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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Contacting Professors by Email

My job sure has changed since I began teaching in higher education in 1984.  There was no such thing as the internet, email, video conferencing, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and so on.  One of the biggest changes has been the way students contact professors. 

I would say that my contact with students is mainly electronic.  I do miss the days of students popping into my office for a chat or lingering after class to discuss ideas! 

So, let's explore better communication with your professors via email.  Remember, many of your professors are old school when it comes to new technologies (and yes, for many professor, email is a new technology).  I can remember when my  ex-husband and I first had our cell/mobile phones.  The only calls we made were to find each other when we went shopping! 

Here are some guidlines:
  1. Use your school assigned email account.  Many professors will not respond to email that is not a school address.  You might find this ridiculous, but it stems from federal regulations on your privacy.  Anyone who is 18+ is covered by FERPA.  This means professors can only talk to you about your grades.  When you send an email from, a professor has no way of knowing whether it is you or some other student in the class posing as you!  By using your school assigned email account reduces this concern for professors.
  2. Include your course name and section number (group name, if applicable) in the SUBJECT line of the email.   Professors have multiple courses and/or sections of course.  You will receive a speedier response, if the professor has this information.
  3. Be sure you really have a question!  Often times students email professors questions that can be easily located in the syllabus or other course materials.  Before you email your professor, be sure you have read the course material!  There is nothing more frustrating to a professor than a student who has not read the material.  Professors have spent a number of hours anticipating student questions and try to provide clear direction in their course syllabus or other course documents.
  4. If you do have a legitimate question, is it a question that can be easily answered in an email?  A good question to ask yourself is how long do you think it will take a professor to answer your question?  If you think the professor will be able to answer it in 2 minutes or less and/or 3-5 lines of email text, then email your question.  If it is a more detailed question, explaining materials -- concepts, equations etc., it might be wiser to make a face-to-face appointment with your professor.  Email is not an efficient means of asking detailed information.
  5. Assume your professor has a life!  Professors are not chained to their email accounts.  You should expect a 24-48 hour response window.  If you are completing an assignment one hour before the deadline, don't expect a response to an email.  If you are taking online tests, be sure to start it long before it is due!  This actually shows initiative on your part!
Remember, email communication does not convey emotion!  If you are asking for a really big favor of your professor, ask in person!

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