Monday, October 11, 2004

Stupid Questions

As an educator, I have often told students that there is no such thing as a stupid question; that if they are wondering about something or don't understand something, there are probably others in the class with the same question. Even if there is not, I would rather they asked, even if they feel a bit foolish, than miss some fundamental concept that would thereby undermine their learning. Most of the time, their embarrassed questions often brings up a key point, and I am glad of it.

On the other hand, it has occured to me lately that there are indeed stupid questions -- questions that ought never be asked of one's prof. A couple of my favorite examples are (a) the student who emailed my wife asking what the textbook for her course was the night before the final examination (so much for having done the readings for each class, eh?) or even better, (b)the student who emailed the classlist the night before the group project (worth 45% of the course grade, and the subject of group worksessions every class for the whole of the semester) "Hi, my name is Doug. Does anyone know what group I'm in?" At the UofL, signing your name to a project to which you have not contributed equally constitutes academic dishonesty, punishable by expulsion from the program, but this idiot thought he could show up the night before and get "his" group to add his name. Astoundingly, the group went for it! Needless to say, my wife struck his name off, gave him the boot, and put the fear of god into the rest of the group, since allowing his name on the report also constituted academic dishonesty on their part.

My absolute favorite, though was the series of emails my wife received over the course of a weekend from an increasingly angry and desparate student. Friday evening, 9PM, the student emails a question about an upcoming assignment. An hour later, she sends a second email saying, "I haven't received a reply from you yet and I can't start working on my paper until I hear from you, so can you PLEASE answer my question?" I'm not sure what astounded me more, that she thought my wife should be online ready to answer student questions, 24/7, or the completely unprofessional tone of a follow up email less than an hour later. The student emailed again at midnight, then several times the following morning. By the Saturday afternoon, she was nearly hysterical in her demands for an answer to her question, pointing out that she only had one evening and a day to do a heavily weight assignment -- as if it were my wife's fault that she had not started the paper earlier. My wife hadn't answered initially because she hadn't been on-line, and by the time she did check her email, she was quite put off by the series of rude and demanding missives from this student. Particularly since my wife had addressed these very points in several classes, which this student had elected not to attend. Finally, sunday morning, she gets an email from the student which said, in effect, "Oh never mind, I looked the answer up in the course outline."

Okay, is it just me, or is there something wrong with this picture? In my day, we would never think of bothering a professor outside of class time for information that we could obtain any other way, and certainly not information readily available from the course outline. Email has made it too easy for students, sitting at the computer as they work on an assignment, to shoot off a rapid fire set of questions to their instructor as ideas pop into their brains. There is often no attempt to look anything up themselves or to think something through for themselves first. Why bother, when you can just ask? I get the same thing from my six year old who finds it easier to ask "what does this say" or "how do you spell..." rather than bother to sound it out. And just like I always say, 'sound it out" to my daughter so that she will learn, I am not interested in answering hundreds of emails from students about questions already answered in the outline or class discussion.

My wife encounters many more of these sorts of stupid question than I do, since the education faculty here is an after degree or codegree program, so my students are in their third or fourth year of university, which means they are both more experienced with academia, and that they are the survivors of the screening process -- I only get my wife's successful graduates. By contrast, my wife teaches more students straight out of high school or transfer students from the local college program, which is in some ways worse for this. A latent dysfunction of the high levels of support that college students receive from their instructors (it is routine, for example, for LCC instructors to devote classtime to working on assignments, much like high school, and these college instructors have no research requirements, so are available to students whenever they are not in another class) is that these students expect the same level of handholding at university and are shocked to discover that they are supposed to be able to work more independently. (The university instructors for these transfer students often suffer on their course evaluations as these students crucify them for "not being available outside of class tome" because the instructor hasn't answered an email at 3AM the night before an assignment was due.... My wife has had the experience of students trashing her on the eval and then coming back a year or so later to apologize for ever thinking her unsupportive, once they realize what university norms are.)

So I am thinking of doing a stupid questions web site that would have advice to students about things never to say to your prof. Like the student who complained to my wife about her 'unrealistic' workload for her course: "This was supposed to be my fluff course, but this would be as much work as a real course." Or, that common loser query: "I skipped class last Friday because I was just way too hung over. Did I miss anything?" (See Tom Wayman's answer to that one.) I would start by pointing out that teaching is only 40% of the average professor's workload (considerably less for the Big Name researchers); that the average prof at UoL teaches five courses; that if your look around the class you are in and count the number of your fellow students and figure that marking and class preparation (lesson planning, powerpoint prep, etc,) takes about an hour for every hour of classtime, then they have enough information to do the math for how much time a prof has for their questions:

(40% of 40 hour work week) minus (9 hours of teaching plus 9 hours of marking/prep) divided by x number of students per class times number of classes = a number far below zero for advising

No comments: