Let Me Google That For You. Really.

This summer, I taught a graduate-level intro course on Python programming—a subject I know enough about to be dangerous, but not so much that I had answers on hand to all of the questions students asked. When I got stumped, my first instinct was to google the question, and often, I quickly found an answer to point them to.

In these instances, I felt silly and was prone to internal criticism. As the instructor I felt like I should have all of the answers ready to go. Of course, that is an unreasonable standard to hold myself to, and all teachers have to say “I don’t know” sometimes. So in those moments, I had to remember to be kind to myself.

But in those moments, I felt silly for another reason: what value am I adding as a teacher when I google the question and either restate someone else’s answer out loud or send a student a link—something literally anyone in the class could have done on their own?

Outside of that particular class, another graduate student emailed me asking for help. He was going to be the TA for a course where he would have to teach students basic Rmarkdown, but he didn’t have a lot of experience with the language. Through some recommendations from other students, he heard that I was proficient in Rmarkdown, and he reached out to ask if I could point him to a resource that would improve his own knowledge and which he could share with his students.

Truly, the answer was no. I learned Rmarkdown organically. I didn’t start with a book or tutorial. I just used Rmarkdown, badly, and over time—with a lot of googling—built up a reservoir of experience and knowledge. So, a fair response, I think, would have been to shrug and say no.

But that’s not what I did. Someone came to me with a question. I felt compelled to exert a little effort on their behalf. So I got on Google.

I knew the creators of Rmarkdown had written a free online book about it, so that’s where I started. I skimmed the table of contents and briefly scrolled through the first few chapters. While comprehensive, it was not what this person was looking for. It was too technical, focused on settings and options rather than a quick guide for getting started.1 The next link in the search was a GitHub repo with some labs and exercises. But again, I could quickly see that this was going to go over the student’s head. The third result was a chapter from Hadley Wickham and Garrett Grolemund’s R for Data Science about communicating statistical results. Here was a brief walkthrough on setting up a document, basic syntax, and compiling. The chapter was exactly what this person was looking for, so I sent it along.

Finding the book chapter took effort, but very little. I could have just told this person I didn’t know of a resource and that they should to google it. But what did it really cost me?

The more I thought about it, though, I started wondering how long it would have taken that student to find that same resource I did. Or whether he would have found it at all. Yes, I did perform a simple search that anyone could have done, but, in fact, there was more to it. Regardless of how I acquired my Rmarkdown knowledge, I know the kinds of things beginners need to know, and importantly, what they don’t need to know. Having no experience with Rmarkdown, the question-asker does not.

Had he tried to find an appropriate resource, perhaps he would have come upon the book written by the creators. Given that it’s written by the creators, maybe he would have felt like these were the things he needed to know right away. And so he would have spent time reading it, messing around with options and settings that are irrelevant to the novice user. At some point, he would realize that this book was not what he was looking for. Onto the second link. How long would he have spent on it before realizing it was not appropriate for beginners. Finally, onto the third option—the right one. Would he know that was what he was looking for?

And how long would this process take? An hour? Two? More?

The question-asker does not know what he needs to know. As such, he has to devote time and effort to evaluate each resource, following it until he realizes it’s not teaching him what he wants to know. For me, an experienced user, I know what the question-asker needs to know, and I can immediately determine whether a resource is providing that. What takes me five minutes might take him an hour.2

Reflecting back on my Python course, perhaps goolging answers to questions shouldn’t make me feel silly. Armed with much more Python knowledge than the students in the course, my googling is much more efficient than theirs would have been. Although “let me google that for you” is often uses as a sarcastic put-down, there are times when it is instead a valuable and kind gesture.

  1. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that! It’s just not what this student needed at the time. 

  2. I’ll note that sometimes the process of working through several resources is not a waste of time, but a valuable way to build up knowledge about a piece of software. But you don’t always have time for that.