As the new semester dawns, it’s time for students to start thinking about how to best organize their courses and get a handle on their work for the semester. Your professors are a great resource, and just like educators at other levels, they love to spout that old chestnut, “There is no such thing as a stupid question.” They do this in the hope that they can defuse any classroom fears about participation and create an open atmosphere for discussion. I’ve found this very helpful because it does work: when I create an open environment, students feel free to ask me many questions, sometimes on subjects that deviate from the course content but are important to them nonetheless. On the ABAJournal website, Sarah Randag related the following story, which illustrates the effectiveness of this approach:
“A recent law school graduate and aspiring personal injury lawyer asked New York Personal Injury Law Blog’s Eric Turkewitz if he had any advice for him. Turkewitz recalled the piece of advice that he describes as one of the best things that happened to him in his training: “For the first year, there are no stupid questions.” That advice was liberating. “Telling me that there was no such thing as a stupid question inoculated me, psychologically, from the fear of asking what I thought were really stupid questions, the answers to which everyone must know. Even if they just pretended to know.”
There’s just one tiny little problem here: there are, in fact, plenty of really inappropriate questions! I’m not talking about course content questions: all questions about content are valid and important. I’ve often told my students that if they have a question, they should ask it because it’s a good bet that several other students have the exact same question. If you don’t understand an important concept, are unclear on the parameters of an assignment, or want a better understanding of any of the material that is covered by the textbook, lecture, or class discussions, then by all means you should ask these appropriate questions.
I’m also not referring to the clearly irrelevant or inappropriate questions, such as the time a student asked me what kind of birth control best prevented pregnancy in the middle of our discussion of the Civil War, which was clearly inappropriate in the context of our course. Rather, I’m talking about questions that result from a student’s failure to maintain their own responsibilities. For example, one of a student’s primary responsibilities is to read and understand the syllabus. But many of the questions that I get in my classes can be answered by the syllabus–which I not only have gone over the first day of class, but revisit every time a new assignment or topic is on the course schedule. When a student asks questions that can be answered by the syllabus, it shows me that the student has not taken responsibility for his or her own work and/or has not paid attention to class announcement and discussions.
After inquiring among my colleagues, I have compiled the following list of 10 questions that teachers and professors really should not have to answer, either because the answers can be found on a standard syllabus or because they rely on common sense:
- “Did we do anything important when I was out?” This is my least favorite question in the entire world. I have heard many answers to this from my colleagues, everything from patient explanations of the course content to “ask your classmates for their notes.” My standard response is a little different, because I try to infuse some humor into my classes. I usually just say, “Nah. We just hung out, waiting for you to get back.” They get the message and rephrase the question appropriately: “How can I get the material I missed when I was out?” Now, that’s a question I’m happy to answer.
- “Why do we have to learn this?” In some instances, this is a valid question. If you are studying medical assisting, asking why you have to learn a procedure can be a gateway to a better question about when such a procedure would be necessary. But it should be asked that way–as a specific question, not a general one. In other situations, like my history classes, the answer is more complicated and has to do with the composition of a basic liberal arts body of knowledge. But sometimes, a student asks this because they do not think they should have to take a class and want a specific rationale. In that case, I respond, “Please consult your course catalog and program description. If you don’t already know the answer to that question, you should talk to your advisor about whether or not this is the major for you.”
- “Do we need the book?” Are you really asking this-or do you think we professors just randomly pick books off the shelf and assign them because we find it amusing to watch you read a book you don’t need? This question betrays a lack of respect for the faculty member because it assumes that our every decision is questionable and we don’t know what we’re doing–or that we have such boring lives that torturing students with unnecessary reading is our only entertainment (I can assure you that this is true of only a small number of my colleagues.) But we do know what we’re doing, so of course you need the book. Sometimes you need it for actual use in class; sometimes you need it to read on your own as a supplement to the course content. A good rule of thumb is that if it is listed as required on the syllabus, you need it. If you have a financial difficulty with purchasing required textbooks, as many students do these days, talk privately with your professor, who can direct you to the appropriate resources.
- “How much work do we have to do in this class?” As a college student by choice, you don’t have to do anything. But as you chose to take the course, you should be prepared to do the required amount of work, which is outlined on the syllabus. You can try to skate through it like some students, who only do the minimum amount of work, but that’s risky-and one thing I can guarantee you is that having to take the course all over again when you fail is really quite a lot of work. A better way to handle any concerns about the work load is to ask your professor for tips on how to handle the work load. We’re always more than happy to help out with such suggestions.
- “When will final grades be posted?” was contributed by the folks over at Profology on Twitter, who added the related question, “can you email me my final grade?” This is an interesting one, because as a rule professors of course don’t mind sharing your grade with you–it’s our job! They are your grades and you are entitled to them. But there are certain things we cannot do, based on federal law-including e-mailing your grade or publicly posting them-because that violates student privacy laws. The real problem here is that you already know when your grades will be available because the syllabus usually explains that. This question is related to one highlighted as a no-no by Florida Gulf Coast University: “Do you have our grades yet?” The answer is always the same: “No, I don’t. I’ve been too busy eating bon-bons by the Jacuzzi to grade your papers. But I’m sure that Jeeves will be through with them forthwith.”
- “How many footnotes/sources do I need?” The answer to this one is also always the same: You need as many footnotes as you require to appropriately cite your sources and to support your argument. There is no other measure. I’m pretty sure you’ve been told this before.
- “Do we need to know this for the exam?” Similar to the “why do we have to learn this?” question, this one is always a joy for professors to hear because it assumes that only the stuff that will show up on the exam is worth your time. Educator Gabriella Grossbeck (@ggrossbeck on Twitter), told me that she usually replies, “Where were you?” because the student is responsible for following course content and instructions. The answer I always give is “I don’t know,” because I never re-use exams and create new ones every semester. That’s also a useful answer to hold onto in your head, because a good exam answer brings in as much material as possible and demonstrates thoroughness.
- Do you have a stapler? What am I, a walking office supply store? Being prepared for class is your responsibility, not mine. Also, stop asking to borrow my pen! Show respect for your class, your professor, and yourself by taking your responsibilities seriously. Besides, these are special teacher pens, and if I loan you my pen, I will lose all my professor powers, like Samson and his hair.
- “Can I leave early?/Is it OK if I go to my club meeting?” Sure, you can do both. You can do anything you want because you chose to take this course and it is yours to do with as you wish: pass, fail, whatever. This question is much better asked as, “Will I fail the class if I don’t take it seriously and value my social life and extracurricular activities more?” I think you already know the answer to that question.
- “Are you sure you that’s right?” Yes. Yes, I am. I’m the professor. Unless you’ve gone to graduate school and have developed an expertise in this field since enrolling in the course, you would be advised to ask this question in a better way: “I’ve heard/read/been told by another professor something different from what you just said. Can you explain this a little more?” That gives us an opportunity to really delve into the issue and help you link together the material you may have learned in other courses, which helps create a general body of knowledge for you. Also, it’s not an insinuation of incompetence on our part. It’s an invitation to academic debate. We love that!
There it is: the 10 questions you should never ask your professor, largely because they are questions you should already be able to answer. As educator Courtney S. Danforth (@csdanforth) wrote about questions students should never ask: “None they should never ask; plenty they should never ask of anyone but themselves.”