Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Well, Somebody Had to Say It! (Sharyn McCrumb)

Dear Middle School Teacher:

One of your cherubs e-mailed me a list of questions today via my web site. She says that, in order to learn how to do research, she has to do a report on me, and would I please answer the following questions which she has cut-pasted out of the electronic assignment sheet.

How many books have you written?
What are the titles ?
What are your books about?
Where did you grow up?
When did you start writing?
Where did you go to school?
Where do you get your ideas?

I am supposed to answer these questions, and she will copy-paste them back into her assignment page and hand them in.

So, Teacher, we need to talk about this assignment your student was given, which is probably featured in some state-issued teachers guide. The educators who devised it did not think it through, and they have stuck you with the unenviable task of trying to work with the silly notion that writers have lots of free time and endless patience with pointless exercises. (We became writers precisely because we lack those traits.)

The people who devised those lame questions for you have obviously never had to answer 100-plus e-mails a week, every week, while simultaneously attempting to research and write a book, compose articles for magazines, deliver lectures and programs at libraries and universities, and while trying to cope with families of their own. Do you know how often we writers get requests like the one from your student this week? And additional requests like: find me an agent, read my manuscript, tell my life story? -- Constantly.

So, dear teacher, I have two questions of my own:

1) How is this supposed to teach your student to do research?
2) To whom are you assigning hours of homework-- her or me?

I think teaching students to do research is a fine idea. More than half my job is doing research. I have to interview people for every book I write-- and the one thing you ought to teach people about research is this: you must come to the interview prepared.

It is insulting to ask an author the titles of his books, for example, when you could find the answer to that on a hundred web sites. Expecting the author to provide you with that list suggests that you would rather waste his time than spend five minutes doing your own preliminary research.

If the student does not know how to find the answers to these questions, shouldn’t you be teaching her that before you send her out to interrogate busy people?

The answer to all the above questions are already posted on my website. All the student would have to do is read through the “About the Author” and “Bibliography” sections, and she could get the answers to those basic questions on her own. She contacted me through the e-mail address on my web site- -apparently, the two seconds it took her to click on “contact the author” is all the time she spent on the web site.

If she had actually read some of the material on my web site, she would not only find the answers to these never-varying lame questions, she would also have enough background to ask more complex questions which are actually interesting, and to which I would give a thoughtful and personal answer.

I am something of an expert on research, myself. Once I had to interview a Daytona 500 winner for a magazine article I was writing. Did I ask him what his first race was ? How old he was when he started driving ? Where he was born ? Nope. Before we met, I spent a good while on the internet reading background material on him, previously published articles, etc., so that when I did talk to him, I knew enough about him not to insult him with questions that implied that he had nothing better to do than to recite his resume for a silly interviewer who didn't respect him enough to do her research.

I asked him about a Cherokee legend that mirrors his family situation in an uncanny way.
I asked him to explain a remark his brother made about him.
I asked him what he was feeling in that photo of himself at age twelve holding a racing trophy, the one where he is scowling, while his brother (with an identical trophy) simpers.

And I got a wonderful interview from him. We talked for four hours. I worked very hard to prepare for that interview.. Harder than he had to work to give me his time. In doing that research I learned who he is, and he was impressed that I cared enough about him to try to understand who he is. We are still friends.

If you want your students to benefit from this assignment-- rather than getting form letters which say: "Miss Brown wishes you the best of luck on your project, but regrets that she does not have time..." --- then make it easier on the people whose time you are requesting-- and make the process less tedious. If you don't, you may get nothing but form letters or canned replies.

I don't think it is at all unreasonable to ask the students to do basic research on an author before they contact one. They Google all the time on-line. They can do this. Make them read something by the author, even if it's only a short story. Then help them come up with a short list of questions that actually pertain to that specific author.

If nothing else, the students will get some idea of the value of research and preparation, and the joy of learning something new when they have put forth genuine effort to receive an answer.

In the long run, those lessons will serve them better than 15 canned answers from someone they know nothing about-- especially if they just cut-and-paste those answers into a research paper without even bothering to read them.

Think about it. And tell whoever thought up this exercise in futility that when one gives an assignment, it is the student who ought to do most of the work, not the grown-up.

All successful writers receive a variant of this stupid-question letter at least once a month. Usually this set of questions comes from a secondary school student, but, sadly, it often comes from a professional reporter, who really ought to know better than to toss off generic, unoriginal questions and think he has done his job.

Sooner or later, all writers subjected to this form of pestering resort to the same solution: we prepare a “Frequently Asked Questions” sheet and zap it back to the interviewer. So we have achieved prompt, efficient non-communication. The interviewer has put no thought or research into the assignment, and the authors fires back a To-Whom-It-May-Concern response, and nobody learned anything.

It has been years since a student or interviewer asked me an original question, or a question that indicated any familiarity with my work. If you are an interviewer, and I answer your generic question immediately with an articulate sound-bite, it means I have memorized the answer-- not a good sign. It means you bored me, and that I have a low regard for you as a scholar.

Do your research before you contact me. Ask me a non-general question that actually pertains to me or my work, and I promise to give you a real answer.

Feel free to spray paint these comments on the wall at the next NEA meeting or post it at the next conference of English teachers. On behalf of everyone from Lemony Snicket to Lee Smith, I thank you for anything you can do to make these project people use common sense in concocting projects that involve busy authors.

I hope this helps to give you some perspective on this project, from the victim's point of view. I have written you a 1000-word essay here, when I could have written more on my novel instead, but I'll store this letter in the computer for future use, until-- well, until tomorrow, probably, when someone else asks these same lame questions.

Sharyn McCrumb won a 2006 Library of Virginia Award and AWA Book of the Year for her novel St. Dale, which was featured at the National Festival of the Book. Named as a “Virginia Women of History” for 2008, she is known for her Appalachian Ballad novels, including the New-York Times best-seller She Walks These Hills. A film of The Rosewood Casket is in production.


Joshilyn Jackson said...

I will give you a SHINY SILVER DOLLAR, my undying devotion, and the BIG BRASS BALLS OF THE YEAR award if you cut this blog entry, paste it into your reply, and tell that child to give it to her teacher.

Anonymous said...

I already did send this essay to the teacher who assigned that exercise. In it I mentioned that i was going to interview the Daytona 500 winner. The teacher replied that her students planned to contqct (Daytona 500 winner0 Micale waltrip to tell him how mean I was. Except it WASN'T Michael Waltrip I was inteviewing! Had they LOOKED ON MY WEB SITE, they would have known which driver to contact. see? You can't even blackmail somebody without doing research. -- SM

Karen Harrington said...

Bravo! I don't have the years of experience and writing that you do, but I am already yawning over the same vanilla questions. I wish we could be interviewed by James Lipton a la Actors' Studio. He is uber-prepared with that nice stack of blue cards and would never ask an actor, "So, what movies have you been in?" No, you'd get great questions like "What's your favorite curse word?"

Kerry Madden said...

This was very funny, Sharyn. You're right - somebody had to say it! Thanks for writing it down.