# Thoughts on meta post on homework question handling and basic questions

I spend most of my time on the TeX.SE and venture to other SE sites when looking for help. However, the atmosphere here seems to be going the way of the "old" stackoverflow SE. By old, I mean about 5months or so ago. SO was becoming extremely hostile and unfriendly to those trying to learn programming and asking basic questions. Instead of directing new members to duplicate questions or helping them understand the rules and that they should use search feature first, they were being mistreated in the comments and down voted to oblivion which can prevent them from asking questions. However, SO finally changed their course and it has become a better place to ask questions for beginners and those not as skilled in programming in my eyes. You can go through their meta to see the many discussions on rampant hostility from that time.

I have been skimming through physics meta and have seen an unsettling trend. Post on banning homework type questions, no basic questions, we want conceptually higher level questions only, etc, etc. This how it started on their meta. What do we do about this question or that. It just perpetuates the anger and it boils over from the members more skilled in physics to those trying to learn.

I hope this isn't route physics.SE is looking to take.

• You'll notice on most if not all of the meta posts about banning homework or closing certain types of questions, or requiring adequate background, etc. The result has been that the community decided to not implement those things. We always say "No, we can't do that because it isn't fair or nice to people looking for help or new/untrained users" Or some such thing – Jim Aug 30 '14 at 19:05
• @Jim but constant discussing it perpetuates the hostility. SO never said let's do this but many members start taking it out on the questioners. That is what I don't want to see happen. They eventually fixed it some time ago. I was absent from the site do to the behavior, but when I back to look up something, I noticed the atmosphere changed and found they were actively combating it from the meta post I read. – dustin Aug 30 '14 at 19:07
• @dustin As I say in my answer, the hostility is really only from a select few members and is actually pretty confined to the Meta. The people who do the moderating on the Main site are pretty friendly and fair about things. – tpg2114 Aug 30 '14 at 19:09
• Also remember that the amount an opinion is voiced is not indicative of the number of people who support it. Very often, it keeps being brought up because those bringing it up are in the minority. If they were in the majority, there would be no need to discuss it because it would be implemented. – tpg2114 Aug 30 '14 at 19:11
• My downvote is in disagreement with your limited perspective. My close-vote is because there isn't a question or suggestion, merely an unfounded observation. – Kyle Kanos Aug 31 '14 at 1:14
• @KyleKanos you should read up on the discussion tag then. – dustin Aug 31 '14 at 2:20
• @dustin: I have. Please note that the 2nd word of the tag summary and the tag wiki is question. – Kyle Kanos Aug 31 '14 at 2:23
• Related: meta.physics.stackexchange.com/q/5152/2451 , meta.physics.stackexchange.com/q/6016/2451 and links therein. – Qmechanic Aug 31 '14 at 15:49

I guess there isn't really a question to answer here but it's more of a discussion thing than anything else.

The idea behind each Stack setting its own policies is that each one can be tailored to a specific community, and that community establishes its own guidelines and procedures. And, as different members come and go, the community adapts and the policies adapt accordingly.

The arguments made on Meta here are very repetitive and common and despite all the discussion, our policies and actions tend to remain pretty consistent. There are two camps -- those who come in and want help on homework problems and think that we should be answering every question that comes in and those who want to outlaw all basic questions or things that are not very high level or specialized in advanced content. The two extremes are very vocal while it tends to be the trend of the majority to take a more even approach.

Both sides have their points but ultimately it is up to the community to decide what kind of community they want. The tendency to ban homework questions is grounded in trying to keep the community that is here happy. Many (not all, but many) of the people who drop in to ask homework questions are only looking for a quick answer and have no desire to participate in the community. They ask their very specific question, get an answer, never accept answers or vote and then disappear until they need another homework question answered. These people have no intention of being part of the community and so we don't look highly upon their questions, and we actively do what we can to suppress them.

The argument made by those who only want high level, advanced questions is that homework questions "drown" out the "good" questions and they have to sort through the 500th question on why F = ma and they miss the questions they are interested in. Personally, I don't buy into this since there's ways to sort and search by tags etc.. But there is some validity to how they feel.

On the other hand, only taking very specialized questions limits to people who are interested in, or capable of, participating. And small communities like that don't function well within the Stack Exchange universe. But the people who want this say "Who cares what SE wants, we want our community!" The solution, whether they like it or not, is to go make their own community because this place just won't work that way. And they have made efforts to go do that.

So coming back to your main point. If you read the posts on Meta and the arguments, it's easy to think we're all a bunch of jerks who are mean and blast people into oblivion. But (now anyway, there is a lot of drama surrounding the topic of politeness on our site), we are actually relatively friendly. Yes, we will downvote homework questions and vote to close them (I did both on your most recent question). But we will not tolerate attacks on people, nor will we post comments on homework questions insulting people etc.. That is not okay.

Our hostility is not very hostile, but when it is, it's confined to Meta (usually) and it's directed between experienced people here (typically). And mostly it's because we know each other. On the main site, when people post things that break policies, the majority of the experienced users are very civil. The anger and hostility usually starts with people who are not part of the community who get upset about the downvote, or upset about a question being put on hold, etc.. And they get upset and start lashing out because the site doesn't work the way they want it.

I said it in chat before and I'll say it again now -- for some reason, on the internet in general, but specifically on the Stacks -- there is a mentality where people show up to play in our sandbox and then get really angry with how we play in our sandbox and tell us we should do it their way. But the thing is, SE as a whole and each Stack specifically, isn't designed to cater to every person on the internet. It's designed to generate high quality questions with high quality answers from experts.

And our experience is that the vast majority of homework-like questions are not high quality. And the vast majority of people asking those questions do not become high quality members of the community. There are ways to phrase homework-like questions so they are on topic, and high quality, and useful to others. And that's what we're looking for. And we will help those who want to get to that point.

So your question on non-linear springs for example, if you could explain the steps you took and why you think those are the right steps from a physics standpoint, we would keep it open. We would be able to say "Well, you assumed X is physically correct but the physics say Y" which would lead you to your answer. But just putting an equation and saying "I don't know where to start" doesn't help you, it doesn't help (or interest) our members, and the answer won't help anybody other than you. Whereas, breaking down to the physics of your question and why you think a spring force should work a certain way, will help others who may be confused about their spring problem.

• I challenge anybody to think of one thing to say in opposition after having read this post. It's like saying "Yeah, sometimes we're mean, but we're pretty nice about it. And we have our rules because that's what we want and some people don't like it, but that's none of our concern" – Jim Aug 30 '14 at 19:18
• @dustin I did see the edit and it still doesn't have any physical insight. Why would you take the derivative? What does it mean physically? How does that relate to the distance the spring moves? Etc. etc. -- this post isn't the place to suss out those things, but there is still nothing demonstrating what you know about physics, what you think the physics of the problem is, and so on. – tpg2114 Aug 30 '14 at 19:23
• @tpg2114 Jim helped me solve it. I was just letting you know the problem was edited since you brought it up. – dustin Aug 30 '14 at 19:33
• I'd note that tpg2114's chat comment about sandboxes is highly starred. He's not the only one who feels that way. – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Aug 30 '14 at 20:04
• Hey, it was a good comment. Had some wisdom, a simple metaphor, and addressed something we've all had experience with. By all standards a great comment – Jim Aug 30 '14 at 20:47
• Not that this is a big deal, but technically they're "Stack Exchange sites" not "Stacks." – David Z Aug 31 '14 at 17:26

The word community gets mentioned over and over in these discussions, and for me that is essential feature of the Physics SE.

I was a teenage SciFi reading physics nerd back in the early 70s just about the time the Standard Model was reaching its final form. This was a fantastically exciting time, but if you lived in a small town in rural Somerset there was no-one to talk to about it. No-one.

So if a newcomer to the site wants to ask a basic question I will go to some trouble to write a detailed answer. This doesn't just mean answering their question, but maybe exploring related physics and trying to show what's so interesting about the physics behind it. I was going to cite a couple of such answers, but looking through my answers there are so many answers of this type it hardly seems pulling out one or two as examples.

Now I appreciate I'm on the evangelist wing of this community, but while I suspect many members will regard my views as a little naive I suspect the vast majority agree with the basic principle. If you're interested and prepared to put some effort in we won't turn you away.

The flip side of this is that if you can't be arsed² then neither can I.

¹ this the royal you, not you personnally

² © dmckee, 2014 - I thought this was a British expression. Shouldn't you colonials be saying can't be assed? :-)

• As far as we know us colonial types don't have a really good parallel to "can't be arsed". I mean, "can't be bothered" has the same denotation, but doesn't carry the same connotation of frustration to the limit of socially acceptable responses. So I've adopted it. Can I plead Canadian ancestors on Mum's side? – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Aug 31 '14 at 14:16
• And your tolerance and high quality answers are an example to us all. – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Aug 31 '14 at 14:18
• @dmckee no, you can't plead Canadian ancestors. As a true-blooded Canadian I can tell you we have about 70-80 different ways at varying levels of frustration and politeness of saying "Who cares, eh?". "can't be arsed" has no direct translation, but depending on context you could say "pipe down, ya hoser!" or "it's not on my ass", etc. We're generally pretty politely apathetic in most things unless it involves beer, hockey, maple stuff, or proving we're not Americans. But don't think I've ever used the word "arse" – Jim Aug 31 '14 at 16:04

The bulk of the users of this site have consistently voted for a site that is welcoming to beginners provided that they are able to frame their questions in a physicist-like way. That is, the site is welcoming to beginning scientists, but not to students who have not yet begun to think like physicists.

There is nothing new about this, it's been this way for two and a half years or more.

Please don't overlook the fact that the re-re-re-"can we be nicer to the noobs" movement on Stack Overflow (which comes up every 18-24 months)1 wasn't about changing the rules about what was allowed, it was about changing the nature of the comments and improving the close-reason texts.

Stack Overflow is not accepting of "teach me to program" type questions, so it is neither strange nor exceptional that Physics SE is not particularly accepting of "help me with my physics 101 homework" questions. To be sure Math SE is friendly to their equivalent of such questions, but that's a different choice and it generates a different (to my mind less useful) kind of site.

1 It is, perhaps, worth exploring why the comments drift toward hostile over time and need an occasional course adjustment. Stack Overflow (and to a lesser extent, Physics SE) has become a premiere, go-to resource for help in it's domain. Not surprisingly, that attracts the attentions of everybody, including the vast hoards of people who can't be arsed to do any work for themselves.

The result is predictable: a large fraction of the questions asked are of very low quality and are often duplicates. Maintaining a high quality site means that these things must be dealt with and on Stack Exchange sites most of that burden falls on users with 3000+ reputation.

Those users see examples of a couple-dozen types are no-effort questions and questions from people whose preparation isn't up to meeting the minimum requirements of the site over and over and over and over. This is frustrating and from time to time someone takes it out on a new poster. It's not really fair because usually this poster hasn't disobeyed the basic rules dozens of times, but none-the-less he or she is part of a hoard that is (generally unintentionally) attacking the quality of the site. The attack is real, it has the potential to destroy the value of the site, and it goes on day in and day out without let up. So the frustration is real too.

Learning to handle it without exploding is a process.

• As a site on physics help, you have to accept the fact that people will come and ask homework questions here that shouldn't even be up for discussion. What was the original premise of the site? My hypothesis is that it was to help those with physics questions no matter the level? Then the site grew and now it is we don't want to help at this level. Plus, it says in the tour, "This site is all about getting answers. It's not a discussion forum. There's no chit-chat." What is a new member to think? – dustin Aug 30 '14 at 20:26
• "What was the original premise of the site?" You don't need to hypothesize, you can simple look on Area51. You won't see any homeworkesque questions among those that were well received during definition, and you will see a highly votes comment (on what level the site should be): '18 ok, third option: "no question is too basic, but we won't do your homework"'. I repeat: this position has been the consistent decision of the userbase. – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Aug 30 '14 at 20:35
• You made my point with your quote no question too basic. Where do physics questions come from at the basic level if not homework (I am not saying asking for someone to do you work step by step is ok)? If there is some guy with no formal education in physics postulating ground breaking questions, he is probably at a genius level of intelligence and shouldn't be assumed to be the model new member. – dustin Aug 30 '14 at 20:40
• I think you are missing the point. The people who were active during the area51 definition phase (which did not include me) preferred the version with "no homework". The people who have participated in meta discussions since I have been around prefer some variation of "no homework". The users don't want homework. Coming here and telling them that they have to deal with your question even if they see it as homework-like is not going to be very productive. – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Aug 30 '14 at 20:44
• I speaking in general not about me. I have been a member of physicsforums.com for 6 years. I have been working at moving away from using separate sites and consolidating my efforts at SE. I know I can go there and ask a question without issue. You all might as well tell new members to go to physicsforums.com. – dustin Aug 30 '14 at 20:47
• @dustin think of Physics.SE as a more interactive and physics-oriented version of wikipedia. You can go to our database of information, ask it a question about modern physics, it searches around wikipedia (and some other similar but possibly more advanced sources) for relevant information, and it spits out a customized answer. But you wouldn't check wikipedia for answers to textbook problems right? The stuff you should expect to get from our SE is the stuff you should expect to get from wikipedia mostly. Maybe a bit higher-level sometimes and sometimes we indulge with more specific stuff. – Jim Aug 30 '14 at 20:57
• @Jim I use wikipedia to answer homework questions all the time. I look up the theorems, equations, examples, etc I need to answer my question. I understand what you are saying. In my last question, I didn't ask anyone to do my work. You just gave me insight and I did it myself. That is what I look for when I ask questions. My post here isn't about me though. Per my comment above yours, I know of a place I can go. I just wanted to share the love here. – dustin Aug 30 '14 at 21:01
• @dustin That means you use the wikipedia to find the tools. Conceptually framed questions--those about tools--are accepted on the site at a very low level. It is questions about the application to the single case in front of you that get hammered. That's the whole meaning of the policy. – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Aug 30 '14 at 21:03
• @dustin that's also why I helped you find the solution. You were asking about how to approach it (granted the question could have been worded better). – Jim Aug 30 '14 at 21:04
• @dmckee I loved your onslaught metaphor by the way. It is day in and day out without let up. To use an appropriate quote: "Tell them, that from this place we will deliver notice to the parliaments of conquerors that a line has been drawn against the darkness. And we will hold that line, .. no matter the cost." – Jim Aug 30 '14 at 21:10
• @dustin I guess I can't say that I didn't think the same way at the time, but the question you asked isn't about physics. And most of the issues we have with homework questions is because they aren't about physics. Yes, it may be an assignment in physics class but it's not about the physics. The "I don't know where I went wrong but here's all my formulas" and "Here is my word problem but I don't know where to start" is too specific to that user to be useful, and it's not about the physics that goes on. That's what we object to (as a community), not the level of the question – tpg2114 Aug 31 '14 at 3:08
• There are users, in the minority, who do object to "basic" questions. But I will happily explain the most basic "where does the center of mass go" questions if and only if they are phrased in the "I think the physics says X but the answer says Y and I don't get it" as opposed to "I have a formula A = B but I don't know how to use it." And maybe that distinction is hard for people just learning about physics and that's why we struggle as a community with it. – tpg2114 Aug 31 '14 at 3:10