it’s not just helicopter parents — it’s helicopter professors too

A reader writes:

I’m fairly new to the workforce – just a couple years of experience. I’m the internship coordinator in my department at a cultural nonprofit, so I field a lot of questions from students (applicants and general interest) about how to make it in our industry. At least once a month, I get an email with questions, and I’m always happy to help – I remember being in their shoes!

However, sometimes a student will email me, and before I have a chance to reply (within a couple hours!) their professor will follow up and ask if I received the email and if I’m going to answer. This is usually accompanied by some guilt-trip language about how they asked because of a homework assignment and I’m affecting their grade if I don’t reply. (This has happened twice in the past three months, and from different schools so it’s not an isolated incident. Ick.)

Here’s the one I got today, after a student emailed asking for an informational interview (and I had already agreed!):

“I have been notified by Jane Doe that she asked you to be her Ask-A-Designer for my summer class, Advanced Design. She is required to ask a professional designer 10 questions I wrote and 5 of her own for a homework assignment. Did you receive her email? If you agree to be her Ask-A-Designer, please download the attached assignment sheet and read the instructions. I need you to return the sheet to me if you agree to participate.

Jane’s grade is dependent upon this assignment, so it’s important that you do it. Let me know if you have a question.”

It occasionally happens with internship applicants, as well, and unfortunately for the students, rules them out of the first round. We love our interns but we don’t have time to deal with weird needy professors.

I sometimes also receive emails from faculty advisers asking why I didn’t choose their student for an internship or trying to verify if their students’ application materials were received. Those are easier to answer – we only communicate about applications with the candidates themselves and cannot confirm or deny receipt to outsiders. I have been debating whether I should tell those professors that their actions reflect poorly on those applicants, and generally get them disqualified. But the ones that come from professors about homework assignments are baffling to me…. I have no idea how to reply.

It’s really off-putting and frankly feels strange. I don’t want to feel like I’m getting homework assignments from random professors I’ve never met. On the other hand, our industry is very small and I feel I’m sort of representing the company with my reply. What should I say back? (Or am I overreacting by thinking it’s weird?)

Whoa. No, you are not overreacting by thinking it’s weird.

It’s very, very weird.

What the hell, professors of the world?

Professors are not their students’ assistants, and they should not be facilitating this type of correspondence on their behalf. Nor should they be acting as if total strangers are in any way obligated to them or their students. Their students are requesting a favor, and they should do it in the most gracious, least time-consuming way to you possible — which means that you shouldn’t get double emails, you shouldn’t get an email from anyone but them, and you certainly shouldn’t be presented with demands.

If I were you, I’d write back to this professor and say: “I’m glad to talk with students who contact me directly, to the extent that my schedule permits — but I’m confused about why you’re reaching out as well, rather than allowing Jane to manage the contact herself (as someone asking for a professional favor would normally do).”

It’s pretty screwed up that in the very process of encouraging students to learn about the work world (hence the assignment to talk to someone in their field), they’re hand-holding them as if they’re third graders, undermining the way they come across to potential networking contacts, and missing a major opportunity to help them practice basic professional skills.

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