Thirteen Fewer Tips for Emailing Your Professor

My good friends at Queens College IT have started a blog on Tumblr with a series of well-meaning tips for students. The blog is a barely a few weeks old, but there are already a number of posts and links with titles heavy with clickbait-speak:

My favorite post on the blog is a link to “18 Tips for Emailing Your Professor,” an article on US News and World Report. Most of the tips are sound, but they should be considered guidelines for any professional correspondence, email or otherwise. For example, the article urges you to be mindful of your recipient: send it to the correct address, maintain a professional tone, check your spelling, avoid slang, use a proper salutation and closing, and keep it concise. Any boss, co-worker, or client will appreciate this as much as your professor.

But do we really need eighteen tips? Some of these tips unfairly caricature students and professors: not all students write in leetspeak and emoticons, and not all professors are technophobes. Most of my students are very cordial and professional with email. Likewise, even the oldest and stodgiest college professors have been using email for at least 20 years, and the younger ones have likely been using their entire professional lives. It’s 2014: most of us “get” email.

Aside from guidelines that apply to any professional correspondence, here are five tips for your professor when I’m your professor.

  1. Email me at the address I provided you. I use the university-issued address because I can ignore those accounts on weekends and after the semester ends. As part-time faculty, I should only correspond with you when the meter’s running.
  2. Email me from an address where I can identify you. AOL email addresses used to not include real names so I would see messages from greekchick69@aol.com. Make it easy to figure out who you are. If your email account doesn’t support real names, at least sign your message with your full name. Or get a different email provider.
  3. Use the subject line. I don’t understand why anyone wastes the subject line with “Hi Professor,” or “From Bryan.” Years ago, I read an article recommending you use the subject line as the message as much as possible. For example, ask me, “Can you meet on Wednesday at 5:30?” in the subject line and leave the message blank. That way, I can reply without even opening the message.
  4. Compose a New Message. Speaking of subject lines, it really bugs me when a message lands in my inbox with an old subject. That happens when someone replies to an old message instead of composing a new one. That not only messes with the threading feature of my email client, it also wastes the valuable subject line: the topic on this new message will be different than the old one. Composing a new email costs as much as replying to an old one, and who doesn’t prefer a shiny new message to an crusty old one?
  5. Don’t attach anything. Email attachments are the worst. But even worse are attachments in a proprietary format. The US News article pokes fun at .odt (Open Office) files, but those aren’t any worse than Word (.docx) or Pages files. It doesn’t matter because those files require specific programs to open. I’ll admit that with enough time and effort, I can open just about anything, but that’s a lot of wasted time. Sending a PDF will ensure that your document will look exactly as what you sent me. But instead of emailing me an attachment of any sort, print it and hand it to me. Or better yet, share it using a cloud service.

It’s possible that I’m asking too much. After all, I’m an unreasonable ogre. However, managing email is one of those things that has become less of a work tool than a obstacle to getting things done. Let’s all work to minimize its impact on our productivity.

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