Don’t question your questions

By Thomas Block, Columnist

Wait, who was Maimonides again? Shouldn’t the current be flowing the other way around that circuit? Is that a “6” or an “8” that the professor just wrote up on the board?

A lot of simple questions can pop up in your head during lecture, each of which seems to clearly have a single answer: just raise your hand and ask. Isn’t it weird, then, that when the professor finally pauses and opens the floor for questions, it isn’t a wave of relief that washes over you but rather a chilly air of dread and hesitation?

I know how you feel. I’ve dodged some important answers throughout my life, even when I’ve defied common sense by doing so. I didn’t figure out how to do long division until high school. That’s only a year before I got behind the wheel of a car, folks.

There’s no doubt I could’ve used that little math trick several times before then, but the longer I waited to learn it, the more I feared looking silly. Of course, you might have your own reasons for holding your tongue in lecture. Maybe you think speaking up will interrupt the rest of the class, or your problem isn’t worth sharing if you’re eventually going to sort it out on your own anyway.

The faster you can open up about your confusion (and the limitations that naturally arise from being human, for that matter), the better. One of my former professors has very wisely mentioned that it’s better to look like a novice and learn than to look smart and remain a novice.

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Everybody’s gotta start somewhere. If it makes you feel any better, nobody goes to school to boast what they already know. In what is perhaps a quite obvious sense, you’re going to school to acquire what you don’t know. This idea isn’t new, but neither are our insecurities. It couldn’t hurt to give you a couple of pointers and remind you of your options for when you’re stumped in class.

The golden rule: try to look ridiculous. You never actually will, but don’t be afraid to. Raise that hand. Ask that question. Your classmates probably have the same one. It’s your professor’s pleasure to answer it. You have nothing to lose, and so on and so forth. You know the drill.

If you think you’ll raise eyebrows by merely admitting, “I don’t get this at all,” and that you won’t be able to bear the (nonexistent) public ridicule to follow, then rephrase your question to make it seem like you kind of do get it: “Could you repeat that part again, please?” Nobody will be the wiser, my friend.

What if you feel like that will make you look too ridiculous? Nudge your neighbor in the arm and have them ask for you. Heck, maybe they even know the answer.

What if you feel like that will still make you look too ridiculous? Go home, mull over your notes and write down your question on paper so that at the beginning of lecture the next day, you can be sure your question is beautiful enough to be sung by a choir.

What if you feel like that will still make you look too ridiculous? Find a smaller setting where you’re not afraid to blurt out your inquiry. We’re talking discussion sections, office hours and online forums. That just quadrupled the help you have available to you.

And if, by some miracle, you feel like you’ll look too ridiculous by doing any one of these things, well… just know you can’t possibly look as ridiculous as the 14-year-old who asked his math teacher how to do something as basic as long division.

Thomas is a sophomore in Engineering.

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