this post has been a bit disheartening. During the past two years I’ve been studying at a large research university, and I have been acutely aware of how “busy” my professors are. Because I usually understand the basic ideas presented in class, I never feel like I have a good reason to go in to see my professors. Even though I understand what is needed for class, I still have my own questions that go beyond the scope of lecture. However, I dream of going in to talk about the subjects (namely, philosophy) more in depth. It’s not that professors wouldn’t rather have me come in and enjoy a nice conversation about some meaty issues (as Harry points out, most would enjoy that)… it’s that students think the professors would be bothered by it. So with the exception of particularly gregarious students, many opportunities for deepening the knowledge of undergrads are lost. I say this in response to the comments because there is a general consensus of how little time professors have. And though they might welcome my visit, just knowing how stressed they are about time in general makes me wary of dropping in on them.

Even as an undergrad, I completely see Ingrid’s frustration at the email. From my perspective, the student was clearly being lazy (or at least careless) and was probably trying to find an easy way to finish an assignment (a tactic I never thought of). The student would have been better off if she had at least given you some of her thoughts and asked for help critiquing them. And of course, the student should have included something to the effect of: I’m aware of how busy you must be … only if you have some spare time….etc. Nevertheless, professors should be very careful about letting their frustration at such emails/students/etc become a pervasive attitude in their regular interactions with students (or blog postings), because that will surely deter the well-meaning students from benefiting from the professors’ expertise.


Ingrid Robeyns 04.20.07 at 6:15 pm

Perhaps I should have mentioned this more explicitely: the student was not from my university. He is an Asian student based in the UK (I hesitated to write this in the original post since I was worried that it could harm to add irrelevant information that can lead to stereotyping certain groups). I don’t know whether the ‘Asian’ is relevant or not, but it is hard to imagine that there are universities in Asia were this kind of questions are seen as appropriate.

I should also add that the student opened his e-mail very politely. My hunch is that the student is not lazy, but that he has no idea of what it requires to answer these questions at any level beyond mere superficiality, and how little time I have to answer e-mails like these. And I also think that this student, and many authors of other similar e-mails that I receive, have a way too rosy view on how much time we can make available for e-mailing.

I admit that my post was written out of an unreflected frustration with a more general phenomenon of students from other universiteis e-mailing professors and scholars for all sorts of free advice. I was also genuinly surprised that someone can be a university student without knowing that one should simply not expect others to respond to such questions.

I am sorry that some have taken offence that I have posted this in the public sphere – though I think Harry (#37) is right about guessing my intentions. The discussion has helped me at least to see the many isues that are at work – there is the time pressure issue (Radek and wax bank, I am truly surprised about your view that this is not a reality), there is the issue about the corporatization of the university (this will require another post), the issue of what kind of questions are legitimate to ask if you’re a student.

Thanks to the students who have commented – it is important for professors and scholars to see it from your side too, and I hope that rather than having put off students of writing e-mails for advice or dropping in at office hours, this discussion has also sketched a little of the life at the receiving side of these kinds of e-mails.


radek 04.20.07 at 6:59 pm

Oy, there’s time pressure for sure, I’m not denying that. Man, there is time pressure. But still I think this is something that one should just accept. That’s life and work for you.

Actually I think it might come down to individual cases – a well written, polite, reasonable request from anyone, be they at my school or not, usually gets a reply on grounds of courtesy alone. A lazy or impolite one might get a rebuff or silence. I dunno, maybe other folks DO get a lot more of this than I do (what kind of frequency we’re talking here? 200 per day is definetly way way too much).


Tyler Cowen 04.20.07 at 8:09 pm


paul 04.20.07 at 8:33 pm

It’s sad to think that those questions were written by a student who was actually serious about finding the answers. The same questions could be asked about essentially any notable scholar or any movement in any field whatsoever with just the slightest substitutions in wording. With a little more substitution they could be asked about any scientific, technological or cultural development.

The student has been ill-served by local teachers if he thinks that such questions have short answers that are non-useless.


Wax Banks 04.20.07 at 8:45 pm

Wax Banks: students who ask other people to do their homework for them deserve to be publicly humiliated.

I disagree and find that attitude disgusting. (But then I think student plagiarists should be given a second chance and so forth.) Students can’t be expected to know these boundaries unless professors make them clear – another responsibility of teachers. Cheating is one thing but unless someone instructs student on how to become scholars they’ll never learn a damn thing. 18-year-olds know basically nothing about anything, of course. What a blissful time.

Atop which, in the era of Google-for-job-searching, public humiliation isn’t what it used to be. Rather a bigger deal in print, no?

Ingrid sez:

there is the time pressure issue (Radek and wax bank, I am truly surprised about your view that this is not a reality)

A two- (or ten-!)minute email response doesn’t cause much time pressure on me, no, and I’m generalizing from my own experience, perhaps unfairly (sorry). While I recognize (of course) that a professor’s time is as precious as anyone else’s, the fact is, professors tend to have comparatively flexible schedules, as part of the temporal oddity of college. At school I thought nothing of emailing a professor at midnight and getting a response at 3am, even expecting one (from certain teachers), and could think this way without feeling like a bastard because even though my teachers worked long hours, they chose their hours to an enviable extent. Which is for the professor comforting in a way and awkward in a way, yes.

You’re the judge of whether you can afford a couple of minutes for a student, naturally, but if you’re anything like the teachers I know (and have been), you can spare five minutes to help this poor sap or someone else in his position. And you did, for which thanks – it’s the aftertaste that, um, leaves a bad aftertaste. Can a prof spare five minutes for each of a dozen students of the kind? I hope so; maybe not, but that shouldn’t be their problem.

I understand your frustration though. Lazy beggars, all of them. Personally I think those damn kids should be driven into the sea and – hey, there’s a bunch of them On My Lawn! Excuse me while I go yell at them.


burritoboy 04.20.07 at 9:07 pm

Having once been a student of Hilzoy’s, I can mention that her actual students were usually far too terrified of her to actually ask any questions, about anything, anywhere.


anon 04.20.07 at 9:29 pm

re # 30. Great idea, but… Underworked secretarial support? What’s that? My department barely has enough staff (including work study students) to make photocopies of our course materials. I suspect that’s more the norm in the social sciences / humanities than what you describe. Oh, that you worked in my institution…


Sam 04.20.07 at 10:30 pm

Aren’t y’all spending an awful lot of time talking about how, well, y’all don’t have a lot of time? Heck, the effort invested in making the case for not answering student queries could’ve been applied to answering a bunch of student queries, don’t you think? As a perennial undergrad, I can assure you that even a modest effort on my behalf will earn the harried academic undying gratitude and beaucoup karma points with the Big Thesis Examiner in the sky.


DC 04.20.07 at 11:59 pm

Why are Americans so bloody enfatuated with politeness?


AL 04.20.07 at 11:59 pm

#45, Go to your professors’ office hours! They would be pleased to talk with you then. Students rarely take advantage of office hours, but it’s a time when professors have to be in their office anyway, and when they are usually relaxed and receptive to talking.

Don’t be discouraged by this thread; for Pete’s sake, Ingrid is complaining about someone who is not her student – or even at her school – writing to her, asking her questions that would take a book to answer. She and others are saying that it’s not realistic to expect professors to take an extra few hours out of their day to have an open-ended discussion with people they have no specific professional obligation to. (Many professors will, because we’re helpful folks, but it’s above the call of duty.)

That is, her complaint is NOT AT ALL representative of the attitude your professors will have toward you! If you let this get you down, then you are much too easily discouraged.

You should actively seek out all the good discussions you could have — every week, if you wanted! — if you just went to the scheduled office hours of the people who are teaching your classes. Be polite, go there with a couple of specific questions, and have a great discussion. If you can’t make the scheduled time, email them and ask for an appointment – most professors are happy to set one up.

More generally addressing Ingrid’s points… I think the short “here are the best sources, best of luck” strategy is the best.

Why don’t some posters above see the ludicrosity of the email presented?
I think there are two things going on: (1) many non-academics think of the professor’s life as being one of leisurely free time in between teaching classes, and (2) people who don’t know much about a subject area don’t realize how broad their questions are, and how time-consuming it can be to give an informative answer — and giving an informative answer is even harder if it’s going to be understandable by someone who doesn’t have a lot of background.

On the question of free time: the working hours of most (non-parent) pre-tenure professors I know are something like 8 AM – 7 PM and then again from 9 PM – 2 AM or so. Yes, there’s some websurfing and coffee breaks in there, and we have the flexibility to go run errands mid-day if we need to, but in general I think people outside academia seriously underestimate the amount of the day we spend working. (eg because they don’t know about committee work, or don’t understand what research and writing are like, etc) An imposition on our time is still an imposition on our time.


AL 04.21.07 at 12:46 am

A few more things non-academics probably don’t know about, but which take up a lot of our time: referring for journals, administrative work like hiring or grad school admissions committees, writing reference letters for students and outside scholars, organizing conferences, presenting at conferences, work for professional organizations, etc. I’m not complaining about this, just noting that there are a lot of aspects of academic work that are invisible to people outside the profession.

Yes, teaching is a part of our job, and for many of us it’s one of the main things we enjoy. This is exactly why Lindsay from #45 should go to her professors’ office hours – we’re busy but we mostly really like talking with students.

For our own sanity we have to restrict this to OUR OWN students! This is nothing personal against other students – but we only have so much time to devote to students each day, and ethically we need to devote it to our own students first. Often the time we devote to our own students will eat up the day’s allotment of “student time.”


lindsey 04.21.07 at 1:19 am

Ingrid and al,
I do realize (now) that office hours are quite handy. But that’s only because I had a very nice prof who encouraged me to come in, and after I did I realized perhaps not all profs are scary. However, before that professor talked to me, I was quite terrified of all my professors, office hours or not. Undergrads are easily intimidated, and if they feel a professor is extremely busy, then they may not even try to come in (though of course, they should). It’s just a matter of perception. So to all the professors out there, make sure you tell your students that you want them to come in (even if they just want to chat)! Though of course this is all besides the actual point which is about non-student emails, but it’s still something worth noting if you’re a professor…


Matt 04.21.07 at 1:32 am

What makes a professor so scary as to make going to office hours scary? I’ve had students say that they thought I was scary but I don’t understand it at all. (I was _much_ less scary or aggressive or harsh than my own undergrad professors were, for example.) Students almost never came to my office hours, despite my encouraging them to do so. (Some of this might have been due to my tendency to schedule one hour at 9am, though.) Most professors will be quite happy to have you come by. (Why would Hilzoy be scary? I’ve only met her once but she didn’t seem scary at all.)


lindsey 04.21.07 at 1:46 am

It’s a phenomenon that even I can’t explain. They just are scary. Maybe it’s the intelligence factor, who knows. My problem was that I never had any questions, per se. So I felt silly going in just to talk, though now I realize I could have gone in to talk about the material more in depth than we did in class (who knew?). Shy students feel weird brown nosing, even if all they want is intelligent conversation (which is harder to find in most American universities than you’d think).


hilzoy 04.21.07 at 1:55 am

“Having once been a student of Hilzoy’s, I can mention that her actual students were usually far too terrified of her to actually ask any questions, about anything, anywhere.”

So all those roughly twenty year olds were imposters?


Jacob T. Levy 04.21.07 at 12:46 pm

al is absolutely right. There are finite minutes, and they’re better allocated to students in one’s classes, students one has agreed to advise, and the occasional e-mailer who has taken the time to really think some things through. I’d love the added 15-20 hours per week solely dedicated to the education of students that would allow an extra half hour each to my PhD and MA advisees, an extra half hour to prepare for each of my classes, an extra four hours for more office hours to talk through paper-writing and intellectual substance with my own undergrads, an extra two hours for better e-correspondence with current and former students asking serious questions, and an extra two hours for work on letters of recommendation. I spend a lot of time on all of those now, and if I had more time I’d spend more time on them.

That the extra 8-10 hours per week that would be involved in sending anything other than the curtest of replies to e-mails like these, or even the extra 2 hours that would be necessary to carefully distinguish “I want you to do my homework for me” e-mails from “I’m very interested and curious and just don’t understand the most productive way to ask these questions” e-mails, seems to me like an incredibly low priority is really truly not about “hating students” or “refusing to fulfill [my] obligations as teacher.”

I have to say that I’m disturbed that Ingrid’s been taking any flak at all for this; the response to Kieran’s post to which she linked was very different and much more on-target.


wildcrier 04.21.07 at 10:55 pm

Ingrid, I have every sympathy with your predicament I appreciate that it is not only not humanly possible to answer all or even some of the (200 or so daily emails?) received by the profs from students not necessarily from their own universities, but it also begs the question as asked by you as to why a prof should be obliged to answer such queries, particularly when an undergrad expects a professor to do his job for him thus saving his painstaking information-gathering just because the prof knows the answers or can easily find out where to look for them as was the experience of Kieran Healy with regard to his correspondent, the B.Sc student who asked him for an overview about Michael Mann’s book so he could find a shortcut to answering his management exam questions.

That said, one must also take on board, as suggested by aaron_m (#28) that if a genuinely motivated student with an enquiring mind asks some questions which may take only 10 minutes to give guiding answers as against the poor undergrad’s 10+ hours to even scratch the surface of the whole answers, then I should make an effort in rare circumstances, as suggested by Zephyrus (#27) minus the “rude” parts of his reply.I do admit that these 7 guestions (a bit vague though) about Amartya Sen are rather over the top, let alone trying to answer them; yet if I were to answer them I would do so in the following way:-
1. Read “Development as Freedom” & see below.
2. See below.
3. See below.
4. Yes. See below.
5. None. Read “Identity and Violence…”
6. Yes.
7. (a)No. (b) Huntington’s “Clash of civilisations”

N.B.Refer to Sen’s Nadine Gordimer lecture in South Africa yesterday,his recorded lecture in the Humanist Chapel’s 30th anniversary conference at Harvard University today,Sen,s Naascom keynote speech at the IT conference at Mumbai in Feb,07 followed by his speech as guest speaker in the Indian President’s especially organised conference at Delhi attended by some foreign statesmen including the Pakistani Foreign minister and Manmohan Singh the Indian PM and a Cambridge economist, followed by his UN’s Lifetime achievement award speech in Bangkok; Sen’s speech in Beijing in Nov.06 about the deterioration of Chinese healthcare due to the reversal of the Govt. policy; watch out for Sen’s forthcoming keynote speeches in Basel,Paris,Harvard again, Oslo, York, Oxford in May-June and Munich, Osnabruck, Hong kong, bangkok again, Singapore, Calcutta and Delhi in July.



wildcrier 04.23.07 at 10:23 am

I was shocked and mystified to find that Crooked Timber had published my email address (#62) contrary to their declared policy not to publish the email address.

What was equally intriguing was that my personal email to Ingrid was returned to me without being delivered to her.

I think only Crooked Timber perhaps could explain this breach.


Ingrid Robeyns 04.23.07 at 7:44 pm

wildcrier, CT doesn’t publish e-mail addresses, but does post the names that people give. I understand you didn’t want your real name under post #62 and have thus edited it for you – I hope that’s what you wanted.
Your e-mail to me probably didn’t come through since the ingrid (dot) robeyns (at) crookedtimber (dot) org is forwarding to a no longer functional address (only me to blame); if you want to you resend your message, please use i.robeyns at fm.ru.nl


Ingrid Robeyns 04.23.07 at 7:54 pm

Before this thread is archived, one final thought. I think that many of the comments in this thread were out of proportion, but to me our discussion showed me that (1) many/most scholars/professors work crazy hours and those who are putting demands on their time often don’t realise this; (2) that I may have misjudged that what I took to be statement of puzzlement and suprise (the original post) has come across to some CT readers as insulting or has been interpreted as ridiculing this particular student. I think I have now stressed sufficiently that that was never intended, but our discussion does show to me that depending on the experiences that people have had (e.g. being put off by scary professor, versus being at the receiving end of too many e-mails of which one may wonder whether it is one’s duty to answer them) we interpret such posts very differently.


Philip 04.23.07 at 9:51 pm

C’mon, this is a no-brainer. The student wasn’t enrolled Robeyns’ class; s/he didn’t even attend her school; so why is Robeyns under any obligation to respond?

I’m a teacher, too, but that does NOT mean that I must answer any and every question that anybody or everybody sends me via email, does it?


Philip 04.24.07 at 12:06 am

See? No one–yet–has answered my question. Why? Because you didn’t have to, just like Robeyns didn’t have to answer a write-my-term-paper-for-me question a complete stranger asked her.


Michael 04.25.07 at 2:23 am

I haven’t yet gotten through reading all responses. So I apologize in advance if this is a redundant comment.

Something I noticed, which is not intuitive to me, is that achieving the proper tone via e-mail can be difficult. As an undergraduate, I have found myself on both sides of this issue. I have e-mailed professors at my university (even my research advisor on some occasions) and been surprised by how antagonistic I read the response to be. I have also spent considerable time composing an e-mail on a subject I thought might be delicate, so I show my draft to a friend who quickly remarks that my tone is not appropriate and potentially adversarial. Usually I find that the antagonism I originally detected from the professor’s response to my e-mail was a complete mis-read. And I can say with certainty that I have never felt the adversarial tone that my draft e-mails have expressed. I suspect that e-mail is peculiar in that it is a difficult balance between a conversational medium and a more formal one. Furthermore, when a student is composing an e-mail to a professor he/she is, for the first time, on equal footing with the professor.

I should also point out that, although I seem to be in the minority among undergraduates commenting on this post, I have had many fruitful experiences stemming from e-mails with professors I have never met before. I think this issue is much less of a problem than people are making it out to be. For the most part professors are surprisingly active in aiding curious undergraduates. Although I hope there is not a future backlash against responsing to undergraduates who introduce themselves via e-mail, I also think that it is a worse situation for everyone if a professor feels obligated to respond beyond the level of response he/she is comfortable with. In particular, if there is an unaproachable, undergrad-hating professor in person, I wouldn’t want to be mislead to his office by kind responses to my e-mails.


Miguel 04.25.07 at 5:37 am

As an undergraduate, reading this post has completely discouraged me from emailing my professors. But then again, I’m a little on the sensitive side. What about slightly unrelated foot-notes in philosophy papers? For instance, what if some ethical problem reminds you of the inverted specturm problem (just an example, who knows what that problem might be) is it obnoxious or pretentious to add a foot-note which notes this similarity? Is it obnoxious to ask this question?

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