I cringe when I hear a professor or speaker say "feel free to interrupt with any questions," because there is someone in every class who accepts this as a personal challenge. Somewhere along the line, someone thought it a good idea to encourage class participation by throwing around phrases like "the only stupid questions are those that go unasked" or "there are no stupid questions." Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
In my opinion, there are three main varieties of stupid questions:
1. The "Wolf in Sheep's Clothing"
Real life examples: My friend taught sex education to local fifth graders as part of his residency requirements. At the end of the class, he asked if there were any questions. One boy raised his hand and said "Um, yeah. So my cat had kittens and then it ate a bunch of junk and it was really gross. What's up with that?" The boy doesn't actually care about what was going on with his cat, as much as he just wants to share what happened to bolster his social status.
Similarly, in my nonfiction class at the writing conference a woman raised her hand on 6 different occasions to make statements disguised as questions. Our teacher was discussing the danger of libel (defamation) when writing nonfiction, and this woman interrupted him to say "I have PTSD and I'm trying to write about my experiences, do you know what I mean?" ("Do you know what I mean," "what's up with that," and "am I making sense" are phrases commonly used to make random statements appear as questions). This woman wanted to tell the class that she has PTSD, and to be the focus of the discussion, so she mentioned it with a question mark at the end. This was despite the fact that it had nothing to do with the current discussion. The worst part is that the professor often spends so long trying to make sense of or address these questions, that the class rarely gets back on track. We learn nothing, except that the woman in the front row has PTSD.
This leads me into another type of stupid question that I call...
2. Square Peg in a Round Hole
Real life example: At the writing conference I attended in Pennsylvania, our speaker was discussing the importance of using social networking in building a platform for your writing. At the end of the talk, the speaker said, "if you take anything away from my talk today it should be the following..." We all picked up our pens to record the wisdom we were about the receive, when a woman raised her hand. The speaker stopped mid-sentence, confused, and called on the woman.
"Yeah, I was wondering, how many e-books fit on a Nook?"
I wish I were making this up, but I'm not. She interrupted to ask this question, and by the time the speaker addressed the question, our class time was over, and we never learned what the most important thing was.
3. Rapid Firers
Real life example: In law school, we referred to these rapid firers as "gunners." Several students in my law school class developed a game called "gunner tag." The point of the game was to see if everyone else in the class combined could ask more questions or make more statements during class than the single gunner. To encourage full class participation, once you spoke in class, you had to "tag" someone on instant messenger and then they had to make a comment. To my knowledge, the gunners still never lost. Their determination is unparalleled.
The three types of people I just mentioned are the reason I hate "discussion" classes. If I want to sit around and bullshit with someone, it will be over coffee or a beer. Let's not sit in a circle, let's not have an open forum. I want someone with education on a subject to teach it to me so I can apply it in my own work. Otherwise, the class becomes merely a basin for one person's verbal diarrhea.