Mathochism: Is asking for help just rude?

One woman’s attempt to revisit the math that plagued her in school. But can determination make up for 25 years of math neglect?

Last week’s post, “Show your work” elicited some interesting feedback. One comment in particular made me realize that my approach to learning mathematics — i.e. asking someone for help — may be downright uncouth.

An individual named Vector wrote:

“If we absolutely can’t figure something out, we might ask a friend, but it’s generally considered rude to trouble a mathematician (or anyone much more skilled than you are) with something elementary, and counterproductive for all involved. They waste time transmitting information, and you waste a problem that could have taught you something. It’s seen as your duty to figure things out on your own.”

Now, let me just get on the record that, during my recent math classes, I have done my best to figure homework and such out on my own. In fact, I’ve surprised myself, as someone convinced she had no talent for math, with my ability to figure things out on my own. While I can’t claim to love certain parts of math (logarithms, word problems), I’ve been able to soldier on without a huge amount of outside assistance.

And that outside assistance was often brief, as in “your issue is that you forgot that negative sign” or “negative infinity is never included” or “sin2x is 2sinxcosx.” With those tiny reminders, I could reset my brain, access the correct information, and solve the problem without problem.

As a Spanish professor I had many years ago told me when I was beating myself up for forgetting to put an accent on some words in an essay (this was in that prehistoric time when I was using a typewriter without accents, and they all had to be filled in by hand): “It’s okay, you have most of the cat in front of you. Don’t worry because it’s missing a few hairs on its paw.”

But I still filled in those accents. Because even if the cat is presentable, I don’t like the idea of it having a bald paw.

It never occurred to me, though, that asking questions when I was stuck on something was wasting time, or that it was rude to ask for help. I mean, the next time I’m in Oxford, and happen to see Andrew Wiles in a Starbucks on Cornmarket, I’m not going to rush up to him and ask him to help me solve that instantaneous rate of change problem.

Nor would I bother my professor with it should I see him or her in the campus cafeteria. But is asking a question, even if simple, during office hours rude? From the way my last calc professor often treated me, I guess it was. I guess he felt, like Vector, that I was wasting his time.

And if that is the case, I’m not sure what to do. This may be a cultural difference I cannot overcome. I’ve been a professional journalist for almost 20 years now, and asking questions is as natural as breathing.

Don’t know? Ask.

Do know? Ask anyway, because you may be wrong. For that matter, the first person you ask may be wrong, so ask several people. And even if they’re all right, it’s better to have as many sides as possible!

“Never assume” has been my motto for decades. Never assume that John Smith is John Smith. He could be Jon Smythe. Never assume things are entirely what they seem. Keep digging. Keep asking. Only stop asking when you’re getting close to deadline, when the pen of Damocles, and your editor’s wrath, are hanging above you. And then once the story is filed, start asking again, because this story just turned into a series!

At this point, I don’t think I can turn off my need to ask. And I don’t really want to. As a child, I was very shy. I had a lot of social anxiety, and being the center of attention, especially in a classroom setting, was intolerable. On my fourth grade report card, my teacher noted that “When asked a question in class, A.K. blushes and gets nervous for absolutely no reason!”

Well, there was a reason. I was terrified. My deformed joints and general ineptitude at sports due to my deformed joints made the other kids look at me in suspicion. They weren’t kind. And the adults, while not unkind, were completely unsympathetic. So I kept a low profile. I asked no questions, and soldiered away on my own. I did fine, but probably would have done even better had I not been afraid to ask.

And many years later, when I became a reporter, I really struggled against my fear of asking questions. What if they were stupid? What if they were rude? What if I was wasting someone’s time?

And then something glorious happened: I stopped caring. I realized I would rather ask a stupid, time-wasting question, and make sure I had the right answer, than not ask, and get it wrong. And if the first person I asked sent me away, I would go to someone else. And if I was feeling Puckish, I would return to that first person, and ask again, because I’d be damned if I let them silence my curiosity. But I didn’t usually return, because my time is valuable too.

So what to do in this case? And does this “asking is rude, and you’re on your own” attitude really permeate the math world? How about in science, or tech? Because if so, I must point out, respectfully, that that may be part of the reason so many people fear math and STEM in general. It may be part of the reason we are losing promising individuals to other fields, because there they get more support and feel free to always ask questions.

And yes, I realize I’m rude for even asking.

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.


  • is asking a question, even if simple, during office hours rude?

    No, in my opinion. That’s what office hours are for. And you weren’t asking a mathematician for help, you were asking a teacher, whose job it is to teach.

  • I am a math professor.
    It is fine to ask even basic questions in office hours of your professor. It is not rude. We all lose a negative sign sometimes and sometimes it can be hard to find that in your own work. What is important is that you tried to do so yourself first so you get practice in trying to find your errors. Expecting you to find them all yourself is unreasonable. Asking a friend isn’t a bad idea, but I don’t think asking a professor is a bad idea either.
    The response that asking basic questions is rude is disappointing and is probably not common among professors who like to teach. At least I hope not.
    Ask away.

  • Thank you. Not that I was ever going to stop asking questions, but that’s nice to hear.

  • Let me echo the statement that it is fine to ask even basic questions in office hours! I strongly encourage my students to come to office hours to ask questions– that’s what they’re for, it’s part of my job, and I want them to succeed! And while I try to prepare them as much as possible for the homework, we only meet for 50 minutes 3x a week, so there’s bound to be something we didn’t go over in detail every once in a while.

    What *is* rude is asking someone who is not your instructor or tutor for help. My office used to be near the stairway, and on test days, there was always at least one person who wasn’t in my class (or even the same course I was teaching) who would ask me to go over problems. They always stormed off when I told them “sure, and this is how much I charge per hour for tutoring,” but I suspect they wouldn’t want me to ask them to work for free, either.

  • It may simply be the attitude of the mathematicians at UC Berkeley, which I have inherited as their student. I was given a great deal of outside help–tours of the library, textbook recommendations, lectures on how to study, individual sessions on how to present proofs to an audience, a great deal of advice on how to get into graduate school, introductions to other professors whose courses I might take later, plenty of encouragement, occasionally deeper perspective on a problem or idea. All of these professors seemed to adore pedagogy.

    However, the professors in question still let me know quite clearly that engaging with the textbook and getting the problem sets done were my duty, and that I was not to bother them with those trivialities.

    I have, in fact, been given problem sets whose questions were impossible, and rather than going to complain, my duty was to minimally adjust the questions until they reflected a true statement that could be proven.

    I will add also that I am processed as female, as I have been all my life. I’m not trying to tell you the best thing to do over that particular power-divide, or say “this is my masculine mathematics and it cannot be changed.” What I am saying is that, through the past four years, I’ve seen a great deal of benefit to the practices that you seem to find confusing.

    You appear to have taken offense at my suggestion, which I gave only because I have seen too many people chewed out or disappointed here thanks to their misunderstanding of the latent social rules. My life got much easier when I realized that banging my head on problems to the point of occasional misery was really helping me a lot.

    As for your final question, I don’t know. I think the problem is that we say “x field is arcane!” rather than saying “x field is really rather difficult from time to time. Keep trying.” There is a great deal of mythology about mathematics which is completely untrue (no female mathematicians have ever existed [certainly not any great ones], all mathematicians of any worth show prodigy talents and are mentally ill or deeply eccentric, mathematics is a matter of inborn skill and not enormous amounts of training and hard work, all mathematicians lead deeply sequestered lives, you cannot marry or have children and do math, etc.).

    I would first attend to those mythologies before paying attention to behaviors that, while perhaps somewhat strange, have a clear functional purpose. There is a purpose behind discouraging questions about the textbook and exercises (provided that you have a textbook written by a master, which I realize can be a rare thing, particularly before you get to the graduate level): force students to screw their courage to the sticking point and become psychologically stronger/more confident by going it alone and finding that they can do far more than they thought they could. There will be times when we don’t have anyone to ask for help, just ourselves. Might as well get some practice in before the time comes for real.

    The only thing you get from declaring mathematics the domain of a select “priesthood” is a bizarre sort of exceptionalism, which really has nothing to do with the mathematics itself. It’s rotten.

    On the other hand, it might also be wise to try to subdivide more into courses for people who want to become pure mathematicians, and those who want to work in applied fields. I don’t see any real reason why a student in applied work should have to suffer along with those of us who are in it for the long haul (and for whom the need to be able to work alone is more serious). More problem-solving skills, sure… but there are people who just want to be able to compute the area under a curve, and one should make at least a cursory attempt to respect their aims.

    Or I could be full of bullshit. *shrug* I’m still learning.

  • Thank you for coming back and responding, Vector. I really appreciate your insight even if, as you assessed correctly, I did take offense at the notion that my need to ask questions makes me lazy or rude.
    I am fascinated by your portrayal of the math culture at Berkeley. Cal always struck me as more touchy-feely than most UCs. Well, not as much as Santa Cruz, but certainly more so than UCLA.
    I am in negotiations to interview one of the profs there (this is actually a guest lecturer), and I know this individual is emphatic about making math more accessible to the larger population, particularly women. I will definitely ask this person what zie thinks of Cal’s math culture.
    Thanks again for commenting!

  • I was aware that such a culture existed at some California schools (as well as others, but most of the examples I can think of are in CA), but that is just toxic for anyone who is not yet somewhat of a “master” themselves, in this case, undergraduates. It also directly opposes most studies done in math education.

    I think that approach is more appropriate at the graduate level, but even graduate students should be encouraged to collaborate, and sometimes the only suitable collaborator is a faculty member. Isolation usually breeds bad mathematics.

  • Have you heard of such a culture existing at the University of Southern California? That would explain a few things for me.

  • I think I might have, actually. Such things are usually the purview of “top” math schools, and USC doesn’t rank too poorly, so it certainly wouldn’t be surprising. Then again, my university does well enough in the rankings but is one of the most collaborative environments I’ve experienced, so it’s certainly not a hard and fast rule.

  • Thanks. And I’m glad to hear your university has a collaborative culture!

  • Asking for help is never rude. In some cases, like going to an instructor that you don’t have, or asking a professional tutor who you don’t have on retainer, expecting freely given assistance can be rude.

    If you’re looking for help with checking proofs for things like disappearing minus signs, get a TI-89 calculator. When you want to check two lines in your proof against each other, enter them both and confirm that they evaluate to the same thing. Once you learn how to enter things, it will also provide the answer, if not the solution, to any problem that you are likely to encounter in early calculus.

  • I went to Berkeley as an undergraduate, and my experience was radically different from Vector’s. The professors I talked to in office hours, especially Ole Hald, Jerry Marsden, George Bergman, and Jenny Harrison (this was back in the eighties) were very supportive about all sorts of questions in office hours. Sometimes, my questions were answered with questions–I’d say, i’m stuck here, and they’d say, well, how’d you get there?
    But never did I get the feeling that I shouldn’t ask.

    My approach to teaching, and to questions, is that I need to understand what the student doesn’t understand. If a student has a question, that means they don’t understand something. And so we should have a Socratic dialogue in order to uncover the misunderstanding. Sometimes these are really short dialogues, but it’s surprising how often a simple question leads to uncovering a larger mis-conception.

    As for asking other professors than your own, well, that depends on specific departments and specific professors. Many faculty in my dept have an open door policy for math students–if my door is open, and you’re a student with a math question, feel free to come on in, even if you’re not in my class. Our department tries to foster an inclusive attitude, that all of our students are the responsibility of all of our faculty. We’re not there entirely yet, but that’s the ideal.

  • Isn’t it fascinating how different people can have such different experiences at the same school? Of course, cultures in departments can change over the years as people change, so maybe it’s this batch of academics?
    I’m glad to hear you use the Socratic method — I’ve always found that works best for me. In fact, I often use it during interviews!
    Honestly, it never occurred to me to get help from professors other than my own. That seems rude. But tutors at the school — well, that’s what they were there for.

  • Bill, I think it’s great that your professors had such an open-door policy, and really, that sounds like a great environment to work in. However, as a graduate student, I’m paid what is basically a subsistence wage and have very little time outside of my research and teaching obligations. Free labor is not a reasonable expectation for me, considering I’m making 10% of what a significant number of the professors in my department make.

  • Antonia, I am v. disappointed that you won’t work for free. Haruumph.
    What is the world coming to?
    But seriously, this blog is the only thing I’ll write for free. Anything else, and they’d better break out the checkbook!

  • @Bill:

    I may be conflating the way professors act in honors courses with the way everyone else behaves the rest of the time. It’s also true that a couple of the professors on your list have been very nice to me (I won’t say which ones, because I’m already becoming unfortunately identifiable).

    Anyway, I’m very sorry to anyone who has received incorrect or misleading information from me.

  • @Antonia–
    Grad students are in a different role than faculty. My school has no graduate students, and not a whole lot of math majors. We’re trying to establish a department where the students can connect with professors. Students often take a class from a professor, and then, when the semester is over, any connection they’ve made with that professor tends to die away. By encouraging students to talk to professors they’ve had in the past, we hope to make them more comfortable as members of the department. It’s not an approach that will work for all departments, but we think it could work well for us.

  • My experience (in physics and astronomy, not math) with an attitude similar to the one that Vector describes was that it was the definite product of a culture that was self-selecting for similarity and deliberately excluding diversity. I picked up the subtle cues that one was not actually supposed to need help, even though there were simultaneous explicit messages that if one did need help, one should ask during office hours as that’s what they were for.

    On at least one occasion, when I did in fact go ask for help about a lecture that had completely confused me, I was told by the professor in so many words that he had already explained it and if I didn’t understand it, there was no use his explaining it again.

    The underlying set of assumptions was that there was a certain type of student who “had what it takes” to learn the material in the same way that the professors had learned it, and if you weren’t capable of learning it in the same way, then you weren’t capable of learning it at all. The notion that different people have different learning styles, never mind different prior exposure to background concepts that might be tacitly assumed, was completely alien.

  • @gaudetetheology
    Maybe we should consider the possibility that the professor has presented the material as well as he knows how to, and if he has failed to explain it once, he will consistently fail to do so.

    There are a vanishingly small number of people who can master the prerequisite coursework but can’t understand a given level of math or science at all. It is more likely that a given difficulty is with the student/ teacher interface than with the student/material interface.

  • @deciusbrutus: Your suggestion seems to imply that there is some objective “best way” to explain material that is independent of the student. I’m pretty confident that this is incorrect. (It’s a similar fallacy to the notion that if you can’t learn it the way I did, then you just can’t learn it.)

    But, even supposing that the professor was a poor enough teacher that he possessed only one way of presenting the material, there’s still quite a difference between giving a lecture in class, and presenting the same material one-on-one with the opportunity for dialogue and questions in both directions.

  • I intended to imply that a given professor might not be skilled at all methods of presenting material. In the case of a student who didn’t understand the explanation(s) provided in lecture, why would they understand the same explanation(s) provided in dialogue?

  • @deciusbrutus–
    ” In the case of a student who didn’t understand the explanation(s) provided in lecture, why would they understand the same explanation(s) provided in dialogue?”
    Because the role of the student in dialogue (often active) is different from the role of the student in lecture (often passive).

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