You Are Not a Public Utility

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By Robin Bernstein

My friend Meg, a professor of theater, recently posted on Facebook about a request she’d received from a high-school student whom she had never met. The student’s email went like this:

I’m writing you today because as part of my Fine Arts Lab course, I am creating a theatrical design book for an imaginary production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. … I was hoping that you could answer a few questions I have on the direction/production of theatre: When directing with companies/schools, or do you work with shows that are selected for you? [sic] If the former, how do you go about selecting a show? If the latter, how do you start gathering your ideas for the show once it’s given to you? Do you create a design book for shows that you work on/direct? If so, describe it. How did you get involved with the directorial side of theatre? How long have you been directing shows? Do you have any advice for a person looking to direct their first show?

For academics, appeals for assistance from strangers are not unusual. Many professors receive extensive requests from people — sometimes kids, often adults — with whom we have no professional or personal connection. Some requests provide vital opportunities for public engagement. For example, we may be asked to share our research with governments or media organizations.

Other times, the petitioners want us to provide services exclusively to benefit themselves. I’ve received many emails from students like Meg’s. I’ve also received requests from total strangers far beyond my university (and even my field) who wanted me to edit their manuscripts, comment on graduate-admissions essays, write recommendations, provide housing, disseminate manifestos, confirm conspiracy theories, award fellowships (I wish I could!), and much more.

Too often, academics seem to be perceived as public utilities whose time is available to anyone who asks. I touched on this issue in a column in March on "The Art of No." Some readers commented that they had no problem refusing requests to serve on committees or evaluate manuscripts, but felt strongly that professors shouldn’t say no to a high-school student who asks for help.

Certainly, students who make these requests deserve compassion — especially since many of them have no knowledge of academic norms. The request Meg received is clearly thoughtful and sincere. But it raises a larger issue: What obligation do academics have to people with whom we have no professional or personal connection?

Context is critical. When Meg received this email, she was on leave and scrambling to finish her first book. Still, she felt guilty at the prospect of leaving a young person in the lurch. So she turned to the hive mind for wisdom on whether (and how) to respond. She asked her Facebook friends: "Am I cranky to think ‘I don’t have time for this’? Or should I err on the side of generosity and spend time on this? My book ms is due at the end of the month, and I’d prefer to be working on that. But I don’t want to be rude to a high-school kid who wants to learn."

The responses appeared quickly. Several of Meg’s friends suggested that she write a polite note explaining that she’s too busy to answer these complex questions. One friend suggested that Meg offer to write a longer letter after her manuscript was complete.

Several friends noted that if Meg answered the questions — even though she lacked time to do so — she would inadvertently teach the student that requesting means receiving. To avoid reinforcing that sense of entitlement, they suggested Meg direct the student to relevant resources online and at the library.

Others said Meg should seize the opportunity to teach the student useful lessons — for example, that emailing a professor is not the same as doing research. With sympathy, they emphasized the naïvété of the email, pointing out that the student is probably 14 years old. One friend suggested that a high-school teacher may have assigned each student to reach out to a professor, or that the student may have received some off-base advice about how to network their way to success. In that case, they argued, any "lesson" should be directed to the teacher, not the student.

Some suggested that Meg invite the student to her campus to chat for "only" 45 minutes or so — which would of course provide an excellent learning experience for the student. Others said that she should simply answer all of the student’s questions, which would surely take her only 10 minutes or so.

Meg herself wondered how gender affected the situation: Would she feel obligated to help this kid, despite her own time crunch, if she were a man?

After no fewer than 56 comments, one of Meg’s Facebook friends — who is also a colleague in her department — reported that he had received an identical email from the same student. Meg had assumed she was the only one approached, and had, therefore, felt called upon to respond. But in fact, she had received nothing more than a form letter.

What should Meg have done? After fielding many similar requests myself — again, mostly from adults, but some from children — I’ve developed three principles to guide me in crafting a response.

You are not a public utility. Imagine if a random high-school student emailed Meg to request not her time but her money. Perhaps the student was running a marathon for a worthy cause and wanted sponsors. Would Meg donate? Perhaps, if she wished to. But not because she was obligated.

People with whom you have no connection — kids or adults — are not entitled to your money simply because they ask for it. Similarly, they are not entitled to your time or expertise unless you choose to give it. Don’t value your time less than you value your money.

If you work for a public university, some people may literally believe that you are a public utility, and may make demands or even threats based on that belief. No matter how you respond in that difficult circumstance (and each case is unique), it’s crucial to remember that the premise itself is fundamentally flawed. Whether you work for a public or private institution, any person unconnected to your profession who assumes you owe them your attention doesn’t understand the nature of your job.

It’s not about you. Meg assumed that her response (or lack thereof) would define her as "cranky," "generous," or "rude." In fact, the student had erroneously defined Meg as a public utility. Any response Meg offered would reflect not directly on her but on the student’s distorted image of her.

After you receive one of these inquiries, take a moment to bracket your concerns about how your response would reflect on you, and instead assess the request itself — and how it reflects on the person who sent it. How much time and thought did the sender seem to devote to the email? Does it contain evidence that the person is writing to you as an individual? Does the correspondent bother to say please? Your effort and politeness should not exceed theirs.

It’s OK to say no. The email arrived during a particularly stressful moment for Meg. She could have written simply, "Dear Y, I’m unfortunately not available to help you, but I wish you the best with your project." Or — and I realize this is controversial — she could have declined to answer at all.

If someone treats you as a public utility, especially in a form letter, you can of course engage to whatever extent you find personally satisfying (just as you might welcome an opportunity to donate money to a worthy cause). But it’s not unprofessional or callous to say no. You’re not obligated to help everyone who asks.

The end of this story. Meg did try to help. She emailed the student to explain that she did not have time to answer the questions in depth. Then she thoughtfully directed the student to a local education program that connects students with theater professionals. She also recommended two relevant books, and warmly encouraged the student to continue creating theater. She avoided apologizing.

Meg’s friends thought she made the right call. They praised her message and advised her to keep it on file for use in future, similar situations.

But the question of what Meg should have done is different from the question of whether her response was productive. In other words, she tried to help, but did her email have a positive effect? Did she, in fact, help?

We have only one source of evidence from which to infer an answer: the student. So did Y thank Meg for her attention, time, and expertise? Or did the student churlishly complain about Meg’s limits and demand further assistance?

No and no. The student never responded.

Robin Bernstein is a professor of African and African-American studies and a professor and chair of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University.

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