How to Email Your Professor

From a Professor's Viewpoint

This is an ACTUAL email sent by a professor at Emory. Find out what professors are really thinking when they read your dumbass emails...



Date: September 23, 2001
From: AFXISHJEXXIMQZUIV
To: [class]@emory.edu

Some general reflections on email: A frequent comment from my colleagues is that we often get baffling requests, especially via email. So, here is a small window on your professors’ lives (such as they are! and we can all agree they are pitiful…). Here are some examples of emails that have left me a bit stunned over the years. I hope they will amuse you. Please delete any possible note of sarcasm below, because there is none—only bemusement. I really do mean these to amuse you and help give you a sense of what comes in, especially through email, to your professors each day. This is our real life:

1) At 3AM, as I check email one last time before I crash: “Hey Doctor Roberts! I see you are on Learnlink [Emory's email client] right now. I know you are there. Please give me an answer right away. Can I turn in my assignment tomorrow afternoon? I have been up all night writing it and won’t be able to get up tomorrow to get to class on time to turn it in. Hope that’s OK.”

My thought: ‘Well, I am up at 3AM also and I plan to make a lot of coffee and to go to class, and I am an old, tired woman, so the problem is what, exactly? And there should be a comma after “Hey” if one accepts such an opening as a way to address a professor when asking a favor….’

2) From student writing a research paper on British imperialism: “I am almost done with my paper, but wanted to know the date of the British landing at X. Please let me know so that I can include it in my paper. I do not want to get the dates wrong”

My response: Delete. Ignore. My thought: ‘I get it, you insert tuition, I spit out answers…’

3) “I had to miss class yesterday. Did I miss any thing important?”

Please, please, unless there is a serious illness, please simply take responsibility to follow up with classmates and please, even if you do think class time is wasted, as a general rule it probably is not wise to suggest to the professor that his/her classes might not be important…. Please, dear students, faculty are frail, failed and vain creatures. We live with the illusion that our class meetings might occasionally have some value. Any self confidence we had was mashed to bits in grad school or as we went through the tenure process. We know that no one wants to read our research, even if it represents 10- and 15-year blocks of our lives. Please leave us the illusion that something we do in class has meaning… Just an idea…. But if there is a serious illness or other genuine emergency, do let me know about that, because we would want to be as helpful as possible.

4) "Dr. Roberts: I will not be able to finish my paper by tomorrow. Do I still have to turn it in?"

Possible answers: ‘Dear X, As we discussed in class the past two weeks, the paper date has been moved back a week.’ To myself: ‘So, I guess X has not been in class for two weeks, has not checked learnlink, and has not checked with other students? Hmmm!’ Second possible answer, somewhat wicked, but ever temptingly ambiguous: ‘Dear X, papers are due when assigned.’ To myself: ‘We will see at what point X finds out that the papers are due a week from now.’

5) Message with the signature file from a law firm: "Dear Professor Roberts: My son, X, a student in your History ABC course, sent you an email on Friday, November 10, 5:17PM (attached), asking if he should use an MLA style sheet or Tarubian on his paper. Please respond. I am sure that you can understand that your lack of a reply has caused him/her great stress at a difficult point of the semester. I expect more from his professors."

My reply, CC’d to parent: ‘Dear X, As both the assignment handout and the online class information indicate, and as I mentioned in class on numerous occasions, our class uses Turabian--please note the correct spelling.’ To myself: ‘Oh, my!’

6) On the eve of a deadline: "Dear Dr. Roberts: Could you read this 20-page draft and let me know if there are any changes I should make before I turn it in to you for a grade? The registrar’s office says that all incomplete grade have to be turned in by tomorrow at noon."

Me: ‘Huh? Is there some registrar’s office deadline coming up?? So, you had planned to make up the incomplete? I am glad; that’s a good choice and I support it. But I would have appreciated an earlier update and even to have discussed the assignment with you. I also note that you changed topics. Am I supposed to read this right now, and make suggestions that you will incorporate, and then grade the final draft and turn in a grade before noon tomorrow? Funny, I thought I was teaching my seminar for 3 hours this afternoon, then chairing a committee meeting till 7PM, then, once I stumbled home, I planned to read the 300-page book I have to teach tomorrow afternoon. Tomorrow morning, I need to write up the committee report the administrative vice-president wants before our meeting, and write a letter of recommendation and get it to FedEx. And then there is the matter of laundry. Nothing clean to wear for said meeting with said vice-president, plus I have no groceries, which especially means I have no milk for tomorrow AM’s coffee. I would be *delighted* to grade your paper. You'll drop off groceries, French roast coffee, maybe a donut or two, and pick up my laundry when?'

These are just a few examples, I could supply dozens (and dozens!!) more. Probably the most frequent line you will hear on campus is: ‘My email, I just cannot bear it, I get 100 messages per day, I can’t keep up with it….I wish I could just disconnect…’ My colleagues and I often joke that we would never have asked a professor most of the questions when we were in college. We would have re-read the assignment, asked other students, and then simply have done our best. We would have read the comments on the graded papers and adjusted on the next assignment.

I think that at least three things are driving the flood of email we get, especially right before assignments are due:

First, email gives one the incorrect sense that one can dash off a note and that the professor can dash off a reply easily. For some cases, that is absolutely true, and if there is an emergency, a significant problem with an assignment or the reserve room, then we really do want to know and help. Email is vital for those problems. However, in many cases, we really want you to try to solve problems first yourselves, especially when the answer is already on the syllabus or on another handout, especially if those materials are on our online conference.

Second, perhaps the consumer atmosphere in market culture encourages the idea that professors are ‘paid information dispensing machines’ one pays one’s (very expensive, on that we can absolutely agree) tuition, one expects results. The difficult thing about education, is that one has to do large parts of it oneself: Professors can supply encouragement, good reading lists, challenging assignments, and hopefully stimulating classes. But part of what we try to do is invite you to develop your own resources. Sometimes simple silence to an email is the best way to get you to think about other avenues for help, or to encourage you to rely on your own judgment or to learn from your own mistakes. The results we all want are for you to be more experienced, sophisticated students, better equipped to do research, more capable to making good judgments independently. Nevertheless, much of that only comes when we do back off and allow you to struggle on your own.

Third, I suspect that some of the email comes from uncertainty about how to handle college assignments in general (more the case with freshmen). Fewer high schools have students undertake real research papers or work on basics such as grammar or footnote forms. Re-read your other college papers to see if there are any patterns in the comments your other professors have made. Write up a list of the problems that you think you have with your writing. Decide that this will be a semester in which you tackle some of them.

On a related note, I see that tonight, CBS has a new series,’ The Education of Max Bickford,’ about a small liberal arts college history professor. I am interested in how closely it follows real academic life. If it starts out with the lines: ‘I cannot believe my email.’ Or, alternatively, ‘Another committee meeting? ANOTHER COMMITTEE MEETING? I’ll never get anything published at this rate. How will I ever get tenure if all they want me to do is go to meetings? Did I get a Ph.D. so that I could spend my life I meetings???’ Then we will know the writers are on track.


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