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I didn’t know where to start


Well-known member
Jan 26, 2012
I posted this quote from Tim Gower's blog on the old forum because it is relevant to questions posted on maths help sites where the OP shows no work and claims not to know where to start. It is still relevant so I am reposting it here.

Originally Posted by Tim Gower in his blog
While I’m saying that, let me introduce a notion of fake difficulty. Every pure maths supervisor at Cambridge has had conversations like this:

Supervisee: I found this question rather difficult.
Supervisor: Well, what were your thoughts?
Supervisee: Erm … I don’t know really, I just looked at the question and didn’t know where to start. [By the way, never say that. Ever.]
Supervisor: OK, well the question asks us to prove that the action of G on X is faithful. So what does it mean for an action to be faithful?
Supervisee: Oh … er … no, I can’t remember. Sorry.
Supervisor: Have faithful actions been defined in lectures?
Supervisee: I’m not sure. Yes, I think so.
Supervisor: But hang on, if you weren’t sure what a faithful action was, did you not think to look up the definition in your notes?
Etc. etc.

This is a fake difficulty because it is not a legitimate reason to get stuck on a question. If you don’t know a definition, you can look it up. (If you can’t find it in your notes, then type it into Google and the answer will be there for you in a Wikipedia article.) “I didn’t know where to start” is a well-known euphemism for “I was too lazy even to work out what the question was asking.” If you come to a supervision with fake difficulties, then you will waste time (not just yours, but that of your supervision partner) dealing with problems that do not require external help, and you will not pick up the mathematical tips that come from engaging with real difficulties."
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