- Regarding actions by moderators, do you think that MathSE is (over/under)moderated? If so, can you elaborate on which aspects, why, and what would be your suggestions regarding this?
Overall, I think our site is moderated at the right level.
The current group of moderators seem to handle issues promptly and reasonably, and someone or the other from the team is usually available for a quick chat when required. As a team, they are neither invisible nor are they dominating. But, considering that elections are called, it seems they could use another hand on deck.
In some specific cases, I would have liked a different level of involvement from the team. Since this question asks to elaborate along with my suggestions, here are two examples:
- The HNQ block-list. The discussions could have been handled much better in my opinion. I think the moderator team could have proposed the idea of a block list after coming up with data that a block list could be effective. I believe that the heated debates that we saw around that topic could have been reduced this way. This was an instance where the moderator team gave me an impression of being overbearing.
- Reviewing. I think the current moderator team could take a greater role in reviewing questions. There is no doubt that the high rate of incoming questions means that several off-topic questions or duplicates slip through the gaps. Taking care of the clear-cut cases to begin with should be very helpful. So, reviewing is an area of under-moderation in my opinion.
- MSE seems to, in practice, fulfill dual purposes: to be a repository of mathematical knowledge in a Q&A format, and a place for people to get specialist, individual help with mathematics. Often these purposes align, but sometimes they clash. Which do you see as the primary purpose of MSE? Please describe a situation, real or realistic, where the two purposes clash, and how you would preference one over the other.
I think our site cannot be viewed as being primarily a repository.
The early questions and answers have created a peerless body of mathematical Q&A on the internet, no doubt about that. Today, however, in some areas we are faced with iteration after iteration of the same questions with minor changes (and sometimes not even that much). The abstract duplicates project is a great attempt to remedy this, but the task is too great for just that to be a solution.
The way I see it, we are firmly on the path of being a help site for individual learners with specific problems. Consequently, there is an important onus on the OP to provide the necessary context for the question. At the same time, I am sympathetic to the notion that good mathematical content in answers should be preserved.
So, I would close off-topic questions, but I would not delete a question if there is good mathematical content in the answers. I would reopen the question if sufficient context is added.
That was a general outline; as for a specific example, there are many instances of this kind of back-and-forth seen in the Reopen Requests Thread — maybe a good representative could be this recent one where sufficient context was added to a closed question to have it reopened. This is the kind of instance I would approve of.
- The CURED chatroom (formerly CRUDE) is extremely active and plays a large role in closing and deleting questions and answers.
- Are you aware of this chatroom?
- Do you think this chat room is healthy for this site, unhealthy, or somewhere in between? Please justify your answer.
Yes, I am aware of the chatroom CURED.
I have not posted in the chatroom, except for one or two instances, which are negligible. But I regularly read the transcript, so I am aware of the kind of requests posted there. I add my votes whenever I am in agreement, and refrain from voting when I disagree.
I think the chatroom serves a healthy purpose, but the tone in it can be too abrasive for my liking at times.
I think that CURED, just like the Reopen Requests Thread on meta, is a natural consequence of the site's large volume of daily questions — there are simply not enough eyeballs on new questions to catch all problems unless a coordinated effort is made.
It is not unexpected that the room activities draw heated discussions. But it is the responsibility of everyone involved in a discussion to maintain civility. Perhaps having a moderator readily pingable in the room to weigh in on controversial requests would help ease the atmosphere in such instances. This is something that I am willing to devote time and energy to. I would gladly encourage more people to use CURED, and I would also not like to see anyone belittled there — whether they are a regular user of the room, or a newcomer who just had a post closed/deleted; all would benefit by gently recalling that reasonable people can also disagree.
- What do you think is the biggest problem facing Math.SE in 2020, and how do you think we should approach it as a community, and as moderators?
I'll go with the quality control problem as the biggest issue currently facing our site. This is because the pandemic has made so many institutions switch to online instruction. Our site is probably going to be flooded with even more low-quality questions due to this, but even worse is that a significant proportion of these would probably be cheating attempts. (Perhaps this is already happening, but I don't have any statistics to back that claim up.)
So, I think the biggest problem is whether we will be able to step up and ensure that not only does our site quality not drop, but will we be able to prevent blatant cheating on our site.
- Have you ever been suspended from this site or another StackExchange site? If so, please provide a description of the situation that led to the suspension, and how you have reacted to it. Would you have suspended a user for a similar behavior today?
No, I have never been suspended on this site or any other Stack Exchange site.
- Moderators disagree with each other all the time on issues large and small. How will you deal with disagreement with other moderators? At what point do you reverse their actions?
A disagreement usually means that we are approaching things from different points of view. The key is to find out through dialogue whether the differing points of view are fundamentally incompatible or not. Usually they are not, so some kind of a middle ground can be arrived at. I will always approach a discussion by believing in the good intentions of the other party, and try to see where they are coming from, while trying to make the reasons behind my position as clear as possible. I am sure that I will not lose my patience easily in a disagreement. It may take me a while for me to convey my intentions clearly, though, since English is not my native language.
In the rare case that the differing points of view are truly incompatible, things become difficult, of course. Any such disagreement would have to be very serious. I can't imagine such a disagreement arising except on points related to principles of mine that I hold very dear. Should such a scenario actually arise, I will evaluate whether I can follow through with the other moderator's view with a clear conscience. If so, I will go with it, but perhaps with some sadness. If not, I will present my resignation without any fuss or animosity, and request forgiveness from the team and the community for my inability to fulfil the duties I was entrusted with.
- In discussions about the quality of questions the word "context" is frequently invoked. The perception of "missing context" is the most frequently selected reason for closure of questions. What role should "context" play in assessing the quality and suitability of a question on Mathematics Stack Exchange? Ideally, please be explicit what you mean by "context" and discuss potential actions to be taken (or not taken), rather than giving an abstract answer.
Context is crucial, in my opinion.
If we were a repository of mathematical knowledge, then a contextless question would be quite alright so long as experts can give excellent canonical answers to it. Indeed, this has been the case several times in the site's early days as seen by the kind of content that was generated then.
Today, we are definitely offering something more close to a tutoring service. This makes context crucial. I understand that some questions can be inherently interesting, without the need for any context to back them up. But such questions are few and far between, and there is no harm in asking for some kind of context to be provided for them, to help everyone separate the wheat from the chaff. I think this is a reasonable compromise for everyone.
To give a related, but perhaps controversial, example, we expect that when people post a request on the Reopen Requests Thread, they should clearly reveal whether they have asked or answered that question. This is not because we suspect everyone of being motivated by reputation and that they just want their lost reputation back. It is because we recognize the reality that without such an agreement, people motivated solely by rep may very well flood the threads with dubious requests, and this will cause a huge pain for everyone, having to sift through the requests to try and determine which ones are genuine and worth giving attention to. Rather, we say, let everyone be upfront about whether they have some personal stake in their request or not.
Analogously, if a question is inherently interesting, that's great! Let's not be shy to add context for it, which should be fairly easy to generate anyway when compared to doing so for other unmotivated questions. It's a win-win for the community if we can agree to always have and request for context in our questions.
As for what context means to me, I subscribe to the types of context described in the FAQ for How to ask a good question. But, I would like to reorder the items listed there to give a different emphasis.
Firstly, I consider answering the following questions:
- What is my background?
- Where did the question come from?
- What are the relevant definitions?
to be a must in nearly every question initially formulated as just a problem statement. Providing these pieces of context vastly improves nearly any such question. It's just a short step from there to:
and from there to:
- Pointing out where I'm stuck.
Covering this much ground would surely provide sufficient context for a question.
If the last two steps are difficult or not applicable, then another good method of providing context, especially for questions of a higher level, is to:
- Describe the motivation behind the problem.
This should be possible (and encouraged) especially for questions about higher level mathematics.
Somehow, it seems to me that it is the OP's attempts that are always at the forefront of any discussion on context (maybe because it is the first item in the list in the FAQ linked previously?). Perhaps one way to encourage users to provide other forms of context is to create one or two templates of questions and add it to the FAQ. New users who look at that can then get a better sense of how and where each piece of context fits, rather than reading huge walls of text, which may be daunting for those whose first language is not English.
Lastly, regarding what kind of actions to take (or not to take), I think the baseline should be that a question that is precisely a problem statement and nothing more should be closed immediately. The close reason already provides information on how to provide context, but adding a comment when possible would also help. Since the laziest way to cheat is to directly copy a homework problem verbatim with no other effort, moving quickly to close in such cases would at least prevent the most blatant forms of cheating.
In general, if a question lacks sufficient context, I think it is important to engage the OP in the comments in order to tease out the relevant background. There is no shame in not knowing how to formulate a good question the first time around, since typically one can develop a sense for what is relevant context and what is not only with experience. If the OP does not wish to engage in the comments at all, then the question should be closed for lacking context.
I have seen that question askers who are genuinely interested in learning do provide context in the comments in replies to other users, even when they struggle to phrase their statements properly, either due to a lack of understanding or a language barrier. Such statements can be edited into the body, so I think this process would indeed benefit those who deserve it most.
- When and how much do you think a moderator should get involved in activities such as undeleting, closing posts, or other stuff that normally would require more than a single user in order to be accomplished? Furthermore, as a moderator, would you change your approach regarding those activities in any way?
I think if the particular case is clear-cut, then it is good for a moderator to undelete/close/etc. immediately. Since moderators are trusted to enforce site policies, I think doing this much is completely fine and should even be encouraged. The edge cases can be decided by 5 community votes, or with a moderator casting the final vote. For the edge cases, unless a close/reopen or delete/undelete cycle breaks out, there is no need to weigh in prematurely.
A further word: since a moderator's vote is binding, it would be preferable to leave feedback for the OP regarding why their question was closed (say), either before or after the vote is cast. With the new "follow" tool, it is possible to monitor questions more easily for updates, so closing quickly and reopening quickly should be within reach now, more so as compared to before.
While now I freely cast my votes without needing to know whether I am the final voter or not, I will change my approach along the lines I described above when voting as a moderator.
Lastly, there is always an element of subjectiveness in these criteria, and one also has to account for human error. So, while I promise to not be rash with my votes ever, I cannot claim infallibility merely due to the presence of a diamond next to my username. So, I will always be willing to re-evaluate my position if a user presents their arguments for why my vote was incorrect. If I am convinced, I will readily apologize for the inconvenience and reverse my vote, and keep the incident in mind to guide my future behaviour.
How would you describe the primary role of a moderator? For example, is the primary role of a moderator to be...
- ...a civil rights advocate?
- ...a senator/congressman leading the formulation of policies?
- ...a judge?
- ...a UN Blue Beret, i.e. peace enforcement?
- ...a detective, police officer?
- ...a home plate umpire/referee (depending on whether baseball or association football is your sport)?
- ...a janitor?
- ...something else?
Please explain what this means to you, and how this will influence your actions as a moderator.
Certainly a janitor, primarily.
As a close second, an umpire/referee, but the context might differ based on how rough the sport is... so, let me say a cricket umpire. Even in a 'gentleman's game', things can get heated up on occasion, but an umpire doesn't pull out red cards and yellow cards on the players. Similarly, a moderator is expected to intervene and defuse situations by smoothing things over as best as one can.
I think I will primarily spend time keeping the site clean by handling flags — the equivalent of mopping the floors, say. When I need to put my umpire cap on, I will be polite but firm, and impartial towards all the involved users. If I am not sure of the right action to take, or of whether my action will be viewed as unbiased, I will take the help of the other moderators on the team. (Even in cricket there are second and third umpires, after all.)
- How would you deal with a user who produced a steady stream of valuable answers, but tends to generate a large number of arguments/flags from comments?
This is a difficult question.
I suppose I would start by alerting other moderators about the behaviour that I have observed, or have brought to my attention by some other users. Since they have been around for much longer than me and have more experience in dealing with such issues, I will request them to handle such issues, at least in the beginning. By observing how they successfully handle such events, I hope to gain experience and confidence to handle such situations in the future.
While I genuinely think this will be the most ideal way for me to learn to handle such situations as a moderator, it (a) sounds like a cop-out, and (b) may not be practical, in the sense that it's not everyday that one finds a valuable yet problematic user whose behaviour needs to be addressed.
So, based on my where I stand now, here's what I naively think I could do in such a situation:
Firstly, I would start by gathering evidence of a pattern of behaviour. Flags by other users would certainly be a useful starting guide, but I have seen some frivolous spam flags raised in chat, so that makes me wary of trusting flags blindly.
Then, assuming a pattern of behaviour is established, I would invite the user to a private chat. I would start by informing them of the fact that complaints have followed their behaviour on various threads, and I would describe to them general and specific instances of where their comments or actions were perceived poorly. I would allow them to speak freely about how they view these instances, because I will approach them not from an accusatory position, but one of trust in their good intentions (that are perhaps poorly conveyed).
I won't expect them to agree with my assessments in every or any instance. I will view my first goal to be to make sure that the views of the community (as defined by the various complaints) are conveyed and understood, and my second goal is to hear that user's response/objections/feelings to the community's feedback; more specifically, to hear and also make the user feel heard.
Then, I hope to be able to provide concrete, actionable feedback that they can make use of. I will listen to what they think of said feedback, and respond to them. I will encourage them to contact me first (and to remember to contact me) the next time they are involved in an interaction where such behaviour could repeat.
I view my broad goal as being to provide an avenue for the user to be a productive member of this community, not merely prolific.
I fully expect such interactions to be tiring and/or draining. Even so, I choose to run for moderator because I have a desire to help make this site succeed. I also trust in the moderator team to have my back should I require a breather at any point of time.