Thursday, April 01, 2004

I am writing a paper, could you please...
Out of principle, I try to treat all non-spammers who email me politely and reply to their emails individually. Lately, however, I am starting to get emails that are not offensive, emails I would very much like to take seriously and reply properly to, but which annoy me not as a person, but as a teacher.

I keep getting emails where students (at all levels) hope that I can give them the points for their papers for free. I get a polite request for an interview, I agree to reply, and then I get a long list of questions to things the students could have checked him/her self in five minutes with google! Some examples:

How do I define blogs?
I use Jill's definition, compare that with Dave Winer's definition and peek at some of the popular blog definitions out there and spend a page or so on discussing these different definitions, if I am writing something that demands a definition for a weblog. Took me three minutes to find those. I cheated a little, because I know abut Dave Winer, so I was able to find that definition even if Winer uses "weblog" instead of "blog".

Who are the bloggers?
I don't know, that is why I look up services like Blogsurvey or read articles by Robin Greenspan about Blogging by the numbers. Those two links took me 30 seconds, no cheating. 30 seconds because I had to scroll a little to find the perseus survey. Spend ten minutes, and you'll find a whole lot of discussions about this, enough to keep you busy at the computer and not twiddling your thumbs waiting for my reply.

As for games: Are games dangerous?
Let me tell you right now, all you high-school pupils and undergraduates and even graduates out there who want me to answer that - oh, and journalists, you can listen too: If I could say yes or no to that question, or knew how to conduct research that would give a final answer of yes or no to that question, I would not have been at a little college in the backwaters of a little country at the edge of where people can comfortably live in this world. At least, not unless I really wanted it. That is the most frequently asked and most complicated question in the study of popular media. If I was to make a media theory FAQ, that question would have been topping the list, only with a scrolldown menu to pick medium of your choice. Read any book you like about media theory, if it treats this question honestly and seriously, the answer will be: perhaps, perhaps not! We can't tell, because there are so many other things that we know are more dangeous, and we have been unable to remove them from the equation. The textsbooks say that, I have no other answers than the text-books and the articles. I have opinions, yes. But that is the answer to a different question.

And that is what really annoys me with these questions. Instead of making a few searches and figuring out that there is a lot of literature to read in order to learn about this, I get an email from somebody who is in a real hurry and needs something from some kind of authority before the deadline of their paper.

Asking people, particularly if you call it an interview, is a technique which should be employed to learn things which can not be learned from any other source but that one human being. If you can learn something from observation, then observe, because if you ask the person for instance: how many hours a day do you watch television, they will mislead you. Not deliberately, but because nobody time themselves. If you ask somebody about knowledge they have gathered through reading or hearing or viewing, they will mislead you. Not because they want to, but because they will understand and interpret both the text and your question differently from you. Asking "people" is just about the worst source of information about anything objective and general.

However, asking people is the absolutely best source of anything which only they can answer. The subjective experience, the eye-witness report, the emotional value: this can only be learned from the person who was there, who experienced it. Don't take my word for this, go read Learning from Strangers: The Art & Method of Qualitative Interview Studies.

Anyway, long rant, simply to say please, I love to answer questions, but respect my time enough that you do a little bit of the research on your own before you email me. Then I promise I will give you so much better replies, and I will even sound nice too, and not like your annoyed teacher.

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