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Proposition: The targeted reader of an answer isn't necessarily the OP who asked the question and therefore a general answer may be appropriate.

Background: Some commenters (and down voters) object if an answer is much more general than the question calls for or even orthogonal to the question. I write such answers quite often, and while the down votes don't disturb me, I wonder if some clarification of the purpose of an answer and of this site generally would be useful.

My belief is that the purpose of this site goes beyond just helping the person who posed a question. For that, any simple mailing list would be sufficient. It seems to me, however, that this site wants to be (claims to be, actually) something more, giving guidance to people who visit in the future and who may have related, but not identical questions.

For this reason, I believe that an answer that isn't directed at the OP, but gives background information and guidance to others is entirely appropriate. In particular, If a student has some particular issue in dealing with some administration, then in the future a person who has some control over changing administrative policies might read a thread and use it to design a better system. Having too-narrow answers won't really give the necessary guidance, I think.

I sometimes label my "beyond the horizon" posts as such, but not always. But a lot of readers, even some who have been here a long time and have accumulated quite a lot of rep, seem to object to such things.

As an example, see this post, for which my answer is clearly of this sort. Clearly beyond the horizon. In fact, I wasn't directing it at the OP, as tried to say so in the post. Some commenters, however, seem to think that such answers that don't directly address the OP's needs are entirely inappropriate.

I can, of course, stop writing such things, but I think it would do damage to the site overall. I wonder what the community consensus is on this issue. It isn't a reputation issue, for me, but rather one about how the site is perceived, which affects the kinds of questions and answers that will be given. If it is only narrowly viewed, then it will be less useful IMO than otherwise.

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It's true that the best answers help more than just the OP.

However, this is first and foremost a Q&A site, not a discussion site, so answers should answer the question. It's OK (even good) to include stuff that generalizes beyond the OP's situation, but not to write a post that doesn't address the OP's question at all, or that primarily addresses a different situation.

If an existing question inspires you to think about a related question and answer, you can always post the related question and also self-answer it. Just make sure the related question is a real, practical question, and not a "discussion prompt". For example, the answer you wrote would be appropriate (with some modifications) as part of an answer to the question "As an instructor, should I ask students to save all questions until the end of the lecture?"

Or you may find that (with modifications) it is appropriate as an answer to an existing question, like maybe this one in the case of the answer you were wondering about.

(I'm writing this with my user hat on, not moderator hat. This isn't some decree from on high, just my personal opinion.)

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In general, I think generalizing answers is good, especially if they make explicit their generalization. I have argued elsewhere on Meta that the purpose of the SE model is specifically to produce a Q&A that is helpful to more than the individual question-askers.

An example might be to pose an alternative circumstance that would change the content/direction of your answer.

I am also supportive of "frame challenge" approaches to questions that help the OP recognize that they may be asking the wrong question or taking the wrong approach from the outset.

However, I think the particular example you pointed out is a bad example of generalizing or frame challenging, and to be blunt it is probably my least-favorite answer of yours. It really seems like you are just taking an opportunity there to tell an autobiography that does not directly relate to the question asked: it addresses beneficial aspects of question-asking in class and the problem of large class sizes. The OP's question was how to approach a possibly delicate situation where another student's accommodations are unfortunately impacting the rest of the class negatively.

Therefore, I'd like to frame challenge your meta question here: I think you are perceiving a displeasure from some in the community about generalized versus narrow questions, whereas I think the criticism of your example post is instead about an answer that neither answers the narrow nor the generalized question that was posed, and does not represent a relevant frame challenge.

  • It was certainly the most extreme example of mine, I think. I like to push people's thinking, as you have probably noticed. – Buffy Nov 13 '18 at 20:34
  • @Buffy Yeah, I have no problem with pushing people's thinking, but for sake of rhetoric if you want to push towards more generalized/broader answers I think you are probably using the wrong example answer to base that argument on. Rereading what I wrote here I might have been more critical than I meant to be but it seems like you've understood my intent anyways. – Bryan Krause Nov 13 '18 at 20:38
  • I take no offense. And like I said, I don't worry about the down votes except that they make it less likely that a post will be read. Sometimes I say things here that people really don't want to hear as their question seems to be begging for a particular (wrong) answer. Not the case with the question from my example, though. But some things need to be said that people really don't want to hear. I could give examples, but probably won't (be nice rule). Some copyright questions are like that. "please please please don't tell me this is wrong." – Buffy Nov 13 '18 at 20:47

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