Could (Can) You Really Contact A College Professor If You Have A Question About Their Discipline?

A trope like this oft comes up in movies, usually horror/suspense films. A person finds their self needing an answer to a question, but it is arcane and requires a specialist. They wind up Skyping with the local professor and, problem solved (or usually it isn’t).

However, the one time I had such a question*, I emailed probably 50 professors whose websites led me to believe they’d be knowledgeable about the topic I was interested in. Exactly one responded, and his answer, FWIW, was basically “fuck if I know.”

So has this ever been a thing? Would Dr. Important Professor really speak to Random Joe Blow, assuming she had the time?

*I’d decided to research an article about arranged (not forced - there’s a difference) marriage among Christians in the United States, and was curious what, if any, Christian groups practiced this. I’d asked specifically about itinerant traveling groups who practice Christianity, like the Pavee, and if it went on in LDS communities (among adults and more or less consensually). He admitted ignorance on the Pavee and accused me of being a bigot for asking about the LDS, and reminded me that not all LDS marry off their preteen daughters. I’d neither said nor implied any such thing, but that’s neither here nor there.

Sure; I do it all the time. I can’t recall anyone ever blowing me off or not responding.

Obviously one place you can get expert opinion (along with non-expert opinion) is internet forums.

The only time I tried this was when I was in high school and interested in a career in mathematics (which interest shortly thereafter disappeared) and I wrote a letter to a half dozen professors and all but one responded.

I do it all the time. Last fall, I was looking to build a sugar cane refinery and several professors at LSU were very helpful in helping me understand the bounds of organic cane sugar and how I could process it at scale. I can only think of a couple of times I’ve been blown off but aside from tthat everyone has been very responsive. In one case I know work in their research group.

Mathematicians are accustomed to getting letters from people who think they have solved unsolved problems. The two commonest were Fermat’s Last and the 4 color problem, both now resolved. One colleague had a form letter prepared that went something like, "Thank you for your interest in Fermat’s Last Theorem. Your first error is on line ___.

I once got a letter from a kid who said he was interested in mathematics and claimed that he was a descendant of Pythagoras. He certainly had a Greek name. I wrote an encouraging answer, although I never heard from him again.

I would guess that if it is a subject that they are knowledgeable and passionate about and your questions aren’t stupid or insulting, there would be a fair chance of a response.

Even we historians get calls from people, sometimes from wackadoodles wanting to know about the gold standard or whether the Canadian constitution “applies,” but I regularly get sensible questions and I respond. I had a grad student years ago who called up Michel Foucault to ask him about something he’d written, and Foucault talked to him.

Sure. ETA: Or her.

Freshman year in college, my roommate’s girlfriend (later wife, later ex-wife, still later widow) hung out in our room a lot. Once she came back with a freshman physics exam, on which the teaching assistant had marked as incorrect her definition of energy as the ability to do work. That seemed right to me, based on what I remembered from high school physics. So we appealed to authority. The textbook was written by Robert Resnick and David Halliday. Professor Resnick taught at our school, so I first tried calling him but was told he was out of town. So I called Professor Halliday in Pittsburgh. (This would have been in 1984 or 1985, and I have no idea how I found the number.) He thought the answer was acceptable so the roommate’s girlfriend went back to the TA with that. “Well, we asked the author of the textbook and he said . . .” The TA still didn’t agree but gave her the points for going to the effort.

And in 1952, Albert Einstein responded to a letter from a schoolgirl in Los Angeles asking about a geometry problem.

My wife emailed an ornithologist with a question about birds (for a book she was writing) and got a quick and satisfactory answer.

For that matter, I emailed Daniel Kahneman with a comment/suggestion about “Thinking Fast and Slow” and got a very quick answer.

I’ve got that one on my shelf

Email and social media certainly make it much easier to contact a college professor or really any sort of celebrity.

Sure you can. I am a prof at a public state university, and that’s part of our job. Usually reporters reach out to us, particularly when they want an expert perspective on a story. But when I write an op-ed, for instance, I often hear from random dudes telling me what I don’t know, what a Marxist I am, etc.

I’ve also had former students, friends of former students, and people who have seen or heard me speak reach out via email. If I have time and I can answer the question, I certainly try to!

I have written (in hard copy even!) to several professors and never been blown off. But not received anything very useful back. I did once get referred to a graduate assistant whom we hired to do a project for us. It was unrelated to his research area (using his computing/statistics skills mostly) so the Professor wasn’t supervising his work.

A couple times they send us information on how to initiate a request for a consulting engagement.

This is all 20-25 years ago.

For my senior capstone history class I had to write a historiography about witchcraft. I contacted Dr. Julian Goodare with a few questions about The Survey of Scottish Witcraft and he answered me within a few days.

Yes, please do. It’s great when someone reaches out with a genuine interest.

I did a talk (via Zoom) this past year for our local Civil War Round Table. I emailed the author of the book I had been reading on the subject with some questions - mostly about primary sources and their availability - and she passed along some very helpful answers that improved the presentation immensely.

I’ve only done it once, but it was more than a question. I was doing a podcast with a friend around the time the LHC was being finished, when a bunch of people were scared about it ending the world or whatever, and the goal was to debunk all that nonsense. We asked around a bit and found a professor that did work at SLAC and was happy to answer our questions on tape for about an hour. He was very generous with his time.

I love it when strangers contact me with questions about my academic specialty.

I do. I try to be helpful and give them straight, useful answers.

In about ten minutes of my time.

If it takes more than that, I might mention my consulting fee, which is hefty, but it rarely comes to that, Usually, it’s a pretty simple question, one I can answer with “yes” or “no.” Sometimes “I don’t think so, but I haven’t done any research in that specific area. Try Professor X at University Y.” Then it’s poor old X’s problem, and I dont like him anyway.

Came in here to mention this. If you’re not asking for too much of the prof’s time, you’re more likely to get an answer. OTOH if your query is the sort of thing that will require a two-hour literature search, don’t be surprised if you receive a quote for consulting expenses, or no response at all.

It sounds to me like this may have been more about the subject you were asking about, and the way the specialists interpreted your question. You may have worded it perfectly, but they’re defensive about such questions due to past history with others.

I’ve never myself asked such a question, but the questions I’ve heard others talk about usually ones the professor thought were easy to answer or interesting to put some level of effort into.

I also suspect that many would rather not reply than waste your time by saying “I don’t know.”