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Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Hi there Duggy!

A student sends an awkward email to an eminent professor

Early in the nineteen-nineties, I came across a strikingly enlightening piece of research which suggested that girls who work together can be much better learners than boys. It was an experiment in which pairs of eight-year-old children worked from an interactive multimedia videodisk – a very new and unusual experience at the time. Some weeks later they were asked to write essays about it on their own. The surprising result was that girls who had worked with other girls remembered twice as much as either boys or girls paired in other combinations.* There were many other aspects to the experiment too, making a useful contribution to the idea that educational software can encourage collaboration as well as individual learning.

I stumbled upon this research as a newly appointed lecturer at a recently upgraded northern ex-polytechnic, hoping to develop a career by devising innovative courses about the new technologies. I asked each student to lead a short seminar discussion about a published research paper they had chosen from a list. One student, let us call him Arshad, chose the paper about the pairs of children and the videodisk. 

Email was also relatively new in those days. Some university staff still resisted its use, and those who welcomed it were having to come to terms with the accessibility and informality it brings. We took pains to educate our students about the possible pitfalls. It seemed inevitable that it would sometimes be used inappropriately, but it was with disbelief that I read the email Arshad sent to the author of the research paper.

The author was Professor Dougman Fairwood, an eminent and influential Head of School in a top Russell-group university, author of numerous books, review articles and research papers across a wide range of topics. He had been awarded several high-value research grants, guided no end of doctoral students to successful completion, served on government advisory committees and was internationally respected in his field. You get the idea. Most of these over-achieving professors are pathological workaholics and take themselves very seriously. They get upset if you don’t address them formally, or fail to treat them with the respect and deference they think they deserve.

This is the email Arshad sent:

Subject: Study questions?
Hi there
Hows it going, My name is Arshad A-----, Im a student at --- University, Currently I am reviewing one of your publications titled “--------- ------------ --- ------- --------”. I would be very gratefull if you would be so kind to answer a few questions reagding the study.
1 - Was there any initial assumptions taken into account about the children taking part in the study? (if any, how valid were the assumptions?).
2 - Taking a retrospective look at the study, how well do you think the study was carried out?, do you think anything was overlooked in terms of implemantaion or methodolgy?
3 - Do you think your study has any implications or links to other ideas?
4 - How importantly do you think your study is relevent today and more importantly in the future?
Thanks in advance
Arshad A-----.
It was not long before an angry reply was circulated to staff.
Dear Colleagues

The attached is a message received both here and by my co-author, and comes, apparently, from a --- University student. The student does not identify his Department, so I’m sending this complaint to the Heads of Psychology, Education, Computer Science, Engineering, Multimedia and Information Systems, with a copy to the Vice Chancellor.

Your student appears to be writing an assignment on one of our papers, and the questions that we are being asked would be just the kinds of questions that a tutor might set. Is it your practice to have your students get the answers to their questions by doing the equivalent of looking at the back of the book? Obviously not, and you might want to take some action to inform the student about your preferred practice.

But the main reason for writing is to complain about the e-mail itself. The interrogational style had ---- and I phoning each other to ask what was going on here. Speaking for myself, I am decidedly cheesed off with this e-mail. Being asked to justify the validity of my own assumptions, or the relevance of my work, is something that I do not expect from a student hoping to pass a term paper. Of course, if you believe that your student is doing exactly the right thing here, then I would be especially grateful to hear from you.

Best regards

Dougman Fairwood.

Professor Dougman P. Fairwood BSc PhD DSc CPsychol FBPsS
Head, School of -----
University of -----
I can think of at least five so-called rules of email etiquette Arshad ignored, but even had all been correct, the content was way out of order. Students may well have genuine grounds for writing to staff at other universities, but they should always pass it by their own supervisors first. They certainly should not do it in such a clumsy and tactless way.

I drafted a grovelling apology but never had to send it. It turned out that our Head of School had already apologised on behalf of the university believing that Arshad had been looking at the paper for his final-year project. No one ever associated his email message with the course I was teaching. That was fortunate because at the very next conference I attended, I got into conversation with the friendly chap sitting next to me and asked his name. “I’m Doug Fairwood,” he answered. “Going for a coffee?” We had an interesting chat about interactive talking books.

When Arshad’s seminar came along it was fairly obvious that either he had not understood or had not read the paper at all. He still graduated that year with a respectable degree – well, he was a nice enough lad and the university did not like us to fail people. I wonder what he’s doing now.

* One possible reason for the girls’ so much stronger recall is rehearsal. Girls, being more sociable, seem more likely to have talked about their experiences afterwards, possibly in play. Strangely, the authors did not consider this in their paper.


  1. haha, working at a university as I do too, I can just imagine this. I've been in the position of having to apologise to a company for how a student has gracelessly turned down the offer of a work placement.

    1. There are some university stories you can't tell, even under a pseudonym after you've retired.


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