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

The precise details escape me after almost 40 years. But he was a Physical Anthropologist and up on medical stuff, anatomy etc. I recall it had something to do with the positioning or angle of some knife wounds.

It’s not something I do often, but I have on occasion e-mailed researchers - and have gotten good anwers from them. Typically as I recall, these have been zoology-related topics.

I have done it a couple of times and always have received friendly, useful answers. I try to be brief, so as not to waste their time, and ask a question that can be answered by a knowledgeable person without much fuss. After receiving the answer I wrote back to thank them.
Now that you mention it, there is a question I will ask soon to a botanist near me about the wine growing up our house. Thanks for reminding me!

If it happened today there would be a half dozen mystery writers proposing a cozy series based on him. Of course they would change the protagonist to a her. I’m pretty sure there are some already, but there is room for one more.

I did even better than all of the above. I, a random nobody (then and now), dropped in to a professor’s office one day, without an appointment or even a prior contact.

I had gotten interested in dolphins. My supervisor mentioned that she had a very good friend who was a professor at San Francisco State U who studied dolphins. So one day when I happened to be in the area, just on an impulse, I dropped in to see him.

He was in rather a hurry to get somewhere. Nonetheless, we ended up having a good hour-long talk about dolphins and his work with them.

He ended up fixing me up with a newly-minted grad student of his who was just beginning a project in the area, and I became a volunteer assistant on the project for a while.

It sounds like it probably was. That’d mean that, if the professors saw it at all, they might well ignore it, but most likely it would have been filtered out as spam so they wouldn’t even have seen it.

Over the years I’ve answered maybe a hundred questions from the general public. This does not include students at other universities. I won’t answer if it sounds too much like homework or a take home exam. I have on a couple of occasions lent previous take-home exams to friends at other colleges so it can be quite obvious.

I will not talk to journalists as they almost invariably get it wrong in trying to simplify or shorten or use it completely out of context.

But I’ve received many more requests that I didn’t answer. Usually the questions are too vague or are based on contradictory premises. In many cases I refer people to others who have a better knowledge of something. Not every professor of X knows everything about X if the field is large as most are these days. This is especially true if s/he is a theorist and the question is empirical in nature (or vice versa).

I am not a professor and I don’t want this to seem like a hijack, but the discussion has struck a chord with me. For the past 30 years, I have taught classes for licensing and professional certification in an engineering-related field and I’m fairly well-known in my state. I normally welcome questions, but I get the following two types of questions far too frequently:

  1. The person reaching out to me will ask a straightforward question about standards, codes, or local regulations, then he/she will argue with me about why the standard, code, or regulation is what it is. The usual comment is, “That makes no sense!” (Believe me, I didn’t write the damn things. Get on a technical committee and change them if you think they should be changed.) Things go downhill from there. I make it a point not to respond to any questions that seem to be heading in this direction.

  2. I’m asked a question that is so detailed (i.e., a homework question) that I have to respond with, “Sorry, I can’t answer that for you. I’m normally paid a lot of money to provide this type of advice and I could be liable if things go wrong. Let me know if you want a proposal for technical support.”

Not a professor story, but when I was in grad school, I was sitting at my desk in the lab one day (probably working on my main lab skill, procrastination) and looked up to see a guy (looked about my age and I remembered seeing him in a couple of seminars). He sat down and he asked me about my research. So I started explaining and in the back and forth with him, I slowly realized the following: He probably wasn’t a student. He probably was mentally ill. And off whatever meds he needed.

I remember shifting from “It’s great to meet someone interested in my obscure research” to “How can I disengage without triggering him”. I finally managed to steer the conversation to how much work I had to do and managed to get him out the lab door (which I promptly locked, since by policy it was supposed to be locked).