Student’s Guide to Communication | E-mail Basics

A while back, I published a post on best practices for e-mail communication with instructors and advisors; that post was primarily aimed at grad students, and though it would be useful for all students, it focused on the finer points of maintaining a collegial and professional tone in e-mail. Recently, I’ve been reminded that many students (even grad students) could benefit from some nuts-and-bolts advice for communicating effectively via e-mail, so I thought I’d tackle some of the most common issues I encounter in e-mail correspondence with my students in a series of posts. 

To start things off, here are the three fundamental things you need to do when e-mailing your professors.

1. Say my name.

We tend to think of our names as being tied to our identities, and our uniqueness as an individual; because of this, it’s a fundamental sign of respect to address people by their names – their CORRECT names. Most of us probably have personally experienced the mild annoyance triggered when someone (particularly someone who should know better) gets our name wrong. A multitude of movies and sitcoms have even made use of this trope; if you want to signal to your audience that a certain character is an asshole, there’s no simpler way than to show that character getting names wrong repeatedly, because he can’t be bothered to learn them. Innocent mistakes do happen, but not even trying to get names right shows that someone doesn’t recognize anyone else as important.

So, whenever corresponding with professors, or in any professional correspondence, it’s important to take the time to get the other person’s name right. Check the name. Check the spelling. Not only is this a sign of respect, but it also shows you to be detail-oriented and conscientious (while getting the name wrong can make you seem careless and sloppy).

2. Say your name.

When e-mailing a professor, always state your FULL NAME in your e-mail; that means first and full last name (not just the last initial). It also means using both the name you are registered under, and the name you go by (if different).

You should also state the class you take with that professor. This is vital information for almost any question you could have, to allow your professor to respond accurately.

One of the most frustrating aspects of corresponding with students is that e-mails often take 2-3x longer to answer than necessary, because before I can answer I have to look up who a student is, and what class they’re asking about.

Keep in mind that professors often have multiple students with the same or similar names, and may have hundreds of students per semester. Even if you are writing to a professor you know well, you can still avoid potential confusion by always giving the most complete information possible.

3. State your business.

Be as clear and specific as possible about what your question is, or what you need from your professor. The more explicit you are, the more likely your professor will be able to give you the answer you need the first time, without extra time and effort on both your parts trying to figure this out.

This issue often crops up when trying to arrange meetings with students. I’ll receive requests from students to meet, but without any hint of what they want to discuss in the meeting. It’s difficult to suggest scheduling, because I don’t know whether the meeting will take 10 minutes or 45; I also don’t know whether I will need any particular materials for the meeting (grades, assignments, texts), or whether I will need to look through anything beforehand. If you contact a professor asking for a meeting, always be as explicit as possible, stating what the meeting is about, and/or what you hope to accomplish in the meeting.

I also frequently get vague “I don’t understand x” questions about grading and assignments. It often takes several tries for me to give students the answer they need, because I don’t know what part they don’t understand. This is frustrating for me, and I’m sure for the student as well.

When asking a question about course policies, the details of assignments, etc., review all of the material you have available (syllabus, assignment sheets, handouts, etc.) and determine exactly which aspects you do understand, and which you have questions about. Whenever possible, cite a specific example and explain what is unclear to you (e.g., “The instructions state that the essay should be in APA format. Does that mean you would like the citations to use APA format, or would you also like it to include a title page, abstract, and the other sections included in APA guidelines?”).

If you have bigger questions about the purpose of the assignment, or how to approach it, try offering your own take, so that your prof can see how you’re thinking and let you know if you’re on the right track. (e.g. “When the prompt says to analyze how persuasive the article is, I wasn’t sure what that includes. I was thinking about discussing how the author uses a lot of slang terminology that only a specific subset of readers would understand. Does that fit in with what the assignment is asking?”)

Even if you feel completely baffled, explain to your professor what you think the assignment means. Just give it your best try – don’t worry about being wrong. I guarantee your professor will be more impressed if you show that you are actively trying to think through the assignment (even if you’ve misunderstood) than if it looks like you’re just waiting for someone else to think it through for you.

4. Follow the leader.

Keep in mind that, while the relationship between teacher and student should be one of mutual respect, the instructor is still in a position of professional authority. To respect that authority (and ensure that you stay on your prof’s good side), always let the instructor take the lead when it comes to the tone of the communication.

For example, if your instructor signs e-mails to students with his/her first name, it’s probably fine to address him/her by first name when responding. If s/he signs with a more formal title, don’t take it upon yourself to decide the two of you are on a first-name basis. Some won’t care, but some professors might take this as presumptuous and rude. And don’t unilaterally demote or promote the professor, by calling him Mr./Ms. instead of Dr., or vice-versa; use whichever title the professor uses. This not only can be taken as disrespect, but it also makes it look as if you’re not paying attention or don’t care enough to put thought into how you communicate with your professor.

In general, since the relationship between teacher and student is a professional relationship, your communication should take a professional tone. If your instructor adopts a more casual tone in e-mail, it might be fine to follow suit (especially if it’s a prof you know well). But this can be a slippery slope. Remember that tone can be difficult to read in e-mail, and you could be mistaken. It’s also, unfortunately, the case that some profs will speak freely with their students, but still don’t think it’s appropriate for students to speak freely with them. Personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that even when a professional relationship seems friendly and casual, it’s always better to remain a little bit more formal, more restrained, in e-mails.

One of the great *facepalm* moments of my academic life was an e-mail misstep that basically torpedoed my relationship with one of my new professors in my first semester of grad school. We had developed a friendly relationship in class, and wrote frequent e-mails discussing points of philosophy. As we were both strong-willed, and deeply invested, we clashed over ideology, and also engaged in some good-natured ribbing–all very collegial, I thought, and I began to feel that I could speak to this person as a friend. Then the shit hit the fan. I mean, really – the “shit.” I used the word “shit” in one of my e-mails, and the prof went ballistic. I was called inappropriate and unprofessional, and was told off in no uncertain terms. I was stunned. Blindsided. In the first place, it would not have occurred to me, then, that anyone who was relatively young and relatively liberal would be upset by (to my mind) so mild a curse word as “shit.” More importantly, though, I had thought I was just playing follow the leader – responding at the same level and in the same tone to the prof’s correspondence. Maybe I was wrong. I might have misread the tone in some of the messages. I certainly mistook the way this person would read the tone of my own words. But maybe I wasn’t so wrong. I’ve often wondered if maybe the real issue wasn’t that I took an inappropriate tone, but the prof did – did it first, that is, but it wasn’t until it was mirrored back by my own words that this prof realized that the familiarity of our relationship had gone too far. But whoever was in the wrong, it was ultimately I who was hurt by it. I had to deal with losing the respect of a colleague, and ruining what had been a stimulating and challenging intellectual dialogue with uncomfortable tension that persisted long after an apology had been offered and accepted.

The moral of the story: e-mail is not just a tool to give and get information–every e-mail is an opportunity.  An opportunity to make an impression on others, to shape their perception of your qualities and character. An opportunity to develop the relationship you have with your teachers and mentors in college. Follow these tips and make the most of that opportunity.

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