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?
- No name. I am not greeted by name and since it is also not necessarily clear to me which course this about, I’m not even sure if the student has sent this just to me or to a whole pile of lecturers. I’m not sure whether I need to even answer this email. In fact, I am NOT really the appropriate person for this email, and if the student had been going to class and labs they would probably know this. So it immediately puts me in a frame of mind to be difficult.
- As mentioned, no course code or name. I teach into four courses this semester, you can’t guarantee yours is the only course that requires census data.
- No apologies or explanations. Considering the labs are compulsory (I can guess which course this is), a little bit of grovelling or some explanation might have been in order here. Also, asking someone for extra time for a task that they considered to be over is kind of a favour. Although I did like the ‘Could you please’ (polite) and the ‘where I can find’ (not assuming I have to send it to them personally).
- Spelling, grammar, formatting. You have no doubt spotted it: Cencus (complete with capital letters and wrong spelling), ‘completely’ instead of completing. Data with a big “D”, also missing some commas, question marks etc.
- No student number, and they actually signed off with no caps in their name.
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:
- Greets me by name
- Clearly identifies himself in the first line.
- Gives a lot of specific details in the second line, in case I had forgotten him (triggers like who we were talking to, which room we were in, the topic of conversation).
- He lays it out in paragraphs (not all in one line like the first student quoted).
- There are no spelling mistakes or grammatical errors, and he uses capitals and punctuation appropriately.
- He signs off with a friendly sign off and his name.
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:
- Greet by name, and for the first email at least, formally with title. I prefer ‘Kia ora [name], Dear [name],Tēnā koe. ‘Hi’ is appropriate for continuing email conversations.
- Use your university email account, or at least cc it into the email so we know where to send formal emails.
- Use professional tone and presentation: spelling, grammar, paragraphing, correct capitalisation, full sentences. No emoticons.
- Frame your email as you would an essay: include a title (subject line) and introduction (“I am emailing you in your role as first year coordinator about some problems I am having in my first year courses”).
- Include details that help us easily find your record or recall you; we might meet hundreds of new students every semester. Student ID numbers help, also full name, and even things like “I’m the one who sits on the right hand side of the lecture theatre and asked a question today about politics” or “I’m the one who approached you after class for additional information about the essay” for example.
- Acknowledgement and politeness go a long way “Sorry for emailing you in the weekend. If you get a chance, could you please direct me to the appropriate person, otherwise, I will give you a call on Monday morning.” It’s nice to feel like a real person. Even commenting on how you are finding the course acknowledges us in our role of teachers, not only as administrators!
- Sign off appropriately. I like Ngā mihi, Regards, Cheers, Best wishes. With your full name and ID number if possible.
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.