don’t ever ask questions to university professors

otherwise they will insult and spit upon you like the Crooked Timber people (from the comments on that site commenting upon a poor undergrad’s questions about A. Sen):

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

    Posted by Matt · April 19th, 2007 at 8:31 pm

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

    Posted by Steven Chabot · April 19th, 2007 at 10:12 pm

  3. Since he is an undergrad, he is.

    Posted by Rob · April 19th, 2007 at 10:22 pm

  4. I wonder how they rationalize it to themselves.

    Posted by jet · April 19th, 2007 at 10:26 pm


  1. 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’”.

    Posted by Daniel · April 20th, 2007 at 2:11 am

  2. 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?

    Posted by Daniel · April 20th, 2007 at 2:12 am

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

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


    Posted by hilzoy · April 20th, 2007 at 2:36 am


  1. 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.

    Posted by Western Dave · April 20th, 2007 at 4:15 am

  2. 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.

    Posted by Dæn · April 20th, 2007 at 5:03 am


Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolutions has kindly given answers to these questions (thanks gaddeswarup for the pointer).

Re-reading through the now 60 some comments at CT made me think: these people are all wasting time writing 5 paragraph long comments explaining why they don’t have any time to answer these kinds of questions! if only half of these commenters would have provided some anwers we’d have a very interesting thread that would certainly have helped many more people than the student in question. And, as Tyler shows, this was perfect blogging material. (i don’t know enough abt Sen to say anything myself, though.)


4 Comments to “don’t ever ask questions to university professors”

  1. I was shocked by the post as well as a previous post ( one of the authors recently published a paper on some sort of morality),Universities are supposed to be repositories of knowledge and libraries are often open to public. By extensionm many expect university teachers to help with information and suggestions. One problem may be there is no training for university teaching like school teaching and I do not think that school teachers will respond the same way. May be it is time to think of compulsory training for university teachers.

  2. I think you should read further down the comment thread at CT (see comments 22 and 23 in particular). It seems that the request came froma student at a different University, and that the lecturer in question sent a polite reply.
    Do lecturers really have an obligation to answer every such enquiry they receive, from whatever source? Why wouldn’t it be enough to say ‘Here’s where you should be looking in order to find answers for yourself’?

  3. Having studied in publicly funded insitutions in India, my bias is towards public responsibility of acdemics. American universities evolved differently (see David Labaree’s papers); and in any case situation seems to be changing everywhere towards more paper work for teachers. See also the responses 30, 46 and the response in MR. There are several other interesting comments.

  4. People somehow think that this student has been publicly humiliated … how absurd! No-one knows his name or even what university he is at. Since his identity remains private, I don’t see any problem with discussion of what was, undoubtedly, a very stupid email to send.

    Or are professors to be banned from talking about emails they get from random people around the world in case it might be ‘inappropriate’?

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