ETA: Thanks for all your helpful suggestions in the comments, everybody! I'm going to take Dr. Crazy's advice first of all, and tell the *director* to send my contact info on to the student, and let him take it from there.
I've been asked to be an outside reader on a dissertation committee (at my university, but a different departement -- the only humanities departement with a Ph.D. program). The dissertation is on a medieval English subject, though way out of my part of the period*, but I thought I might as well say yes for the following reasons:
- I'm the outside reader, so really, my opinion comes last in the hierarchies of opinion, which means I have the easiest job. And anyway, he's not going to have something written until 2008, so there's plenty of time to plan ahead.
- I'll learn something.**
- Such requests will come up rarely enough that it's not like this one will open up the flood gates.
- Dude! I was finishing my own dissertation a mere 4 1/2 years ago and now I'm advising/reading one! How cool is that?! That also means I probably the only one on the committee with a clear memory of what it's like to be a dissertator. I think my best role in this case is to be the sympathetic junior faculty member who can offer concrete advice on the *process*, rather than the content. In fact, I think that's how I can be of the most value to this student, since his topic is fairly far out of my expertise.
*Let's just say that the student's topic is as distant in time from the subject of my forthcoming book as we are from my book's topic. In case y'all haven't noticed, the Middle Ages is huge!
**Yes, I know, I ranked managing my workload over learning something. So sue me -- I have a job to do and managing my time means I do it better.