Monday, April 28, 2008

Crazed Types

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.


Auntie Em said...

Thanks for the great follow up. I shall be recommending the FSP "Field Guide to Spotting Crazy Types" to all my lab mates!

Mrs. Smith said...

Oh no. I'm one of these people. I only called once, I swear, and it was the Athletics Department. That doesn't really count, does it? The truth is, I couldn't think of anyone else who would know where to buy size 18 tennis shoes (I have a giant of a son). Oddly enough, Wal-Mart doesn't stock them.

Anonymous said...

I feel an overwhelming urge to classify[.]

AHA!! I knew you were a splitter!

Katie said...

I am in a constant state of deciding whether to pursue a career as a professor. My very favorite thing about your blog is that you make all of these strange and/or non-obvious components of your job more transparent to the average observer. It certainly helps me to make a more informed decision!

It also makes me wonder whether it is prudent to keep pepper spray in your desk and an emergency phone number on speed dial.

Anonymous said...

You didn't include a type 4, more prevalent among biomed researchers, which is people who have a health need. They can come in two categories, too. The one's whose true health need is psychological, or those who think calling up a "heart scientist" is the way to deal with their palpitations.

Anonymous said...

I am a new female assistant professor of physical sciences at a state u., and I am really glad I read your blog to know that this type of thing happens. I have started a women's group, and your blog is a top link off the website, because it is so informative.
On the topic of the current post: We have an insane person lurking in the department. Unfortunately he is an emeritus crazy professor (ECP), so people are still nice to him instead of calling him the crack-pot he is. In addition, he is also misogynist, and I have had more than a few run-ins with him since joining the faculty in Sept. Luckily, I asked a respectable senior faculty, and he told me the scoop about ECP. He also told me that ECP would not have any say about my tenure, so I was at liberty to defend myself and gender.

Female Science Professor said...

Ah yes, the in-house crazies. That's another species, and sometimes quite invasive.

Me said...

A couple of years ago I advertised for a junior research assistant. We had HEAPS of applicants, one of whom was a retiring professor from a peripherally related discipline. On the off-chance he was a Type 3 with merit, we interviewed him. Within about three minutes it was clear that he was probably slightly insightless (e.g. "No, I have never done Super Technical Task but I did Unrelated Stuff about 40 years ago so I will be OK"). He also wanted to have a little chat about his latest idea. We didn't hire him for the low-paid job he was overqualified yet underskilled for. Three weeks later I received an email from him, saying that he'd incorporated the idea from our research project that required the Super Technical Task into a review article about his pet theory of how X works. After about six more emails I was quite sure he belonged in your Type 3a category. I never checked to see whether that got published, but will go off now and see what I missed out on!!!!

The joys of academia, but it sure keeps it interesting!

Anonymous said...

Ugh, the loony who wants you to write a book for him reminds me of Project X that I worked on as an undergrad.

Project X was brilliant for bringing the nutjobs out of the woodwork. Among other things, quite a lot of people thought Project X would make a riveting documentary. I thought so too, but that doesn't mean anyone had the time and money to make one. We approached the appropriate department at our university to see if anyone there was interested, got a no-due-to-time-money-constraints, and left it at that. But for the next 2 years we got plagued by random people demanding, "why isn't SOMEONE making a documentary of this??????? SOMEONE should!!!!" That neither we nor the appropriate specialist department had the money and manpower to spare was WRONGWRONGWRONG and simply not acceptable to these people. Resources should just magically appear for every project of value -- how dare they not?

Project X was also a wonderful magnet for the I-have-a-brilliant-idea loonies. The ideas were invariably just plain stupid, but there was no telling them that, and better yet, they all tended to use the phrasing that they were oh-so-magnanimously willing to "gift" their brilliant intellectual property (they were always sure their crackpot notions were patentable) to the Project, and would go off into momentary gaze-into-the-distance smug contemplations of their brilliance *and* marvelous humanitarian generosity.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the categorizing scheme!

I would add type 5 -- the in-house crazies. For example, former undergrads who graduated, tried to make it in grad school, failed (due to their own craziness), and are now back. They want to sit in on classes and dominate discussion with their amazing insights. Will they ever leave?

I think what bugs me most about type 3's is their inconsistency. On the one hand, they show little respect for our training and education; they seem to think "anyone can do this," and that they're qualified to pontificate on any subject without having read what other people have to say about it. On the other hand, they must respect us because they want our affirmation so badly!

Jones said...

My question is where do potential graduate students fit in? The only reason why I ask is because I am currently in that situation and its a strange thing to do. You guys are intimidating...