Asking Questions the Smart Way (in tech)

I am currently co-teaching (with Dr. Kristin Arola) ENGL/DTC 356: Electronic Research and the Rhetoric of Information. We are asking our students to do things with technology they aren’t used to doing, and thus (and appropriately) we are often answering tech support types of questions. I am happy to answer questions because, well, it’s what I do, but mostly I like answering questions because it shows that the students care at least a little bit about what they are doing or being asked to do. I think we all know that “caring” is not often the case in some classrooms.

Questions, for the most part, have been good ones—either specific enough that we could answer them quickly, or honest enough (as in “I have no idea what I’m doing, or the terminology to use, so can I just show you?”) that spending the time doesn’t feel like wasted time. Being the long-time geek that I am, I immediately thought of assigning Eric Raymond’s “How to Ask Questions the Smart Way”—although the earliest date on this is 2001, I swear a version of this has been around longer, like from the days of USENET and a world connected through majordomo-controlled mailing lists. But that’s neither here nor there—I’m just showing my age.

Because we’re gearing up for a fairly technical final project in that class, I thought I would point out some of the finer points of this piece. I also encourage all the students to read it in its entirety, especially if they plan to go on in a related field.

From the Before You Begin section:

  • Try to find the answer. Crazy, I know! Don’t force us to use Let Me Google That For You on you…
  • Remember where you tried looking for the answer, so you can then tell us you already did that. This move shows that you really are trying to learn and are stuck at a particular place.
  • Take the time to prepare your question. You want to ask a good question, hence the whole reason for this guide.
  • Raymond’s guide says “Never assume you are entitled to an answer.” This statement does not apply in class, but it will in the “real world.” In class, of course you are entitled to an answer. But that doesn’t reduce your responsibility in asking a good question, or asking it politely.

Several of the tips in the When You Ask section are geared toward asking questions online in forums or on mailing lists—still important to know, but not so important in student-teacher interaction. But, when asking questions of us, here are a few I’d like to highlight:

  • In email, use meaningful, specific subject headers. If your subject provides no context for the email, it’s not going to be prioritized. It’s also a good practice to use the course prefix/number in your subject line. Teachers have many classes/students, remember.
  • Write in clear, grammatical, correctly-spelled language. If we can’t parse what you’re asking, we’re not going to be able to help you.
  • Be precise and informative about your problem. This is the big one.
    Describe the problems, the environment in which it occurs, what you did to try to understand the problem before asking a question, the diagnostic steps you took to figure out where the problem is occurring, any changes you made to the software or configuration, and, if you know, what you think you might try/what might be the problem, even if you’re hesitant to do it.
  • When asking about code… emailing or referring to code and simply saying “it doesn’t work” is not a good thing to do. A good thing to do would be to say “I am getting this error [paste it here] when I do [x task]. Here is the code around that line” or something similar.
  • Be courteous.
  • Follow up. Even if a suggestion fixes the problem, let the person know that it’s fixed. Speaking for myself, I know that when I am asked to help with something and I offer suggestions, I automatically care about the result. I truly like to know if something works out or not.

You know, I put “in tech” in parentheses in the title of this post. Looking back, I didn’t really need to do that. This is really just common sense stuff about how to get along in the world and how to take ownership for (some of) the process toward gaining knowledge.

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Posted in Teaching, Techie
2 comments on “Asking Questions the Smart Way (in tech)
  1. Nice list–I have something similar in my syllabus, and usually incorporate similar points into FYE-type classes.

    I also like Merlin Mann’s guide to “writing sensible e-mail messages.”.

  2. JM says:

    Thanks for the reminder about the Mann guide. We’re having a meeting about computer literacy and e-mail “policies”/procedures and I’ll bring this to the table.

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