Friday's musings and comments about the random people who call, write, visit, or haunt academic departments bring up the issue of there being different types of these people. I feel an overwhelming urge to classify them:
1 - People with a question or problem. They need an expert for something, maybe just to answer a question, and don't know how else to get their question answered. They call their local institution of higher learning, and that's fine, especially if the question or problem can't be solved easily by other means.
It's nice if the request or question is politely phrased and acknowledged. It's not nice if the person making the request gets angry if they don't get the answer they want or if they have a you-work-for-me (because you're a state employee) kind of attitude or if they expect you to drop everything you are doing and spend vast quantities of time helping them. Such rude people are rare, but pop up from time to time.
I personally prefer email correspondence so that I can respond when I have time, rather than the cold-call or drop-in situation, at least for the first contact. I get emails from kids doing school projects, from teachers who need help with something, from writers who want to get the science right in their work of fiction or non-fiction, and from random people who just have a question. That's all fine with me. Most of us don't have time for this, but we make time anyway.
Or, at least, we make time in some cases. For the past five years or so, I've been getting occasional email and voicemail and visits from a very insistent person who absolutely needs me to help him write a book about a topic with which he is obsessed. He wants me to put a graduate student on this project because he doesn't have much time himself, and doesn't seem to believe me when I say that my students and I have no time and will never have time for this project.
2 - Local people who have an interest in a particular academic discipline and who enjoy attending seminars and other talks. This is great. Life-long learning is a great thing for those who have the time and interest.
3 - People who have Big Ideas about something (Science, Philosophy, Religion, Whatever) and who want to discuss, share, or impose their ideas on local professorial people. The local professorial persons will either recognize the genius behind these Ideas or be unable to recognize the genius owing to narrow academic training and myopic world view. These Big Idea people are either:
A: Very insane, or
B: Somewhat insane
and can be further classified by whether they:
I: Briefly interact with academic departments, or
II: Lurk for years/decades, attending department seminars, visiting/emailing/calling, and trying to get professors to read their essays, notes, or books.
The Type 3 people can be harmless to the local department inhabitants if the Type 3's don't require much time and if they are not too scary and persistent. They can wreak havoc , however, on visiting speakers, including candidates for faculty positions, if the speakers are not warned about the questions that might be forthcoming after a talk or seminar. As a grad student, I recall some horrifying examples when candidates for faculty positions were faced with insane questions from a Type 3 person and took the questions seriously, not knowing if their questioner was a random loon or a Nobel laureate, thereby causing the faculty to question their judgment.
Sometimes young colleagues say "No one ever told me I'd have to do [X]" (as a professor), where X typically involves time spent serving on committees, managing a group/lab, or doing some sort of professional service. Add to the list that no one ever tells you that your assistance will be requested and/or demanded at odd times for odd projects by odd people other than your students and colleagues.
1 year ago