or, the juxtaposition of previously unrelated trajectories
My tongue-in-cheek clickbait title is meant to illustrate via awkward engagement how inappropriate the norms of social media are to academia. Nowhere is this more obvious than when students try to email me. Here’s a recent example* I reproduce in full:
Hi I missed my second lab and I think the Cencus data for completely assignment one was handed out during it. Could you please let me know where I can find that Data. Thanks [student name]
I wonder about doing a special lab just on how to write emails in your professional life. This one in particular tipped me over the edge in terms of actually writing a blogpost advising how students might improve their email practice. Who can point out to me some of the problems with the above email?
Dear Dr Dombroski,
I am emailing you as the course convenor of [course code or name]. Unfortunately, I missed the second lab due to a family emergency and I have only just now realised that I missed receiving the census data that was handed out during this lab. Could you please let me know how I can get hold of this data, or point me to the appropriate person to help me?
Below is an example of a pretty good email I received this year. But can you spot the one annoying thing?
Dear Mrs Dombroski,
I’m here to express my interest on acting as a class rep for [course name]. I’d love to volunteer! I will try and do things to the best of my ability so that I may be able to voice out what my fellow classmates has to say.
I am very approachable and I am willing to help in any way I possibly can.
Yes, it’s ‘Mrs’ Dombroski. For a short period of my married life I went as Mrs Dombroski, but not professionally. Except for primary school teachers, it seems that Ms is the norm for professional women, unless they have specifically told you they are married AND prefer Mrs. And then for those of us who have worked our butts off to get PhDs, a little professional recognition as Dr Dombroski would not go astray.
The general rule is to err on the side of formality. That is, use formal titles like Dr, Prof, Assoc. Prof for the first email, then respond to however the person signs off in their return email. First email: Dear Dr Dombroski (and spell it correctly). Then I reply, Regards, Kelly. Second email: Dear Kelly. Even Dear Kelly is probably better than an incorrect title, to be honest (I often get Mr too!).
I don’t really mind informality, to be honest. I am a New Zealander, after all, and we don’t have a tradition of calling our lecturers ‘Professor’ as is common in the US. But I do like professionalism. Below is an example of an informal email that is still professional. I had told a postgraduate student I met at a seminar to email me so I could send him some details about the Development Studies Network of Aotearoa New Zealand. He sent the following:
This is [name] from the Department of [subject].
I had a nice conversation with you and [another person] this afternoon about the development studies society in NZ at [building name and room number].
What I like about this email is that he:
The only thing I would add is a sentence saying “Could you please tell me how to find out more about the society?” but since this was within an hour of the conversation, chances are I would remember what the point of the email was.
A further point about emails is that they are legal correspondence for us as professionals. All our emails are stored on university servers, and can be recalled for court cases or information act requests even if we have deleted them, I presume. So we like to treat them as professional correspondence. If you would like to have a casual conversation with a lecturer with jokes and such like, you are best to see them face to face or phone them.
My top tips for university emails then:
I wrote this post because I couldn’t find any posts in the NZ blogosphere about writing to lecturers. I hope that some of this might be useful for the odd undergraduate who wants to get on the good side of their lecturer by exhibiting professionalism in their studies!
*All examples have been deidentified and details are changed to protect anonymity.