Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dear Professor: Emailing in The Academy

When you think of college writing, what genres come to mind? Essays? Lab Reports? Proposals? Whatever popped into your head, it probably wasn't email. That's unfortunate because emails are one of the most commonly used forms of writing in the academy (and beyond). Most studies on the subject focus on emails in the corporate world (where workers spend a whopping 28% of their work time managing emails), but a quick, wholly non-scientific survey of my own inbox shows that I wrote 41 school-related emails last week.

Unfortunately, few students learn how to craft an appropriate email--even though lots of students could stand a lesson in netiquette (a blog post on the subject by EIU English professor Dr. Michael Leddy has drawn more than 400,000 readers from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe!).

I have my own thoughts about how to email professors (don't use emoticons. because: obvious), but I thought I'd ask a few experts. To that end, I chatted with Dr. Tim Taylor, Associate Professor of English and Director of Composition at EIU, Dr. Sandra E. Weissinger, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and  Dr. Natalie T. J. Tindall, Associate Professor and Co-Graduate Director in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University (whose twitter feed, incidentally, is all types of interesting). Here's some of their advice:

Use appropriate titles.

Many professors bemoan the epic of informality among today's students. All three of the academics I interviewed touched on this issue: Dr. Weissinger included "when students misspell my name or call me 'Miss', 'Ms.' or 'Mrs.'" on her list of top 3 email pet peeves; Dr. Tindall explained that she asks for the "extra formality" of being called Professor or Doctor because she is not much older than many of her students; Dr. Taylor's email policy, which he includes with his syllabus and course policy for all courses he teaches, asks that all messages begin with a formal address.

OMFG, y'all. Stop with the textspeak. Ur teacherz don't LOL.

There is a tendency for students to include casual internet abbreviations in messages to teachers. Perhaps it's rooted in the same informality that leads students to write emails without a formal address or salutation or maybe it's, as Dr. Taylor argues, related to the tendency of some people to "think of email as the same as texting their friends." Either way, it's a problem. Dr. Tindall's advice? "Emails are professional communication tools, and you should spell out everything you write." Kthnxbai.

And while you're at it, check your address.

Your email address reflects on your image as a student (arguably a type of semi-professional), so be sure to keep that in mind when you communicate with professors. I mean, do you really think your comm teacher is going to seriously consider a request for extra credit when it comes from (Dr. Tindall's example, not mine)? Dr. Leddy explains that using your university email, in addition to ensuring the expected amount of professionalism, "immediately lets your professor see that your email is legitimate and not spam."

Be specific!

All three of the professors I interviewed also noted that they expect students' emails to provide all the specific information that is necessary for the message to be read, understood and, if appropriate, responded to. This means wisely using the subject line and giving your full name, course number and section and, if applicable, the name or page numbers of any assignment or reading you're asking about. This isn't just about etiquette; it's about efficiency. As Dr. Weissinger explained "I have many students. So, when students do not note which class their email concerns (in combination with non-specific questions), I am lost - and often do not have time to figure out what class they are in, as I am often five minutes ahead of my students in terms of class preps and grading."

And while you're crafting that specific question, stop for a minute to decide if you need to ask it at all. As a TA for a first-year writing course this semester, I've become pretty salty about how many emails I get asking me questions that students should be able to answer on their own (when's the assignment due? How 'bout you look at the schedule posted on D2L... on the internet... that you're using right now to send me this email). And for the record, I'm not the only teacher who doesn't want to answer these types of questions; Dr. Weissinger included when students ask "a question that is answered in class documents (for example, the syllabus)" as her #1 pet peeve.

Keep it simple, stupid.

The best emails are short and to the point. "Emails are more inviting and easier to read when they are 'chunked,' meaning that in an online platform, strong communication is likely to have shorter paragraphs than academic essays," Dr. Taylor explains. "The medium affects the arrangement and form of the message." Dr. Tindall, who follows this website's advice for 90% of the emails she writes, agrees: "I hate long emails. HATE THEM." If a longer message is absolutely necessary, Tindall recommends using white space and bullets as tools for chunking.

The pudding's in the proofing.

As with any good writing, emails require proofreading. Consistently incorrect spelling and punctuation make messages harder to read--and can make readers quite cross. Save yourself (and your audience) some frustration and give your words a quick once-over before pressing send.

Feeling a little overwhelmed? Don't worry. More responsibly using electronic communication, while it might appear daunting at first, doesn't really take all that much work. Plus, it adds to your own efficiency. Including course numbers in your subject lines, for example, makes searching your own inbox much easier. And there's the bonus of knowing that your professors will be better able to answer whatever questions you have (and in a better mood when they do) if your messages are clear and concise. And don't feel like you're alone; Dr. Leddy and each of the professors I spoke with all pointed out that, just like their students, they work to follow their own advice.

It's a jungle out there; write accordingly.


  1. Also, paragraph breaks are our friends. We need to use them.

  2. Excellent article that addresses a huge genre of writing that students use on a daily basis (but that we never talk about).

    I've got an alternative explanation for why student emails to professors feature emoticons and lol's. I think they just see these as ways of striking a positive tone in the email. Especially if the prof. is a bit intimidating, they might feel anxious about making demands on their time, so they look to ease it the way they always have in writing online.

    It doesn't help that I know plenty of professors who themselves use emoticons.