The Art of Getting Help
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520
Copyright 1994 by Phil Agre.
This article was originally published in The
Network Observer 1(2) in February 1994. For a much longer paper that
describes how to use the net to build a professional community, see Networking on the Network.
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. His note is
valuable in its entirety.
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: (1)
that needing and getting help are normal parts of any project
that isn't totally spoon-fed, (2) that getting help is a skill,
and (3) 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
- 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.