And a lot of it is students asking him to do their homework for them. I get this too, and I sympathize — but Zimmer goes straight to the teachers to ask them what they’re doing.
It’s great that you are looking for new ways for your students to do research and learn about science. But having them send emails to scientists and writers has failure stitched into its very concept. Writers are perpetually scrambling to meet deadlines and pitch new stories. Scientists have full plates as well, between their research, their eternal quest for the next grant, and their teaching. To answer a single email from a student–either in the form of a long list of questions or just an open-ended plea for help–takes a lot of time. We may respond to the first few emails we get, but as they keep pouring in, we tend to burn out. And the more popular this becomes as a pedagogical tool, the more emails students will be sending to scientists and writers. And that makes people burn out even faster. It doesn’t seem fair to the students for their grade to depend on whether they get a reply from their email. Even the most polite email may land in the inbox of someone who decided long ago never to respond to such requests.
And, frankly, we can’t help but wonder what good this exercise does. When we were young, it certainly was a thrill to get an email or a letter from someone we admired. A message like that can steer young people into a career and change their life. But the exchanges we get today are nothing of the sort. They are just requests for information. They’re sometimes courteous and they’re sometimes unintentionally rude. But it feels about as educational for the students as copying a Wikipedia page.
I sometimes get a ittle flood of emails all at once, and it’s clearly from a class that’s gotten an assignment like that. More often, though, it’s single students, acting on their own initiative, thinking they’ve got an angle to getting a difficult concept explained with little effort on their part.
But I also see it from the other side.
I see a lot of students who freak out when I give them an exam question that isn’t neatly summarized for them in a text book — who come to college not having the slightest clue how to synthesize information. They’re often really good at regurgitation and the kind of mechanical skills that get emphasized on standardized tests, but coming up with something new? That’s too hard.
I often get these complaints (and they also show up in my student evaluations):
“But the answer wasn’t in the textbook!”
“You didn’t tell us we’d have to know that!”
“I looked all over my lecture notes, and you didn’t talk about that!”
That’s right, I didn’t, and it wasn’t in there. Sometimes it was somewhere in the assigned readings, but I didn’t mention it; sometimes you have to integrate a couple of lines of evidence to come up with the answer; sometimes the answer isn’t known by anyone, and you have to come up with the best answer you can.
I second Zimmer’s concern. Teachers, your students don’t need to learn how to transcribe information, they need to master the skill of expressing new ideas. Encourage them to interpret science creatively and go out on a limb now and then — that’ll serve them better when they get deeper into science.
By the way, teachers, could you please also kill the 5-paragraph essay? I hate those things.