Written by Tim Lewis
In the first part of this series, I spoke with you about some of the justifications for and results of contacting knowledge producers for clarity, assistance, and engagement with argumentation development. In this post, I will detail a practical guide that can serve as a starting point for you to develop your own system and approach to communicating with authors. Again, I want to reiterate that this post should not be read as an authoritative set of standards on how to proceed with authors—every case is different and requires the use of good, empathetic judgement—but lacking authority does not mean a conversation cannot begin. Lastly, this post will touch on some other ways to get in contact with authors and/or their proxies besides email. My third post in this series will be entirely devoted to a discussion of ethics of authorly communications as a concept on the plane of fairness, as an aspect of strategy in argument development, and as a factor in research learning process immanent to policy debate.
No research is done well without proper preparation and evaluation of one’s needs and the limitations involved in any dedicated research process. Before contacting any author, it is essential that you remember that when you are reaching-out, you are necessarily requesting an additional investment of time, energy, and resources (all of which become increasingly finite as individual knowledge producers advance in their careers). As such, you should bring a weight of respect to this potential interaction that you may not have otherwise when conducting simple searches or attending/listening to panel presentations. Even more, you should remember that even though this aspect of the research process is burdensome on you, not all authors will respect, appreciate, and/or care about the investment you have put into their ideas (regardless of the degree of enthusiasm, care in question crafting, etc.).
Indeed, then, one of the central questions you should be asking yourself before drawing up an email should be, ‘Do I have good reason to email this person?’ This question is essential in an age where people can tend to forget about the power they have when combined with individual search engines (i.e. can you question be resolved by the use of the Let Me Google That For You tool: http://letmegooglethat.com/). A good way to discern if your questions are ones that should be sent in an email is if they meet a standard of ‘uniqueness.’ That is to say, do your questions bring forward an aspect of an idea that the literature:
- has not already engaged with
- would not necessarily engage with and
- could reasonably be put into conversation.
It is important to remember, as well, to not make your questions too unique in an attempt to gain some kind of debate leverage over an argument that has been frustrating your research. I would not, for example, recommend emailing Charles Glaser (a common China war escalation author) about his thoughts on specific sections of Chengxin Pan’s (a central critic for many versions of Security/Orientalism international relations kritiks) obscure writings on Chinese threat construction ontology as it relates to the possibility of Japanese proliferation of nuclear weapons. While Glaser might have much and serious insight into the issue of Japanese proliferation of nuclear weapons and the likelihood US-China war (and may have even read some of Pan’s work), his discipline is not international relations theory—he studies the political science of international affairs. The next aspect of this preparation process, following a positive determination of your question’s uniqueness, would be the human element of the interaction.
The work that is done in policy debate is unique, soul-expending, and oftentimes difficult to separate from the individual who writes the argument. So, too, is the scholarship and creative work that we cite and repeat in rounds. This personal element of the research process should inform how and who you contact—take Charles Glaser again, for example: Glaser is a fully tenured professor well-through the second half of his intellectual career who (in addition to teaching and writing) directs the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies. It is unlikely, then, that he would be willing to reply to emails that loosely engage him with questions that resemble one like ‘How does hegemony work if the US gives Taiwan FMS?’ and ‘What is the timeframe of a US-China war? Would it happen before a biodiversity collapse?’ Remember, authors are under no obligation to reply to your emails or get back to you in any way—understanding interactions with them as an opportunity for responsibility might be more helpful than representing them in terms of product/outcome etc. To end this discussion of the preparation element of the contact process, I want to provide some thoughts on questions that might be better to ask someone like Glaser.
Glaser is most known in the debate community for an article that he wrote in 2015 called “A US-China Grand Bargain?” (International Security, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Spring 2015), pp. 49–90, doi:10.1162/ISEC_a_00199). This article discusses a set of policy recommendations based in international affairs study of China, the US, and Taiwan security postures and commitments. On the 2019-2020 arms sales topic, this article is particularly relevant because it argues for the elimination of US arms sales to Taiwan as a part of a ‘grand bargain’ to ensure a ‘peaceful’ Chinese hegemonic rise. Considering that the article is four years old and the US has a new president in the figure of Donald Trump (in addition to Obama’s strategic military pivot towards Asia) who has not only started a trade war with China, but has also approved an approximately $2.2. billion FMS arms deal with Taiwan, there might be something useful to asking Glaser if his model for a grand bargain is still feasible in this conjuncture. Beyond feasible, though, it might be helpful to center a question about the contemporary legitimacy of Glaser’s statement that in a world where the US ends arms sales to Taiwan “… the United States could commit additional forces to the region, forward deploy larger forces, invest more in overall U.S. military capabilities, and increase the integration of alliance military planning” to assure regional allies and counter Chinese ambitions for extending regional sovereignty. This theoretical posturing is all well and good, but I want to share a point by point example of how to construct an email like this in order to get you thinking about some common mistakes to avoid making and the choices you will have to make when reaching out to an author.
Author Email Demonstration
The first aspect of emailing an author that is critical to remember is the impression that you give this complete stranger of yourself, your institution, and the wider policy debate community. While it may seem like a silly place to begin discussion, I want to emphasize the importance of contacting authors either from an email account designated to you by your school/institution or one that does not contain any words, metaphors, or expressions that could be interpreted as off-putting, rude, inappropriate, etc. (just remember to use good judgement!). The next aspect involves the subject line. Subject lines can be tricky and can send a signal to the recipient that this an email to read or disregard. In this case, we have a question for Prof. Glaser that involves FMS, Taiwan, and US-China hegemonic competition—a couple effective subject lines that come to mind include ‘Research Question- US Arms Deal to Taiwan,’ ‘Question Regarding “US-China Grand Bargain” (2015),’ or ‘Student Research: US-China Hegemony.’ While each of these lines have their strengths—from brevity to specificity—no single one is without flaws (some are too long, some have slightly awkward phrasing, and others are too generic). At this point, the one that I would most choose to use is ‘Question Regarding “US-China Grand Bargain” (2015)’ because its phrasing demonstrates a more intentional degree of and possibility for scholarly engagement (particularly by noting the article title) and that the author of the email likely read the complete article and has something relevant to contribute to Glaser’s reading of the topic area.
After agonizing over how to summarize your entire communication in a few words for the subject line, let’s talk about the three to five words that go into a salutation. I would definitely want to discourage you from starting an email to any author with a ‘’Sup,’ ‘Hey,’ ‘Hi,’ or some other casual greeting. Oftentimes, I have found that the easiest way to introduce an email is by simply stating the person’s name and/or title. Variations of this could be Dr. XXX, Prof. XXX, Martha, Philip, etc.—remember, it is important that you do not use titles that presume and/or alienate the person you are writing to (particularly ‘Ms.’ and ‘Mrs.’). I prefer to use a colon after my salutation, but a comma works just as well.
Now that we are actually into the text of the email, the first thing that we should do is let Dr. Glaser know who we are and why we are contacting them. Thinking back to my email to Dr. Clifford (from Part 1 of this blog series), I think that it is helpful to state that the author of the email is a policy debate student, what the topic for the year is, and how/why the individual came across Glaser’s article. I have provided an outline of what that could look like in the section titled ‘Email Sample’ below. From there, I would recommend asking two to three questions along the lines of what I discussed above. I think that the three question model can be helpful because it can give you an opportunity to ask the question that you know you need to ask, the questions that you want to ask based on your applied and active reading of the article, and the questions that might be a bit of a reach and/or require a bit of luck to get the response you want to receive. After you complete the body of your email you can choose to have an extended thanks or an abbreviated one—in this case, because the questions I would ask are relatively mundane to the article (i.e. they ask for insight into the general arguments of the article and do not make more nuanced interactions with certain citation choices, diction, etc.), I would use a shorter farewell statement.
Subject: Question Regarding “US-China Grand Bargain” (2015)
Salutation and Body:
My name is Tim Lewis and I am a policy debate student at XXX high school. This year we have been asked by our national topic committee to study the following resolution: Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially reduce Direct Commercial Sales and/or Foreign Military Sales of arms from the United States. In my research, I came across your 2015 article “A US-China Grand Bargain?” and I wanted to know if you would be willing to answer a few questions that I have about the article’s applicability to geopolitics in 2019, especially considering the US’s massive increase of FMS to Taiwan recently.
- Is a US-China grand bargain possible when Taiwan and the US are becoming even more solid security allies and China pursues aggressive foreign policy actions in the region (specifically fishing and military vessel interdiction in the South China Sea and the extradition policy pressure in Hong Kong)? (Question You Need to Ask)
- What impact (if any) would a US-China grand bargain have on an increasingly emboldened North Korea? (Question You Want to Ask Based on Active Reading of the Article)
- Considering the possibility for a US-China grand bargain to go into effect, will current American forces in South Korea, Japan, and Guam be sufficient to deter China from invading and deposing the elected leadership in Taiwan? (‘Reach’ Question You Might Want to Ask)
Thank you for your time and I look forward to your reply,
XXX High School
Other Means of Author Contact
Emails, though, are not the only way that you might be able to get in contact with an author. Many authors work at think tanks and/or universities with telephone numbers connected to their offices. I would suggest, though, that if you are going to call an author you should: 1. Let an adult know (if you are under 18) that you are going to be making contact with the author 2. Write down your questions completely in advance and give them the same review process that you would for questions that you would type in an email 3. Make sure you are prepared—either with pens and paper or with a computer to take down complete sentences and quotes. Sometimes you will not get a direct line to the author and might need to leave a voicemail—my best suggestion here is that you practice what you want to say to on the voicemail (and/or write it down like a script) before you make the call. Voicemails should include your name, contact information, a brief summary of why you are calling, and when a good time to get in touch would be (so that if the author calls you back, you are able to take the call). Taking these preparation steps for leaving a voicemail is also helpful if the author has an office assistant who fields their calls—this is less common, but an aspect of author contact that should not be left undiscussed.
When you are on the phone with an author, it is important to remember to use forms of listening that are centered in absorbing information and engaging with what the author is sharing with you. Remember, this is not a time to debate the author on the merits of their work or on some debate position that the author would otherwise be unfamiliar with (in a phone call conversation with Glaser, for example, it is unlikely that he will want to/be able to talk with you about Deleuzian extrapolations of his geopolitics). If you are on the phone with an author’s office assistant, you should not presume that they know anything (or care to know anything) about the work the author does—as such, being polite and succinct is key to making sure that the message you leave gets passed on to the author in a positive way.
In summary, when contacting authors, it is helpful to remember that our interactions with them are not just casual and unimportant events in the research process. The care in their craft of knowledge production is evident in our fervent willingness to convert their articles into evidence and quote it loudly and with complete faith. Please remember to treat authors with the same care you treat their ideas (or don’t if you think there is some kind of Freudian neighbor thing going on with debate argument production (which is very possible)). In the (tentatively) final post for this blog series, I will be discussing some of the consequences of a lack of care towards author-informed evidence production and the implications it has had for the debate community. As always, please let me know if there is anything else you would like me to cover or if there are areas in this post that you feel should also be attended to in an extended way (one thing that comes to mind is variances in contacting authors, i.e. critical, scientific, activist, creative, etc.)!