Before I became a science professor, I was generally aware of the main features of the job related to teaching, research, and service. I even knew that some science professors talk to the public from time to time: to amateur scientists, the news media, school groups, and so on. I did not, however, know about the many other ways in which professors interact—sometimes daily—with nonacademics.
And I did not know that some of those people are even crazier than academics.
Whenever I spend time in the main office of my department, I am amazed by the wide variety of people who call or stop by with questions or requests. Colleagues in various fields report the same thing: They encounter people who want to explain their ideas about the nature of consciousness (or the being of being), people who have invented anti-gravity bicycles, and people who are convinced they have found the proof to a previously unsolved problem in mathematics.
Fortunately for visitors to my department, the first person they talk to is nice, patient, and helpful, even when the callers or visitors are bizarre and/or not as polite as they could be. Many of the questions and requests are then passed along to a professor or other researcher.
In some cases, the questions are easy and quick to answer. For example, some people have a question about a topic in the news that they would like explained. Some of us like answering that kind of question and don't mind a brief interruption to speak with someone who is genuinely curious about a topic we find interesting, too.
In other cases, however, people stop by the department (with or without calling first) and expect a faculty member to be immediately available to answer their questions, listen to their ideas, or read something they wrote. Others will send an e-mail message with a long document attached and expect a quick response. Or they drop by with their book draft and ask for positive quotes that can be used as blurbs on the cover.
The fact that people call professors when they have a question has both positive and negative aspects. Certainly, as professors, we want people to think of us as experts with useful knowledge, and I think many of us are happy to help with a question if we can. At the same time, most of us are very busy, and I know that it rankles some of my colleagues at state universities when they encounter people with a "you work at State U, so you work for me" kind of attitude, especially from those who expect immediate, and, in some cases, quite time-consuming (and free) assistance. There's a difference between contacting professors with a quick question and asking them to analyze some substance—now, free of charge—in their lab because you want to know what it is.
In addition to people with a question or a need for expert opinion, there are some people who want to offer advice and ideas to us. I know that it isn't just science departments that attract people who want to discuss their new Hypotheses That Explain Everything, or who want to expound on their obsessions. On several occasions, I have had nonscientists contact me to tell me what I should be doing research on instead of the things that I had, thus far, been pursuing. I have not yet been tempted by any of those creative ideas, some of which involve using my research to prove predictions in ancient writings (some by aliens), but I try to keep an open mind.
When I wrote about this topic on my blog, people added comments about their own experiences with nonacademics: conspiracy theorists and amateur mathematicians, scientists and philosophers—people who think the government has implanted recording devices in their heads, people who think they have found gold (or a meteorite), and people who ask reference librarians for instructions on how to exorcise poltergeists. A friend of mine in the philosophy department occasionally encounters local citizens who want to share the ideas they have written in tiny illegible letters on all sides of grocery bags.
These days, only the truly insane (or thrifty) need resort to writing their thoughts on grocery bags. The advent of easy-to-use Web sites that help people produce professional-looking, self-published books has greatly increased the aesthetic qualities of some of these treatises.
Another opportunity for potentially strange interactions between professors and nonacademics is at department-sponsored talk series or at other specialized lectures not intended for the general public but nevertheless open to the public. It's great that interested citizens attend, but it is a potential pitfall for visiting speakers if an audience member asks a strange question. To the visiting speaker, who doesn't know most of the people in the audience, someone asking a bizarre question could be an eccentric Nobel laureate raising an issue too deep for the speaker to understand. The speaker has no way of knowing the question is coming from an amateur scientist who is pursuing an obsessive interest that has a tenuous connection, at best, to the topic of the talk.
I once saw an extremely nervous speaker in a department seminar take very seriously an obviously bizarre question by someone the rest of us in the audience had never seen before. The speaker gave a lengthy and increasingly incoherent response—in the process, betraying the speaker's own lack of confidence.
When I get a bizarre question after a talk, my policy is to be polite and respectful, no matter how strange the person or the question. I deal with it as quickly as possible, and move on.
To me, those interactions—in a lecture hall, on the phone, or in my office—are just one of the many quirky aspects of academic work. However you feel about such encounters, it's important that you as a faculty member develop polite and efficient ways to communicate clearly.
If, however, you wish to avoid such conversations as much as possible, the best thing to do is to be very nice to the office staff members on the front lines, so that they won't direct the most obnoxious and bizarre queries your way.