This week I've had to spend time in the department office to read files relevant to some committee work. These files are printed and filed in hanging folders rather than made available as pdf's, and I have to get out of my office chair, leave my office, walk all the way to the department office, and sit there reading pieces of paper. It is very traumatic.
It's also kind of fascinating to spend some time in the department office. One staff member in particular has to handle a lot of random phone calls from people asking random things. Non-university people often call university departments with questions and requests. Fortunately for the people who call my department office, the first person they talk to is nice, patient, and helpful, even when the caller is bizarre and/or not as polite as they could be. Some of these calls are then passed along to a professor in the field most relevant to the question, or perhaps (for bizarre/rude calls) to the professor who has most recently annoyed the nice staff person who fields the call.
Perhaps it is similar at private colleges, but I think that because professors at public universities are state employees, the citizens of our states view us as public servants who are available to help them. They are probably a bit more reluctant to call the doctors at the university medical center for free medical advice, or the football coach for advice on athletics, but mere professors are seen as fair game.
In some cases, the questions are easy and quick to answer -- for example, some people call with a question about something they heard on the news. In some cases, people stop by the department (with or without calling first) and expect assistance. At least 62%* of these people are very strange. On several occasions, I have had random people call me and tell me what I should study in my research. Apparently I have been studying the wrong things. I have not yet, however, been tempted by any of these new and creative ideas, 100% of which have been bizarre.
From talking to colleagues in other departments, I know that it isn't just science departments that attract random people who want to discuss their new ideas that Explain Everything or who want to expound on their obsessions, 37%* of which involve unusual religious beliefs. For example, a friend of mine in the philosophy department occasionally encounters local citizens who want to share their philosophical ideas, some of which are written in tiny illegible letters on all sides of grocery bags.
I think that many (76 ± 12%) professors are reluctant to turn away these random people. Part of our job is to teach, and some of us aren't comfortable saying (effectively) "I'm not in the classroom right now and you are not a registered student in my class, so I am not going to help you with your insane question." It would go against our professorial nature, even if our professorial natures should perhaps be gone against more. Example: I once knew a young assistant professor (YAP) who spent a lot of time helping a random person. The YAP was too nice to say no, and got deeper and deeper into a project that involved time and analytical work in what turned out to be an absurd and useless quest.
Do some departments attract more wackos than others, or do all/most academic departments have their own special kind? Someone should study this. What is the ratio of people who call the nation's English departments to discuss their hypothesis that Shakespeare was an extraterrestrial vs. those who call their local astronomy professor to talk about extraterrestrials who quote Shakespeare?
I don't mind some of these random interactions with the scientifically curious and/or confused public. Some (0.4%) of these interactions are interesting and useful. Most are not, but you never know.
* 80% of the so-called statistics in this post are completely made up.
1 year ago