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Over the past few days, we have run into the same disagreement over two different questions: How to write an introduction letter as a professor? and College Essay - Thesis and Topic - Hard to differentiate.

The argument in the first case was shorter, so this is the one I will quote:

I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because we can't do your homework for you! – Cyn Feb 6 at 19:01

I'm voting to reopen. While we won't be doing people's homework for them, surely we can offer some advice on how to approach the task? The question looks like something we would be answering, how does the fact that this is "homework" change that? – Galastel Feb 7 at 13:45

@Galastel because part of the homework is how to figure out how to approach it. We should not be encouraging people to go around teachers to get answers. Now, if OP had a meeting with the teacher but was still confused about a point, that would be okay for here. But in this case the OP is asking about how to do the entire assignment. – Cyn 1 hour ago

Let us try to reach a consensus regarding this issue: does the mere fact that a question comes from a homework assignment make it ipso facto "wrong" for our site? Does the fact that a student has a teacher whom they could potentially ask mean that they shouldn't be asking us? Does the fact that it is "their task" to figure out their homework assignment mean that we shouldn't help?

To clarify, I do not believe we should be doing people's homework for them. But questions of this kind are a particular case of "what to write", aren't they? So we wouldn't be answering those anyway.

Let me then make a case for answering questions about how to approach a homework assignment.

First, if a question is otherwise good, or at least acceptable, I do not believe that the source of the question, in and of itself, should invalidate it. After all, how is "it is the student's task to figure this out" different from "it's his job, part of his job is to figure it out" (example: How to write a memorial plaque?) or "it is a writer's task to figure this out" (most questions we have)?

Second, our main goal is to answer how to approach different issues with different writing "tasks", be they a novel, a poem, or a technical manual. On what grounds should be exclude "homework essay" from the list?

Third, we want more questions, don't we?

Which is all to say, if all that is required to change a question from "off-topic" to "on-topic" is deleting the extraneous information that a particular piece of writing is a homework assignment, surely the fact that this is homework can be ignored?

What are your thoughts on the matter? Counter-arguments?

  • I'm not sure why this post came up from the depths but I saw it, edited it, and thought it was a perfect example of a question that ought to have been closed from the get go It's extremely broad (tell me step by step how to do this) and used no research at all. I feel bad for this kid whose teacher/mom isn't explaining really basic things, but it's not our job to fix the kid's education. Galastel is retagging some old posts that are making me cringe. This is the worst one so far (I'm not done). writing.stackexchange.com/questions/31430/… – Cyn says make Monica whole Feb 21 at 0:35
  • @Cyn I always feel conflicted about retagging closed questions. Those did get closed, and should stay lost. But since we're clearing the tags, it doesn't make sense to keep them in the wrong place... And yeh - that question makes me feel bad for the kid. Homeschooled by an incompetent mum... – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Feb 21 at 0:53
  • This particular example isn't closed though. But man it should have been. It's only a little over a year old too, so we can't use the excuse that stuff from the early days of the Beta had more leeway. That being said, I have no retagged any closed questions because I didn't want them to come up in the reopen queue. I'll leave that to mods, if some questions need to be retagged due to our changing definitions. – Cyn says make Monica whole Feb 21 at 1:06
  • @Cyn I guess people took pity on the kid. I mean, he couldn't have been more specific with his question, he couldn't have even known that the question was rather broad. The kid was doing what he should - supplementing his bad homeschooling by whatever help he could find. And the answer there really is a good answer. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Feb 21 at 1:11
  • I suppose that's fair, though I wish it were the exception not the rule. There are a lot of "help me with my homework" questions that are broad and not really appropriate for here. – Cyn says make Monica whole Feb 21 at 3:40
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I was a college professor (now a research scientist, but still often working with graduate students and postdocs). I fully expect students to use the Internet as a tool, and I don't see this any different from myself in grad school using the college library as a tool, or scientific journal articles as a tool, to teach myself what I needed to know.

As a teacher, I demand the student understand their answer, and if I suspect they do not, I will deduct points. The test is testing their understanding and they don't get points if they don't understand!

Which is where my answer lies; I do NOT want to do their homework for them, but on this site it is up to the teachers (those of us answering questions) to write in a way that helps the students (those asking questions) understand what they need to make progress on their problem.

So I have no problem with them asking homework questions, but they should be phrased (as we already demand) as seeking advice on an approach, not THE ANSWER, so the answers will apply to more than just their singular situation. We want answers to be interesting to more than just one individual.

Strive to be a snippet from a textbook, provide a way of thinking that solves the problem. Don't help a student bypass the learning processing and cheat on their homework.

Rewrite questions to fit this mold, so they are questions seeking to learn something more general. But bad questions are only half of the problem, the other half is bad answers that let the student get away with cheating, does not require them to learn anything, and aren't going to help anybody else.

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I agree with you - the circumstances of a question shouldn't invalidate it, or make it less answerable.

Once we set aside the infamous "what to write" and "critique" questions, helping people with their writing dilemmas is our goal. After all "it's your job to figure it out yourself" is kinda a convenient catch-all answer. I challenge everyone here to look at his or hers question list and find one that couldn't be resolved by "figuring it out".

Which is all to say, if all that is required to change a question from "off-topic" to "on-topic" is deleting the extraneous information that a particular piece of writing is a homework assignment, surely the fact that this is homework can be ignored?

In my opinion we should drop the prejudice against homeworks alltogether.

Honestly, most of us are used to give some "extraneous information" when asking for advice. I've seen users go into lenghty explanations of their plot or their characters before asking something that could be summarized in one line.

Yet, they add that information believing it could be useful; the same can apply to homework-askers. They're just giving context. Surely a college-level essay can be stricter than an high-school one. If the informations aren't useful the answerers can just ignore them.

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TL;DR:

  • Question 1 should be re-opened because it's about how to write in a specific way, not "do my assignment for me".
  • Question 2 should be re-opened because it's not a homework question.
  • Homework questions in general should be off-topic only if they're asking us to write it for them or tell them what to write about.

The first question can be generalised into something like "How do I write about myself from the perspective of someone else?" OP is being asked to write from the perspective of an imaginary professor, and is confused about how to do so. Chris Sunami's upvoted answer gives what I believe is very good advice to the OP, but is very concise, and in no way is he doing the assignment on OP's behalf.

(It may be worth noting that the OP of that question was an unregistered user who hasn't logged back in since he asked the question eight days ago. For all we know, he didn't even read the answers. But the question may still be helpful to others in the future, and that's what we're here for, after all. For the record, I also appreciate OP's honesty in stating up-front that their question was for a homework assignment.)

The second question is a little unclear, but appears to be asking, "When writing an essay, what's the difference between a thesis and a topic?" OP even stated in the comments that he hasn't been given any actual essays to write yet, and the question was prompted by a practice lesson, so it's not even a homework question at all. It's an "I was taught this in class but I don't quite understand it" question, which seems perfectly on-topic to me.

You could certainly argue, as Cyn did on both questions, that the OPs should have asked their respective questions to their teachers. But lack of prior research is a downvote reason, not a close reason.

I've voted to close homework questions in the past, where people have simply copy-pasted their assignments into the answer box and expected us to do the work for them. But in these specific cases, I believe the questions should be allowed to stand.

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Maybe, beside putting these questions on hold, we should add comments that can help the OP find the courage to:

  1. do their homework first, regardless of the amount of struggle that goes into it;
  2. ask their teachers/professors/tutors;
  3. clarify what exactly is the question that they want to ask.

On point 3, it could be that they wanted to ask "how is it possible to write in first person POV when I want to use an omniscient narrator?", but they wrote "I have to write a short fiction for my class using a first person POV. Ideas?"

  • No question should be vtc without a constructive comment. – wetcircuit Feb 19 at 10:27
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There's a HUGE difference between "I won't answer your homework for you," and "I vote to close so no one else can answer your homework for you."

But in another meta question Galastel informed me:

There is nothing wrong with voting to close, if you personally believe a question should be closed. Which is what @Cyn did. Cyn acted exactly as one should. Now, if some other user (like you) believes the question should not be closed, you get to vote to "keep open", and you get to leave a comment with your thoughts on the matter.

Same user voting to close, essentially the same reason given – an objection with how the answers might be utilized, rather than any issue with the question itself.

So it seems there are no bad reasons to vote to close because another user will be allowed to vote to keep open AFTER the question has been closed. Honestly I can't keep up with the arbitrarily moving goal posts here.

  • I'm just trying to find the right path, find a "community consensus", as it were, on a recurring issue. The "rules" are what we make them, together. When something doesn't seem to work, we raise it as a question on meta, hopefully reach a consensus, maybe adjust the "rules", at the very least - understand them better. The person whose response I would very much like to see here is of course Cyn: I want to understand the counter-arguments, see what I'm missing. Clearly, since both questions got closed, Cyn is not alone in disagreeing with me. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Feb 14 at 13:50
  • @Galastel does my answer explain my POV better? If not, tell me. – Cyn says make Monica whole Feb 15 at 15:03
  • @Galastel, you aren't even consistent with yourself, so "rules" (in quotes) are arbitrary. The bar to close is much lower than the bar to re-open. When everyone makes up their own "rules" to close, that does NOT mean everyone is closing for the same made up reason. "Rules" are written somewhere (in the TOS) and there are no consequences to arbitrary or emotional close votes. Users who abuse the close votes should maybe have that option curbed to a limited number. We can't even upvote someone too many times. What is preventing arbitrary and chronic vtc? – wetcircuit Feb 19 at 10:19
  • The bar to close is five votes, same as the bar to reopen. Or did you mean something else? The fact that five votes are needed is meant to prevent abuse - if just one person spams VTCs without reason, it cannot cause harm. One may cast 24 VTCs a day, so the number is limited. Unlike upvotes and downvotes, VTCs are also not anonymous - you can see them on a closed question, and you can see them in the history of the review even if the question is not closed. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Feb 19 at 11:50
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We have a reason to close embedded in our rules which is we don't allow questions that say "tell me what to write." Other questions can be very similar and be okay. We tell the difference (or try to) based on the intent of the question asker.

Why does intent matter here? Because there is a difference between crowd sourcing answers that help you understand something and asking a group of strangers to do your work for you.

I see the homework questions the same way. I don't have a problem with people asking questions that happen to come from their homework. Just like I don't have a problem with questions that come from people being stuck on what to write. Nor is it that they should ask their teachers first, just like people should use Google first (though they ought to, in both cases).

The issue is how and why someone is asking. "how can I overcome this problem?" is very different from "explain my assignment to me."

I speak as a former grad student who used to teach writing (among other things) and, trust me, I could see these differences clear as day. And as a very early producer of internet content who would get about 3 "do my homework for me" requests a week.

Please don't reduce my arguments to "no questions about homework" because I never said that. What I don't want to see is questions that view us as people to do their chores. Someone who wants to learn how to be a better writer is willing to put in the work. Our purpose is not to do someone's work. It's how to help them understand how to do it themselves.

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    I agree with you. The last two sentences should go in bold. – NofP Feb 15 at 12:06
  • Seems we are in agreement in principle. I do not support doing people's homework for them either, and like I said, this would come under "what to write" anyway. At the same time, "I have this assignment and I don't know how to approach it", or as you call it "explain my assignment to me" looks to be like a "how" question, and one we can help with. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Feb 17 at 0:04
  • @Galastel There are many ways to look at it though. If it's "my assignment is to do XYZ and I really am not understanding Y" I'm okay with that (probably...would have to see the real question). But if it's "this is the assignment, how do I do it?" that's way too broad. – Cyn says make Monica whole Feb 17 at 1:33

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