Years ago, as a high school graduate applying for a college scholarship, I tried an innovative research strategy. I was investigating the case of a Canadian man who was questionably convicted of murder. I decided to call his mother and ask about the defense’s evidence. She answered all of my questions and sent a box of materials which convinced me of his innocence. I won the scholarship and years later, after 23 years in jail, David Milgaard was freed. Today I find my boldness amazing, but I learned a lesson we’ve both applied in our teaching.
A lot can happen when you dare to ask an expert.
Instructors do a lot of research, but seldom do we go straight to the source, even though incorporating innovative sources offers students memorable learning opportunities. Asking an expert also invites multidisciplinary involvement. Here are some things we have dared to do:
- Tracked down the writer of an article that was being discussed in an English course and asked about his writing process and thesis. Several e-mail exchanges with the author were shared with the class, bringing a new and lively dimension to the discussion. The author was invited to “attend” the class via teleconference, but he had to decline because of prior commitments.
- Invited local collectors to bring their original ‘Model T’ to our college to discuss assembly line production with students in both an introductory sociology and mechanics course.
- Called a local couple who was married in a donut shop. They provided copies of their wedding pictures which were incorporated in a PowerPoint presentation on the social life of donut shops.
- Held a teleconference with a New York writer of a just-published true crime book. The call was teleconferenced with an English class at one campus and a criminology class at another.
For those who have never tried such techniques, it may feel daunting. But our experience has been just the opposite. Few of the experts and primary sources we’ve contacted have said no and most have given even more than asked of them. Specific strategies we have found useful are:
- Use the Internet and Directory Assistance. Narrow your search to find the person’s e-mail address or office phone number. It’s worth the time because you contact the person directly. We’ve found that experts will respond to a brief e-mail more quickly than to a phone message.
- Be specific. When making arrangements, it’s always best to state up front what kind of information you are looking for. Are you looking for a guest speaker, responses to a set of questions, a copy of a specific resource, or their personal opinion on an issue? The more specific the request, the more likely the person will honor your request.
- Work together. If your department doesn’t have enough of a budget to cover an honorarium, see if you can combine with other departments to make it feasible.
- Think Big. Ask multiple experts the same question. You might end up with a panel!
- Use an intermediary. A publicist at a publishing house or a secretary can be a powerful ally in prioritizing your request.
- Make the expert accessible to learners. Let students formulate questions to the expert and encourage them to go directly to the source by using online contact links, such as “Ask an Expert” web sites.
- Don’t give up. Sometimes you have to find the information or contact the expert in a different way.
Our students have found these events and course assignments memorable—the highlight of their semester. Don’t forget to follow up with a thank you card signed by the members of the class, and publicize your success through your school newsletter, bulletin board, or list serves. Dare to ask the expert and let students benefit from your boldness.
This article first appeared in The Teaching Professor in 2006. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.