'Thank you' goes a long way
A little while ago a friend of mine who works in an ostensibly desirable employment sector was giving a talk to undergraduates about how to break into her world. Towards the end, there was the usual question: "What's the one piece of advice, you would give us". It was a simple reply. "I know this might seem very old-fashioned," she said, "but always say 'thank you'". What she meant, as she explained to them and to me afterwards, was that she often got emails from people asking for career and other advice, she would regularly take some time and trouble to answer, and only in something like 50% of cases would she get an acknowledgement or a thank you. She always tried to remember those who had got back to her, and it didn't do them any harm, to say the least. Extrapolate from that.
I feel a bit the same. I get lots of questions, observations and enquiries about the ancient world, and about studying it at school or university. And I am very pleased to answer them -- partly because I still reckon that university teachers are basically public servants (despite the fact that the funding stream isnt as public as it once was) and so we have an obligation to answer the public's questions, partly because you have an even greater obligation to do that if you put yourself about on the tv, and partly because it is fun and I really value the feedback, both positive and constructively negative. So if you dont get a reply from me, give me a nudge, it will be because it accidentally got lost in the depths of the email inbox somewhere.
I dont draw the line at much. I do feel a little bit irritated when I get a query about (say) the date of Julius Caesar's assassination. The temptation to reply "tried Google?" is almost irresistible. I also feel slightly uneasy about answering queries from sixth-formers who have been "encouaged to reach out to an expert" (as they often put it) instead it seems of doing any reading from an actual book (I tend now to ask them what they have read and THEN engage with their queries). And I sometimes pull the plug at the third or fourth mini dissertation from someone with a bee in their bonnet about (this is invention, dont worry) 'moonmen at Chedworth Roman villa'. But most the comments are extremely good to get and the questions raised are worthwhile and spot on.
It does all take quite a time to pull off though.
I reckon that I average betwen one and two hours a day, every day, on the email in this way. And like my friend, I reckon that I have something in the order of a 50% acknowledgment rate. I'm not expecting much (just the reassurance that the email has been received is usually enough), though I have sometimes enjoyed some longer responses. One common question is about visiting Rome and Pompeii, including how you get to see some of the places we've shown in the tv programmes. And I have had some marvellous accounts when people return, telling me how it went, and what they managed or didn't manage to see. It really does seem that it's one of the good uses of the accessibility offered by email (and also Twitter).
But when I spend quarter an hour plus working out what is the most helpful thing to say in reply and I get sweet f* all back, I feel a bit used. And (sorry to say it) I feel occasionally that those who are encouraging pupils to "reach out to an expert" aren't absolutely always encouraging them to thank the expert when they have got the reply. And just occassionally, if I haven't heard within a week, I rather naughtily email to ask innocently if my reply has been received.
Is that reasonable, do you think? 'Thank you' does go a long way.