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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.

Homework questions

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 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.

Simplistic questions

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?

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Intro: two opposing effects

You raise a lot of valid points here, and there's definitely a possibility that too many "simple" questions on our site will tend to discourage "experts" (academics, scholars, people with deep knowledge and interest in literature) from contributing or even seeing this as a serious site. But there's also another point of view, in that we can't expect to have a userbase built entirely of people with that kind of deep knowledge and interest, and we need to cater to people with a more casual interest in literature too, not discouraging them from contributing by appearing to be too "high-brow" or snobbish. The latter issue has been discussed in several meta posts here already, such as:

(I should emphasise that all four of those posts are from 2017, when the shape of the site was rather different to what it is now. For what it's worth, my feeling is that, back in the early private beta days, our biggest problem was people posting low-effort or poor-quality Q&A and getting upvotes on them - if you look back at some of the posts from early 2017, you might realise what I mean - and that nowadays we have a lot higher density of excellent quality Q&A. On the other hand, later in 2017 there was also a problem with many unwelcoming comments driving away non-expert users, which I think the 4th meta post above was partially a reaction to.)

If we go too far in making the site appealing to scholars, we risk decimating our active community - there aren't that many SE-active people with degrees in literature or the requisite knowledge and enthusiasm to answer loads of "high-brow" questions. (I know that some active SE people already see this site as "pretentious" or don't feel they can contribute usefully here despite being avid readers.) On the other hand, if we go too far in making the site appealing to casual book readers, then we risk alienating the very people who help to drive our quality up. Both of these potential effects need to be borne in mind when discussing these quality-control issues.

Homework questions

It's not quite accurate to summarise our current policy as "Homework questions are all right." It's more that being homework isn't per se a reason to close a question. Many homework questions aren't a good fit for SE and can be closed for being opinion-based or needing more focus (e.g. discussion prompts). Some, as you've noted, can be perfectly fine questions for us.

But do we run the risk of being seen as a cheat-sheet resource by allowing and answering even "good" (by our standards) homework questions?

Maybe the solution is to be more proactive about editing and re-shaping such questions. If we can make them ask the same essential question, in a way that'll encourage good answers here, but so that they're hardly recognisable as homework questions, then everyone wins: our site gets more quality contributions, students get answers which may not exactly address their homework but can give them ideas to write their own essays, and teachers won't be turned off by seeing homework questions with cheating answers here.

Let's take that "A Modest Proposal" question which you chose as a bad example:

  • Identify five instances in the text "A Modest Proposal" where Swift exhibits his misanthropic attitude towards humanity and explain how.

    Obviously a homework question, right?

  • Does "A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift exhibit a misanthropic attitude towards humanity? How does this attitude come out in the text of the story?

    Seems like a reasonable question for our site. No arbitrary "five instances" requirement, but asking for answers to be backed up by reference to the text itself is reasonable. If someone here gives a good argument referencing only 3 or 4 passages in the text, the student can do the remaining work themselves.

Of course, we could require people to do this editing work themselves, by closing their questions on sight and only reopening after they've been edited into a fit state. But what do we do if the OP never bothers coming back to edit? Leave a question closed when we could've edited it into a good contribution to the site? Better, surely, to have the content of a good answer here, even if it means a little more editing work for us. Besides, site veterans are more likely to know how to make a question work well here than a newbie who just joined to get help with an assignment.

TL;DR: for homework questions that can fit here, EDIT to make them less homeworky and a better fit!

Meanings of words

When this was discussed before, Gareth's response proved that most of our questions are not simply basic dictionary lookups: they require some deeper analysis, or some context from the surrounding text or knowledge of the story, or at least the answers could be enhanced by such analysis/context even if they don't strictly require it.

(By way of comparison, let me mention What is the meaning of "dole cheque" in the following context?, which was migrated here from ELU. It can be answered by a single simple fact, dole cheques being paid every fourteen days, but is IMHO much better answered by exploring the significance of this line in the context of the story, how it helps to build up the characters and the contrast between their lives. Lots of questions are like this: a dictionary would give a technically correct and complete answer, but a more literary viewpoint could give so much more information.)

You're not wrong, though, that some questions really are answerable by a simple dictionary lookup, and we never really formed a consensus on what to do with those questions. Perhaps they would be better off on ELL, but we should be very very careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater - I've seen a lot of close-votes over the years when people think a question "should be on ELL" but it's actually answerable here with a lot of literary depth. For this reason, I wouldn't like to create a direct migration path from here to ELL, because once a question is migrated it's tricky to get it back, whereas an ordinary closed question can easily be reopened, or migrated by mods if necessary.

The wording of a new off-topic close reason should really be hammered out in a separate meta post, but for now here's a possible draft:

This question is purely about the meaning of an English word or phrase, and literary context does not help to answer it. Please consider if your question suits our English Language Learners site better.

TL;DR: let's have a close reason for basic meaning questions, but be very careful not to overuse it.

Simplistic questions

I would argue against closing questions that "seem naïve about their subject matter and/or about how literature is studied", on the grounds of the second of the "two opposing effects" I discussed above. Everyone is naïve to begin with, and I'd rather help those people learn than turn them away altogether, assuming their question is at all answerable.

I realise you're not proposing to close these questions, but instead to prepare some FAQ-type posts with information to help them learn and educate themselves. That's a great idea, I'm just not sure how exactly to do it. Tsundoku may have some better suggestions, but:

  • One possibility might be to isolate some general literary principles and write main-site Q&A to illustrate them in action. user111 did this with close reading, and we might be able to continue his work with some other exemplary Q&A for other approaches or ideas about literature.
  • Another possibility would be to make a meta post listing some resources for further reading. We have What are some good (legal) resources for finding the text of books? already on meta, so maybe we could create something else for resources on how to study literature, not just where to find it.

Whatever kind of guidance we provide, of course, a lot of people aren't going to bother reading it. There's nothing we can do about that: you can lead a horse to a library, but you can't make it read. But every single naïve-about-literature person converted to a producer of high-quality Q&A is a victory!

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  • I support the suggestion for a new close reason along the lines of "This question is purely about the meaning of an English word or phrase, and literary context does not help to answer it. (...)"
    – Tsundoku Mod
    Feb 22 at 17:24
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This isn't exactly an answer. It's an explanation of what attracted me, personally, to become an active user on this site. I joined 109 days ago. In that time I've accrued 1.8k rep, 16 questions, and 8 answers.

First, a friend (@PrinceNorthLæraðr) pointed me over here. While exploring I found this question: Symbolism of the Mind Game in Ender's Game, which led to me making an account. Why was it particularly interesting for me?

  • I love Ender's Game.
  • While there was an answer (now deleted), it was terrible. I could do better.
  • There was an interesting, focused question (the symbolism of the Mind Game) that I knew how to answer (or at least where to look for quotes)

Okay, so I had an account. I was working on an answer. In the meantime, I posted my first question. It was about a book that I love, and it was well-received and made me trust that this was a good site for my questions. It should be mentioned that part of why I stay here is because I enjoy chatting with fellow users; I'm active in the site chatroom and find it welcoming, with both deep discussions and random chit-chat.

Coming back to the point. What kinds of questions attracted me, specifically, here?

  • Questions about books that I enjoy reading. The questions were interesting, and inspired me to start writing answers. Work diversity helps here - if this site was entirely discussions about Shakespeare and 1984, I would've left.
  • Questions that obviously had some thought put into them. Dictionary-lookup questions and no-effort homework questions detract from having more of this kind on the front page.
  • Questions that seemed possible to answer with access to the work itself and some time. I'm a high school student, without mind-blowing search abilities. Complex academic questions, while interesting so some people, are not really possible for me to interact with.
  • Questions with good answers. I like reading the answers over and over, if nothing else.

The answers I write are few, but are to questions that I find interesting. (Except my answers to the recent flood of questions. I didn't find those interesting, but was just trying to stem the flow). Having interesting questions posted is therefore motivation for me to keep working on answers.

But while it seems to me there's been worry over what effect questions have on answerers, I consider myself more of another class - a question asker. I'd like to think I ask good questions. The main motivation for asking good questions is getting good answers. I keep posting questions here because I trust that at least some will get interesting answers. I trust this mostly because I see other good questions which are getting good answers.

I don't know if any of this is useful, or even new. But hey! A first meta post has to happen sometime, and I had something to say.

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Intro: Two Steps

If others feel that the issue raised here is real and worth addressing, I'm sure they will have other suggestions and ideas for how to tackle it as well. Here are a few suggestions of my own. We could perhaps take two steps in tandem to improve the quality of questions:

  • Develop our help site more fully to provide better guidance
  • Be more willing to close questions, always explaining to the asker that they can be reopened after editing.

To elaborate on these ideas:

Homework questions

StackOverflow has specific guidelines about homework questions. One is:

Make a good faith attempt to solve the problem yourself first. Users here respond negatively if your question gives them the impression that you're asking them to do your work for you. On the other hand, questions which ask about a specific issue which you're having a problem with usually receive a much better response.

We could adapt this for our own purposes. We could ask, for example, that users not just paste in their homework question verbatim (as with the "Modest Proposal" question), but instead show us what effort they've made to tackle it themselves, and where they're stuck (as with the "Tissue" question).

Another SO guideline:

Ask about specific problems with your existing implementation. If you can't do that yet, try some more of your own work first or searching for more general help; your professor is likely to be a better resource at this stage than Stack Overflow.

I think that translates to Don't ask overbroad questions. We get questions from time to time asking about the theme of a poem, story, etc.:

Such general questions are different from asking how a work or an author develops a specific theme. We could encourage/require specificity in the questions asked.

Meanings of words

Honestly, here I think we just need to be hard-nosed and follow our stated rule. We say the following is off-topic:

Questions about the English language in general, not just as it relates to literature or specific works of literature. Try asking on the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange or English Language Learners Stack Exchange instead.

We should be willing to close basic questions as off-topic. I understand two things:

  • The asker might not know whether the question is more properly an ELL query or a Lit SE query. We ran into that issue with the Swimming in the Dark questions. But we can direct the user appropriately in that case.
  • There might be a genuine difference of opinion about whether a particular question is basic, or allows for a good answer. But that's why we have a system of close votes. I might find a question too basic, someone else might disagree and choose to leave the question open. We should at least be willing to entertain close votes for "belongs on another site" with the other site being ELL or, far less likely, ELU. That isn't even a possibility here; the only "belongs on another site" option is Meta.

Simplistic questions

We could beef up our guidance on how to ask a good question to help users improve their own. For example, we could say:

  • If asking about the meaning or theme of an entire work, suggest what you yourself think the meaning or theme might be
  • Just as in SO, one is expected to provide code snippets illustrating the problem, we could ask users to support their question with quotations from the text they're asking about

And correspondingly, we should be willing to vote to close on questions that don't follow these guidelines.

Rate-limiting

We've seen twice in the recent past that not capping the number of questions a given user can ask per day floods the site with questions that are very hit-or-miss. Perhaps setting a limit on users who have, say, <2,000 rep would help; the asker would have more time to develop better questions based on feedback to prior ones, and the front page wouldn't look iffy to someone who was checking the site out.

Conclusion

In all these cases, the common thread is that we need to ask our users to put in a minimal, good-faith effort to think through the question themselves before posting it here. To my mind, this is a reasonable expectation. Before asking "Is Hamlet a misogynist?", a user could spend a few minutes considering the case for and against based on evidence from the text, and then sharing that evidence with us in the body of the question. That would make a better question; it would be more likely to attract good answers; and it would be more in keeping with the standards we've asserted regarding scholarship and enthusiasm. Otherwise, we are in danger of staying in a rut where we fail to thrive and build the community to its full potential.

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  • 4
    There should just be a daily limit for questions regardless of rep, IMO. I can't think of a case where a single user will need to ask more than like 10 questions per day on this particular site, much less 20. Feb 15 at 15:38
  • 1
    A site-specific rate limit would need to be requested from SE high-ups, and I suspect they wouldn't be very inclined to add one because of one or two users asking lots of questions. They'd say, unless this is a systemic problem, just suspend the problematic user, or, if their questions aren't low-quality to merit a suspension, then what's the problem? They definitely wouldn't want to impose a limit that only applies to higher rep users, as the whole philosophy of SE is that higher rep brings more privileges.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Feb 15 at 22:13
  • Oops, that >2000 was a typo, I meant <2000
    – verbose
    Feb 15 at 23:07
  • Ohh, that makes more sense then. I thought you were proposing that higher-rep users should be held responsible for a good mix of questions and not post floods!
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Feb 15 at 23:15
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In this answer I'm going to put on my consultant's hat and analyze the post as if it were a business proposal.

Summary

The question sets out a goal (to attract more scholars and enthusiasts), identifies a barrier to achieving the goal (the ratio of good questions to bad ones is too low) and proposes a plan for removing the barrier (closing questions in various identified categories).

The question does not include market identification (who are these scholars and enthusiasts?), customer analysis (has the main barrier to participation been correctly identified?), risk analysis (what if the plan fails? are there any downsides even if it is achieved?), and alternatives (are there other plans that might achieve the same goal?)

These omissions should be rectified before taking the proposal forward for consideration.

Market

The proposal invites us to accept the premise that there exists a population of literature scholars and enthusiasts who would like to take part in the site but do not do so because of barriers to participation.

A basic step before embarking on the plan is to have some evidence that this market exists in sufficient numbers to justify the planned effort. Many businesses have made the mistake of putting effort into developing products for which there turned out to be little or no market.

How might you identify this population? Well, other Internet communities might provide evidence. Perhaps all the scholars and enthusiasts are posting on, for example, r/AskLiteraryStudies?

Barriers

If practical, a business will try to incoporate feedback from target customers into its plans, for example via surveys, focus groups, "beta" testers, or product samples. Before putting effort into removing one barrier (the ratio of good to bad questions) it is important to be confident that this is the main barrier. But I suspect that for scholars in particular there may be other barriers:

  • Advertising: the target market is unaware of the existence of Literature.se.
  • Time & effort: someone studying or teaching literature will already have assignments to complete or classes to prepare and may not want to do more as a hobby.
  • Copyright: a scholar might be concerned about possible future publication of their ideas, and so reluctant to license their work as Creative Commons.
  • Hierarchy: a scholar might be used to operating in an environment where they are deferred to based on their position, or where they can depend upon a particular level of knowledge among their colleagues, and might find it uncomfortable to handle an environment where this is not the case.

Risks

Any plan comes with risks and costs that need to be balanced against the proposed benefits. In this case I can see some risks that could result in failure of the plan:

  • The target market may not exist, or may be very small.
  • The barrier to participation may have been wrongly identified, or is only one of several barriers.

And some costs:

  • Closing questions may lead to conflict with and/or the departure of members of the user community who found value in those questions.
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I am in favour of increasing the quality of the questions we get on this site. At the same time I'd rather not leave students in the lurch; especially when you are reading in a foreign language, dictionaries are often insufficient to help you figure out what a specific word or phrase means, for example. If we want a bit more effort question askers, we should provide more guidance on how and where to research certain basic things. For this reason, I suggest that we create a few additional Meta FAQs, such as:

We could then refer users to one or more of the above questions in comments on low-quality questions.

With regard to rate limiting: this would prevent question flooding of the kind we saw on 18 December 2020, 19 December 2020 and 13 February 2021. It is clear that rate limiting can be done (though not by moderators); see The Complete Rate-Limiting Guide on Meta SE. For example,

(...) Other per-site limits may apply; e.g. on Stack Overflow, new users can only ask once every 90 minutes. Some of these per-site limits do also check the account, not just the IP address.

and

On Stack Overflow, Super User, Server Fault and Mathematics (not active on all other sites)

  • maximum of 6 questions per day
  • maximum of 50 questions per 30 days, on a rolling basis (50 questions in past 720 hours before current time).

A limit of one question per 90 minutes may be sufficient for our site. However, since this type of flooding relatively is rare on Literature Stack Exchange, it is not very likely that Stack Overflow would implement such a limit for this site.

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  • Agree about meta FAQs. But how is directing a student to English Language Learners “leaving them in the lurch”?!
    – verbose
    Feb 15 at 15:50
  • @verbose Not all low-quality questions we get are meaning questions, I would still like to help askers of other low-quality questions.
    – Tsundoku Mod
    Feb 15 at 15:57

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