“If you have a moment, can you give me your expert opinion?”

officeSome of my not-so-fond memories involve my lack of etiquette as a young student. I still blush when I remember sending lengthy documents to senior colleagues, requesting their feedback. I’ve learned now not to willy-nilly ask colleagues:

  • “If you’ve got a moment, please review my article/dissertation/letter & give comprehensive feedback” or
  • “I’m writing a chapter on XYZ. You’re an expert in the field. Would you please spend 30-60 minutes with me talking me through the field?” or
  • “Can you look over my paper and tell me how I need to rewrite it?” or
  • “I just scribbled a draft of a paper. Can you look over it now, and then again when I’ve actually written it properly?”
  • “I’ve done a paper that’s indirectly relevant to your work. Can you research a new area of your field so that you can advise me on it?”
  • “I’m thinking about doing a BA/ MA / PhD in X field. Can you talk to me 3 x 40 minutes and guide me in my choice of field?”

You get the picture.

When I am asked such questions, in some cases, I am happy to help. In some cases, I am inspired by the work I read. In some cases, if the work is directly in my field, I find it easy to review it.
But not always.
Unpaid/voluntary feedback/review is a serious undertaking. Requests require  appropriate etiquette. If it’s for an organization, compensation is useful. The big organization/universities etc often benefit from junior scholars’ need to flesh out c.v.’s so they exploit labor constantly. Know that when you step in, as an individual or organization, you are asking to join the ranks of persons and organizations that make demands on scholars’ time without paying them. And if you are not enrolled as a student at a scholar’s institution, you’re not even indirectly compensating them for it. They won’t get hard cash for reviewing you work, and they probably won’t be able to put you on their c.v. either.
Expert opinion and review is the academic/scholar’s bread & butter. It’s not “free.” We’ve spent years training in our fields. This means our resources aren’t goods or objects. *We* and our skills are our resources.  They’re much more valuable than goods or objects.
Imagine asking someone to voluntarily cook you dinner, or fix your appliance, or tutor them in a language, if they have time. Believe me, with the crap salaries we get paid, there is *always* something else we could do with our time. There’s almost never chunks of time sitting around, and we’re wondering, “Hm, I wish someone would send me their dissertation or policy document so I can make use of this spare time as it’s just rusting away here.”
So know that when a colleague offers free review/feedback, it is almost always a sacrifice. My kid, my job, my bank account, my own research do not thank the requester of review – so act accordingly. So when an expert/scholar/colleague reviews my document/work, I’m indebted to them for the time & intellectual work they voluntarily contributed. I credit them for it. If they’re unable to review my work or offer their time and expertise, I thank them for considering my request and do not take their refusal personally.
Update: After I tweeted about this subject, one of my mentors, Kecia Ali responded at length on Twitter. The conversation ended up being so valuable that I’m pasting it here.
Kecia Ali: Review/guidance is another sort of service work AND the lifeblood of scholarship. How/when/whether/for whom we do it matters. 
Shabana: VERY TRUE! And the degree to which we are able to do it also varies from scholar to scholar, stage to stage. 
Kecia: Yes. It also varies week to week, semester to semester, & depending on who’s asking. I’ll always read some colleagues’ stuff.
S: There’s also reciprocity. 
KA: Reciprocity is key. Doesn’t mean we each do exactly the same thing, but we rely on each other for various professional duties. There are some colleagues I’ll ask for comments on a syllabus or a blog post; others for a quick read of a draft translation. And I find that over time, my scholarship and teaching are enriched through these collaborations and forms of cooperation. 
S: Absolutely. Junior scholars are however at risk of one-sided requests for collaboration that reduce their scholarly work.
KA: This is a real danger. The desire to be helpful is praiseworthy, and at the same time, it can lead to professional stagnation. Similar issues arise w/ service work; women/scholars of color are more likely to have service curtail their research/writing. Some senior colleagues I respect do a nice job balancing, setting limits, while not dismissing all requests out of hand. One thing I do: requests for grad school advice, student journalist interviews: I tell them to call/visit during office hours. That’s three hours per week I’m available. Usually all first-come, first served; this semester a mix of open and by appt. When office hours are over/full for the week, I schedule for the following week. Keeps things manageable.
Update: Please find an excellent thread on “How to ask a Native scholar for resources/help on a project” from @NativeApprops ‘s twitter feed: https://twitter.com/NativeApprops/status/701946304939872256