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I teach all of the writing courses for one of my college's STEM department. Occasionally, students bring me questions related to their field, e.g. they are doing some project for another course and they want to know what tools I used for a similar real-world project I did before.

  • If I help the students (which would amount to suggesting some books, tools, Web sites), perhaps the department will feel I am interfering in matters where I should not, as this is not my teaching area.
  • If I turn away the students, perhaps the department or (students themselves) will feel I am not committed to serving the students.

What is the accepted procedure for such a situation?

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I am not a teacher and have no credibility but in my opinion the right (morally) thing to do is to help when you can and be honest if you can't. If university protocol is such that students are prevented from learning by any means (and teachers feel threatened by possible repercussions when helping students), that sounds like grounds for a department meeting. It directly counters the purpose of education. In addition, perhaps if you have a chance to speak with the "correct" teacher you could mention that student's interest and ask them to proactively provide more info to that student. –  Jason C Jun 4 at 18:44

6 Answers 6

There's no shame in saying you're not an expert in their domain specific knowledge. It's more important to know your limitations than to give advice you're not directly qualified to give. Direct them to a professor in that specific field.

If you feel you have sufficient experience to give (at least) a starting point, by all means share it with them. Just always make sure that you are clear about the limitations of your expertise.

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As an undergrad, in my first year I had a great professor that was very good at explaining almost everything. For many students, he became another resource to solve doubts and get help, specially for those subjects where the lecturer was not so clear. If you asked him politely, he would gladly help if he knew the answer. I will always remember him as one of the best contributors to my education.

For some of his comments, I imagine he may have had problems with some other member of faculty. So he changed his policy: whenever he explained anything from another subject, he would close the door. Being realistic, anyone complaining because you are sharing knowledge of their domain, will probably have a bad attitude to many things. Whatever you do, something will upset them.

The only drawback of free help is that takes time from you. If this becomes a problem, you can just ask the students to come at another time because you are busy at the moment. You are doing them a favour, and they will not have any problem with it.

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In my opinion, if you are not time constrained and have the expertise, by all means, help the student.

I am a math tutor in a local high school, and often a student will walk in with a science book to ask a question. If it's something I can answer, I'm happy to help. No science teacher would be offended, although they might be surprised as human nature is to pass the buck.

In general, it's great that a student looks up to you and values your advice. I'd just accept that and be glad to help.

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Conversely, if you are time constrained or do not have the expertise, just say no. –  JeffE Jun 3 at 22:37
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@JeffE - well for sake of completing the set "If you lack the expertise to answer the question, just say so." –  JoeTaxpayer Jun 3 at 22:41

I think there should be no problem as long as the question can be framed so that it is in the scope of your subject (even if the project that "produced" the question is not directly related).

This should ideally be done by the student, while asking the question, but if there is an obvious part of the question related to your subject, it would be okay to gently push your answer in that direction.

You said you do a writing class, so for me, these would be good examples of viable questions (independent of the concrete project related to those questions):

  • Questions about writing tools (like LaTeX). If the student wants to know pros and cons of learning a new tool in context of a specific project, that is a valid question (as long as it was not explicitly covered in class). Even if it was covered during the lessons, a discussion based on a concrete example can be very useful.

  • Questions about best presentation of data: given a great amount of raw data, what would be the best way to present it? (graph, table, raw format, just description) If the student comes with the concrete data, he probably has either some ideas or some doubts about what representation to use.

  • Tools for analyzing or representing data. Again, no matter where the data came from, if there are some commonly used analysis tools (in the wide area), or representation tools, the question is related to the writing up the idea / project results, more than the project itself.

  • Questions about general structure of the piece of writing. Sometimes the content of the work makes the most common practice not applicable, or some other structure simply better.

    For example, one of my articles has the Related work as a second-to-last section, because it simply didn't fit in naturally at it's "usual" second paragraph place. The discussion with my supervisors help clarify that and why it was okay.

Basically, any questions where you are the best suited to answer, independent of where the question comes from, is not misplaced. Those kinds of questions show that the students are applying and synthesizing their knowledge, and looking at it from a different (not-required) perspective, which is a good thing. (If I ever was in that kind of situation,) those questions would make me proud of my teaching since it meant the students are applying what I taught them "outside the box" I gave them.

Of course, if it is not that kind of question, there is nothing wrong in turning the student away, perhaps pointing him to the right person to talk to. Simply saying that there are people who are better suited to answer their questions, while making it clear that you would be more than happy to help within your area of expertise, should be enough.

Students that you are directly responsible for (i.e. your supervisees) might be a different story, but that might be out of the scope of this question :)

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If Village knows the answer, but falls outside of writing, why not answer it? I am sure that to get a "scientific writing" position one has to do research, become an expert in some areas. That expertise may very well qualify to answer the student. –  Davidmh Jun 3 at 18:03
    
@Davidmh I partially agree... If OP knows some extra information from his other areas of interest that are useful to support/supplement the answer of a question related to writing, by all means he should offer it. But I think a student coming to a Prof with a question totally unrelated to the subject he is taking with that Prof, if he is not the students adviser, is a gray area. Even if the Prof knows the answer, due to time constraints or other reasons, he might want to decline answering and redirect the student to another Prof (maybe offering a very short answer) - which would be OK I think. –  penelope Jun 4 at 9:19

The whole purpose of having students at a university is for them to learn things. Your university cannot reasonably object to you teaching the students things solely on the grounds that it was somebody else's job to teach them those things.

They could object on other grounds, such as you giving bad advice or spending so much time on this that you're not doing your own job properly but, as long as you guard against that, what real problem could there be?

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One of the best ways for a university professor to aid a student's learning is to point them where they themselves could discover such tools.

Additionally, you could point them in the direction of your SME colleagues, experts in topics outside of the scope of your expertise.

Lastly, to maximize your likely full schedule, helping students identify resources could be something you provide to them as a group during advisor hours. Schedule a group resources time during your office hours so that you don't get overtaxed time wise.

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