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How NOT to Email Your Teacher, Professor or TA

Perhaps it is because midterms are fast approaching, but my sensitivity to the emails my students are sending me always has clear peaks and valleys. I am quite understanding at the beginning of term since we are still pretty much strangers, but at midterms, finals and during the ‘grade negotiation’ period that is normal here after the term ends but before final grades are final I am more likely to be less understanding when another mysterious email from a hard to identify student from an unspecified class arrives in my email inbox. So, here are a few ‘real’ cases of emails from students that fall in the ugly, bad and good categories. 

I: The Ugly:

No Subject:

When you have 100+ students in multiple classes, and a few students taking more than one class, an email from a vaguely recognized name with no subject at all is a bad sign in most cases. Even a bland “Homework” is infinitely better than the “No subject” on an email. I have no idea if the email is urgent, relevant or totally by accident until I open it with trepidation to see what awaits. A simple subject line like “Class name and Homework” or “Class name and Presentation materials” is what I suggest to keep things simple. 

Bad email address or Unknown email address

Hello, [email protected]. Hello Kitty33? Or, even worse, [email protected]. Students are endlessly predictable in how badly they choose or create their email addresses. Even worse is that the email they use often is NOT the email the registered under their student profiles so I have no way to match up an email address with  a student request if they do not identify themselves somehow. Two cases in point that occurred this term:

1) Student emails about their presentation topic for a freshmen class. I confirm and add the name to the list of presentation groups. Student emails back to say that the name on the presentation list is wrong and please change it. Why was it wrong? They used a family member’s email instead of their own and ‘forgot’ to tell me this when they sent the original email. At least they were polite about it but still scratching my head over it. 

2) Last week, random email from a student about homework. No class, name in Chinese letters, email address does NOT match any of the emails on the profiles for the Chinese students in my classes this term. Series of emails ensues where I ask them to identify class and assignment and they send similar requests back about homework with no other details. Communication ends at an impasse after 2-3 days.

The solution here is to request that students use their name@email address but most of them do not or they use their English name without ever telling me that is their English name but that is another story. 

No body text

So many students send emails with a simple subject from an email address I probably recognize because the same students ask questions frequently but there is no body text at all. Most often it is a late assignment or they uploaded the wrong assignment online and need to email the revised one but the absence of at least a sentence long body text or even a thank you and their name kind of throws me off. I do not want an essay here, but even a simple sentence and their name makes a more positive impression than nothing at all in the body of the email. 

II: The Bad:


Last week, on one of my busiest days, a student who was making a presentation that day emailed me to snarkily demand why HIS presentation materials were not posted on the class website. Now, this is on a day when I have 3 classes in a row with a total of 30 minutes break time and he sent his materials at 11:39 pm the night before when I have requested they send them beforehand so I can review them first. When I emailed back to say that I had missed them as they were posted so late, he wrote back a less than convincing ‘sorry’ but the damage was done. I do not require my students to call me Dr. or Professor Thorkelson in emails or in person, as another example, but the ones who choose to be polite are more likely to get better treatment and the benefit of the doubt when there is a problem like the one above. A simple thank you also goes a long way to making me want to help you out. 

Complex or hard to understand messages

We all understand that there are likely to be miscommunications about various things, especially when dealing with students who are not first language speakers of English, but there are limits to how much we can infer from a single email about a topic or series of topics. In one case, I received an email from a “Jason Park” at the beginning of the term to ask if I could let them into a class. When I emailed back to ask which class and what their Korean name was so I could add them to the waiting list, I got no response. It took me weeks to figure out that the mysterious Jason is in fact enrolled in my classes now, but does not use that name or email address most of the time. Go figure.

The other problem is when students decide to send one email but save up every question about every topic they have misunderstood during the previous 8 weeks of term to ask at the same time. When I am getting emails asking about the syllabus covered in week 1, presentations from week 3, the midterms next week and questions about the final projects due in 8+ weeks I am less likely to answer in the detail you may want and will probably just tell you to read the syllabus again to answer any questions that you have about that while focusing on the urgent issue of next week’s midterms instead of presentations that are graded and over or Finals that are weeks away. A short email that is clearly focused on one or two related topics and is framed as questions will most likely get the quality of response they want or need. This leads me to the ‘good’ emails which are fortunately the majority most terms. 

III: The Good

Proper titles

As mentioned above, I am perfectly happy with ‘Hello Tory’ as my title in an email. But no title and an abrupt question is a bad combination. Both the presenter and the infamous Jason mentioned above made this mistake at least once. It rarely ends well and, to be honest, it hurts them more than they realize since I have to consciously try NOT to judge them more harshly the next time I see their name on am email or assignment. 

I have also addressed this in the email subjects section above as well. An email with the class name and reason for emailing and using a proper title for your Professor is more likely to get dealt with promptly and be on point as well as helpful to the student who writes it. 

Clear and Polite questions 

Politely worded and indirect questions using modals are what we expect. “Can you tell me when the assignment for this week is due?” is better than “Tell me the due date for the assignment.” “Why did I get an F on the quiz?” is not as good as “Can you tell me how to prepare better for the next quiz so I get a better grade?” You want my sympathy and empathy when I respond and I am more likely to give extra tips and encouragement in response to a polite and specific question – and this overlaps somewhat with proper tone which is the next and final point. 

‘Proper’ tone

This is a big issue and one I cannot deal with in detail here, but tone is probably the biggest issue when writing an email to your teacher, professor or TA. You are writing to us because you want or need our help, advice, answers to your questions or understanding of an emergency. Short, abrupt emails like you wouldn’t write to your worst enemy (or conversely that you might right to your best friend) are not the key to success here. There are now email tone detectors available online (Grammarly has one) or consult a list of dos and don’ts with example emails like this one /advice/how-to-write-an-email-to-a-professor-college-freshman-guide/ to understand the basics of this complex topic. Tone is one of the most important aspects of proper writing, and probably one of the least well understood since most students have never taken a course where this was taught.

In conclusion, I would like to end with a nightmare scenario that kind of keeps me up at night. You receive an email from strange address with the subject ‘homework’ and an attachment in PDF format. You know that an assignment is due and that the email MIGHT be from a student in your class. You hesitate for a moment but then decide to open the file trusting that your antivirus will catch anything fishy. Initially, everything is OK but then when you click on the file your antivirus goes haywire and you see the deadly blue screen before your computer dies and cannot be rebooted. This is my nightmare and – with the speed of technology and sophistication of modern spammers – I could see this happening sometime soon. So, for the good of your students, your sanity and potentially your computer and its precious files and other content, let’s try to get all of our students on the same page when it comes to emailing us for any reason and getting the responses they would wish for and deserve. 

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