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Problems of Diplomacy

May 6, 2000
at the 35th International Medieval Congress, Kalamazoo, Michigan
by Paul Crawford (University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh)

Let me explain very briefly what I do for ORB before I talk about "Problems of Diplomacy," which is what Carolyn Schriber has asked me to discuss.

IÍm a historian of the Crusades and the Military Orders (Templars, Hospitallers, Teutonic Knights, etc.), and I edit the Crusades section and the Military Orders section of ORB. This means that there are a fair number of people„amateurs and otherwise„who are interested in my topic, and who write to me about it. ThatÍs good. It also means that I get emails from that segment of the population which is firmly convinced that the Templars were an occult organization linked to everything from Christian heresies to visitors from outer space...not to mention the Free Masons. So I hear from quite a range of people. And some of them can create problems.

IÍd like to talk about a few of those problems this afternoon, and offer some tentative advice to anyone who wants to know how to handle the steady trickle of email that will be generated from your ORB pages. (I could talk about problems generated by authors who write for you, too, but for timeÍs sake IÍll limit myself here to questions generated from your online audience.) Because I will be focussing mainly on problems here, it may sound like no one in his right mind would want to put his email address on a web page, for the world to see. ThatÍs not true! ItÍs very rewarding to do this. But we are supposed to be talking about problems here today, not pleasures....

There are several broad categories of email questioners, in my experience. Let me list and discuss some of them (this may sound rather like a modernized version of TheophrastusÍ Characters, that discussion of the various types of unsavory characters one might find hanging around a 3rd c. BC Greek city!).

There is, first of all, the individual whom I would call the Amiable Amateur. Most of these people are polite and respectful, and they donÍt necessarily want you to do their work for them. They merely want a little guidance. For instance, I received the following email back in 1996 from a retired doctor:

"I am delighted to stumble across your work on the Military Orders of Knighthood.... I am engaged in a personal quest. I search for the historical Swan Knight. I have obtained some information concerning various short-lived Orders of the Swan. I will not take your valuable time,but simply request direction to sources or interested parties of which you may be aware."

The doctor had gotten interested in the subject as a result of genealogical research. I gave him what bibliographical assistance I could, and he actually hunted down some of it and read it. We kept up a sporadic correspondence for several years: he was searching for a way to connect his family line to the legendary Swan Knight, and I gently tried to point out that the legendary Swan Knight was just that: legendary! And I showed only the politest of interest in his conviction that the Knight was a real person (it may have been a conviction„or maybe he was just having fun!). Eventually our mutual interests gave out, and I havenÍt heard from him in several years. But he did me a favor, really: by asking me questions he forced me to do a little research on this aspect of my subject„an aspect I probably would never have investigated on my own. IÍm the richer for having done it, and I like to think that heÍs the richer for having read at least some of the books I suggested to him.

The key with the Amiable Amateur, I think, is to supply references, be courteous, but make it gently clear that you are a professional yourself. In other words, show the same Perfect Professional Distance that you show to your students. And for much the same reasons. Do this, and your contacts with the Amiable Amateur will be mutually profitable.

Another type of correspondent might be called the Ignorant Challenger. These are people who have read something on your website that they donÍt like, and they can be very hostile, particularly at first. I once got an email from an individual, reacting to the siteÍs presentation of the Baltic Crusades. I couldnÍt tell at first if he was genuinely hostile or just a poor writer. I answered him mildly, pointing out a couple of places where his views didnÍt match the facts. He wrote back with some heat and little factual support.

I could have simply ignored him, on the grounds that I didnÍt have time to argue with fools, but I didnÍt. I replied again to his post, trying to remain gentle but firm about the facts. One thing led to another, he calmed down fairly rapidly, and we ended up exchanging several perfectly amiable emails. It became apparent that he had a grudge against what he viewed as "uppity academics," and when he found out that I wasnÍt "uppity," it disarmed him. He asked me questions about all kinds of things, and (mirabile dictu) actually listened to the answers.

I like to think that by defusing his latent hostility, I managed to advance ORBÍs goals in some small way, and to make a tiny dent in the worldÍs ignorance. But it did, of course, require that I hold my temper for our first couple of exchanges.

Then thereÍs the Conspiracy Theorist. I doubt if someone whose speciality was, say, Anglo-Saxon poetry, would get many posts from this sort, but because I work with the military orders, I do get them from time to time. I once got an email which started out by praising the site, and then went on to offer suggestions for expansions:

"...It would be interesting for future reference to dedicate an article reference the present active Knight Templars Orders which are still secrectly [sic] operational. ...In the United Nations there are two predominantly active KT Orders which are of original lineage, contributing projects of political influence...." It was signed with the individualÍs name, followed by an ostentatious "Ph.D."

I really should have ignored this one. Templars in the UN? But I wrote back and said, as nicely as I could: "Give me some hard evidence that theyÍre there, and IÍll be happy to write about them."

He replied: "Reliable Evidence on the KT Orders?. Im [sic] sorry to inform you Paul that there are many active KT Orders today that are the true legitimate KT Orders, and their Historical lineage can be verified, However, since you are not an "Initiate" from any of these esoteric schools, disclosure of any relevant data is completely prohibited due to being subjected to misinformation by mundane profanes."

Well, that pretty much ends any possibility of a scholarly discourse, doesnÍt it. Oddly enough, about a year and a half later, I got another post from him. HeÍd evidently forgotten that he had written to me once before, and started out again very innocently by asking where he could get Templar information. This time, I did what I rarely do, and what I hate to do: I ignored him! There really isnÍt much point in wasting your time on these people. I have yet to meet one who was susceptible to historical facts.

Then thereÍs the Hopeful Contributor, the amateur who has such an interest in the subject that heÍs constructed his own website, and heÍd like you to link yours to his. HeÍs usually very kind in his praise of your site, and then sometimes he ends by rather humbly asking you to consider setting up a link.

In theory, there would be no reason not to. In practice, one rarely finds a site that approaches anything like scholarly standards. But some of these people are sincerely interested in the subject and are doing the best they can. TheyÍve kept out obvious inaccuracies and falsehoods, and theyÍd really like to be associated with what youÍre doing. Still, theyÍre not up to the standards that ORB has to maintain in order to preserve its own reputation and carry out its mission. What do you do?

Well, you could be rude, I suppose. You could say something like: "Your site is not good enough for ORB, so go away!" But if, for a variety of good reasons, you donÍt want to be rude, then you have to be very delicate. Carolyn Schriber once forwarded just such a post to me„an amateur Templar enthusiast invited us to visit his site, asked us if weÍd link to him, and said some very nice things about the ORB Military Orders section.

I looked the site over. It was amateur and aimed at an SCA audience. It was certainly not suitable for inclusion in something scholarly like ORB. But for what it was, it was really rather well done, and I didnÍt want to hurt the poor fellowÍs feelings or make him think that we thought the only valuable websites were academic ones. So I wrote back:

"Allow me to compliment you on [your siteÍs] presentation, its visual appeal, and„most satisfying to me„its freedom from serious factual errors about the Templars....

"So congratulations. I think, however, that we will decline your kind offer to place a link from ORB to your site. At this time we generally only link to sites that have new scholarly information to add, above and beyond what we offer ourselves. ORB is a scholarly site and is committed to serving that specific audience. Your site has another (and perfectly legitimate) audience.

"Do not construe this as denigration of your site in any way. It is merely recognition of the fact that we have different missions...."

I never heard back from him; I hope that did the trick.

All of those types are either easy to deal with, or are downright pleasant to talk to. But there is another type that can be the source of a great deal of annoyance to the person who is maintaining a section of ORB or some similar site. I refer to that dreaded creature, the Student.

They come, naturally, in all sizes and shapes: high school students, home school students, other peopleÍs college students, and the teachers of all of the above. But they can be divided into two subgroups for our purposes: those who only want guidance, and those who want you to do their work for them. And itÍs hard to tell the difference sometimes.

My advice would be to assume, at first, that all student (and teacher) inquiries are genuine, and to offer a little bit of bibliographic advice in response to their initial queries. This is good for several reasons. ItÍs good for them because it notifies them that they need to go out and do their own work, and reminds them that libraries are not suddenly superfluous now that Moses, as it were, has brought the Internet down from Mt. Sinai! And itÍs good for you, too, because it forces you to keep up on the historiography of a wider area than you would otherwise probably do.

And it separates those students who really are alert and interested from those who are looking for a free ride. Sometimes their teachers intervene, usually with results that dramatically explain why our incoming freshmen are so academically and socially dismal! More on that in a moment.

I would also recommend that if they simply ask for information, without identifying themselves or explaining what their resources are or what they have already looked at, that you simply answer them with a question: what grade level are you, what kinds of libraries are near your home, what have you already looked at? This too separates the slackers from the truly interested„the latter will write back and tell you what you need to know, while the former will shuffle off in search of easier prey.

Sometimes you get homeschool moms and dads„most of these are entirely genuine, if sometimes a bit innocent, and they certainly deserve your patience and assistance if anyone does. Personally, IÍll go further than usual out of my way to help them.

HereÍs an example of an unfortunately very common student query. In this case itÍs not too hard to tell what the writer wants.

"Do you know/have any info. on the Knights Hospitallers. I am doign [sic] a

school project any info. would be greatly appreciated. Thank you". There was nothing even to indicate the writerÍs name.

I replied: "Yes, I can give you some help with this if you will tell me a couple of things. a) What is your level in school? b) What kind of libraries do you have access to? c) Do you read any languages besides English?

"Give me answers to these questions, and IÍll try to help you."

I never received an answer, needless to say. I wasnÍt supplying the required product!

Very occasionally, things can get rather nasty. I cite the next exchange, not because I want to frighten anyone away from doing this sort of thing, but because itÍs an extreme example and therefore is rather interesting.

In 1997, Carolyn Schriber received the following post from Utah:

"I am a high school English teacher. My sophomores have to do a research paper on global topics„things that affect (or did affect) people around the world. One of the steps in the research process is to write a business letter to someone, requesting information about their topic.

"One of my students has chosen to do his paper on the Crusades. Do you know of anyone my student could write to?...."

Carolyn sent it on to me. I invoked my habit of answering a question with another question and replied:

"Dear -----: Carolyn Schriber of ORB forwarded the following post to me (IÍm ORBÍs crusade historian).

"What, exactly, are you looking for in the way of help? IÍm a bit unclear on what you need; can you elaborate, please?"

The teacher had her student write to me, and then tacked on a note of her own at the bottom. The student wrote:

"Dear Mr. Crawford: My name is -----. IÍm doing a research paper for my Sophomore English class on the Crusades. I was wondering if you could please send me some information about this subject, specifically the cause of the Crusades and what went on. I need to know how that time period affected the world, and whether or not it was important. What important roles were played, and by whom?

"...Please send this information by September 21...." [Italics mine.]

The perpetrator„or rather, the high school teacher!„added the following note:

"Mr. Crawford„Carolyn Schriber of ORB forwarded my request for a mailing for someone with knowledge about the Crusades. This letter is a requirement for my students as part of their research paper. Whatever you can do will be great."

In other words, every one of her students was doing this to somebody, somewhere!

I decided„after consulting with Carolyn„to send an answer to the student which would both offer him bibliographic advice and also notify him that this sort of thing was highly unlikely to be well-received by professionals! Perhaps I should have simply decided to ignore both the teacher and her student but, operating under the theory that the kid at least had been courteous and probably didnÍt know what he was doing wrong, I gave it my best try:

"I suggest that you go to the Online Reference Book (ORB) for Medieval Studies and have a look at the introductory article on the Crusades which I wrote for that site. You will find that article (or rather, series of articles) at the following URL: [which I gave]....

"You might also go to a library or bookstore and check out or buy [ and here I gave a couple of bibliographic suggestions]. Both of these are good books and should be helpful and appropriate to high school research.

"I feel obligated, however, to tell you something else. When one researches a paper, one usually does the library work oneself. One does not approach scholars and ask them to tell one all they know about a subject. One can ask a scholar to point one in the right direction ("What books should I read?" "How should I go about researching this question?") One does not, however, ask them to give one the entire answer to oneÍs question. ...There are a lot of reasons why this is bad form, but trust me on it. If you approach historical research this way when you get to college, you will seriously annoy your teachers....

"I know that you mean well, so donÍt feel bad. IÍm simply telling you this now to help you avoid embarrassment later.

"Best of luck. Enjoy researching and writing your paper. This is a fascinating and important subject, and I think youÍll have fun with it„and learn a lot in the bargain."

Well. That didnÍt go over well at all with his teacher! She was evidently furious that anyone would dare to challenge the validity of her assignment. Or maybe she was furious about something else. Maybe sheÍd had a fight with her husband that morning. Or with somebody else. Whatever the problem was, she was furious about something, and I was in the line of fire. IÍm not going to read all of her post, but here are some choice excerpts:

"In the six years I have taught Sophomores to do business letters for research, the only rude reply we have recieved [sic] is from a wrestling coach in a northern Utah college. Now I can count your reply as number two.

"[The student] was not asking you to do his research. He was asking you to help him, to point him in the right direction, and to maybe share some things you have learned...."

(Remember, he had written: "I was wondering if you could please send me some information about this subject, specifically the cause of the Crusades and what went on. I need to know how that time period affected the world, and whether or not it was important. What important roles were played, and by whom? Please send this information by September 21...." Back to his teacher, who continued:)

"...I read [your] letter to my whole class, and they are ready to lynch you. I almost let them practice writing letters of complaint."

Whew. Thank goodness she was in Utah and I was in Wisconsin! Perhaps I should simply have replied "YouÍre welcome!" I started to write back with some heat, then thought better of it and forwarded the teacherÍs message to Carolyn Schriber for her inspection. Carolyn wisely quoted her own mother to me:

"A fool convinced against his will, Is of the same opinion still."

We decided that there was nothing to be gained from continuing that particular discussion except heightened blood pressure, so neither of us answered the teacher. And I think that was the right response.

That represents the worst sort of email I have ever gotten, in five years of participating in ORB. Mercifully, it is virtually unique. Most of the posts I get, in fact, come from individuals who we might call Fans, and they are a lot of fun to read. HereÍs one:

"I am a 7th grade teacher preparing to teach a Humanities course this year on Western Europe and your articles on the crusades will save me many hours of reading. YouÍve given me just what I need to know to put together my unit....

"Thanks for putting this valuable information in a form I can use and find easily."

Or this one, with a Subject line of "This is great", which a high school teacher on the East Coast sent me after I answered a post of his in which he had asked for guidance on designing a unit on the crusades:

"Thanks for the quick response to my questions about the Crusades. I will track down the references that you recommended immediately. You certainly do have a wealth of knowledge about the topic and a very generous streak. Most people wouldnÍt take the time to respond; much less in such a timely manner."

That sort of thing goes a long way towards restoring oneÍs faith in humanity and in oneself! And again, itÍs much the most common kind of post. All you have to do for these is send back something along the lines of "Many thanks for your kind words," or something like that. And then go off purring!

In conclusion: treat those who write to you with questions as you do your students: with kindness and (like ChaucerÍs Clerk) with eagerness to teach„but if you discover that they donÍt want to be taught, move on very quickly. There are a great many other people who will profit from your time, and besides, you cannot allow them to wear you out.

Some specific advice, drawn from my own experiences:

  1. DonÍt answer emails the same day you receive them. Someone who needs a quick answer is probably using you to do work he should do himself.
  2. DonÍt generally go into long explanations in your initial reply. If it seems obvious that your questioner is just looking for someone to do his homework for him, ask him a few questions, possibly offer a few key bibliographic suggestions, and leave it at that. By doing that, youÍve discharged your responsibility and also shown yourself willing to answer serious questions„but youÍve also indicated that the inquirer needs to be ready to do some work himself.
  3. DonÍt assume that a person who seems ignorant or lazy or rude in the medium of email necessarily is that way in reality. Some people just donÍt know how to express themselves very well, and they may have the best of intentions. Again: offer a few key bibliographic suggestions and be courteous. A second post from the person„if you get one„will usually clarify the situation.
  4. "Answer not a fool according to his folly," as the Book of Proverbs advises. If someone is rude to you, the best rule is to terminate the contact. Just donÍt answer! This can be hard. Sometimes you have the perfect putdown right at your fingertips. In general, leave it there. DonÍt send it. Whatever you send out over email has the potential to be immortal. You never know whoÍll see it or where it will go.

    Of course, Proverbs goes on to suggest that sometimes one should "Answer a fool according to his folly," contradicting its original advice, and there are some people who really need to be notified that their conduct is making them offensive„so sometimes you owe it to the rest of us to try to stop obnoxious people from pestering everybody else. Sometimes you can manage to do this, and if you think you can pull it off, by all means do!

  5. If you do decide that someone needs an admonition, write it and then let it sit overnight. Read it again the next day, and if it still seems as pithy and brilliant as it did the first time you wrote it...send it!

This may make it sound like answering the emails generated by a website is a complex and draining job. It isnÍt, really. Make these principles into habits, and I think youÍll strike a balance between exhausting yourself to no purpose at all on the one hand, and failing to provide serious, intelligent inquirers with good solid scholarship on the other.

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