In Today’s “Get Off My Lawn” News

Because I am a cranky old man who will die unloved and alone, I have updated my guidelines page to explain why I won’t help kids with their school assignments. Scroll down to the bottom of that page for the details.

But seriously, teachers: Assigning your students to trawl the internet looking for writers to pester in order to complete an assignment? Dick move. Don’t make us responsible for some poor kid’s grade. We can barely hit our own deadlines.

26 Comments on “In Today’s “Get Off My Lawn” News”

  1. Wow, teachers actually give those kinds of assignments? Who thinks it’s a good idea to ask busy people to do MORE stuff? (and for no money??)

  2. We had a vaguely similar assignment to basically go bug a public figure a few decades ago when I was in school. As I recall, one of the kids in class wrote his essay on why this was a horrible idea, with the required interview portion being a discussion with his dad on how colossally ill-considered the assignment was. The next year’s class did not get the assignment.

  3. It’s a total dick move.

    It’s also called “leveraging technology”, and teachers are encouraged to do it. I used to get slews of useless comments on my blogs as well as email requests because teachers told them to.

    One of these days, technology minded “reformers” will get the hell out of the way again, and let us just teach.

  4. (err, pls to merge with above: I’m math teacher, and I would discuss my lessons’ successes and failures in my blogs. Useful as a resource to me and fellow teachers, but not at all to students who are several meta level below the discussions I was having).

  5. We had a similar assignment when I was in elementary school.

    Of course, that was before the Internet, so we had to send snail mail letters with SASE to the publishing house in hopes that it would be forwarded to the author.

    99% of us got “Thanks for your letter. We love that you liked [book]. Here’s a coupon for 15% off your next book!” as the response. Only 1 person actually got a reply from an author, who if I remember correctly was a local children’s book author and songwriter.

    I think the point of our assignment was to teach us humility and/or make us sad.

    I learned (from the reply I got from the publisher) that my favourite author was dead. She wasn’t all that famous, so her death hadn’t been in the news, so it was a bit of a shock to 7 year old me.

  6. Even assuming a crop of writers who are available for this sort of thing online (and I agree completely with you here that professionals have enough to do), this assignment also is rather unfair, because it favors the kids who have pushy (or to be polite, outgoing) enough temperaments to actually go out and do this. I was too shy as a teen to even write fan letters to my favorite writers. E-mailing them for help on an assignment? I’d never have been able to do this.

  7. Maybe a writers’ organization somewhere will assemble a list of its members who are willing to be pestered and make the list available to school systems…(on a semi-annual basis as lord knows anyone who volunteers is probably going to want to un-volunteer after just a few months)

  8. Dick move on both sides of the equation? Did you at least help the person who caused this reaction and then change your policy?
    You might want to get used to this. As you become more and more a Hollywood celeb you will soon have tmz camped out in front of your house with those huge 1+ feet length telephoto lenses peering through your windows.

  9. Bravo sir! Imagine all the schoolchildren in this country, then imagine how many of them would pick JK Rowling, Suzanne Collins, or Stephen King. At least you took the time to say “no”.

    Teachers aren’t being fair to students when an assignment requires a source that might not even be available. I wonder if graduation rates could be improved by examining assignments that require out-of-school resources.

  10. Agreed. I had several of these assignments throughout my elementary school career. I was shy enough back then that I’d rather take the zero than work up the nerve to write to my favorite author. Add to that the fact that my favorite author at the time was in the UK and I live in the States. My parents could barely be bothered to help me with normal homework assignments; how would I get the postage?

    Not to mention that, in this day and age, this kind of assignment is even more pointless than it used to be. Many famous authors have their own sites/blogs, or have bios on their publisher’s page, or maybe even have a Wiki entry. Why bother writing to John Scalzi to find out if he likes pets, what kind of pets does he like/have, what’s his favorite food/beverage/color/etc is just kinda stupid, since most (if not all) of that can be found out just by reading his blog.

    Kids, Scalzi’s got enough to do. Use your Google-fu to figure out the answers to your questions. Teachers, *please* stop giving your students these assignments!

  11. As a worker in a public library, you would be amazed at some of the assignments given to kids by their school teachers. Tough questions I can somewhat understand – altho when it is beyond the age/grade level of the kid I do not consider it appropriate. I have had questions that cannot really be answered, i.e. there is no source to cite, and you can tell the teacher actually wants stats and a source! Being a cranky old buzzard myself, I am happy to tell the kid that their teacher is an idiot.

    Please note I ask for the written assignment first, and it is usually produced by the kid!

  12. My kid has been asked to write to the authors of a couple of books the class has read, but the assignment was always along the lines of “tell the author what you liked about the book and what you learned”, and the letter was turned in to the teacher who read it and then sent it on to the author c/o the publisher. No interview questions, no requests for the author’s time or effort, and the assignment is complete and graded when the letter is dropped in the mail.

    I think he’s had about a 50% response rate, and always with what looks like a stock reply, which seems about right to me.

  13. Wow, dickish doesn’t begin to cover it. They make YOU have to be the bad guy and the students have to suffer from both sides. Really rotten.

  14. I remember this assignment, from back in my long-gone high school teaching days. Rule Number One: grade the student’s letter, not the writer’s response. Never, ever predicate a grade on the student asking a question or for that matter on the student getting any kind of a response from the writer (or even actually sending the letter, in some cases). Rule Number Two: never, EVER require the student to ask a question. Talk about why they love the book, yes; discuss specifically what they love about the book, yes; ask questions, no. Especially not large, open-ended questions. Rule Number Three: Students will want to ask questions anyway, because, kids, so make sure that the questions are simple yes-no responses and make sure ahead of time that the student is aware of the fact that (and politely acknowledges in the letter that) he/she might not get a response. Period.

    Then there is Rule Number Four, which might actually come in right after Number One: Don’t let your students embarrass themselves. And pay for the postage yourself (or make the school do it). But that’s another issue.

    There. That’s a pre-internet “write a letter to your favorite author” assignment. I’d like to believe that it’s the internet and modern technology that has changed this assignment into the monster that it is these days. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that’s the case: I remember horror stories . . . it was just even more unfair (when done incorrectly) back when one might logically expect a response from even the most energetic and generous writers to take months rather than days.

    Honestly. I can’t believe that teachers are still doing this.

  15. When I was in 5th grade, in the mid-1970’s, my teacher gave us the assignment to read a book and then write a letter to the author. The point of the assignment was to learn how to write a letter properly. It didn’t matter if they responded. I read the book “Light a Single Candle” by Beverly Butler –and she wrote back! I thought it was amazing that she had written back to me, because she was blind. She actually wrote back to me herself –it was type-written, which she learned to do before she lost her sight in high school.

  16. Your logic is sound. However, you are a celebrity, and your fans will always hope for more then you can give. Even the respectful fan will ask you to personalize the signature in their book while apologizing profusely for making you write a meaningless phrase to an unknown person. You should be flattered that it means something to them.

    If you were to compose a witty form letter kindly declining because there are so many requests, the recipients would be happy. “Hey, read this letter! That Scalzi is one funny guy!”

    But seriously Mr. Scalzi: complaining about teachers asking their students to contact experts in a field of study and (hopefully) learn from them? Dick move. Figure out your guilt issues and do what you can without complaining. We’re all busy.

    If your daughter was a medical student or resident at the University near me I might be one of many that would teach and mentor her without payment. Giving back and teaching those who come after is important in medicine. I would imagine it is important in writing.

  17. Perhaps this is elsewhere in the site policies and I missed it (I did look) — but would you consider amending your policy to make it clear that students can *quote* your thoughts on writing, etc, as found on Whatever? You said “I do talk about writing quite a lot here, so if you like, you may use the search function on this site to find out if I’ve written on the topic you’re interested in”, but you didn’t give explicit permission for them to then reference/quote what you’ve said. This might be helpful for some assignments (“Find out what a famous author thinks about churros”).

  18. I’m with MichaelH about teachers expecting the moon from students, because Teh Internets. In the library, I have had students come up to me and ask for biographies of fairly obscure people, because their teacher said they must have at least one print reference. When you can only find 1 brief mention in a pretty specialized resource, that isn’t helpful; even less so that the teacher assumes that the library can do this with 40-odd students. Sending kids out to find the Philosopher’s Stone is counterproductive, even as a test of someone’s ability to do research. We have also had teachers assign books to classes of which only 1 copy is available in the library system, and that not local. Fortunately, some long-ago administrator created a card for librarians to give to such students, informing the teacher that the requested source is not available. I have occasionally had to give out these cards.

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