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I often ask questions to professors outside of class, on technical topics (I am a student in STEM) that I want to explore into, and I value their input. When I ask a question about something that is unusual in the technical sense, often the professors do not understand my question properly, leading them to not answer my question, but talk about something else (answering what they think is the question, but is not). Possibly this is due to the weirdness of the question, as in no student has asked this sort of question before, and I do have a tendency to ask unusual technical questions (often outside the syllabus of that course). In the middle of their answer, I know they are talking about something else, and I want to clarify the question again.

The question is: How do I interrupt them to clarify my question, without looking condescending and insulting? Or do I just wait till I finish their answer before clarifying it again?

PS: Although this is in the context of academics and student-professor relationships, this could potentially be extended to discussions between colleagues in the corporate setting, or any sort of mentor-mentee relationship as well.

  • 2
    How large is the class that the professor is teaching? In a large class, having a single student often ask unusual questions that are often outside of the syllabus would be considered disruptive behaviour. In a small class, these questions might be very beneficial but it would still be important to pick the right moments. What is the size and dynamic of your class? – Jesse Apr 8 '18 at 7:27
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Fellow student and TA here. But I am pretty sure that question is not academia-only.

To address your real question:

How do I interrupt them to clarify my doubt, without looking condescending and insulting?

In academia it is OK to interrupt speaker if they are way off-topic. It will save everyone's time. Something like

Oh, excuse me, I think you misunderstood. I am asking about X and Y, not about W and Q.

However, I would like to address this quote:

When I ask a question about something that is unusual in the technical sense , many times the professors do not understand my query properly, leading them to not answer my question

I emphasized "many times" to suggest that problem is on your side, not professors'. You should make sure that you understand the question yourself and made some effort answering it. Professors were teaching their subject, and thinking about it, for many years, so it is unlikely that your question is something ground-breaking while still relevant to the field. (you should post your sample unanswered Q here)

You should also ask question showing work:

Hey, teach. I am wondering how does one X with the Z? I was googling last night and closest thing I found is that you first Y and then W. I found it in the textbook by Dr. Firstname Middlename, but I can't grasp connection of X and Y. Can you help me out?

That also puts your question into broader context, which can help professor with answering.

Next, you should mention communication language. Are you both native speakers of the same languages? In academia, and STEM especially, that is not a valid assumption. You can solve that problem by writing email and ask prof to reply in written language as well.

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    Instead of I think you misunderstood ... try sorry, I may have been unclear ... much less hostile. +1 for the rest! – user6109 Apr 9 '18 at 11:19
  • @daniel true. In real life i prefer to take blame for misunderstanding :-) – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Apr 9 '18 at 16:45
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I would bet that you are not asking your questions clearly enough.

Here's an approach that I think could be effective:

Write down your question on a piece of paper, look at it and read it.

Is your question correctly posed?

If it's not, rewrite it until it is.

As an example:

You ask Professor Smith,

Professor Smith, is the function f(x) = 1/x uniformly continuous?

Prof. Smith responds with a puzzled look, maybe even with impatience,

I don't know what you're asking. Uniformly continuous ... where?

and you might then say

at x=a, for a>0, is f(x) = 1/x uniformly continuous?

Prof. Smith responds again with a puzzled look,

I still don't know what you're asking.

It doesn't make sense to ask about uniform continuity at a single point on the real line.

That's when you might have your realization that you've been asking unclear questions and finally ask Prof. Smith, correctly,

Ah, right, I meant to ask whether f(x) = 1/x is uniformly continuous on the interval (0,1).

So, if you are able to write your question down so that it's correctly posed, and then try asking this question, I think the professor would welcome your question and give you a good answer, if they know it - they might not know it, since you said it's related to material that's outside the scope of the syllabus.

In the case that you've asked a correctly posed question, and Prof. Smith is answering some other question for you, due to misunderstanding, you can say, for example,

Professor Smith, sorry, but that's not what I was asking.

I am asking whether f(x) = 1/x is uniformly continuous on the interval (0,1), not on [0,1).

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Address the miscommunication.

Notice I said the miscommunication. It may be on your or their side. The issue is that some signal processing error is occurring. Try to verbally interject:

Excuse me. I'm not quite sure if this answer is addressing the question I had in mind, and perhaps I am not posing the question correctly. Let me rephrase, to clarify. What I'm trying to understand is ____.

You want to alert the professor to a subtlety in either the question itself or your understanding of the scenario. This may allow them to shift focus more narrowly on your intent, instead of their current line of thinking. Hopefully, a short conversation can guide you both towards the heart of your question.

Save peculiar or subtle questions during lecture for later.

(edit: this is only if your question arises during lecture. I notice you are mostly interested in discussions outside of lecture. I'll leave this here, though.)

Any presenter may have a difficult time parsing unusual queries (and their validity) in the middle of lecture, so write down your queries for afterwards. As an added note, if your query is a significant digression from the lecture, consider saving it for later, mainly to prevent the lecture from being derailed or confusing the other attendees.

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