Posting Questions on Discussion Forums

The following information was posted by Lou Heite to a mailing list (stutt-l) on October 2, 2000. It provides valuable information on appropriate use of the Internet for asking questions. Students who use mailing lists as part of a class assignment, and their professors who make such assignments, may find the information below helpful. JAK

Last weekend this list received the following query:

> I am a sophomore Speech Path major...
>I am doing a research project on the different styles and
> treatments for adult and children that stutter. If anyone knows any
> great sites or books or has any information that would be useful,
> would you please let me know. I would greatly appreciate any reply.
> Thanks a bunch,

This is typical of student queries, and I am sure that it was presented with the best of intentions. However, this is not a good question, and it will not provide the student with much in the way of useful information - certainly nothing that the student should not have been able to find without help. I'll explain why.

Beginning your first research project is often difficult. (So is beginning your thirty-fifth research project!) You stand on the edge of the fading light of old assumptions, looking into a great, dark pit full of questions. Of course it seems reasonable to ask for help! But there are ways to do it that engender respect, and ways that engender contempt. I'm a little surprised that one of this student's professors has not explained the difference.

List queries should be limited to requests for information that is not available to the researcher from any other source. There are five fundamental criteria for good information queries, especially queries to strangers. These criteria apply to professionals probing their peers for new information just as much as to sophomores doing a term paper. Evaluate your questions to mailing lists by awarding yourself a star for each criterion. A five-star question will provide information that is almost guaranteed to improve your research, and may raise the grade on your paper by a letter. If you don't have at least a three-star question, go back to the drawing board and reformulate. Using this query as an example, here is what I mean:

A good query lets the anonymous recipients know that you are serious, and not just fishing or making small talk. This query did that by stating why the author is asking the question. The author is a beginning speech path major doing a term paper. One star for that.

A good query tells the people you are asking that you have already done your basic homework, and have run into a dead end. Unfortunately, nothing in this query even suggests that the author has done even the minimal general websearch or library search. Chances are that if the person had, it would not have been necessary to post to this list. The wording of this question gives the impression that the author is trying to get other people to do his or her homework, which may not be the case at all. Thing is, we have no idea what sources the author may already have looked at. No stars for that.

A good query is specific. The author wrote "I am doing a research project on the different styles and treatments for adults and children that stutter." You can hardly get more general than that. What is the theme of the project, what is the author's (or the supervising professor's) point of view, what is the person's philosophy, or what philosophy is the person trying to refute? If you don't already have answers to at least one of those questions, you are not ready to ask others for their opinions because you have no measuring stick by which to judge the answers. In this context, how can you evaluate the relative validity of traditional therapy, psychology, proprietary cures, accupuncture, or swinging one's arm back and forth while speaking (all of which have their proponents) if you, with your professor's help, have not established a fundamental standard by which to measure the answers you receive?If you are looking for a consensus of what's good and what's bad, you can find that in your textbooks and in journal articles at the library, without having to reinvent the wheel by polling this or any other list. Save yourself some time and think first. No stars for that, either.

A good Net query gives evidence that you understand the likely validity of answers that you will receive from the group to whom the question is addressed. Now, the people on Stutt-L are all knowledgable as heck about their own stuttering, but only a handful of them are "authorities" in anything like a general sense. Some people tend to extrapolate their own experience to the entire population of people who stutter, creating grossly overgeneralized opinions about what's good and what's bad. Some people have a hobbyhorse that they want to promote, while a very few have a financial interest in one or another proprietary stuttering treatment. This question is not worded in such a way that lets us know that the author understands that some, perhaps most, of the answers you get will be biased. No stars for that either.

Finally, a good query usually requests that information be returned off-list, with promise of a synopsis later. Most people will reply on-list anyway, but good "netiquette" still obliges denizens of the web to try to keep list chatter to as low a level as possible. And if people are interested enough to reply to the question, they will almost certainly appreciate your offer to share what you find out. This query makes no such promise. No stars for that.

This is a one-star query. A one-star query needs to be rethought. Here is a slightly off-the-wall example of a five-star query:

*"My name is Suzy Blatt. I am a sophomore Speech Path major at Podunk University. I'm writing a term paper comparing fluency shaping approaches in stuttering therapy with stuttering management approaches. [Serious intent - one star]

**I would like input both from working SLP's and from consumers as to which approach seems from their experience to be more useful, both for adults and for children. Have you observed differences between age groups in what works best? [Specific question - one star; and limits of the list - one star]

*I have already reviewed The Stuttering Homepage, as well as material from both SFA and NSA. I am reading articles by Blivet on fluency shaping and by Klutz on stuttering management. We are using the book, "Trends in Communication Disorders" by Blonose and Hankichiev as our textbook in class. [Done the basic homework - one star]

*Please reply to me off-list. I will post a summary of the information received when my paper is done. [Offer to share - one star]

Thank you,"

It is worth the extra hour or so to compose a good question, especially if the information you get back is really important to you. The person who posted the original question was lucky that s/he approached this list. Most people who stutter are really nice folks - at least the ones who aren't a little nutz - and even those are usually nutty in a nice way. The student has received some kindly replies, pointing to sources that s/he should have already found without help. If this person had posted such a vague question on a spicier list, say the professional archaeologists' list ARCH-L, s/he would have been flamed right off of the Net.

Regards, and good research to you all,

added with permission December 2, 2000