14
$\begingroup$

As I've started digging through older (more than two months, say) unanswered questions, I've noticed a few in which the OP asked a fairly specific homework-type question, did not get much of a response, and subsequently vanished. In some cases, I suspect that the lack of response was primarly due to the question not being formulated clearly and/or the OP not being familar with markup. However, in many cases a perfectly good answer could be generated.

My question is this: what are people's thoughts about the value of answering these kinds of questions?

On one hand, the OP is almost certainly not going to benefit from a response -- they signed up, asked their question, didn't get an answer and left. Also, the questions I'm thinking of tend to be fairly basic and specific and probably of limited interest to anyone other than the OP.

On the other hand, other users (who may not have been here when the question was originally posed) might be interested in the question and its responses. For instance, I enjoy reading many of the basic calculus questions because that's a course I teach and I appreciate seeing the variety of responses this site generates. Even for fairly specific lower-level homework questions, it's often nice to see different approaches to a solution. It's also entirely possible that another student with a similar question might someday find these questions useful.

I suppose another way to frame the question is whether people see this site primarily as a resource for asking and answering immediate questions, or is there also a place here for archiving interesting or useful questions?

$\endgroup$
17
$\begingroup$

Certainly, please go ahead with answering questions. If you have an interesting answer to contribute, then it would bolster the activity of this fledgling site. That would be a good thing from any viewpoint.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks - I definitely agree that on the whole, more activity is better than less. $\endgroup$ – cch Dec 19 '10 at 5:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @cch "More activity is better than less". I don't understand this heuristic. Does this, in your opinion, apply to any given website and any kind of activity? Activity that helps mathematics on this site is good, activity that hinders teachers and professors in their aim to teach mathematics, like posting easily googlable complete homework solutions, is, in my opinion, bad and the less of it the better. $\endgroup$ – Alex B. Dec 19 '10 at 14:02
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ How does it hurt teachers and professors to have a database of problems and solutions? Why is it the job of this site to prop up an artificial "homework economy"? I would hope that students have the courtesy to check their solutions against accessible online or published material before asking instructors for help. $\endgroup$ – T.. Dec 19 '10 at 21:34
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @alexbartel "Any given website and any kind of activity?" No. I simply meant that the signal-to-noise ratio doesn't matter if all you can hear are crickets. $\endgroup$ – cch Dec 20 '10 at 5:18
10
$\begingroup$

Absolutely nothing wrong at all with the sentiment!

I believe Ty Cobb would continue to play baseball even if he were charged something for the privilege, and if the only spectator were the groundskeeper.

As for the specifics:

On the other hand, other users (who may not have been here when the question was originally posed) might be interested in the question and its responses.

If we're going to answer old unanswered questions, I recommend favoring those unanswered questions that might be of more lasting value to a larger audience, versus those that are very specialized and niche that few will be searching for.

$\endgroup$
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Nice quote! My main concern is with generating activity that too many people might consider noise. I think the trick will be in deciding what would have lasting value. $\endgroup$ – cch Dec 19 '10 at 5:15
9
$\begingroup$

It is certainly worthwhile to answer older questions that may be of interest to other folks. When I first joined the site I too perused many old questions and answered them. Almost all of those answers received very few votes compared to my answers to active questions (due to this I have unusually many answers with 0 votes). Probably such answers are not seen by many users because they browse only the "newest questions" list - not the "active questions" list. So don't be discouraged if your answers receive few votes in the short term. They will eventually be discovered by searches, links, etc. Welcome to Math.SE.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the welcome and encouragement! $\endgroup$ – cch Dec 19 '10 at 5:24
6
$\begingroup$

There's even badges to encourage answering old questions:

Revival -- Answered more than 30 days later as first answer scoring 2 or more

Necromancer -- Answered a question more than 60 days later with at least 5 votes

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, I did notice that. Actually, seeing those was what got me thinking about the fact there may actually be value in going back to revisit unanswered questions. Not it terms of badge-collecting per se, but the fact that there are such badges is a signal that this issue has been given some thought. $\endgroup$ – cch Dec 19 '10 at 5:21
1
$\begingroup$

Personally, I think that detailed answers to homework question shouldn't be given at the time of asking and they shouldn't be given later either. Answers here become easy to google and that particular homework question becomes pointless to ask, since students will google the complete answer in no time. You may enjoy reading complete answers to homework questions you set on the web, I don't.

If on the other hand the question is not homeworkish but asks for intuition for something, or for a better explanation, or for some other kind of understanding or information, then I agree with the others that there is nothing wrong with answering it no matter how much later.

$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ It might also be good to un-publish tables of integrals, disable search engines, censor Wikipedia, ban computer algebra systems and limit the functionality of calculators. $\endgroup$ – T.. Dec 19 '10 at 9:02
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @T.. That comment was completely off-topic. I have no idea what your relationship with students is, if any, but most of the things you have mentioned above are no help with the kind of homework I am talking about. They either only provide a number (tables of integrals, computer algebra systems, calculators) or only general information (Wikipedia). I am talking about hw that is supposed to make the students think and not hw that only requires a number with no explanations. If the hw you set can be done with an integral table or a calculator, then I am not surprised at our constant disagreement. $\endgroup$ – Alex B. Dec 19 '10 at 13:59
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Let's not forget to also remove books with solved exercises from the libraries (or leave them only in the hands of students wealthy enough to purchase a horde of such), have policemen monitoring conversation in mathematics departments (ERASE CHALKBOARDS PROMPTLY!), stop research in automated theorem proving, take down chess databases and endgame solvers -- for the common good. A more freedom-based approach is to develop and utilize the new resource instead of trying to restrict it on behalf of one small subpopulation. Yes, instructors and students would also benefit from this. $\endgroup$ – T.. Dec 19 '10 at 21:24
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @T.. We will not get a sensible discussion going as long as you continue pretending that you don't know what I am talking about, so this will be my last reply to your polemic comments: nobody is proposing to restrict any resource, in particular not this site. The idea of the site is that some people help other people learn and/or use mathematics. In order to do that efficiently, one should ask oneself "what will help those people most?" $\endgroup$ – Alex B. Dec 20 '10 at 1:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ ...There may be various different answers, such as "a hint", "an explanation of the mathematics involved", "a completely worked out hw solution", "a number"... The last two are, in my opinion, rarely the best kind of help one can offer. Your perspective may well differ, but not knowing who you are and in view of your aggressive polemics, I don't see any way of making further progress in this "conversation" and will therefore from now on limit my replies to address real people. $\endgroup$ – Alex B. Dec 20 '10 at 1:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Alex, above you state in bold what should not be posted as answers and in other threads you have advocated or hinted that such restrictive should-nots become a site policy. In case the examples I listed were not clear, let me spell it out: attempting to restrict a new technology is an ineffective, and ultimately self-defeating, approach compared to developing it and exploiting it. Claiming that other users are not "real people" or too polemical for your conversational tastes (which include polemics and personal attacks in each of your past N postings) is not a serious answer. $\endgroup$ – T.. Dec 20 '10 at 5:06

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .