Ah, the syllabus. Friend to all.
I’ve worked with college students in some capacity for the last 18 years. Friends, having been regaled with stories vague enough to protect privacy but clear enough to entertain, love to send me treasures from the Internet about the many ways to get along with your professors. It’s not really that hard, but lots of advice is out there. Some day, I might actually write a book about it myself, as I have the benefit of working with students not only in an academic capacity but also in a variety of advising and service capacities.
Oh, the knowledge I could impart.
First, please understand the fundamental viewpoint of people who work in academia or student affairs (or insert your student-related field of choice here). We are not in it for the money. We have to work 10,000 years just to get to a position where we’re making anything resembling a respectable income. No one whose primary motivation is cash flow would put up with this sort of nonsense. So why do we do what we do? Because on some level, we care. We want to help. We either remember our college experience fondly and want to recreate that experience for others, or we had bad college experiences and have a clear view of how we can make it better. The rose-colored corridor you pass into when you enter academia from what many call the “real world?” That’s idealism. That’s a focus on what the world could be rather than just settling for what it is, and it abounds at universities, particularly in the underpaid staff that cling to it when times are hard (and by “times are hard,” I do mean “students are exhausting”), which is approximately 92.3%*of us.
Translation: you don’t have to convince us to want to help you. We’re already there.
Recently, someone sent me this gem on how to send non-annoying email to your professors, which is mostly just good sense on how to email anyone ever. Overall, I agree, but there are elements of the piece that give me considerable pause. This makes sense, as it was compiled from feedback from students. Students, however, do not have the benefit of knowing what we ignore in order to get to the point where we help them anyway. You know, because we want to. So I’m going to give you my professorly point of view. I mean, I’m taking a break from teaching right now, but I’m going to go back in time and address the issue as if I’m still teaching.
Regarding Small Talk
Or “meaningless nicety” as the writer of the piece puts it. Key word there? MEANINGLESS. Maybe there are some people out there who like this sort of useless input. I’m just going to say it – their taste is wrong and they are doing their students a disservice by giving the impression that this will help them at all ever with anyone else. Overwhelmingly, the people I’ve known, worked with, and flat out asked before writing this post agree – do not do this. This is terrible advice. No “How do you like the weather?” No “How are you today?” Because you know how I am today? I am busy. I have eleventy dozen emails from my literally hundreds of students, and here’s some fool wasting their time (and frankly – mine) trying to small talk at me. Save this for when you write a letter to your grandma (also, write letters to your grandma – it will make her day). Save this for when we are standing awkwardly outside the classroom waiting for the class before ours to finish and vacate (although really, I prefer silence or talking about something that’s actually interesting even then. Tell me about your favorite band. Tell me the fun new restaurant you tried last weekend. Tell me what you want to talk about in your next speech. But don’t you talk about how hot it is in Texas in August. Don’t you dare.). In an email to your professors – skip it. Get to the point.
Regarding Identifying Yourself
THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING. Who are you? Where do I know you from (see above re: literally hundreds of students)? Name, class, day, time. Help me help you.
This is not the time to get verbose and flowery. State your business clearly and succinctly. We do not need your life story.
Regarding Showing Me How (Not at all) Awesome You Are By Junking Up My Inbox
You know who is awesome? People who send short, clear emails with actual purpose. If you can answer your own question, why the hell are you – again – wasting your time and mine by emailing me? It’s not impressive to me that you read the syllabus – it’s expected. You don’t get special “I’m a wonderful person” cookies for doing what is minimally required of you, so don’t ask for them by sending pointless email. The time it takes for you to write and for me to read your email that you had no need to send is five minutes of both of our lives that we will never get back. One third of the reason we spend so much time creating a syllabus (the other two thirds are because the law/university requires one and because we want you to succeed so we are happy to spell out how to do so in minute detail for you) is so that we can answer frequently asked questions one time instead of hundreds of times, thus freeing us up to work on making our class as good as it can possibly be.
Do not phrase a request like this – “I know the syllabus says ___, but ___.” Let me save your relationship with all your present and future professors. That first blank? That’s your answer. That second blank? That’s your problem that you need to be a grown up and solve on your own. No need to email me. I am your professor, not your mommy, life coach, or therapist.
[Aside – I will, however, teach you how to use a planner and manage your time more effectively so that you don’t feel compelled to make excuses or ask for unfair exceptions, because this will make you get along with everyone in your life better and just be a better human all around. Stop by my office during office hours, or make an appointment, and I’ll work you in. I will get excited and nerdy about this, so be prepared for that.]
I know you think I have superpowers, but I actually only have the same 24 hours in a day that you do. And every minute I spend responding to email that had no business being sent because I have already handed that answer to you in writing is a minute I’m not reading the latest research on the topic we’re discussing next week or finding ways to make my presentation more engaging or grading your paper that I presume you would like back some time this month.
I generally respond to these emails with “Read syllabus.” I know professors who refuse to respond to these emails at all. Their students get all bent out of shape about it, but here’s the reality check – you’re not their only student or their only responsibility. If a professor seems to be ignoring you, try to put your hurt feelings aside, re-read your email objectively, and put yourself in their place. Yes, some professors are disorganized, avoidant assholes, but if you’re honest with yourself, most of the time, I think you’ll see that it’s not them – it’s you.
Regarding Politeness and Frivolous Repetition
You know what’s actually super polite? Not treating your professors like idiots who have forgotten what you said in the last (clear, succinct) paragraph or trying to dictate their schedule by imploring them to answer as soon as they can. This oversteps a boundary and is the exact opposite of polite. If there is an actual deadline for when you need a response (e.g., you are asking them to write a reference letter for a scholarship application), tell them the deadline, because that is information they will need to determine whether or not they have time to say yes to your request.
Another way to be polite is to remember that extra things you are asking of your professors are requests, not demands. They may have to say no or may not get to it before you need it, and contrary to popular belief, it’s probably not personal. Trust that they know their schedule better than you do, and prepare for this possibility.
Also, don’t ask your professors to compensate for when you fail to manage your time well. Sadly, Time Lord is not part of my repertoire. Don’t email me at 2:00 in the morning about a project that was assigned a week ago and is due tomorrow. First, you will not get an answer in time to finish. I may still be up at 2:00 a.m., but I’m reading or watching the Netflix or socializing, not working. Second, at 8:00 a.m. when I do get the email, I will know that you procrastinated and will thus begin my day dreading the near future moment when I have to find something constructive to say about the piece of shit you will surely be handing in to me. This is a rude thing to do to me that early in the day before I have had a proper amount of caffeine. You’re the worst. At the end of the semester, if your grade is an 89.4 and I could give you the 6/10 of a point it would take to make it an A, I’m going to reflect on your responsibility that semester to see if your performance merits the small bump to take you to the next grade. Emails that threw a funk into my day do not bode well for you in this particular situation.
[Unless, of course, I got that email, dreaded your presentation, and it pleasantly surprised me by being the best in the class. You get the A then. Well done. Maybe, for future encounters, work on your personal discretion issues, but well done in my class.]
Do not suck up to me. I know I’m awesome. I don’t need you to tell me. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but most professors do not suffer from low self-esteem. We don’t need you to puff us up. Also, I tend to keep an appropriate social distance from my students. Therefore, you don’t really know me well enough to be a good judge of my awesomeness. You don’t have enough information to make that assessment. Just stop.
If you really need to compliment me, there is a time to do it. At the end of the semester, in your evaluation of the class, thank me and tell me what you learned. Gratitude that is not attached to a request is rewarding. Gratitude that is attached to a request (i.e., in an email) seems false and shady.
You want to know how to email your professors? It’s really quite simple:
Before emailing, check the website, syllabus, class notes, friend from class, etc. Your answer might be there, and then we can just all be proud of how good a listener you are. No need for email at all. You don’t have to spell it out for me. I automatically know that students who do well and hand things in on time without ever emailing me listened well, because that’s exactly the way I designed the course to work. Thank you, and here’s the A you earned.
If you do all these things, and you still don’t see the answer, email thusly:
- Subject line – 4-5 words to summarize
- First line of body of email – Tell them who you are and how they know you (name, class, day, time).
- Ask your question or tell them what you want. Be direct and succinct.
- End with your (electronic) signature (or just your name).
And for the love of beer, proofread! You are in college. Write like it.
*Statistic totally made up for the purpose of humor