There is nothing scarier than e-mailing an English professor. Seriously, have you tried it? What is the correct e-mail format? Do you end with “sincerely” or “thanks” or “good night, sweet prince?” Should that be a semi-colon or a comma? Do you put that story title in quotes or italics? Oh Lord, what if there’s a typo? What if the e-mail spell check didn’t catch it? Better paste it into Microsoft Word and run a spell check there, just in case. What if I send an e-mail using “you’re” instead of “your”?! That would dock at least ten participation points.
No matter what teacher you’re e-mailing, it is important to look at what you are sending. The type of e-mail you send says a lot about the kind of student you are. Are you sending messages you don’t want to be sending? Unfortunately, many students are doing just this. Below are some of the common mistakes Marquette students make in the e-mails they send to teachers and the impressions these mistakes give. Thankfully, most of the desirably features of e-mail writing can quickly become habit.
Grammar and punctuation are a good place to start. If your sentence reads something like, “I am unnnable to astend calss terday due to ilknesss,” your teacher will read it as, “I’m sending this on my I-phone from the bar that is currently more interesting than your lecture on carcinogens in plastic bottles.” But even minor mistakes stick out to the reader. If you are sending a serious e-mail, using “accept” instead of “except” is a quick way to lose your authoritative voice. If there is a word you always misspell or a grammar rule you always forget, it might be safe to just rewrite your sentence to avoid these potential mistakes.
Here’s something I know you’ve worried about: is it Dr. Derp or Prof. Derp? First of all, don’t address your instructor as Mr. or Mrs. unless you have been told to do so. When in doubt, use Professor. It is less of a faux pas to call a person by a higher title than to call them by a lower title.
Do you remember that episode of Spongebob where Patrick yells, “It’s Doctor-Professor Patrick to you!”? Well, we’re surrounded by Doctor/Professors here. So what address should we use? If you really want to be sure, either check the syllabus or look up the instructor on the Marquette website. In my experience, most instructors write “Dr.” on their syllabi and e-mail sign-offs, so Dr. is probably the way to go.
This brings up another important part of e-mail writing. Do you begin your e-mails with a salutation or greeting? If not, you should. If your e-mail jumps straight into “I have a question about…” or “Is the paper due on…”, then your instructor will read it in just that way; no courtesy and patience, but rude expectancy. Even if you are trying to be succinct, at least having an address at the beginning of the quick question shows that you are patient in receiving a response and appreciative of the answer you shall receive. Always chose courtesy over quickness.
We’ve been talking about the subliminal messages that teacher e-mails can send, but the explicit message of an e-mail must be discussed as well. There are three trends in particular that you must know not to do: asking when the essay will be graded, asking a question clearly in the syllabus, and asking a question that should be addressed in office hours.
First, don’t e-mail to find out whether the test or essay is graded yet. For those of you scoffing at this, you would be surprised how many instructors receive these e-mails. For those who send these e-mails, I understand the stress of not knowing your grade. A common misconception is that the instructor might have forgotten about the test or essay, and maybe a little e-mail will remind them about the grading to be done. No. It is nothing but annoying. Think of this – how would you feel if after assigning a seven-page essay, your instructor e-mailed you every night to ask you if you had finished yet? Yes, annoying.
Another teacher-student deal breaker: e-mailing about something clearly stated on the syllabus. Even if you lose the syllabus handed out on the first day of class, it is probably posted on D2L. Having our instructor’s e-mail address is a privilege. Our professors aren’t Google search engines who will robotically shoot out the answer to our every question; they are people who are taking time out of their day to read what we’ve asked them, think about the question, and give us a helpful response.
So how does asking a question clearly written in the syllabus look to a professor? Not very classy. It not only shows immaturity and a lack of self-reliance, but it also shows disrespect towards the instructor.
Finally, remember that your instructor has office hours specifically to help students. Before you e-mail your instructor, evaluate whether your concern can be answered quickly or whether you should visit your instructor’s office hours.
I’ve saved the best for last: sick-day e-mails. We go to school in the frosty Midwest. We will get sick. But it is important to know how to handle illnesses. You don’t always need to e-mail your instructor – I took a class that allowed three “free days,” so the instructor said that if we miss one of these days, it was unnecessary to send an explanatory e-mail. Alright, works for me.
But in most other cases, especially in a class with 25 or fewer students, it is courteous to send an e-mail to excuse your absence. My go-to message usually says, “Due to illness, I will not be attending class today. I will be sure to look over today’s notes with a classmate.” Necessary? Maybe not. But it is courteous.
But don’t go too far. Some students think that the more graphic they get in describing their illness, the more likely the professor is to believe their story. Rule of thumb: if your e-mail contains the word “poop,” you have gone too far.
An added bonus: learning to send a proper e-mail now will be invaluable when e-mailing internship and job employers.
by Anna Ceragioli