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Back to School Week: Common Faux Pas When Communicating With Professors

Back to School Week Day 2 Communicating with Professors

So, funny story. I’ve literally been agonizing over this post for a year and a half. I had originally intended it to be part of back to school week LAST year, but ended up chickening out of posting it.

Why? Because it seems like a fairly good topic, and probably (hopefully) contains sound advice…

Well, mainly because so many other articles I’ve read that are written by professors and deal with this kind of stuff take on such a negative, snarky, and frankly condescending tone. And I don’t want this to be like that. I don’t want to be like that.

So I’ve tried my best not to be. Students don’t deserve that – particularly since a lot of this stuff is stuff you guys do unintentionally. Cultural habits that are totally acceptable with your peers, but that don’t really jive with the cultural realities of academia. And the professors that this stuff bother also don’t deserve the ire that so often ends up directed towards them in reaction – because just like any other field or profession there are certain things that are just not acceptable within that culture and simply because it’s education shouldn’t mean you should respect those mores any less.

So let’s keep the comments respectful and be kind to one another.

That said, let’s proceed!

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“Sorry I missed class, did I miss anything important?”

The answer is always a resounding “YES!” Even if your professor doesn’t say it, I guarantee you they’re thinking it. The information covered in class is never just “throw away” stuff, and your professors have spent countless hours preparing it, writing it, planning it, etc… While we generally know that you don’t mean to come off this way, the reality is that asking for what you missed in this manner essentially invalidates all that work and effort, and insinuates that what we do in class routinely, well, isn’t important. That important is an aberration from the norm. And while I understand that not every class is 100% relevant to your personal interests, and not every professor uses 100% of their class time effectively, it’s still something that gets a lot of professors’ hackles up and comes off as mildly rude. Asking instead, “what did I miss?” is a far more polite option – but the best way to go about it? Get notes and the gist of what you missed from a classmate, and then contact your professor with any specific questions about the material.

Emailing them after hours and then getting upset when you don’t get a reply immediately.

Bottom line is that professors have lives too, and they often don’t revolve around their email accounts. They have families, friends, homes to maintain, grocery shopping to do, other jobs (if they’re adjunct) to attend to, not to mention a crapload of other work responsibilities besides teaching (committee meetings, administrative hoops to jump through, research and writing responsibilities, advising responsibilities – the list goes on and on). Professor is simply not a job that is naturally conducive to “having a life,” outside of work, and so a lot of professors limit their email checking to when they’re in the office, or to one or two set times in the evening in an effort to keep some semblance of a healthy work-life balance. Even those of us who get our email on our phones will, depending on what we’re doing at the moment, merely check to make sure it’s not some sort of emergency, and then add it to the list of things to attend to when we get into the office the next morning.

Now obviously, it’s one thing if you email a professor and then don’t hear from them for days. Then I would suggest you go talk to them in person about it. But in general, just try to have realistic expectations. Remember that your professors are people who exist outside of the classroom/office setting. And if it’s something that does absolutely need an immediate response for whatever reason? Honestly, email is not the way to go: call them.

Emailing as a first resort.

This is sort of along the same lines as above – basically remember that your professors have a buttload of responsibilities, both personal and professional, besides attending to you. Most professors will do their best to make you a priority, but bottom line is that you should try to figure out the answer to your question using your own means before emailing. Check the syllabus, check the assignment requirement sheets, check the class website. Do these things first and THEN if you still don’t have an answer, email away. This is simply a more effective use of both your time, and your professors’ – particularly if the answer to your question is simply, “it’s in the syllabus.”

Ending an email with “Thank you for understanding” when you don’t yet know if they understand.

You know how the old saying goes: “Never ASSUME, because when you ASSUME, you make an ASS out of U and ME.” And I guarantee that if it is about something the professor would have been on the fence about to begin with, that presumption is probably going to push them into the “not understanding” category. Because essentially what that little “thank you for understanding” does is transform asking for permission into telling them that this is happening regardless of how they respond. That presumption can get a lot of professors’ hackles up at light-speed, even if the request is fairly innocuous, so I’d recommend you avoid using it as a sign off.

Waiting until the night before an assignment is due to email them with major questions.

This is generally a dead give-away for “I waited until the last minute to even begin working on this,” and will leave us either chuckling and shaking our heads or face palming in disappointment (depending on our individual moods/attitudes – I tend to be the chuckling type). It also, of course, does you no favors, because the more last minute it is, the less likely it is that your professor will even see it before the assignment is due. Now it’s one thing if you’ve had several back-and-forths with the prof already, and it’s just a minor question about something like formatting – basically if it’s something that realistically you’d still be working on at this last minute point. But waiting until the last minute to contact them with major content questions is just a huge giveaway.

Now again, I realize that sometimes shit happens, and even the most responsible, conscientious student can sometimes let things go to the last minute – it’s certainly not like I never pulled an overnighter in college finishing up a paper that I let slip my mind. I get it, I really do. But unless it’s because of something that warrants asking for an extension (and no, “I forgot about it” is generally not a valid reason for an extension), I’d recommend just taking your punches gracefully, and completing the assignment the best you can. As a student I always far preferred taking whatever points I got off for not being able to clear up my questions when I procrastinated as my just deserts for letting it go so long to letting the professor know I had totally waited until the last minute and possibly damaging my standing in their eyes.

Now, if you have no problem with them knowing that you waited until the last minute? If you feel like showing the professor your hand in exchange for having the question answered is worth it in terms of points? Then absolutely ask away. Just know you’re giving yourself away when you email us with massive content questions like that, and the reality is that some professors will view you more poorly for it.

So I suppose this whole section boils down to: know that we know and proceed as you will.

Using overly informal email conventions or text-speak when you don’t really know the professor.

Until you get to know your professor a little better, and can accurately judge how informal you can be in emails based on their personality, treat communicating with your professor like professional communication – because it is! Be polite, be courteous, be formal. Use a professional greeting, address them using their preferred title (Dr. So and So or Professor So and So – not Ms. or Mr.), and use full words and sentences (no “ur” for “your” or “2” for “to,” or “too,”) etc… etc…

Now once you get to know your professor a little better, it may end up being a different story. Once I get to know a student and they get to know me, I don’t think twice if an email comes in without a proper professional greeting, without a professional sign off, or with informal phrasing (although I still don’t care for text-speak). But not all professors are like that, and it’s best to play it safe until you figure out if yours is one of them!

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To wrap this whole thing up I guess all of these specific things can be easily generalized into being as respectful, considerate, and professional as possible.

But that would have made for a much shorter post!

Anything you think I missed? Add it in the comments (just remember to be respectful)!

1 thought on “Back to School Week: Common Faux Pas When Communicating With Professors”

  1. Bahahahaha! This is really good, exactly the things Husband has issues with at his new job. I like you’ve put it much more gently, because seriously I don’t even have to live through it and I’m snarky about it!

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