Every time a semester is about to start or has just started, my email box is inundated with “URGENT” pleas from students. Many of the things they are writing about are in fact not urgent at all. Rather, most often the information they seek could be easily found at the campus website.  Another common “urgent” type of message relates to the fact they would like to add my class to their schedule AND would like to me to give them special consideration for umpteen different (almost always non-urgent) reasons. So, to those of you out there starting a new semester, before you email your Professors, please consider the following (rather cranky) suggestions:

1.       For goodness sake, spell  her/his name right! And, on that note, would editing for spelling/grammar kill you?

2.       Please do not take the liberty of referring to the professor by first name, nickname, or merely with ‘hey’ UNLESS you already know said Prof and such familiarity is warranted. Respect may be going out of style, but the lack of it will likely irk many (myself included).

3.       Do not request special consideration.  For example, do not ask to be put on add/crash lists due to “desperation.”  Like everyone else, show up the first day and prove you really are interested/dedicated. (And please try to remember that every student a professor adds translates into more grading to the tune of several more hours per student added  – especially in writing-intensive courses.)

4.       Do not write complaining about when the class is scheduled. Professors rarely control class times and often may be as unhappy with an assigned class time as you. We are not scheduling gods but mere cogs in the machine who must bow down to Dean’s and Provost’s and their ideas about optimum schedules.

5.       Do not act as if you are the only student that matters and that the Professor needs to bend over backwards to accommodate your work schedule, the fact you have children, or the fact you are hungry all the time and will need to bring bento boxes to class to munch on. (True story: in my early days of teaching,  I had a student who laid out a sushi spread on his desk on various occasions.)

6.       Do not include directives like “reply ASAP” or “please respond immediately” or “URGENT!!!!” when no such subject descriptions are warranted. Um, who do you think you are? And do you have ANY idea just how many emails most professors get each day?

7.       Do not ask for information that you can find yourself! Guess what, you can find out the textbook requirements ONLINE! You can look up professor office hours ONLINE! Often, you can access the syllabus ONLINE!

8.       Remember that such correspondence shapes your professor’s impression of you. If you come off as arrogant, demanding, self-centered, selfish, lazy, etc, many professors just might remember this about you. We are, after all, mere mortals. As much as we may try to overlook what an asshole you were in your email, we may very well remember right up to when we are formulating your final grade. (Now, I am not trying to suggest that professors are not good at impartial grading; I think most are –  but if you are one point away from a B- and you were an email jerk, some (consciously or not) may keep you at the C+ level rather than giving the one point bump…)

23 thoughts on “What if you plan to email your professor?

  1. Ha ha. I loved this post. As finishing up my last semester of college, I could never imagine writing to a professor in any of the ways you outlined above. Considering I go to (in my opinion) a rather snobby school, I can see so many people that I have interacted with in classroom settings sending those types of e-mails though. So this post just made me smile as I envisioned many of those people. Sorry for the annoying e-mails, but thank you for making me smile.

  2. This is great. I often struggle with profs who are like “Yeah, call me whatever.” I don’t feel comfortable with the first name unless it’s pretty explicitly laid out – more than “I don’t mind being called Bob.”

    So, a tangential question from a *ahem* “friend”:
    Dear Professor,
    What if your prof is not responding to emails? What to do about a prof that claims to read emails, but never responds or has set office hours? I’ve sent several non-urgent-but-reply-would-be-hugely-clarifying to my current prof – along with resources I’ve checked for the answer – and gotten no response. I can understand if it’s being covered in class, or it’s easy to catch him, but it isn’t and it’s not. Help!
    It feels hugely rude to say “So, do you still plan to read emails this term?” or even “A quick follow-up to my email I sent three weeks ago . . .”
    – A frustrated student, trying to do well and be polite in a horribly difficult class with a prof who is otherwise fantastic

  3. Much like Anita, I also struggle when profs ask me to address them by their first name. It makes me very uncomfortable. To introduce one’s self that way to a prof on an introductory email is beyond my comprehension.

  4. PWI — EXCELLENT points. I am tempted to print out and distribute to my students at the beginning of every semester! I now tell my students, though, exactly what to call me (in person and in email) because the “Hey” and/or no salutation thing just makes me so irritated — b/c I’m a Ph.D. student, I tell them to call me Future Dr. ____ (my last name) — it’s hilarious. Sometimes they actually do it! I also try to curtail instances of #6 by explaining that English (the subject I teach) is NEVER an emergency, so don’t act like it is. Just do the work and stay engaged. 🙂

    — Lisa

  5. I’m guilty of the “hey” thing on occasion – and I don’t mind first names when it’s explicit that that’s what they want. When I taught, I wanted to be “MyFirstNameHere”. It’s the “ah, whatever” thing that makes me freak. Profs should be explicit about what they want/expect, which is why this is great – and I will watch the “hey” greeting.

  6. Good Evening Professor,
    It may be a different situation because I go to a small liberal arts school, but I love the fact that my professors wished to be addressed by their first names and actively try to cultivate relationships with their students. I have many professors who are now friends, have been to their houses for dinner, and have returned the favor. I think the best way to teach students is to cultivate a relationship where BOTH sides are engaged and respectful. I want my professors to want to give each students special consideration – I have a professor who has walked to the student center at mignight to loan me a book for my paper – unsolicited. The more a professor cares, the more I care and the more I feel comfortable communicating (in class and outside) with a professor, the more I am able to really allow myself to engage in the ideas they are teaching. I know you meant this as a bit of a joke, and that obvious respect is needed, but still, I’d like to think better of my professors than to be pissed if I ask them a question I could have found on their website.
    Thanks for your interesting insights,

  7. Bar,
    Thanks! And congrats on your last semester!

    I agree that Prof’s should be clear about what they want to be called when asked directly.

    As for your question, I think your “friend” should try to catch the prof during office hours. I know this can be tough. When s/he talks face to face with the Prof, s/he might kindly ask if email is an ok way to communicate or if face to face is the only option for specific questions or concerns. I suggest trying something like “I realize you probably get a lot of emails and that you are very busy. As I am struggling a bit in this class and need outside of class help, how would you suggest I go about trying to get more feedback from you…” Also, you could try befriending other students or starting a study group — the Prof really may be too snowed under for such individualized attention. It is horrible, but those of us not lucky enough to be at small lib arts institutions are saddled with more and more classes with ever-growing enrollment caps…

    Well, unfortunately it is not beyond the comprehension of many students. I get TONS of emails addressing me as “Hey” using my first name OR that call me “Mrs. So and So.” I know it’s a losing battle, but I LOATHE the term Mrs.! Ms. is ok, but NOT Mrs.

    Thanks much. I do think it would be great if students had some sort of course in their first semester where they learned some very important things like email etiquette and the notion that THE SYLLABUS IS IMPORTANT- read it!!!

    Well, small liberal arts schools are a different kettle of fish and those of us who have 40 to 60 students in NON-LECTURE classes work in a MUCH different setting. That being said, I do learn all my students names every semester (no easy feat with how many I have)and I do cultivate relationships with many of them that are mutually respectful and intellectually engaging. Many former students that have graduated still stay in touch — so I am not as cranky/pissed as you might take me to be (although the first week of the semester can bring out my less than patient side). When one has 150 to 200 students per semester, the tidal wave of emails does become irksome. I am not asking for the moon — merely common courtesy (don’t address me as if we are drinking buddies) and personal initiative (try to find the information yourself before treating me as your personal encyclopedia).
    Thanks for reading and commenting.

  8. I battle between two sometimes conflicting thoughts:

    1) wanting to recognize, in particular, the achievements of women and other persons marginalized through racism, bi/trans/homophobia, ableism, classism, etc. through calling them “dr” or “professor” (for graduate level instructors)

    2) recognizing how hierarchies based upon education level are still hierarchies. And I don’t much like hierarchies – particularly the kind that say certain people are better than others.

    Since we still live in an imperfect world, I choose to go the “Dr” route, especially for conversations via email where I like to come off as a little bit formal (until I have a friendship with someone).

    For myself, I don’t have my degrees on my wall, nor consider myself an “expert” other than an expert of my own experiences (which we all are). That said, I will use educational privilege if I feel it will benefit the individuals I work with (I am a sexual abuse/assault therapist).

    So, like very much in my life, there is a lot of dissonance. And I am okay with that.

    Thanks for the insightful post. I have had a very very brief introduction to teaching and found it a most humbling experience. It turns out teaching takes a lot more skill than I originally thought! (And it was loads of fun). I worked out the hours and between developing the outlines for the course, researching the material for the course and other prep time, time in class, marking, finding resources for students, corresponding with students, creating the tests and other assignments, etc., I think I made under $1 an hour.

    1. Shermanvolvo,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I too struggle with the elitism that asking to be called dr or professor can suggest… But, like you, I feel it can be used in a respectful/beneficial way. And, more personally, damn if it isn’t hard to earn that title! Also from a personal perspective, I NEVER wanted to be called a “Mrs.” – I figured earning the title of dr. could help avoid this. This, of course, is not the only reason I wanted to get my doctorate. Another factor is the “dumbing down” of higher ed and the fact that first-name-basis can promote the idea that class is a social hour among friends… I do want my classes to be social and interactive (and they are), but I also want them to be intellectually engaged. Lastly, as a woman, I have that whole having-to-prove-myself chip on my shoulder… (An anecdote: I was told by my vivae committee that I should add the title Dr. to my driver’s license as one is more likely to get out of speeding tickets!)

      Thanks also for your comments on teaching. It is, indeed, much harder than people realize!!! And MEGA time-consuming! As with parenting, one is never “off the clock.”

  9. PWI, you nailed it. One thing you forgot, though, is the avalanche of EMAILS students send asking for admission to closed classes. Geez, at least take the time to come to office hours and ask! On second thought, don’t. I can simply delete emails.

  10. I used to have an opposite problem with a grad school advisor: I would send him very professional, detailed but concise emails and he would respond with one sentence, no greeting or signature, somewhat passive aggressive. I was so put off and honestly offended but ultimately realized it was a symptom of a larger issue between us (or an issue for him, since I’m not sure what I ever did to offend him). I had to switch advisors b/c I couldn’t figure out how to communicate with him via email, and since he was on parternity leave half of the year he should have been working with me (and had agreed to do so, even while on leave), email was all we had without him on campus for any office hours.

    I can’t imagine sending a prof an informal email, even if we were pals in the awkward hierarchical sense of things, so I think to receive such crap responses really stung since I thought I was doing my part. I’ve also had professors admit straight up that they don’t answer email – oddly, communication professors – which always seemed weird but at least you knew what to expect. Forces you to get over your passivity/shyness and just go find them.

  11. B,
    Sounds frustrating. Reminds me of a grad school advisor I had that told me to leave the whole “race issue” out of my master’s thesis. He claimed to be an expert in fem theory but only knew Irigarary and Cixous…

    Email communication can certainly be tricky. Too often I think student’s take liberties — ie asking for info they are too lazy to find themselves or writing to prof’s as if they are their personal research assistants. As you note, this can also go the other way — sometimes prof’s can fail to communicate effectively (if ever) through email.

    As an aside, today I got an email TELLING me a paper would be late and I HAD to accept it! If the email had been worded differently, or if the student had taken the time to come to office hours, I might have.

  12. Speaking of professors, I thought you might be interested in this:


    “On the first day of his fourth-year physics class, University of Ottawa professor Denis Rancourt announced to his students that he had already decided their marks: Everybody was getting an A+.

    It was not his job, as he explained later, to rank their skills for future employers, or train them to be “information transfer machines,” regurgitating facts on demand. Released from the pressure to ace the test, they would become “scientists, not automatons,” he reasoned…”

  13. Oh dear, I can’t imagine being that impolite to my profs. As a recent graduate I’m currently working at an engineering job, often with people 2-3x my age. I’m 23 and I still have issues calling people that much older than me by there first names, even if that is what is expected.

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