The Art of Getting Help
Requesting Help by Email, Email Discussion Lists, Newsgroups, and Message Boards
to Keep In Mind
don't get paid for this.
of learning is knowing how to find the information.
human resources wisely.
as specific as possible in your queries.
To Use Email, Newsgroups And Message Boards
paper is due tomorrow (or next week)
Newsflash: it is your fault for waiting so long. Don't waste energy and get mad if no one answers you in time to save your grade or if the response you get don't spoon feed you the information you want or need. Using the 'net may give you access to resources that you cannot find locally, but it isn't necessarily the fastest way to get information, and you still have to process it and do something with it once you get it. Teachers tend to frown on those students who buy ready-made papers off the Internet.
is not suddenly paralyzed/just ate poison/isn't breathing/is bleeding!
Below is an article from The Network Observer that addresses 'Netiquette from a college professor's point of view.
Art of Getting Help
The following article offers some guidelines about using Internet discussion groups to ask for assistance with research projects and the like; the protocols are also suggested when emailing someone whose name you have come across for information. For a much longer paper that describes how to use the net to build a professional community, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org with archive send network in the Subject line.
In the Risks Digest 15.57, Dan Yurman complained about a worrisome new net phenomenon, the practice by college students of using subject matter listservs as sources of first resort for information they should be looking up in their university library. He tells the tale of a college course in which students were directed to do research for term papers on environmental issues using messages posted to Listserv groups. The result was a flood of basic questions being directed to a group of specialists in ecology.
The basic problem, in Dan's view, was that "neither the TA nor the students had any idea who was at the other end of the line. All they saw was a computer that should be giving them answers." That may well be true, but I would like to suggest that his tale raises an issue of much broader importance: teaching students how to get help -- both off the Internet and on it. My own experience as a college teacher is that most students have little understanding of how to get help. Many cannot seek help, for example by showing up for a professor's office hours, without feeling as though they are subordinating themselves to someone. The reasons for this feeling might well be found in the workings of educational institutions.
My own issue here is what to do about it, and how the Internet might (or might not) help.
We should start by telling ourselves three obvious things: that needing and getting help are normal parts of any project that isn't totally spoon-fed; that getting help is a skill; and that nobody is born with this skill. What are the basic principles of getting help? They might all sound obvious to you, but they're definitely not obvious to beginners -- maybe you can store them where beginners can find them.
Be able to explain your project. If you can't explain the basic ideas and goals of your project in language that any given person can understand, then back up and figure out what you're trying to do.
Know what your question is. Just because you feel like you need help, that doesn't mean you know what it is you want. If you need help formulating your question, get help with that first.
Try the obvious sources first. Never ask a person, or at least a person you don't know well, any questions until you've tried the obvious references - encyclopedias, almanacs, card catalogs, phone books, and so forth. Failing to doing so regularly causes great offense.
Make friends with a librarian. Librarians have chosen to be librarians because they are dedicated to helping people find information. If you're feeling uncertain about how to find information, go to a library and ask questions. You'll get much better and more patient answers than you'll ever get on the net. If you don't know what to say, say this: "Hi. I'm working on a project about X and I'm trying to find information about Y. Who can help me figure out how to do this?"
Ask the right person. Figure out whether your question is basic or advanced, and don't ask an expert unless it's advanced. It's okay to ask librarians how to find basic information.
Provide some context. Unless your question is quite straightforwardly factual in nature, it probably won't make sense to anyone unless you explain something about your project first.
Don't get hung up on the Internet. Think of the Internet as simply one part of a larger ecology of information sources and communication media. Don't look for your answer on the Internet just because the Internet is fashionable or easy. The Internet, at least as it stands today, is very good at some things and very bad at other things.
Do some homework. Let's say you do wish to get information by sending a message to a discussion group (Listserv group, Usenet news group, etc) on the net. If at all possible, subscribe to that group for a little while first in order to get a sense for it. How heavy is the load? How polite is the general tone of interaction? Does the list maintainer have a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) file available? (Do you figure your question might be frequently asked?)
Take some care. Keep in mind that the people aren't obligated to help you; they're busy and have lives just like you. So don't just dash off a brief note. Write in complete sentences and check your spelling. Avoid idioms that people in other countries might not understand. Don't attempt any ironic humor; it doesn't travel well in e-mail. Start out by introducing yourself in a sentence or two. And wrap up with a polite formula such as "Any suggestions would be much appreciated."
Make yourself useful. If your question might be of general interest, offer to assemble the answers you receive and pass them along to whoever else is interested. You might even consider maintaining a file of useful information on the subject and advertising its availability to others in your situation.
Ask who to ask. Consider including a statement such as, "If nobody knows the answer, perhaps you can tell me who else might know it." Indeed, it's often a good idea to formulate your question this way in the first place. That is, instead of "Can anybody tell me X?", try "Can anybody tell me how to find out X?"
Use the Reply-To: field. Keep in mind that e-mail discussion groups are often destroyed by too much random chatter. You can help minimize the amount of random chatter that your request generates by including a Reply-To: field in the header of your message, indicating that replies should be directed to your own e-mail address and not to the whole group.
Sign the message. Include your name and e-mail address in the message, in case it isn't obvious from the header.
Say thank you. Send a brief message of thanks to each person who replies constructively to your request. Do not simply include a generic "Thank you in advance" in your request -- you risk making the net more impersonal.
Let it take time. You won't necessarily get an answer right away. You won't necessarily get an answer at all. It might take a while before you learn how to use the net. That's life.
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