The Art of Getting Help

Phil Agre
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.