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.