Intro: Building our Community
Our tour says that we aim to be "a question and answer site for scholars and enthusiasts of literature." I'm definitely an enthusiast, and I have a fair bit of scholarly training. And there are many other users on here whose scholarship and enthusiasm are evident from the effort they put into crafting questions and answers. Scholar isn't restricted to those credentialed, of course; someone who, for example, painstakingly reads and re-reads a novel to establish its timeline is a scholar whether or not she has an academic degree.
That said, we still struggle to achieve a critical mass of such scholarly and enthusiastic users. Our community is rather on the small side. Perhaps we could think about how to attract more such users to the site?
One possible barrier is the ratio of good questions to less good ones. I believe that if we want to attract and retain true scholars and enthusiasts, we might benefit from considering a higher bar for questions that we retain on this site. Otherwise, the front page of our site can be off-putting to the very audience we need to attract.
Here are what I see as some problem areas. Some of them have been discussed before. I don't mean to relitigate those issues, but I do want to reframe them in the context of perhaps handling them differently to better attract the user base we need. I do have some proposed solutions as well, which I'll post as an answer.
We've discussed homework before, and the upshot was: "let's not treat homework questions differently from any other sort of question." But that has proven to be rather a blunt approach to the issue, because there are homework questions and there are homework questions.
Some questions might have arisen from homework, but still be interesting in their own right. The question about "Tissue" which prompted the prior discussion about homework is worth answering for that reason. The question also raises no ethical qualms, as the OP made clear that plagiarism was not really possible given the context of the question.
Other homework questions, such as the question about A Modest Proposal are actually detrimental to our goal of attracting scholars and enthusiasts. I think professors or schoolteachers who see such questions posted and answered here would think of us as a resource for students to cheat.
We need a better way of handling this than simply to say, "Homework questions are all right."
Questions about the meanings of words
We get a lot of questions where the OP simply doesn't know the basic meaning of a word. Again, we've had this discussion before. I think there is a meaningful (ha!) distinction to be made between asking for the meaning of a word in context, and asking just "what does this word or phrase mean?" I agree with Gareth's answer in the previous discussion that meaning in context questions can actually lead to very interesting answers. But more recently, the sorts of questions we get have been of the basic, "look it up in a dictionary" sort. Here are some recent questions of that nature:
These preponderate: eight of the fourteen most recent meaning questions are of this sort. We had a similar flood of those with the Swimming in the Dark questions a couple months ago. They provide an easy way to build rep, but they are not about literature per se except by happenstance: the word is used in a literary work. We become indistinguishable from ELL except that the questions all come from quotations from literature. The sheer volume of such essentially non-literary questions waters down the quality and identity of our site and makes it less attractive to someone looking for a more purely literary discussion.
We get questions that seem rather poorly thought out. For example, the questions about whether Hamlet is a misogynist, or why a book might use epigraphs, or whether a particular novel contains explicit sex, or whether a not particularly Shakespearian phrase from a Shavian play indicates inspiration, all seem naïve about their subject matter and/or about how literature is studied. Left as they are, they would detract the sort of audience we want to build. I'm not proposing that we turn away unsophisticated questions, but we need to encourage our askers to refine those into better ones. Instead, sometimes we ourselves edit and re-edit the question to try to make it suitable for our site, to the point of rendering it unrecognizable from what was originally asked.
So: Do others agree this is a real issue we face? If so, how do we resolve this issue? What can we do to ensure that the site retains high quality questions that meet our goal of being attractive to more scholars and enthusiasts?