Yesterday both of my classes had assignments due. Given nearly everyone’s proclivity for procrastination that usually means busy office hours and a jam-packed inbox for me. In the process of dealing with students about the assignment I had two notable encounters yesterday, both of them revealing significant negative associations having to do with questions.

The first interaction occurred about 20 minutes before the start of my first class. I’ve promised those students that I will show up early everyday to answer questions, and a few were taking advantage of that. We started a brief conversation and during it one student said that he didn’t ask more questions “because they show that you haven’t been paying attention in class.” I laughed and told him that might be the case, but that he should ask questions anyway. I encouraged him to embrace self-acceptance, which caused him to laugh.

The second encounter was electronic. A student reacted badly to a clipped e-mail message from me (did I mention that my inbox was stuffed?), and quickly said he wouldn’t bother me anymore. I told him that’s not what I had meant and that I wanted to hear his questions.  He replied: “Oh, sorry.  I have never been one that needed to ask questions and now I ask a lot of questions and feel bad.”  I told him that I liked questions and that he should continue asking them.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard from students that they perceive asking questions to be a bad thing. It leads me to ask all kinds of questions myself. When did asking questions become stigmatized? Yes, sometimes the questions were answered in class, but everyone knows (or should know) that it’s difficult, if not nearly impossible, to pay attention to anything for 90 minutes at a time. Why is it that asking questions means you’re a bad student? I was an excellent student, and I asked a million questions. No one ever told me I shouldn’t, and if professors blew me off I always decided it was their issue and not mine.

I may have gotten part of my answer yesterday too. A former Python student of mine came to see me. He had a question about his Java assignment, which I tried my best to answer. He then unhappily told me that his current professor just doesn’t answer questions and that I should know that I’m doing things the right way. Is it that they started seeing questions as a bad thing when asking them produced bad, or no, results? Sadly, I don’t have any answers.