Yesterday in class one of my students said something like, “But dude, didn’t Enlightenment ideas take a while to show up in politics?”
I said, “Certainly. Though the idea of self-government … Wait a minute. Did you just call me ‘dude’?”
I don’t remember what his exact question was; all I heard was “dude.” I told him that if I didn’t allow my nephews to call me “dude,” he certainly wasn’t allowed to! Everyone laughed, and I made a small point about proper language usage in class discussion.
But this was not the first time a student has called me “dude,” and it is part of a significant problem that many professors have noticed in their students. While we could consider such informal language flattering, because it means that students find it comfortable to participate in class, it’s also a result of sloppy conversational habits. And that’s the kind of stuff professors are supposed to discourage, to benefit students in all areas of their lives, including their future careers.
Informal language also frequently shows up in email communications from students. Technology is great and it allows students to get extra help via email so that they don’t have to come to office hours, get last minute help when they are stuck on a problem with their work, and allows for the transmission of complicated instructions. I love it. But our frequent use of virtual communication and social media (email, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) seems to encourage more casual styles, and what I don’t love is reading rude, misspelled, careless messages from students.
There are many online guides that explain how to properly email your professor, including this excellent one by Michael Leddy. I’ve added a few to his list, including not just information about email etiquette, sometimes called Netiquette, but also about the relationship you should have with your professor:
1. Use Your Professor’s Name and Title.
I’m not “Miss Rooney.” To paraphrase Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, it’s Dr. Rooney—I didn’t spend eight years in Evil Graduate School to be called “Miss.” This is about respect. Your language can really communicate your attitude toward your classes and your schoolwork. We are always happy to help students who are respectful and serious about their work!
2. Use Your College or University Email Account.
If I get an email from HotStudd@hotmail, I’m not going to read it, and it might even end up in the spam folder before I ever see it. You can certainly keep that email for use with your friends, but it’s very important to separate your professional life, which includes school, from your private life. If you wouldn’t apply for a job using the name HotStudd, it’s inappropriate to email your professor that way!
3. Remember That Your Professor is Not Your Friend.
This sounds harsh, but it’s the truth. Our job is to be something different in your life: we are mentors, teachers, guides, but we’re not your friends. This means that we sometimes have to tell you some unpleasant truths. When your paper earns a bad grade, we are telling the truth about the quality of your work and how to improve it. It has nothing to do with whether we like you or not—because that’s irrelevant. Besides, do you really want us showing up at the club to party with you? I didn’t think so.
4. Use Specific Information.
Most professors teach hundreds of students a year, and a LOT of them are named Josh or Brittany. We assign multiple tasks in our courses and we also teach multiple sections of the same course. If you write “I’m in your course and I need help with the assignment. Thanks, Brittany,” I am not going to give you that much help quickly, because I first have to figure out who you are, what course you are in, and what assignment you are confused about. This will delay and sometimes prevent me from assisting you. You need to include your full name, your course name and number, and specify the assignment. This way I can get back to you as soon as possible!
5. Take Control of Your Work.
Read your syllabus before emailing your professor. Some professors might be happy to tell you what the week’s reading assignment is if you e-mail them, but many professors simply don’t have the time. This is why we create course syllabi, your one-stop shop for all course information. Many professors also now post their syllabi on your college’s Learning Management System, such as Blackboard, so that you always have access to it even if you lose the paper copy. Before you email your professor to ask a question, check to see if you already have the answer. A significant portion of academic work is independent and builds self-reliance. Then we’ll be happy to help!
These basic rules are applicable in all aspects of your life, but if you follow these rules in your academic communications, your work will benefit!
Jill Rooney, Ph.D. is an Education Writer for OnlineColleges.net. She earned a Ph.D. in History from the University of New Hampshire and has taught History, Political Science, and Film Theory for over twenty years. Dr. Rooney’s work has been published by the Smithsonian Institution, Oxford University Press, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Her teaching experience has taught her that all students really just want one thing: To learn. And that isn't always easy, so she's here to help!