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This is inspired by the other question about dealing with stupid questions. The popular answers all seemed to assume that the student really wants to hear an answer. While this is a reasonable assumption, and the answers are very good, they don't cover trolls.

Imagine that you are teaching a computer science lab and a student asks you why our noses run and our feet smell. I agree that you should act professionally no matter what the student does - but what behavior would be considered "professional" in such a situation?

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    If you get a Dadaist question, give a Dadaist response: "Because someone had to fill the bathtub with brightly colored machine tools" is my personal favorite. – aeismail Jan 29 '14 at 21:40
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    Humour should work. – gerrit Jan 30 '14 at 0:22
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    "Good question! Now the 'run' may not really describe the nose dashing away, but rather the liquid inside, like running water; or the nose sounds like a running engine? Anyway, proper reference is a big thing. And 'smell?' You'd really need to study the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. While this is not an English class, referencing objects and understanding the classes of function are equally important in computer science... now let's talk about some examples..." – Penguin_Knight Jan 30 '14 at 3:17
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    "You could also ask why we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway. I'm afraid some mysteries are just beyond the scope of this class. But, getting back to <current topic>, ..." – Anonymous Mathematician Jan 30 '14 at 5:37
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    @Paul in my experience, if you tell a troll how you expect him to behave, he thinks "Now I know exactly what to do if I want to make him furious". It is like putting a "Don't ever press!" sign under a large red button, everybody wants to press it. – rumtscho Jan 31 '14 at 15:39
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a student asks you why our noses run and our feet smell.

My answer would be

Sorry, I don't know the answer to your question. Please ask the experts.

This is the professional answer I'll provide. Professional in the sense that I only say what I know.

Be careful if you try to use some sense of humor to answer those questions. You can easily step out of boundry. In particular, the two examples you have may have something to do with health/privacy issues.

If the student keeps asking this kind of questions, you'll know he has other reasons to do so (such as another student has running nose or came to classroom with bare foot). Talk to the student privately or take it to your superiors.

Edit

I received comments about part of my answer "Please ask the experts". I'll explain. I am recommending to pretend the trolling question is a serious one. I cannot guess what trolling questions the OP was asked. There are many possibilities. Many trolling questions are of personal type. I give an example here. A young male handsome prof. teaches in a college. He is asked all kinds of questions every new semester. The most frequent one is "Professor, when are you going to get married?" The prof. always replied "Sorry, I don't know the answer. You need to ask my fiancee." In this case, the expert is his fiancee. You can use other serious ways to answer the trolling question. The point is to be serious (or jokingly serious if you can) about it so that the troller won't be able to continue the trolling.

End of edit

  • "Please ask the experts." I was with you until you mentioned this. This doesn't sound professional at all given its unhelpful nature bordering a fine line with sarcasm. I don't think I would ever tell someone to 'please ask the experts' to a colleague or a boss. It just isn't professional at all. – LordStryker Jan 30 '14 at 14:58
  • @LordStryker I would like to have constructive criticism. Would you suggest better words? – scaaahu Jan 30 '14 at 15:32
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    @StrongBad Thanks for the suggestion. I'll sleep on it today. It's Chinese New Year(Horse) day. I don't feel like working. – scaaahu Jan 31 '14 at 11:29
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    I don't know if there is a language barrier here. "Why noses run but feet smell" is a well-known pun in English, but your answer sounds as if you think it could be a real question. Are you assuming that there really can be a sensible answer to that question? Or are you telling me that the professional thing is to jokingly pretend that it is a serious question? Or trying to remind me that in a real case, my assumption may have been wrong and even the most obvious joke might have been said in earnest? – rumtscho Jan 31 '14 at 15:36
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    Looking back at this question, I realize why your proposition is so good. When I read it, I was confused. If I can get the troll into the same thoroughly confused situation, he will be so busy digesting that he won't have much mental capacity left for trolling. So, you get the accepted mark. – rumtscho Apr 26 '14 at 17:07
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There isn't One Right Way, any more than there is one right way to teach or manage a class room as a whole. I've most taken note of a few styles:

  1. "Old-school" academic style. They state clearly in the rules/syllabus they will treat everyone professionally, with respect, and they expect the same from all students. They will be more than happy to call you out, right then and there, for inappropriate behavior, and they will call a spade a spade without hesitation. They will, if necessary, be so clear and blunt that it will make you cringe, and if the person will not take direction then they will be shown the door - no one is required to be in their class.
  2. Humorist. My dad always use to say, "ask a silly question, get a silly answer." Sometimes its just a fun invitation for a little ad lib comedy. Real smart asses find, if they push it too far, they will quickly end up the focus of the joke in a rather uncomfortable way (some people's version of humor gets very cutting in a hurry). These sorts tend to deal with such people like comics deal with hecklers.
  3. Redirection - judo master. This sort of style will take any question, no matter how assinine, and turn it into a good question that relates to the task at hand. "Why do feet smell? Well, neurobiologists studying sensation often utilize specialized applications of neural networks to improve their understanding, but first we'll need to have a good hold on the fundamentals - which brings me to the next slide on genetic algorithms...any other questions on this slide before we continue?"
  4. Sweet and simple, KISS. This style would just say, "that's not within the scope of this class, or course. Any other questions about this slide/class/topic?"
  5. Tangential. Maybe you just have extra time or enjoy talking about what they asked about. It has nothing to do with the course, or maybe even anything important, but go ahead and answer the question fully, in depth, with citations, if you know it. Go nuts. Have fun with it, and sometimes you can over-load them with so much knowledge and facts about something they didn't actually care about that they will simply reply with a nod and feel sorry they asked. I'm sufficiently good with this that someone once remarked, "never trifle with someone who has a vastly longer attention span than you do." But obviously you'd better not be pressed for time!
  6. Troll right back (thanks to Shion). Tell them you'll be happy to cover his question next class if he'd like, you think it would make some nice variety to add to the mid-term and comprehensive final. Tell the student you aren't sure of the answer, but you love to learn something new every semester - why don't they look up the answer and prepare a 5-10 minute presentation? You'll even give them a bonus point! You can ask them to email you after class if they'd be interested in the bonus point. If they take you up on it, schedule it for an office hour.

The thing is, most of the time you just really must assume good intent, because otherwise you will - especially if you are not in a fantastic mood - bite someone who genuinely wasn't trying to be unpleasant, or just wanted to be a touch playful. Anything you do to that student will ring much more loudly in the ears of the other students than the one you are addressing.

So be careful to promote a positive environment that encourages other students, rather than one that gets locked in on the one wise-acre who might just be playing a clown for the day.

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    +1 for the point about other students being the background audience for how you deal with the situation. – Suresh Jan 30 '14 at 1:59
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    This is a great answer. Another viable strategy could be to simply troll back. :) – Shion Jan 30 '14 at 2:24
  • @Shion That's a good point...I think I'll add that :) – BrianH Jan 30 '14 at 14:04
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    I favor the Old-School solution. I put in time and effort to prepare good lectures, I treat students as responsible adults, and I expect a similarly appropriate behavior in return. If they want to be silly, they can do so during any of the 166 hours a week that they are not in my class. – Koldito Feb 28 '14 at 7:32
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    +1 for Judo Master. My student experience is that most obvious trolls are trying to derail the class to get attention. – Kathy Sep 25 '14 at 16:26
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Don't feed the trolls.

The student is most likely looking for attention. If you give it to him/her, then s/he would be encouraged to repeat the disruptive behavior. I recommend that you reply "That question is not within the scope of the course" then quickly continue with the class discussion.

2

Be a buttface and just stare at them. Stare at them intently, and don't get phased. When they stop looking at you totally, and just stay looking away then turn yourself back to the task at hand. Just remember what it was, and this should put the student in their place.

  • I have actually seen this performed by a professor on some disturbance forces. He had to do it once. – Davidmh Feb 14 '15 at 1:52

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