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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Stupid Questions

One often hears that there is no such thing as a stupid question. But that’s ridiculous. I get asked stupid questions all the time. Like when a student, during a multiple choice test, asks “I get the quantity 15, but do you want it with Joules in (a) or millijoulesin (c)?” And there are a whole slew of questions which are, at the very least, very annoying such as when they ask what chapters are on the upcoming test when I just answered the question.

But of course the expression that such stupid questions don’t exist is just a cliche to encourage students to ask questions. That’s a worthwhile goal, but I doubt its use has any effect.

The real problem I see concerns physics majors. I think we can turn out better physicists (and perhaps a better and more diverse group of them) if we can somehow get them to see that physics is all about asking questions (a good question mentioned previously here ).

I may be a little physics-centric here, but I think physics majors face a double-whammy when it comes to overcoming fears and asking questions. The normal reticence of any college student aside, physics majors face a culture of confrontation. The physics instructors I’ve had made a habit of. well, let’s just say that many of them were obnoxious jerks. I don’t think they meant any offense, I just think the atmosphere is one of one-up-man-ship. If my experience is at all generalizable to others, I suspect such an atmosphere would play a big role in discouraging diversity.

In any case, I’ve mentioned before that I find that physicists talk in this fairly confrontational style (mentioned previously here ). I wonder, is there anything to be done about it?

I somehow made it through and became a physicist, and now I’ve got a small bit of power. Am I being obnoxious/confrontational? Can I encourage more questions? I try to acknowledge students when they ask questions which get to “the heart of the matter,” but is this signaling to those who ask the other questions which don’t get so rewarded that their questions are too simple? How do I get across that to be a good physicist one needs to be constantly asking questions and not taking things on faith. that their job isn’t to digest the material we throw at them, but instead to process it, check whether they buy into it and whether it makes sense. They are the ones who need to see what everyone else has overlooked. Just telling them doesn’t seem to do the trick. And of course, there will always be students who don’t get it and who don’t have what it takes, but who will, upon hearing such encouragement, dutifully ask plenty of questions of the type found in the title to this post!

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