If you hadn't sent me after that snipe, I would've had plenty of time to put better slides together.
November 15, 2010 8:45 PM   Subscribe

Should I tell my professor that I'm pretty sure he gave me an incorrect reference, which cost me a good deal of preparation time on an assignment, or is this the kind of thing I'm expected to be able to deal with easily?

I'm in a pretty high-level course where most of the grade is based on a research project. Part of the grade is for a paper on the project, and part of it is for a presentation which I'll be giving tomorrow morning (eep!). Our professor volunteered to give some initial sources on our topics to get us started, so I met with him to settle on my topic. A week later, I e-mailed him to ask for the references. A week after that, he sent them to me.

Once I got my list of references, I noticed that one was a self-published book that isn't in our university library. I placed an interlibrary loan request that took an absurdly long time to be filled, so I didn't receive the volume until about a week before my presentation was scheduled. Once I got it and opened it up, I was shocked that any library carried it at all. It's a poorly-written, self-published book with a nutball thesis, and on top of that its bibliography is missing the name of the authors. All of them.

I am pretty sure that in some last-minute polishing-up researching tonight (my presentation is tomorrow) I found the book my professor actually meant to recommend, which is relevant, published by Oxford, and not written by a crazy person. It also has a similar title, and I think it would be possible to misremember one author's name as the other if one were searching quickly and trying to get an annoying undergrad off one's back.

My problem is that I now have a 400-page book to run through and incorporate into my arguments and previous research, and my presentation is tomorrow. Is it appropriate to mention to my professor that my presentation is not all it could be, because of the lost time? I can't think of a way to explain this to my professor that doesn't sound like an accusation.
posted by yomimono to Education (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Since you think it was an honest mistake, no you shouldn't mention it. Presumably you would have found other high-quality sources by now, so incorporating this one should not be THAT big of a deal.

If that isn't the case, it means your research into the matter wasn't so great.
posted by zug at 8:53 PM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't understand the "lost time" argument; you may not have had time to look at that particular source your professor suggested, but if you've been working on a research project all semester, shouldn't you have a presentation even without that source? At any rate, that would be my question for if I were your professor.
posted by agent99 at 8:55 PM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think it's acceptable to mention it in a casual way, especially since you found the intended source. I would be particularly careful not to make it seem as though I were using the incorrect reference as an excuse for the quality of my presentation, because in my experience that's the sort of thing professors hate. By mentioning it in a non-accusatory fashion, you'll allow the instructor to draw his own conclusions about the effect that his bad reference had on your project.

Also, I'd be secretly annoyed with the professor for volunteering to help but then doing what appears to be a pretty half-assed job of it. It would be different if you'd asked for the references without prompting from the instructor. Good luck with your presentation!
posted by easy, lucky, free at 9:03 PM on November 15, 2010

If I, as a prof email potential references to students, these are merely ever intended as loose suggestions. I fully expect that the student is still wholly responsible for choosing which (if any) of my suggestions are relevant for the inclusion into academic assignments, and I fully expect that students are doing their own research for sources. That's the analytical academic responsibility of the student. So, if it's crap, don't use it and find some better sources. If you think that the prof mixed up a reference, if it were me, I'd want to hear about it. But only because you'd be doing me the favour of making sure I didn't make the same mistake again for another student. Do not, in any case, suggest that any 'time was lost'. This is your assignment and there are typically many many resources capable of supporting a solid research assignment.
posted by kch at 9:04 PM on November 15, 2010 [29 favorites]

I agree with the other comments that you shouldn't need that one source if you've been working on the project, but perhaps you're concerned that the professor will want to know why you didn't include the source he suggested. If that's the case, you could just mention it to him after the (awesome, excellent) presentation: "Hey, I'm sorry I didn't include much from the source you suggested, but [insert funny story about crazy book here]." I'm not really sure that bringing it up is a good idea at all, but it's certainly an option if you're really worried. It'll depend on your relationship with your professor, and your manner when you bring it up. Make it clear that you're just explaining why you didn't use that one source, and not making excuses for you paper/talk.
posted by you're a kitty! at 9:04 PM on November 15, 2010

He didn't have to give you that reference. If he says something like, hey, what about that book I suggested, you can say something along the lines of either 1) I actually had a hard time getting that book, the library didn't get it to me until very recently or 2) you won't believe this but the title of that book is actually very similar to another book so there must have been a mix-up, or something like that.

That said, if your presentation goes well, he probably won't bring it up, in which case you should let it go.
posted by kat518 at 9:05 PM on November 15, 2010

All of my above advice assumes that you actually have a presentation of some sort to give, bad reference aside. If this isn't the case, I agree with what the first two posters have said.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 9:05 PM on November 15, 2010

Expecting one reference to make your presentation was your mistake, not his. A friendly, "I think you meant this book, not this" is fine -- there's nothing wrong with correcting your professor -- but at the end of the day he made a suggestion (which was very nice of him to do) and you took it as gospel.
posted by devilsbrigade at 9:06 PM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

These were "initial resources to get you started." You don't need to include in in your presentation if you have solid research otherwise, and him not giving it to you is not an excuse for not finding it on your own if it is necessary to have that solid research. You might want to mention it later in a "just so you know" way to your Professor if you think he has it written down wrong or something instead of just pulling up the wrong thing, but I'm not sure what you hope to accomplish by saying "you didn't give me this book" except to highlight that you couldn't find important books in your own research.
posted by brainmouse at 9:08 PM on November 15, 2010

Answering the questions you've posed at the start, you should not tell your professor about this honest mistake because it should not have had the large effect it has had on your project. Basically yes, this is something you are expected to learn how to deal with in university, not just the issue of delayed time in asking and receiving information (why exactly did you wait for a week after meeting in person to request the references? undergrads are the bottom of the priority list for professors, they often need to be pestered to get information quickly) but you've learned that sometimes information is not reliable and sometimes accidents happen. This one reference should not have had the large impact on your presentation as you are saying it has - a presentation worth a large portion of your grade should require a large portion of your effort and you should have many other resources by this point such that the addition of one more doesn't change things that drastically. As you've posed it here, it seems as if you are fishing for an excuse why your presentation is not as great as it could have been, and there is no one but yourself to blame for that.
posted by Meagan at 9:10 PM on November 15, 2010

That's the thing with inter-library loans and other document requests; you can't count on them arriving in time or at all or being what you hoped for and you'd better keep looking for alternatives. I assume that your professor explained which sources related to which aspect of your project. It was your job to ask the professor for alternatives to the unavailable text that would address the same aspect, at which point they might have realized that you had the wrong author. I wouldn't mention it, especially if you didn't do much research beyond the sources your professor provided. It sucks that they were late getting you the sources in the first place and that one of them was incorrect, but getting a list of sources from a professor is a real luxury to start with, and it sounds like you waited too long to look into alternatives for the incorrect, tardy text.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 9:14 PM on November 15, 2010

Deal with it.

When I was in grad school, one of the professors used an early draft of his textbook for the class. It was an upper-level statistics course, and the text was jam-packed with advanced mathematics.... as well as typos.

Many of the homework problems were of the form "Prove that X = Y." But there'd be a typo in either X or Y. I can't tell you how many hours I spent trying to prove something that wasn't actually true!

I like to think it built character. Besides, in the real world, you usually don't know whether X = Y.
posted by mikeand1 at 9:40 PM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

As well as the excellent points being made by everyone else, it could also be argued that you should have found this relevant, up to date source during your own research about the topic back when you were starting the project, rather than in your last minute polish-up. Presumably your presentation includes information from a number of sources other than those given to you by your professor, possibly even mostly other than that list (for example, books are usually pretty high level, I'd be using one to give leads to better primary sources rather than taking stuff straight from it), so it's possible that this should have been one of them regardless of the list you were given. Identifying key sources about a topic is an important part of research and generally high level courses don't give full marks for projects including only the seed list from the professor.

So yeah, be really careful if you do mention it because it may make you look bad rather than the professor.
posted by shelleycat at 9:40 PM on November 15, 2010

Is it appropriate to mention to my professor that my presentation is not all it could be, because of the lost time? I can't think of a way to explain this to my professor that doesn't sound like an accusation.

Framing it in the terms above falls under the classic "making excuses" category for research that is your responsibility. Do you really want to argue the fine points of why it took you a week to ask for references and why you waited to depend on a book that was at the mercy of inter-library loan, and why you didn't double-check that reference in the first place? Mitigating factors aside (the prof's lag time and error), it's going to be hard for you to look good.

After you get your grade, you can explain the misunderstanding and wild-goose-chase.
posted by desuetude at 9:45 PM on November 15, 2010

I fully expect that the student is still wholly responsible for choosing which (if any) of my suggestions are relevant for the inclusion into academic assignments, and I fully expect that students are doing their own research for sources. -kch

This is exactly what I needed to hear - that it's not necessary to mention why the source may not have been included (which is what I was really worried about), and that it's whiny as hell to do so.

Also, to show you guys my huff!-face: Jeez, it's not like I've been sitting around staring blankly at the wall this whole time. Is everyone mad at undergraduates from that paper-mill thread on the blue? Of course I have a presentation! Of course I've been researching! Apparently next time I should do my research on fricking Wikipedia, because this thing was mentioned on a random page I was reading while poking around for CC-licensed photos and not, say, cited by anyone I found who's published a journal article on this subject in the last five years. (Those folks have been happily carrying on their own arguments, on which I made a presentation I'll be proud to give tomorrow.)
posted by yomimono at 9:49 PM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

kch is on the money- The references were sent to you as a starting point and your prof is not expecting you to specifically incorporate each one like some sort of book report. As others suggested above, don't mention anything about "lost time" because it sounds like you're making excuses. I would let the prof know about the incorrect reference and give him the proper one, so he can correct it in his files for use with future students. However, this should not have anything to do with your presentation; just send him an FYI email a few days later.
posted by emd3737 at 10:03 PM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think what may have ruffled many posters is the impression you were hanging on this one reference to really make or break your presentation/project - that's certainly the impression I got when I first read your question (at uni, while sitting in on an advanced research methods presentation no less!). Now that I'm re-reading it at home, I can see that was wrong (& I'm glad I didn't post my original comment ;-).

If it were me, at this stage I'd be fairly sure the rest of my research had covered the topic, and fairly content to leave my presentation as-is. That said, I'd also be skimming through the (right) book to see if it adds any new value to your presentation. If not (and I'd be hoping so!), I'd simply mention to the prof sometime that his reference was wrong, mainly as a courtesy to him and future students. If it does throw up some new and important positions / information … well, I'd still go ahead with the presentation largely as-is, but also mention that you had a bit of a wild goose chase with the book, and the new stuff will be included in the project.

In neither case would I either blame him for supplying a dud reference, or use it as an excuse that the presentation wasn't all it could be. Professors are people too, people make mistakes, and - as I saw a few times in undergrad - sometimes those mistakes go unnoticed for years.

(And I can certainly sympathise with finding references late & ILL hassles - long story short, after a year of research I recently stumbled across a paper by a well-known contributor to my field outlining a very similar approach to what I thought were my fairly novel methods. 2 failed ILL attempts later, I have the papers - and I'm now worried my methods won't show what I hope they will, because that original paper sank without a trace…)
posted by Pinback at 12:25 AM on November 16, 2010

Derail (sorry). Just to shed on some light on the ILL angle: please keep in mind that ILL requests go through processing at both ends that accounts for why they take so long. Processing that's a bit more complex than "Hey, they need this book next library system over... throw it in tomorrow's delivery bin for me."

In addition, each lending institution has its own policies regarding what, how much, to whom, and how often they lend outside their own system. So it's often not as simple as borrowing from the system that's geographically closest. That screwy self-published book the OP requested is a classic example of something that's probably not carried by too many libraries (for good reason), and as such, the odds were against the borrower for quick delivery (or delivery at all).

I know it's frustrating when you have to wait for something on ILL, and yeah, we have our share of asshats in the library system, but I assure you, in the vast majority of cases, we know your request is time sensitive, and we want you to have your requested material as quickly as possible.

Seriously, no snark is intended here. Normally I don't feel moved to defend the library, but there were lots of good responses to the OP's question, and I just thought I'd jump in to clarify something a few people mentioned. If this comment needs to be deleted, I'm glad to move it to MeTa.

posted by Rykey at 4:25 AM on November 16, 2010

To answer your secondary question, I would send the professor an email after you get your grade saying "Thank you for your suggested references blah blah. Just as a follow up, one of the suggested sources, "Amazonians in Paradise" by Fetcher (self-published) may have been mis-titled; "Amazon in Paradise" by Fletcher from Oxford University Press was actually right up my research alley."
posted by DarlingBri at 4:45 AM on November 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

There are (at least) two ways to answer this question:

1) Given this situation, what sort of "relationship politics" should you play in order to maintain a frictionless relationship with your professor? In this sense, it's an age-old question. Kids ask parents all the time what they should do when they catch teacher making a mistake. Many parents say, "Just keep quiet about it. Don't embarrass him."

2) Given an ideal learning-and-teaching environment, in which everyone shares the same goal -- which is education -- what should you do?

I am not going to address the first issue. My take on the second is that of COURSE you should tell your prof. Part of what a learning institution should be about is putting incorrect information in the trash and correct information on the shelf, for everyone to use. If the professor made this mistake in your case, he might make it again in the future. He needs to know he was wrong.

It's really simple: you're in a learning institution. You are privy to knowledge about a mistaken idea in that institution. So your responsibility to to correct that mistake.

I agree with everyone here that you should expect these sorts of errors and know how to work around them. That's a part of doing scholarship. But you should -- in my ideal scenario -- still inform your professor that he made a mistake.

I taught for many years, and if I'd made a mistake like this, I would have been pissed off if a student hadn't brought it to my attention and had just let me wallow in ignorance and keep on making the same mistake again. But then I was always very clear that this was my expectation and that I welcomed corrections from students.

BIG DISCLAIMER: I am a good teacher but I was a terrible student. By "terrible," I mean that I acted as though school WAS the sort of ideal environment I mentioned above, when, in fact, it never was. I was constantly getting in trouble for ignoring the politics. (Even though I NEVER corrected teachers in a rude or public way.) Were I back in school again, I would do the same. I have no time for politics in education. I am going to behave as if we're all there for learning and learning only, regardless of what everyone else is doing. But I understand the risks and I'm willing to take the consequences. You need to make your own decision about that.
posted by grumblebee at 7:02 AM on November 16, 2010

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