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In a recent deleted question I tried to help the OP in the comments. Please read them. (In between my first and second comments there used to be a comment by the OP).

Eventually I made the assessment that the OP was way in over is head in trying to tackle this problem. I told him so in my last comment.

On the one hand I feel like it's not my business that the OP is trying to run before learning how to walk and I should just keep such remarks to myself. On the other hand telling him what I did might actually be mathematically helpful to him, even though the possible benefits transcend the question and are not what MSE is about.

I know anti-PSQ people would just ignore him from the start, but I'm not anti-PSQ. What could I have done better to help the OP without crossing any boundaries? How can I deal with this situation in the future?

Discussion

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    $\begingroup$ Do you mind if I edit your post to include a picture of the comments, for non-10K users? $\endgroup$ – user61527 May 18 '14 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think you were out of line, but there's probably better (more tactful?) ways to say what you meant. There are many users who are in over their heads, and are missing so much background material that studying what they're currently working on won't actually be useful - and sometimes, people need an outside observer to see that. $\endgroup$ – user61527 May 18 '14 at 20:21
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    $\begingroup$ I completely sympathize with you. At that point, however, I typically tell the person to get some paid tutoring help. You do have to cut it off with a succubus that simply won't stop pestering you and clearly provides no effort or evidence of understanding. But I would in the future refrain on their abilities; just stick to the facts and make it clear that you are done. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon May 18 '14 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ @T.Bongers I laughed in real life. Thanks for the screen shot. $\endgroup$ – Git Gud May 18 '14 at 20:28
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    $\begingroup$ One time I asked where a question came from, the OP was not qualified to invent such a thing. He didn't like that. $\endgroup$ – Will Jagy May 18 '14 at 21:31
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    $\begingroup$ I think this is fine and IMO should be done more often. Presumably this person is taking a class that is covering Fourier series. He or she clearly lacks the basic working knowledge required to learn this concept. You're doing him or her a favor by alerting him or her of this. $\endgroup$ – Brian Fitzpatrick May 18 '14 at 22:00
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    $\begingroup$ I am in agreement with T.Bongers. I think you had good intentions, but you just didn't deliver it "nicely". $\endgroup$ – IAmNoOne May 18 '14 at 22:19
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    $\begingroup$ Some say the kid is still crying. $\endgroup$ – Shahar May 19 '14 at 1:06
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    $\begingroup$ What @BrianFitzpatrick wrote. Plus, this was your 7th comment and you started it with some soothing caveat. $\endgroup$ – Did May 19 '14 at 10:05
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    $\begingroup$ I see/say this, or something like this, in many of the MATLAB questions. At some point you just have to tell the person, "look, I'd love to help you, but you have to go back to the fundamentals." $\endgroup$ – Emily May 19 '14 at 18:05
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    $\begingroup$ I believe in trying to be as helpful as possible, but sometimes the deficiency is so severe that you just cannot continue. While it is rare, sometimes one also encounters a situation where the only way to get through to someone is to be brutally honest. It could be argued that failing to do so would only perpetuate their false belief that they can still manage to advance conceptually without addressing that deficiency. For example, this happened to me: math.stackexchange.com/questions/762196/… $\endgroup$ – heropup May 20 '14 at 9:18
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    $\begingroup$ Hm, I'm afraid that the usual Meta-queation voting scheme gets confused with your question. I suppose that upvotes are not meant as "yes" to the question whether you were out of line, but as support of your behaviour ... $\endgroup$ – Hagen von Eitzen May 20 '14 at 9:19
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    $\begingroup$ Sometimes, reality interferes with peoples feelings. Unfortunate. But, true. $\endgroup$ – James S. Cook May 20 '14 at 23:44
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    $\begingroup$ I think you were just fine. The tone of an answer is (culturally) variable. People should get used to the rougher (less mealy-mouthed) end of the spectrum. $\endgroup$ – André Nicolas May 26 '14 at 2:11
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    $\begingroup$ How is this a PSQ? The OP clearly showed effort. $\endgroup$ – Jack M May 28 '14 at 10:00
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No, you were not out of line. If someone is trying to learn Fourier series without knowing calculus, they are in over their head. Their efforts will be useless. The best way to help them is to tell them this.

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  • $\begingroup$ As I mention in my question, one of the things that I'm struggling with, is that telling the OP what I said, in spite of being construed as helpful, it's more of a meta mathematical help, sort of like saying: eat your vegetables. I can't neither commit to or abandon this position yet. $\endgroup$ – Git Gud May 22 '14 at 18:39
  • $\begingroup$ @GitGud Since you brought up the comparison, let me emphasize the point I have already made: Do you think that it is helpful/would be considered as helpful to tell a stranger to eat their vegetables? $\endgroup$ – Phira May 25 '14 at 18:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Phira You make a good point, but a flawed one, in my opinion. Because the analogy is lacking the equivalent to "user asking question about Fourier series". If for instance, a stranger in a coffee shop asked out loud to everyone in the room how to best cook a steak and I told him to eat vegetables, the answer to your question is not so clear to me. I must say, however, that I'm inclined to share your position and that's what prompted me to ask this question in the first place. $\endgroup$ – Git Gud May 25 '14 at 21:00
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think the OP doesn't know calculus. They just seem to be weak at integration. That's not the same thing. In that spirit, a comment more like "In that case, I strongly recommend you get more practice at integration before studying Fourier analysis." might have been slightly more appropriate. $\endgroup$ – Jack M May 28 '14 at 10:02
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Your comment isn't one that I would personally find offensive. But I don't think that it was constructive and helpful and I don't think that you needed to make it. As others have said, there might have been a more tactful way of communicating what you were trying to say.

I disagree with the other answer (by Potato) in implying (as I see it!) that we should not be willing to help when someone is trying to learn a topic that they don't have the formal prerequisites for. In addition I don't see that the OP actually says that s(he) hasn't taken calculus.

In my world I sometimes need a major result from an area of mathematics that I am not familiar with, and so I seek help. And I am glad when I get help despite the fact that I don't know what would formally be required. For all I know this OP might be a student who is self studying and in a case like that, just telling them that they don't know enough isn't helpful.

When I teach, say, integration and a student approaches me with questions, I might then realize that the student still hasn't understood derivatives well enough to understand the answers that I am giving. And so I try to help with understanding derivatives.

I would agree that this site doesn't work exactly like a student coming to your office hours. This site is about asking questions that have definite answers. But I do think that we should show the same kindliness to the people who do ask questions.

So in the concrete case maybe a good answer would be one that explains what background is needed and how it is used. The answer then would basically communicate to the OP that (s)he needs to study this or that in order to solve the problem.

In conclusion, I personally am not all fired up about your comment, I say these things only because you asked. And I definitely applaud you for trying to help in the comments. It is great that you invest the time to help diagnose where the students difficulties are.

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    $\begingroup$ I think it is also useful to point out that students do not need to obtain 100% to pass a subject. Therefore, they do not need to master calculus to progress to a course on Fourier series. So I agree: Simply saying "you shouldn't be dealing with Fourier series" is not helpful. Perhaps saying "you might want to brush up on your calculus - it will help you a lot!" would be better. $\endgroup$ – user1729 May 22 '14 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ I wasn't more tactful, because I don't know how. But I've got some ideas from the comments in the question. I don't agree that I should have helped him further, though. What he was asking was way beyond the scope of the question. In hindsight I would have preferred to suggest to the OP that he asked how to integrate it in a separate question or that he edit his question to pinpoint exactly where his trouble was, (which happened to be just an integration problem). $\endgroup$ – Git Gud May 22 '14 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ @GitGud: Just to point out, I didn't say that you should have helped the OP further. $\endgroup$ – Thomas May 22 '14 at 19:38
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I hope it isn't too late for this answer. Much of it is general, but relevant I feel.

The central point of MSE is, as someone pointed out, providing answers to appropriate questions. There appears to be a slight debate over what form should those answers take.

To be strict about it, just about everyone has the necessary background knowledge to solve any solveable mathematics problem - it's just that the number of intermediate steps from where a person feels comfortable beginning his or her analysis and the solution may differ. This is partly because some may have to start nearer to the bottom of the knowledge pyramid, and partly because some are more comfortable skipping the details between steps.

I believe what most people need to overcome a mental obstacle is

  1. a way of looking at things
  2. freedom from ego/fear of seeming stupid

I would guess point 2. rarely features on the internet where anonymity is possible.

In theory, one could answer every question in a form similar to "this follows from the axioms" and be done with it. Strictly speaking, if the goal is merely to provide answers that should suffice.

Of course it does not, and the only purpose of that contrived example is to point out that the directive of MSE is perhaps slightly more subtle than described in my first paragraph. Truly, I feel the goal is to provide explanations/solutions that others can understand, with a strong focus on helping the OP to understand. Now I'm not trying to dictate to the administrators of the site what its purpose should be, but rather observing what I perceive the purpose really is. I may be wrong.

If I am right, however, then part of the "job description" of the community is to lead others to answers when the path is blocked for them. It is not any one person's job however, so I think it is perfectly reasonable to quit helping someone if you feel it is futile and leave it to whomever may wish to try their hand at it. This is part of the code of the community, but was this user truly a member of the community:

I am very curious about the reputation and sign up date for the poster whose question you were patiently addressing. If he/she had signed up that day and had a score of $1$, I must say this would color my view of the situation. But I think the most telling part of the dialogue was the moment when he/she asked which assignments to make in the integration by parts. This is something one can simply try by making a choice and then trying the other possibility if the choice fails (I know that strictly speaking there are more than $2$ choices, but I think you see my point).

It is possible that this person was so flustered from banging his or her head against a problem for a long time that he or she had trouble solving problems within his or her wheelhouse. I've been there. In such (real life) cases I try to help people relax and know that no matter what the problem will get solved, in an attempt to sap the feeling of urgency and panic. If it is part of the path to the solution I think this a valid approach here, though perhaps most appropriate in chat.

It is also possible that this person isn't really a member of the community, but rather a vacationer or worse someone here to plunder our resources. I do not believe the code I alluded to above should apply to such people.

Finally, I do not think you were out of line. I believe you were admirably patient. However, what I might have done is ask a leading question or two to try to determine whether this person is a true member of the community or just using a visitor's visa. If my determination were that the really are a member of the community, then I may have taken the discussion to chat where some less conventional approaches may be more appropriate.

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  • $\begingroup$ I would be embarassed to define the notion of "member of the community" in the present case. How would you? $\endgroup$ – Did May 28 '14 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Did I probably would too. Are you looking for a testable condition or a theoretical definition? I don't have a full one, but I'd have a hard time considering as a member of the community anyone who signs up to ask how to solve a homework question, receives a complete answer, never upvotes/accepts, signs off and never signs on again. How about you? $\endgroup$ – user139388 May 28 '14 at 19:36
  • $\begingroup$ My point was that your answer is very much based on this somewhat ill-defined notion of community. Perhaps one has to live with the fact this has no clear-cut definition but then, I would advise being aware of this fact. $\endgroup$ – Did May 28 '14 at 20:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Did, I think I see your point. It may simply be a terminology issue. I could have said that I would try to determine if the poster were a succubus, or something similar. I also meant to underscore that each person must decide for him or herself whether to begin/continue helping someone. You are right that it is an ill-defined notion; most users simply carry with them an intuition for when someone is exploiting the good will of the site with no intention of contributing. Thanks $\endgroup$ – user139388 May 28 '14 at 20:53
  • $\begingroup$ @wordsthatendinGRY I see your point, but I don't completely agree. A question can be "good" in that it is well posed, not a duplicate and useful to others, and yet the poster could be strongly seem to be out for an answer to a homework question, never to return. It may not be appropriate to close the question, but it may be useful to whomever is walking him through a solution to try and get at his true intentions, if only to know whether time is being wasted. I believe the asker's motivation is very relevant to most who offer their help. $\endgroup$ – user139388 May 28 '14 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ @wordsthatendinGRY it is not just a matter of wasting time. There are some who feel it is unethical to help people cheat on assignments and exams, and thus care to investigate a little if they feel something like that is going on. Also, for those who wish to promote a community of mutual contributors here, encouraging "hit and run" tactics does feel like a waste of time. There are also those who are motivated by reputation for whom engaging with such users would be a waste of time. Finally, you could drop the case of "useful to others" and still have a question not worthy of deletion. $\endgroup$ – user139388 May 28 '14 at 21:46
  • $\begingroup$ When I sit down to read a paper I am optimistic and agree with the start of your post - "I can understand this. It is my area. Bring it on!". After a few hours, I disagree entirely with your opening few paragraphs. $\endgroup$ – user1729 May 29 '14 at 8:38
  • $\begingroup$ @user1729 reading a paper is the worst implementation of this. They are intentionally terse. Better is reading a textbook, better still a good textbook, it is even better to do so with the help of a teacher, and better yet a great teacher. I think you see my point. My statement was a theoretical one: broken into small enough steps, properly explained, and given enough time, just about everyone should be able to get from A to B. I didn't think that was controversial. $\endgroup$ – user139388 May 29 '14 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ @user139388 I maintain my disagreement. My experience of mathematics (and I believe that this is common to many other mathematicians) is very much "in retrospect, that is obvious...". $\endgroup$ – user1729 May 29 '14 at 17:10
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    $\begingroup$ @user1729PhD by all means, I don't intend to coerce you into agreement here. However, I do not see how that sentiment bears on my claim, especially as I often share it. Imagine someone not understanding an argument. Without loss of generality there is a single step he is having trouble with (otherwise, subdivide the argument into smaller arguments). Now, do you contend that once one "zooms in" closely enough on the snag, using the method of bisection, it is impossible to explain to the person how to get from one line to the next? Even if years are devoted to the task? $\endgroup$ – user139388 May 29 '14 at 20:52

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