How not to Email a Professor: A Lesson on Audience

Professor Michael Leddy’s “How to email a professor” is making the rounds on Facebook for the third time in as many years. While there’s much good advice in there, there’s also advice that seems useful mostly for students with professors who think like Leddy.

There are other ways to think, though, and examining a handful of differences between Leddy’s perspective and how I would have my students email me provides us with an interesting chance to think about the role of audience in professional communication (as I do in my advice at the end of this post). In what follows, I use Leddy’s headings to aid the reader in her comparisons of our positions.

I should say quickly that Leddy’s post dates from over six years ago, and his own opinions may well have changed in the interim. So I direct this post not to him, but to students and faculty everywhere. [Rainbow appears.]

“Write from your college or university email account.”

College and university email accounts that I’ve used are spam-ridden, have inconvenient webmail interfaces, and lack features for integration with desktop clients (e.g., fully-supported IMAP access). I try never to use mine; frankly I’d rather get a Facebook message from a student than a message to any institutional email address.

And while I agree that email addresses should be professional rather than “salacious”—which seems, at any rate, a strong word to describe any of the examples he uses (even “qtpie2005″)—I can’t see any difference in professionalism between “firstname.lastname@gmail.com” and the series of odd initials and numbers that comprise most email addresses. And since Gmail accounts are free, if I were the proverbial qtpie2005, I’d simply create a second account for my professional communications.

“Choose an appropriate greeting.”

Leddy bristles at “Dear ____,” but it’s quite common in my sphere. As a graduate student, many of my professors used it; I, in turn, picked up the habit of using it with my students, especially when addressing them as a group.

In fact, if I haven’t heard from a student before, I prefer they begin with “Dear,” as I would when writing to a colleague I didn’t know well, or to a writer who had submitted to the fledgling literary magazine I help out with. Here as in the first case, a student following Leddy’s advice would actually do slightly worse with me—to whatever insignificant extent they’d do better with Leddy, at least.

“Sign with your full name, course number, and meeting time.”

Leddy notes that signing “eliminates the need for stilted self-identification (‘I am a student in your such-and-such class’).” It seems to me, though, that making me scroll down to the end of your email to find out who’s email I’m reading is inconsiderate. If a student doubts that a professor will know him by name—as he probably should, depending on the class—he should identify himself as quickly as possible.

“Don’t send unexpected attachments.”

It’s not clear from Leddy’s post whether it’s the “attachments” or the “unexpected” that he has a bigger problem with, but the points he makes in this section and my responses are as follows:

  1. “It’s bad form.” Not so much an argument as an assertion, and one I couldn’t disagree with more. I’ve never thought for a second that it was rude to send me an attachment without some kind of prior authorization.
  2. “Attaching an essay with a request that your professor look it over is very bad form.” Context is everything. If a student wants to send me a draft to glance at, I am more than happy to do so, and it saves me time. If we have a lot to talk about, I will suggest we meet in person—but why should it be on the student’s shoulders to decide that for both of us? After all, I’m the teacher here; she’s the one who’s not sure how to feel about her paper.
  3. “Your professor is supposed to print out your essay because you’re not coming to class?” I never print out student work, and they only turn in work electronically. This issue is a non-starter for me.

My Advice: Know Your Audience.

To be fair, some of Leddy’s advice seems applicable across a far more broad sampling of professors (for example, “Proofread what you’ve written.”). Still, rather than issue a set of fixed rules, I would advise my students to learn as much as they can about how each of their professors prefers to communicate.

How? By observation, first of all. Start with the basics of professionalism, to be sure—and as always, Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab has a fine guide—but beyond that, read your professors’ emails carefully and respond in ways that seem consistent with their tone and formatting. (If this process seems familiar, consider how you’re learning to write the academic essays with which you’re all apparently surprising Prof. Leddy.)

Also, by asking. A simple question like “Do you prefer to be called Prof. Goldstein?” goes a long way. I’d rather play a part in shaping your professional communication to my liking than have Prof. Leddy do it for me.

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