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In this answer it was suggested that it might be good for moderators to refrain from unilaterally closing homework (or homework-like) questions for a while, so that we can get a better sense of what people consider to be on topic and off topic regarding homework here. So we're going to do that for a trial period next week. (We may extend it longer than a week if it seems like that will be useful)

From Sunday 2/16 to Saturday 2/22 (EDIT and maybe for a couple more days), moderators will not cast any close votes using the homework close reason, except as the 5th vote on a question that we think should be closed. Effectively, we'll do our best to act like regular 3k users when it comes to closing homework.

The objective of this is to get a better sense of what kinds of questions should and shouldn't be prohibited under our new and improved homework policy (which will come into existence at some time in the future). Accordingly, while this experiment is going on, here is what close voters (i.e. those with 3k+ rep) should do:

  • Consider the existing homework policy more of a guideline than a rule.
  • Instead of voting to close questions because they break the policy (as you normally would), only vote to close those questions which you would like to see prohibited by our new, to-be-written homework policy.
  • While you're doing it, think about why you are voting to close certain questions and not others, and try to come up with some description of what makes a homework-like question closeworthy for you. Post your feedback on this meta post (as comments or answers, as appropriate) and/or in the chat room.

After this trial period ends, we'll take the feedback into account when working toward drafting a new homework policy. As always, reasoned arguments will be given more weight than something pithy that gets a lot of votes. ;-)

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    $\begingroup$ I'm personally very happy to see this. Thanks for taking this step. I was talking to a physics grad friend of mine who felt that the unilateral closing of homework-like questions was a bit strict, and I think this might have been preventing him from participating more. I hope this will lead to a refined policy whose result will boost morale. $\endgroup$ – joshphysics Feb 14 '14 at 7:23
  • $\begingroup$ @joshphysics fwiw I haven't noticed much unilateral closing in the past few months here (I only do it once in a while, and so do most other mods), but I can see that it can still seem to be a problem. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Feb 14 '14 at 9:54
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps it is time for a homework.stackexchange.com ;) $\endgroup$ – Kvothe Feb 14 '14 at 12:57
  • $\begingroup$ @joshphysics Interesting. Is that because he wanted to use the site to get homework help? $\endgroup$ – David Z Feb 14 '14 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Manishearth Yeah I don't really have a sense of exactly how unilateral it is. $\endgroup$ – joshphysics Feb 14 '14 at 15:43
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidZ I think it was more that he would prefer more community involvement in deciding when homework-like questions are closed and under what conditions certain posts should be considered homework, but I can't recall the exact conversation, and he wasn't too specific. $\endgroup$ – joshphysics Feb 14 '14 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ @joshphysics Hm, I see... well, the way I think it's supposed to work is that the community decides on a policy and then everyone can vote to close according to that policy. If I see a question that's off topic according to the existing policy, in theory I shouldn't have to wait for other people to cast close votes until I cast my own. That way even though it's a unilateral closure, it still reflects the community opinion. (Of course in theory those questions should mostly already be closed by 5 community close votes before I see them.) $\endgroup$ – David Z Feb 14 '14 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidZ That's reasonable imo. I suppose your last sentence and parenthetical statement highlights a nuance present in this whole issue which I think an analogy might help elucidate. Sometimes a majority of the members on the US Supreme Court feel that a certain decision should be handed down given their understanding of constitutional law, but they wait to act in order to give the issue more time to resolve itself in the "court of public opinion" so to speak. This way, people feel more enfranchised in the whole, even though it is within the Court's authority to simply make a decision. $\endgroup$ – joshphysics Feb 14 '14 at 16:15
  • $\begingroup$ @joshphysics OK I see. The SE team actually advises us not to do that, though - I mean, not to wait for a question to accumulate more close votes before closing it ourselves, if we know it's off topic. Then again, that advice makes a lot more sense on large sites like Stack Overflow. It's questionable how well it carries over to a place like this. $\endgroup$ – David Z Feb 14 '14 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidZ Ah interesting I see. Yeah it's a pretty delicate issue I suppose (at least it seems that way given the strong opinions of some). Ultimately, as far as I can tell at least, some current discontent stems from individual perceptions of the ratio of moderator involvement to community involvement. I feel confident that even a refinement of the homework policy driven by the community will at least to some degree, alleviate some people's concerns, so I think this is a good thing that's happening in that regard. $\endgroup$ – joshphysics Feb 14 '14 at 16:40
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    $\begingroup$ I am still confused about what is and what is not acceptable - so I am just going to avoid that tag altogether. $\endgroup$ – user36538 Feb 15 '14 at 7:44
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidZ no, the future policy should be formulated in a way that leaves enough wiggle room for knowledgeable about the topic at hand (people not knowledgeable about the topic should skip the question) reviewers to apply fair and good judgement. When formulating completely rigid rules that should be implemented in a completely rigid and mechanical way, neither reviewers nor mods are needed: you can ask a feature request on MSO to implement that rule implicitely into the software. Community moderation that deserves that name allows disagreement and encourages people to apply their best judgement $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Feb 24 '14 at 11:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Dilaton no, that's not true at all. (1) Leaving too much wiggle room, in the sense I think you want, opens the door for people to vote to close questions simply because they don't like them, a.k.a. abuse of power; (2) It's not always necessary to know about the topic of a question to be able to decide whether it should be closed; (3) Software can't close questions. $\endgroup$ – David Z Feb 24 '14 at 17:38
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I still agree with the point of view, that graduate level (upward) questions are not homework. Technical questions, as they come up from studying advanced textbooks, following advanced courses, or even more so from reading research papers, should neither be tagged nor closed as homework.

My hope is, that the future homework policy will finally narrow down the currently way too broad notion of "homework-like" down to a more reasonable definition of "homework", that excludes the above mentioned kind of technical questions from being considered homework.

The often brought up objection against (advanced) questions involving a (mathematical) derivations / explanations, calculations, or a proof of something, claiming that they are exclusively useful to the OP, is IMHO not valid. Such technical questions are useful and helpful to everybody who wants to learn and understand the (advanced) topic or concepts at hand at a more serious (deeper than equation free popular) level.

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    $\begingroup$ I kind of agree with you in that I don't particularly mind (and I can often learn from) a help-me-with-this-problem question unless it's mindlessly taking stuff out of Peskin & Schroeder and looking helpless. The problem, though, is drawing lines: where on Earth do you put them, in a way that is transparent, consistent, usable, and fair? $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Feb 14 '14 at 16:33
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    $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty IMHO the line should be drawn rather flexible and from case to case by people applying reasonable discretion and good, fair judgment. I like the idea (that should unfortunatly only hold for next week) of taking the policy as a guidline to judge things, instead of blindly and mechanically applying some rigorously predifinded rules. This is how in my personal opinion community moderation should work. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Feb 14 '14 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ I think there's some confusion here. This proposal, that graduate level questions are not homework, would mean that mindlessly copying a question out of e.g. Peskin and Schroeder and showing no effort to solve it whatsoever would be allowed. I can't support it, for that reason. Of course I would support a less rigid policy in which less relative progress is expected of graduate level questions, but we already do that. $\endgroup$ – David Z Feb 15 '14 at 7:52
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    $\begingroup$ I vociferously disagree with this. Graduate students can do their own damn homework just as much as high school students can. $\endgroup$ – Jerry Schirmer Feb 15 '14 at 14:16
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    $\begingroup$ As someone who usually can't answer graduate level questions I quite enjoy seeing what is effectively a worked example, and I usually read the answers carefully in an attempt (frequently in vain :-) to learn something. But I agree that if a graduate is too idle to do the work themselves then answering their question here is unlikely to benefit them. In those circumstance I would VTC. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Feb 15 '14 at 20:20
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnRennie as it is always preached on SE, a question and its answers do not only have to be use/helpful to the OP. So IMHO if you, I, and other people think they can learn from an advanced (graduate upward) technical question and its answers, it should not be close worthy if the OP has not shown no effort at all. The tricks learned from looking at a rather detailled technical derivation or calculation can help a lot indeed and put the reader in a position to do better when trying it himself the next time. This is for example why I liked David McMohans Demystified TP books to start with ... $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Feb 15 '14 at 22:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Dilaton Way to misinterpret things. Neither do localized questions make sense, since they're only helpful to the couple of people who see them on SE. A question should be useful to a wider audience than just a couple of readers on StackExchange. For that, the title must be something searchable. "How to derive Eq 34 from Polchinski" is not searchable, only a couple of people on the site will ever find it, and nobody will search for it even if a nice concept is explained in the answer because the question doesn't point to the concept at all. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Feb 17 '14 at 20:25
  • $\begingroup$ So it only helps if you come across it via accident. Since most of the views on a post (even high level ones!) are from outside users, this makes the post not really useful. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Feb 17 '14 at 20:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Manishearth Titles can always be improved if they are not good enough, without any need to discard the whole question and its answers. From your point of view, that all questions have to be useful to the wide (naturally mostly lay) audience outside the site instead of people on the site who are interested in learning physics at a deeper technical level, all research-level questions should be forbidden too for the same argument. Research-level questions are only useful to a smaller specialized audience, and not to the large masses out there in the internet. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Feb 17 '14 at 22:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Dilaton How would you make a homework question get a relevant title that also captures the concept? In my experience unless the q is conceptual, this is hard. As far as the outside audience goes, I have given reasoning for this countless times. Laypeople do not read technical posts on Phy.SE. They won't come across them; why would they search for it? The majority of outsiders may be lay, but for technical posts the majority of viewers are not. Yet, they do get hundreds of views (we don't have that many active people on the site to generate views so quickly) $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Feb 17 '14 at 22:49
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    $\begingroup$ So if you're operating under the assumption that all visitors are lay, then your reasoning makes sense. I'm just saying that that assumption is false. A post about Chern-Simons theory would never be read by a layperson. Why would they search for that? But this post has >400 views, an I doubt all came from Phy.SE. So I'm saying that the assumption that the majority outside viewers of technical questions are laypeople is false. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Feb 17 '14 at 22:51
  • $\begingroup$ I've already explained this here $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Feb 17 '14 at 22:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Dilaton How do you get to that? Stop misrepresenting what I say. There's no issue about the broadness of an audience. It's okay for a question to serve a small, expert community. Just that if the question is serving only the subset of the community on the website, then that's a problem. Homework questions with good answers do that; it is far better to edit the question into something conceptual. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Feb 17 '14 at 22:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Manishearth improving the title may need some intuition/ empathy to get what really gives the OP trouble (even if it is not formulated explicitely enough) and of course a good knowledge about the topic at hand is a necessary precondition for this. Some time back even I was sporadically able to improve other's questions titles such that the question got additional upvote- and answer-love. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Feb 17 '14 at 23:35
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    $\begingroup$ See, there's a point to closing -- so that the OP improves the question. When it comes to high level stuff, it gets fulfilled, usually, except when the OP is annoyed by the usage of the word "homework". I'm working on a way to get past that issue. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Feb 17 '14 at 23:42
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Have the mods done much closing since my original suggestion? The impression I have is that over the last month most of the closing has been done by the users. At the moment I'm reasonably happy with the status quo. It seems to me that most of the questions that have been closed were fairly obviously homework, and we have let through more advanced homework of the sort that Dilaton mentioned above.

There seems to be a sort of protocol emerging that we still close the more blatant of homework questions but provide hints in the comments. This keeps the homework questions off the home page but (hopefully) still provides a bit of help and encouragement.

Incidentally, I recently did a quick count and 20% of all questions on the site were being closed. 20%! Mind you, amongst the more forum like sites having 80% of all questions worth while would be a huge step up.

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    $\begingroup$ Have some closed string theory questions been deleted? $\endgroup$ – Abhimanyu Pallavi Sudhir Feb 15 '14 at 16:06
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    $\begingroup$ I haven't changed my closing habits since your original suggestion, and I don't think any of the other moderators have either. $\endgroup$ – David Z Feb 15 '14 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ: I have never attempted a quantitative survey, but I suspect that the mods have never unilaterally closed that many questions. Unless you watch the site like a hawk one of the 3k users is likely to spot and VTC questions before you. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Feb 15 '14 at 19:44
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    $\begingroup$ I had been ramping down around the time of your suggestion accelerated that process at that time. I observed to someone in chat recently just how much of the load the user bases has taken over in the last few months. Thank you all and good going. $\endgroup$ – dmckee Feb 15 '14 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ I've still been closing a lot of homework-like questions. I don't have exact statistics but I think I average 3 or 4 per day. The entire moderator team closes about 10 posts per day. But again, I don't have exact statistics, so I don't know how many of those are unilateral and how many had preexisting close votes from other 3k users. $\endgroup$ – David Z Feb 15 '14 at 22:02
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    $\begingroup$ As far as I go; I only occasionally go to the close vote review queue (when I do, I clean up most of it, though). And most of it is 4th or 5th vote. Not sure about the other mods. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Feb 16 '14 at 1:58
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I will not be able to follow the chat discussion on this because the time is way past my bedtime even if it is east coast time.

The type of questions that I think it is fair to close are:

Highschool level homework with no effort towards the solution, and this with a kind explanation in the comments, so that the kid does not become discouraged by an inimical physicists front,

Questions that are:

wrong/out-of-present-day-physics

incoherent

without a reference for context.

I strongly believe that at graduate level a physicist will stand or fall by the research he/she can do, not the homework he/she can solve. IMO the purpose of this board should not be to teach diligence/the-honor-system to graduate students. It seems to me that the site aims to be a web repository of knowledge where somebody googling even for a graduate level question in mathematical formulations, will find a relevant answer and links to the context.

If a mathematical/theoretical question is not answered that is an answer in itself, that the general physics community was not interested enough to spend the effort to answer it. The site will reach the limit of its competence in answering questions, or the limit of the width of the mathematically/theoretically oriented people following the site and willing to spend the time.

It will be a pity if the site ends up just a repository on simple conceptual problems in physics ( these I can easily answer because my mathematical tools are rusty). I have lost count on how many times I have contributed to answer the "wave particle duality" conundrum.

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I find it interesting that people are voting to close questions like If an object moved 5 meters in a second, how can its velocity be 10 m/s? because this strikes me as a textbook example of a conceptual question, the kind of thing that our existing homework policy was specifically made to allow. I wonder if this is just an isolated case, or have questions like this been accumulating close votes all week? And if so, does this really mean that the community doesn't want conceptual questions on simple topics?

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  • $\begingroup$ My vote was on version 1 of the question where it was unclear and pretty clearly a no-effort to understand question. V2 onwards is much more conceptual and I have retracted my close vote on it. Which is actually a problem with the system -- a vote to close on an early version might not be current with later states. Although it makes sense edits don't clear the votes since that would be too easy to game. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Feb 22 '14 at 23:05
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, yes I didn't even notice it had earlier revisions. Still worthy of discussion I think. $\endgroup$ – David Z Feb 22 '14 at 23:09
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So I am noticing something that will likely crop up later and leave the results of this inconclusive...

There are a lot of low-level homework questions coming in and getting closed. These are the types of questions that I think we all agree shouldn't be allowed and the week results will show that it's the case.

But high-level homework questions aren't really coming in, so there is no opportunity for the trial voting period to suss out how the community actually feels about them.

There's a few more days left, but I wouldn't be surprised if the results just show what we can all agree to already and we'll be back to speculating and arguing over high-level homework questions because no/few opportunities were presented to vote on them.

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  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, that makes sense. We could extend the trial period to wait for such questions to appear, or just select some examples and discuss them individually on meta. $\endgroup$ – David Z Feb 19 '14 at 20:55
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    $\begingroup$ From what I've seen, high level questions do get tagged, but rarely closed, over the past few months. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Feb 20 '14 at 0:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Manishearth That could be. I'm only going through the review queue and all that's showing up is low level stuff. I suppose higher level things could just get through without attracting flags/votes which does answer what we're asking. $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Feb 20 '14 at 2:20
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    $\begingroup$ this is for example a not particularly high but decent level technical question that should neither have been stigmated nor closed as homework. What is going in the last months with the whole homework issue is much worse than what people who just wanted to personally ignore (conversely to actively persecuting and closing) some popular question have been up to. The homework issue is way too often misused to stigmate and close questions of people who want to study physics at a technical level. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Feb 22 '14 at 10:41
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    $\begingroup$ The aforementioned "technical question" was actually not that technical at all and was a complete and utter failure of the OP to actually read the paper he posted (post-closing edit). His answer was explicitly given on the 2nd page (and after this fact was pointed out by me, OP deleted the post). As it was originally written, it looked exactly like a graduate-level problem with zero effort attempt to discover the answer (i.e., something that should be closed by any rational 3k person on this site). $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Feb 22 '14 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos I suspect that we are not talking about the same question as it is not deleted. I partly blame myself for the fact that since several months, way too many legitimate questions of people who want to understand physics at a deeper advanced level are stigmated and persecuted by a way too broad notion of homework. My complaints about too many basic and homework questions coming in was intended to improve the site but it backfired: not only bad questions are closed by the dominating 3k users and mods, legitimate ones are prevented too. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Feb 22 '14 at 22:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Dilaton: it was just undeleted by the OP $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Feb 22 '14 at 22:18
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I want to say a few words about the graduate student experience as I lived it and have watched friends and mentees live it.

  • Every graduate student, bar none, at some point asks a friend or teacher or adviser to help them derive some line from a text book that they haven't gotten, only to say the equivalent of "Well, that was obvious!" when shown the answer.

    Needed and seeking out help is not, in and of itself, rare or anything to be ashamed of.

  • Every successful physicist is loathe to ask for help with this kind of thing in their own sub-field. They'll look in others texts, and attack the problem from multiple angles on their own first.

    When dabbling in someone else's discipline that they have no intention of mastering, all bets are off. The first thing to do is find a subject expert willing to walk you past the road-blocks. But you'll come away have been shown the work, not having learned the work. And successful physicists know the difference.

  • More importantly, anyone who makes a habit of asking for help with reading material in their chosen sub-field isn't going to make it. The biggest thing that happens (or should happen) in grad school is a sorting of those who can make progress without supervision and guidance from those who basically can't.

    Heck, quite a large fraction of people who can make progress on their own are not going to "make it" if you define that phase by nailing down a tenured R1 position of a staff scientist job at a major laboratory.

So, the upshot of all of this is that I think making it too easy (and anonymous, none the less) to get that kind of help does budding scientists a bad turn.

I know this position is not popular and not even consistent with what Stack Exchange is about, but I stand by the idea that "Help me derive line #.## out of Author" question should not be allowed. Nor exercises typically assigned in upper-division and graduate course work. I am quite sure that all the professionals here can smell a homework problem and that the difference between them and a question asked by a student reading ahead is generally quite clear.

As always I argue for a firm hand on this: let's treat students with respect and help them to get the education that they deserve by not doing their damn work for them.

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    $\begingroup$ Unfortunately there is hardly a single TP inclined professional (apart from Qmechanic) and not enough knowledgeable about advanced in particular theoretical topics (that naturally need maths and calculation to understand them at a technical level), active enough in the review queues. The review queues are dominated by people not particularly interested in say QFT, differential geometry, ST, conformal field theory, etc who can NOT (or simply dont want to) tell a real homework question and a technical question that comes up as a consequence from reading ahead or self studying texts, apart. $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Feb 23 '14 at 18:04
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    $\begingroup$ yes, we see a lot of the same on programming related sites. Questions that come down to (and sometimes bluntly state as much) a lazy kid just dumping their entire assignment on the community and demanding a fully worked out solution they then can hand in to their teachers as their own. It's demoralising for the experts who got to that knowledge through hard work to see so many kids (and that includes adults...) unwilling to work to learn, wanting a degree handed to them on a silver platter and getting abusive when denied. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Feb 24 '14 at 8:14
  • $\begingroup$ I could hug you for this. $\endgroup$ – Jerry Schirmer Mar 10 '14 at 3:53
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I still don't like this idea. It's unfair to the people asking the questions to have them closed arbitrarily at users' whims, instead of according to a written policy. Also it's hard to see how this can really help to form the policy. All you'll get is some questions closed and not others, but probably without much consistency, and with no consensus on the reasons why. There's a reason why we have discussions on meta instead of just letting people close-vote as they choose.

At the very least the homework-policy meta post should be replaced with an explanation of the situation before this starts. It's ludicrous to have a specific set of written rules while at the same time encouraging people to close-vote without regard to them.

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    $\begingroup$ I always disagreed with the notion that > 3000 rep users should act as blind mindless machines that mechanically execute the instructions written in a computer code called policies or rules without thinking about it as individuals. Physics SE is not a Borg cubus and high rep users are not just instances of the collective ... Even on MSO I heard the notion that community moderation works best when high rep useract in accordance with their best knowledge and fair judgement in the context of some community guidelines which allow some room for wise case to case judgement. On MO they do this... $\endgroup$ – Dilaton Feb 15 '14 at 15:02
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not saying people should be automata. The important part of your comment is "in the context of some community guidelines which allow some room for wise case to case judgement." You have to have such guidelines before you can act in the context of them. The current proposal is to have strict rules, but encourage people to ignore them. That's the worst of both worlds, and it's clearly very silly. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Feb 15 '14 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ Regarding the answer: I share your skepticism that this will be good for the site, which is why we're only doing it for a week. But lots of people really seemed to want it to happen. At least, I will edit a note into the top of the homework policy mentioning what's happening, so anyone who reads it won't be too confused. (And people should still use it as a guideline of sorts.) $\endgroup$ – David Z Feb 15 '14 at 17:14
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ thanks, that makes sense. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Feb 16 '14 at 4:03
  • $\begingroup$ The policies do allow a lot of wiggle room, @Dilaton. And there's a major difference between blatantly voting against policy (which can get you review banned if you do it too much), and staying within that wiggle room. If someone finds a policy too restrictive, they can bring it up on Meta. $\endgroup$ – Manishearth Feb 17 '14 at 23:02

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