Stupid, Stupid, Stupid

Every now and again, a library member will approach me at the reference desk and preface their inquiry with the phrase, “I have a stupid question”. My standard response comes from Lewis Black (“I will be the judge of that”) which I sometimes manage not to say out loud. Despite their declaration to the contrary, I’ve never heard a stupid question. I’ve heard ones of genuine curiosity, easily rectified inattentive reasoning, and momentary mind farts, but nothing that arises to the level of thinking, “I question the integrity of the oxygen supply to your brain”.

A few months ago, I remember teaching one of my computer classes . As I was greeting people and checking off registered name, a person entering the computer center leaned in and said in a low voice, “I’m the stupid one.” I made a joke to pass it off, but they were insistent. “No, really, I’m not smart.” Oh man. I haven’t uttered one word of instruction and this person has already charted a course that leads towards a failing outcome. How do you overcome that?

I made a point in telling them that, in seeking help to learn more about computers, they’ve already made one smart move. That there were people who had already given up on themselves without even trying to find someone to teach them. Also that I was also there to help them along, to guide them through, and to answer the questions along the way. They changed their tune, a mixture of being taken aback by my bluntness and embarrassment that I would not let go of the point, and by the time they left the class they thanked me for giving them the confidence to use a computer.

It’s this last key point (confidence) that I work to instill when I’m teaching my computer classes. Although it is not an original discovery in any way, shape, or form, but I find that attitude can be equally if not more important than knowledge in the classroom. I could ramble on about how a computer works, the features of Microsoft Word, or the privacy settings of Facebook for hours on end, but if my students don’t have the courage and confidence to use the mouse or type on the keyboard, it’s wasted breath. So many of my students (nearly all older people) come in frightened that they could press the wrong key or click on the wrong icon and the whole computer will crash, blow up, run off with their spouse, and spend their retirement money in Bora Bora. The main lesson I try to impart is approach this as an adventure, that there aren’t any bad screens only unfamiliar ones, and that everything can be fixed (even if requires a family member or friend to help them out). 

I know I’m going to get pushback on this, but there really isn’t anything that is a stupid question in our business. We are there to provide answers to questions, even if they seem rote, basic, or just plain lazy. There is a keen difference between these behaviors and being completely mentally dull. Given the expansive definition of the term itself, some nuance and context are required to figure out what the real issue is (which, I should note, doesn’t rule out the librarian as being out of line in this equation either).

In that interaction, whether it is in the computer lab or the reference desk or out on the floor, the most important thing that we can give our library members is the confidence to ask the next question. While our answer to their inquiry can be overturned by later data, the attitude of the interaction outcome will leave a longer lasting impression. Overall, when we judge an inquiry as stupid (read: beneath us), it can be a dangerous term in which to frame the people who walk through the door seeking our help.

7 thoughts on “Stupid, Stupid, Stupid

  1. My response to “I have a stupid/silly question” is to say: “The only stupid/silly question is the unasked one. I learn a lot from the questions I am asked.”

    I also find that I am asked “real” reference questions in social situations, and have taken to whipping out my smartphone to send myself a note so that I can text or email a “real” reference answer when I am next at work.

  2. Nicely said. Hope all the librarians I have contact with have the same belief. I’m lucky in that 98% of them do.

  3. I so agree with you on this: there aren’t any stupid questions, just ones that have been asked and answered, finally, by those smart enough to finally take the brave step to ask. I hear this phrase from patrons and staff alike, and want to make sure that people always have their questions acknowledged and answered (when possible).

  4. Standard responses:

    1) “There are no stupid questions”. (Adapted from Barbara Woodhouse’s “There are no bad dogs”.)

    2) “Great! then I can probably answer it” — when feeling punchy/when students look like are up for it.

  5. “Overall, when we judge an inquiry as stupid (read: beneath us), it can be a dangerous term in which to frame the people who walk through the door seeking our help.”

    I use this to check myself. Too many “stupid” questions probably means my attitude needs to be adjusted.

    Also, if we are always getting the same rote question, it’s time to look at why people keep asking the same question and make some changes/add more signs about the restroom locations.

  6. I think patrons are afraid of being judged by their librarian/s. Maybe it comes from the fact that we have to be managers as well as educators. When I was a kid, the librarian was such an authority figure, and even though I loved books, I always found the library a bit intimidating (in a grand, regal way). Sometimes that feeling carries over into adulthood. That said, after several years in this job, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only real stupidity is small-mindedness. It takes a long time to acquire skills, especially computer skills, and people shouldn’t be embarrassed to come to the library to learn something new. That’s why we have libraries! These days I feel a lot more like a social worker than a book cop–though there are some days when I have to be both.

  7. Pingback: 12.04.2013 – Queenstown Lakes. Literary Audio Walk. Reflection. | Finding Heroes

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