Sunday, May 13, 2012
How to ask questions
Mike Mitzenmacher said once that I ask lots of questions. In teaching I always ask lots of questions, because the students are the ones who build the lectures. When I meet some well-known computer scientists I sometimes take the chance to interview them on research and life. Recently I have also pursued a project outside work that involves interviewing academics. How to go about asking questions, especially from strangers? First, I am interested in what they have to say. Seeing what is in other people's minds is always a thrill. Second, I have no interest in boiler-plate answers. In class, I want to hear how students think about a problem, not a repetition of what the textbook says. In interviews, when I ask someone, for example, why he or she decided to become a researcher in theoretical computer science, what I'm hoping to hear is their story, not the answer that they think they're supposed to be saying. (That's why it works better with senior people: they have more freedom of speech, because they have no worries about jobs or tenure.) Third, if they seem open to questions, I try to see how far I can go, and it can sometimes go to the limits of people's comfort zone (or beyond if I misjudge). It is a way to try to learn about people, in a fashion similar to when trying to learn about a scientific problem: to understand it, ask a variety of questions about it, aiming not for the trivial nor for the unanswerable, but for the zone at the threshold. The downside is that it's not very polite. In British culture, it can come across as downright rude. The movie "A room with a view" starts with a scene where a man offers to trade his hotel room with a woman he does not know, after hearing her complain about the lack of view from her room. He means well and shows common sense, but is perceived as insufferable. No sense of proper reserve! How incredibly ill-mannered! I have heard that academics in general have the reputation of lacking good manners. Could that be related? Could the willingness to ask hard questions about open problems, if it is unchecked, correlate with a tendency towards bad manners in society?
Posted by Claire Mathieu at 12:46