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In a few weeks my undergraduate students will be encouraged to ask questions on Stackoverflow. My students will have been told to search for related answers before asking questions.

As a clarification the questions will be on general topics related to C and assembly language. My students are new to C and assembly code, so for example, I anticipate these kinds of questions:

  • I just got an error message from gcc, and when I google for it, I don't understand what I'm being told. What does the error message mean and how do I get rid of it?

  • Valgrind tells me there's a memory error on line 67, but here is the code snippet containing line 67, and I can't figure out what the error is. Can anyone help?

  • Something strange is happening with this struct type: I can't get the compiler to accept code I think is perfectly good. What am I doing wrong?

I would like to ask them to use the localized tag tufts-comp40 on their questions. That way I can search for the tag and get a picture of what kinds of questions my students are asking, which will help me cover more appropriate topics in class.

But I am aware that putting this localized tag on a question does not help anybody else, and indeed might be considered a misuse of community resources. The question for discussion is therefore is one localized tag an acceptable use of community resources?

Please answer yes or no, with rationale if any. Or just upvote heavily the position you agree with. (Question and all answers should be CW, so no reputation should be at stake.)

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Why not just ask your students to hand in their user IDs? You can search questions by user (via the user:*id* syntax) or view their bio pages to see what questions they asked. – Shog9 Aug 20 '09 at 22:47
@Shog9 - Yours might be the only workable solution. Should be posted as an answer. – Robert Cartaino Aug 20 '09 at 22:59
95% of my students won't have heard of SO, so they won't have existing userids, and I think they should be accountable for their use of the site not just to me but to their peers. – Norman Ramsey Aug 20 '09 at 23:00
@Norman: So why don't you tell them how to use SO? – xmm0 Aug 20 '09 at 23:01
Here's another thought: have them add their activity feeds to a public Google Reader account. It'll aggregate them and allow you to search through them, star them, etc. – Shog9 Aug 20 '09 at 23:22
If you're teaching new programmers the proper way to ask questions on SO (and on the Internet in general), then I hope you have a very large class and a long career. Good luck to you and them. :) – Bill the Lizard Aug 20 '09 at 23:37
Bill: LOL. Yeah. I thought about the exact same thing when I wrote my comment above. In my experience being a TA, most students don't have the passion to try solving problems on their own and came to me with questions like: "The compiler doesn't compile. What should I do?" – xmm0 Aug 20 '09 at 23:46
@Mehrdad: At least they tried the compiler! When I was a tutor I would always get "Do you think this code will compile?" while being handed a printed-out Word document with code written on it. – Bill the Lizard Aug 21 '09 at 1:13
@Bill, @Mehrdad: I have been working for the last couple of days on a handout on the proper use of SO---and among other exercises I have added a 'Search SO' custom Google Search Bar to my class web page. – Norman Ramsey Aug 21 '09 at 2:43
@Norman: Wouldn't you mind sharing the handout? I'm interested in seeing such a thing. -- another note: I think for students, asking on SO should never precede personal debugging efforts. I've found debugging the single most important task in learning to program. – xmm0 Aug 21 '09 at 12:06
@Norman: I echo Mehrdad's interest in that handout. It might make a good question for here on meta. Maybe you could post it and ask for suggestions and feedback? – Bill the Lizard Aug 21 '09 at 18:15


Such tags do nothing to help categorize questions within SO, and may in fact make them the target for unwanted attention (including people editing out your tag...)

Why not just ask your students to hand in their user IDs? You can search questions by user (via the user:*id* syntax) or view their bio pages to see what questions they asked.

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I like the alternative solution you provided in the question comment. You should add that as part of your answer. – Gavin Miller Aug 20 '09 at 22:57
A Web page could contain SO flairs for all students to make tracking them pretty easy. – xmm0 Aug 20 '09 at 23:02

I'd suggest sending an email to Unless you can get one of them to either endorse the behavior or identify a possible work around, you will only be chasing your tail here. While we are a community, there is no single united front on many of these types of things.

Personally I agree that it probably is not the correct use of the site, but it would certainly work for you. I can sympathize with this both ways...

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Be aware that Stack Overflow is moderated, edited, and run by a large community.

Localized tags are going to look strange or out of place to other Stack Overflow users. They are likely to be edited out. If you eventually decide to add anything local/strange to the posts, at the very least, instruct your students to include a small, unobtrusive notice or disclaimer at the bottom of those posts.

But I'm not sure this is a good idea in general. You are going to draw unwanted attention to you posts and they will likely be flagged, closed, or edited to conform with the "community norm."

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Yes, localized tags should be acceptable on a limited basis, but I'm not sure you'll have buy-in, since there's a Too Localized close reason.

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I get the impression that the questions will be on any topic, the special tag is just so Norman can find them easily. – ChrisF Aug 20 '09 at 22:46
Hmmm... This might be a bad precedent. I want all my friends to create a special "LMNOP" tag so I can find their questions easily, too. (just for example) – Robert Cartaino Aug 20 '09 at 22:55
Yes, I'm concerned it might be a really bad precedent---which is why I'm asking for opinions. – Norman Ramsey Aug 20 '09 at 22:57

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