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Would a professor find it strange or be irritated if an unknown student asks him a question during his office hours that is related to his field but either is or isn't related to any class he is teaching?

Sometimes I encounter a math problem in my engineering class where I'd find it helpful if a math professor could explain a concept to me when I don't have any satisfactory answers. Another example is if I am working on an outside of class project and would like to ask a CS professor what an apache log is?

Is this acceptable?

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    Just a comment, but when I was teaching, I almost always enjoyed these kinds of distractions. Just (a) ask first, and (b) don't think you'll get priority over the professor's actual students! – Richard Rast Nov 4 '16 at 12:32
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    Asking is usually not a problem. I recommend establishing contact by email first, both to allow the prof to prepare for a meeting in advance, and to offer a non-awkward out. – Scott Seidman Nov 4 '16 at 17:01
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    A professor is a domain expert in a very specific field. I would be extremely careful about using them as fodder for a bad help-vampire habit, especially with general questions as trivial as: "What is an apache log?". If you're not their student and aren't asking about something specific to a class they are teaching, then it had better be a question that they, and very few others, would be able to answer effectively. If Siri or OK Google could have answered your question they are probably going to be rather irritated. – J... Nov 4 '16 at 17:22
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    That might be more appropriate, but come to think if it, there might be some site where you could ask questions you tried to answer yourself but are still wondering about, that might be better if you have a question about one part of a proof. A more appropriate question for a professor might be, "I'm interested in the mathematics behind a proof like this - could you recommend a course that would help me understand things like this?" – Bryan Krause Nov 4 '16 at 19:52
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    Since you mention math and CS specifically, at many schools there is a math lab where students with math questions can go and have their questions answered by a TA. I think a few places have a CS lab and/or forum where TAs could answer questions, too. If something like this is available, it would be far more appropriate, especially if your question does not require knowledge/insight beyond what any TA would be able to provide. If you're living at a university, I would also recommend asking a random math/CS major before going to a professor. – Mark S. Nov 6 '16 at 10:38
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In general, yes. Personally I've been pretty open to answering questions about my field of expertise from "random" students during my office hours. But:

  • Ask first: "I was working on X and am wondering about Y. Do you think you would have time to answer a few questions?" Be prepared to hear "No, I'm sorry, I don't."
  • Ask the right person. Don't assume that a CS professor who teaches machine learning will know anything about Apache logs.
  • Come prepared with a specific question - don't expect me to explain an entire topic to you from beginning to end, or spend an hour walking you through a tutorial on some programming concept you want to learn.
  • Don't abuse office hours as a substitute for doing basic research on your own (e.g. "I know I could easily find the answer to my question online, but it was quicker to come ask you during office hours.")
  • Professors may want to give "priority" to students who are actually enrolled in their classes. If the office hours are busy, try not to monopolize the professor's time - or come back at a less busy time, like the week after the midterm exam instead of the week before ;)
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    In general if you are polite and use common sense, you will not do anything wrong in this situation. – Falco Nov 4 '16 at 8:57
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    @Falco: that’s true, but the trouble is that almost everyone thinks they’re being polite and using common sense, even when they’re not. – PLL Nov 4 '16 at 11:06
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    I think the problem is not so much polite/impolite, but there can definitely be undergraduates who misunderstand the relationship between themselves and their professors/TAs, and what questions are appropriate to ask of each. This site is a good source for considerate but uncertain students to help navigate those issues. – Bryan Krause Nov 4 '16 at 17:54
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Although I certainly do aim to be civil to students who "drop in", and, yes, am able to gauge earnestness... : the point is that anything that comes up in undergrad engineering or undergrad math classes or first or second-year grad courses is (almost surely) standard. That is, many sources exist for it, on-line and off. That does not entail that an experienced expert can't add any insights to the standard sources, but it does mean that a student who hasn't looked at (or found...) the standard sources is asking (probably inadvertently) for tooooo much help. That is, very likely looking at any one of the standard sources would instantly resolve the question, and truly expert insights are irrelevant and unnecessary (and a waste of an expert's time).

One advantage of on-line sites like MathStackExchange is the asynchronousness: I only look at them when I'm in the mood, and no one is offended if I don't respond at all, and, indeed, I can give whatever response I want and then I'm done.

In that regard, I almost prefer drop-ins to appointments, since, in fact, appointments consume more mental resources than spur-of-the-moment things. Nevertheless, of course, all my time is planned out for nearly every day. Thus, "drop in" questions by email are preferable to in-person. But/and, yes, my email response may be that this is standard and one can easily look it up... e.g., in notes I've written that are on-line.

The worst-case scenario is non-math people (e.g., engineering students, sorry) vastly under-estimating the effort often required to really prove things, if that's what they believe that they want. It is a happy miracle that mathematics works so well, especially at "modest scales" in the physical world, and, mostly, it is easy to obtain physical corroboration for heuristic mathematics. That is, plausibility arguments are often straightforward, even if requiring some wishful thinking. Part of the "miracle" is that, historically, it has often proven difficult to distill a physical narrative into genuine mathematical terms that no longer depend on literal physical intuition for their sense or proof. (Sure, for physical scientists, there may indeed be no reason to even attempt to abstract mathematics from the physical.)

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    "anything that comes up in undergrad engineering [...] is (almost surely) standard": in engineering, at the undergraduate level, there is a lot of stuff that can be non standard or difficult to find if not properly directed. Take also into account that different professors or universities might have different expectations on what level the undergraduate level is. – Massimo Ortolano Nov 5 '16 at 8:50
  • "The worst-case scenario is non-math people vastly under-estimating the effort often required to really prove things": on the other side, there are a lot of math people who underestimate the experimental effort needed to accurately verify models and theories ;-) – Massimo Ortolano Nov 5 '16 at 8:53
  • @MassimoOrtolano, surely you do not mean to claim that in undergrad engineering there is mathematics that is not well known to mathematicians? Sure difficult-to-find if badly directed or mis-directed, but that applies to nearly anything. And, sure, historically, some highly innovative mathematics in physics (Heaviside, Dirac, et al) was slow to be understood and assimilated in mathematics. – paul garrett Nov 5 '16 at 22:03
  • I didn't speak specifically about mathematics: in undergrad engineering there are many different subjects and for many of them there are subtle problems, even at the undergrad level, which cannot be easily found if not properly directed. I'll give you two examples, taken from two answers of mine on EE.SE and Physics.SE: this one (look at the OP's comment under the answer) and this one. You won't find that stuff so easily if you don't know where to look. – Massimo Ortolano Nov 5 '16 at 22:31
  • And questions like the above pop up sometimes in my courses, although I teach different stuff. And so it's not uncommon that students come to me asking questions not related to what I teach. – Massimo Ortolano Nov 5 '16 at 22:34
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You can certainly ask a professor politely if he/she would be willing to talk to you about some research topic that might be of mutual interest to you. Don't be too surprised if the professor isn't interested in discussing it with you though- what's interesting to you might well not be interesting to that professor.

Furthermore, it is unreasonable to expect a professor to help you with a class that you are taking from some other professor or in a different academic department. You have an instructor for that other course, and you probably also have access to a tutoring center where you can get help from people whose job it is to provide tutoring.

  • Made one small edit -- please roll back if I misinterpreted your idea. – aparente001 Nov 4 '16 at 5:01
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Ordinarily, I'd say go ahead and ask, but both the examples you cite sound like you should not need to ask an outside professor. The first is clearly the responsibility of the prof of your engineering class -- AFTER you've done all you can do to learn the math on your own -- and the second seems like enough time in front of a search engine should do the job.

To expand a little bit, for the question about the apache log, it doesn't sound like you're anywhere near prepared enough to even ask the question. Spend an hour trying to find your own answer. Do some prelim research to better inform your question. If you haven't found the answer, you might consider looking for the appropriate Stack Exchange group, and asking there. If you still haven't gotten the answer you need, now would be the time to try to find an expert to talk to.

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If you send email to a professor, introduce yourself properly and politely, compose it nicely, and don't be offhanded about it. Otherwise the professor might not take you seriously and ignore the email. I had an otherwise very smart student doing research on land use who wanted to meet professors working in the field. She'd write something like, "hey, could I come meet you?" and then wonder why she got no reply. I had to teach her in etiquette as well as the subject.

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