Your emails should contain a greeting and a closing.

I’m sure any of my readers who teach college students today would not be surprised that I have said the title of this post to multiple students this semester. Teaching at an elite university, I’m surprised at how little preparation my students seem to have for interacting with faculty, staff, and administrators. And this year, as classes come to a close, I’ve started to wonder: whose job is it to teach the “hidden curriculum” — the professional life skills students should leave college with and will prepare them to be good team players, bosses, and students? I think for the past few years I’ve ignored my responsibility when it comes to teaching these skills to students because, for lack of a better way to put it, when they ask me for extensions with big puppy-dog eyes, I have trouble saying “No, in a job environment you would have to ask much earlier and explain why you need an extension and even then you might not get it.” I think my approach isn’t serving the students in the long run.

What I think is interesting about the issue of teaching college students professionalism is that it cuts across class.  Although I can imagine that first-generation students struggle with knowing how to approach faculty members (see a beautiful article and video about the first-generation experience here), I find that my students who come from privileged backgrounds (parents with graduate degrees or private school education) are quite lacking in professional skills. And it seems students forget these skills the longer they are in college; my first-year students rarely ask for extensions or make excuses, but I find juniors really lose all sense of organization when midterms come around and feel overwhelmed every year.

My idea?  College orientation should focus on professionalism for first-years: how does one address a faculty member? what is appropriate email etiquette? And these skills should be reinforced for upperclassmen with a short workshop. Interestingly, when I mentioned this idea to a fellow college, she told me that Columbia law school has a required unit on professionalism that must be completed to graduate. I think this is an amazing way to anchor a series of events for college students (see also, a course description and this event description).

What would I like students to know?  I list some ideas below in no particular order, based on interactions I’ve had since becoming an assistant professor.

Email etiquette. Your emails should contain a greeting and a closing. The first time you write to an instructor, your greeting should refer to your instructor via their title or at least their full name if you are unsure of the title. Do not expect to get a response to your email within 24 hours. If you have not heard back in a week, email again. The shorter your email, the more likely the response will be quick. Do not email an instructor to discuss a grade on an assignment, exam, or class; instead ask to meet and discuss the grade in person to avoid using inappropriately strong language (and to learn more about the context used to grade).

Meeting in person. Do not walk into a professor’s office when it is not office hours, take a seat, and/or close the door. If you want to close to door to meet, ask first and say something like “I would like to discuss something sensitive with you.” Be prepared for the professor to say he/she would like the door to remain open.

Know that professors read everything you write on exams. Think about the content of what you doodle on exams; I had a recent one with a gun on it that had just been fired.  Also don’t write “this question was very unfair” on an exam or assignment – instead ask to meet the professor to discuss the question.

Be prepared. Come to class and meetings with a professor prepared.  If you are allowed to use a calculator on an exam, bring it, and be prepared for there not to be extras. Come to meetings with a notebook and working pen/pencil for taking notes. My favorite excuse this semester from a student who was unprepared for class: “Sorry, I have another class before this and that’s why I don’t have my notes.” I still don’t know what that means.

Anticipate which weeks will be difficult for you. At the beginning of the semester, put dates of your exams and assignments in a calendar and anticipate when you will have difficult weeks.  Then talk to professors about ways to manage your work, and be prepared to simply start working on things earlier. Upperclassmen, this is not your first rodeo; you should have mechanisms to cope with a week full of midterms.

Ask, don’t tell. If you ask for an extension, ask, and do not be surprised if your request is denied.

Be polite. If you have a question during lecture, ask it. It is disruptive for you to whisper the question to your neighbor instead. And professors notice when students repeatedly have a bad attitude about assignments or tests; keep it together and complain to your friends on your own time.

Stay in touch after you leave. If you get a letter of recommendation – say thank you, and tell the folks who wrote letters what the outcome was. We want to celebrate with you and want to help if you need to reapply.

Be willing to have the “breakup talk”. If you decide you don’t want to pursue independent study with a professor who’s been meeting with you, tell them. There is nothing wrong with this at all!

And, like all those commencement speeches say, wear sunscreen.

What else would you add?

26 thoughts on “Your emails should contain a greeting and a closing.

  1. great piece! am sending this to my undergrads — they seem not to reply to lab communication unless it’s by text message, so this could be very enlightening to them

  2. If it’s not during office hours, don’t expect the professor to be able put aside time for you. They are set there for a reason. (And no we don’t live on campus, so I’m not available on Saturday at 7:00 pm – true story).

    Once something is graded, very few professors will allow you to redo it for more points, at least in the sciences. This is especially considered when the points were taken off for something that has been emphasized in the class to include.

    Always have the assignment in question with you if you want it regraded. I’m not going to take your word for it that you should get back 5 points on a 15 point assignment.

    Tell your professor as something is happening (i.e. family emergencies, car trouble, medical issues, etc.). It’s hard to help when the semester is almost over and a student wants to pass after having not turned in half of the assignments.

    As someone who is still a student (I’m a grad student and I teach labs for undergrads), I’m in a great position to see both sides which helps me empathize with struggling students. I still don’t think there is an excuse for a student to tell a professor that they hate his class and that they were going to skip this test (also a true story…the professor allows for one dropped test to not be incorporated into their grade).

    • These are great! And I do think “seeing both sides” helps a lot; my TAing days make me empathize with students. I agree with emphasizing telling instructors about struggles early – I always say this early in the semester.

      • Absolutely, encourage them to tell the professor about known problems as early as they can … nothing can be done, even by the most sympathetic professor, if they leave it too late. Moreover, the counselling services and admin assistance places are all overcrowded two weeks before the end of semester exams. I also used to encourage them to disclose any medical problems so that we could accommodate them if we could, particularly in lab classes (even if they had not officially disclosed these things on their record). I said it was not mandatory, and they didn’t have to tell me WHAT was wrong, just what they needed me to do to help them.

  3. If you want a recommendation, ask at least a month ahead of time (two is better) and be prepared to provide CV, transcripts, etc.

    • To the previous commenter: I’m truly curious. When has the typical 2-wk guideline extended to a 1-month (and now 2-month??) guideline for requesting a letter of recommendation? Are you trying to outsource your letter writing duties to your equally hard-working colleagues? Writing letters does take a lot of time, but we’ve all been on the receiving end of having our mentors write letters for us. We’ve also often been in the position of finding great positions or grants with a short deadline. I do tell students to give me as much advance notice as possible to receive the best letter that I can provide them, and they generally respect this.

      • Your first three sentences are unnecessarily harsh. I think we all agree that the more notice, the better, especially for the first letter one writes a student. Think about reviewing papers – as an associate editor, I have colleagues who ask for extensions all the time; they don’t need six weeks to read the paper, but they need six weeks to find the day or two that it will take to read the paper and comment on it.

      • As a grad student who volunteers with kids in my spare time, I’m occasionally asked by the kids I volunteer with for letters of recommendation. From experience: Writing a letter of recommendation typically takes me about four or five hours. When I write a letter of recommendation, I want it to be customized to the person in question and personal enough to feel real and not cookie-cutter, but not so much that it veers into unprofessional (e.g., a scholarship committee does not care about the details of how hard this kid worked on this one thing that gave them a really hard time, but they do care that the kid is a hard worker who will persist even if something is giving them trouble).

        It’s not that much time, but if I can spread it out over two or three weeks, it’s a lot less of an impact on my week than if it’s crammed into a few days.

    • Yes – I need to start telling students no when they ask without much notice; my worst offender asked two days before the due date!

  4. It might be a good idea not to rely on the administration to teach these things in a specialised session (and if they did, the students would not remember bcs they would not be in context). I would set aside a few minutes in the first lesson, and another in about the third or fourth lesson, to say what YOU personally expect. (And I agree all these things are reasonable). Maybe even a handout with their course outline or whatever you give them early on, and point to it in class.

    I also found it useful, if a student made an appointment about problems with the actual course content, to ask them to come prepared with a list of things they DID understand so far, then we could pinpoint the concept they were having trouble with rather than starting at the beginning all over again. (They were amazed that they knew anything, so it helped them to have some confidence too, because every one of them – and over 20 yrs there were many – always did produce a list of SOMETHING.)

    • I agree students should get these messages from faculty but I think it would be useful for all players in the University to see teaching the Hidden Curriculum as a major part of their job. I like the idea of helping students see what they do understand well – thanks!

  5. So I agree with almost all of this. But I disagree about extensions and special conditions. As a grad student, I have found that I need to be proactive about my chronic illness and anticipate when I will need more time or special conditions under which to sit exams. I have also found that being honest and proactive about it results in good will and generosity from teachers in meeting my needs.

    There obviously comes a point in semester when marking needs to be completed and students need to meet expectations, but I honestly believe that bad stuff happens. People die, relationships fall apart, there are illnesses and injuries that strike at the worst possible time. Good teachers should, when possible, grant extensions and meet needs when students do the right thing and show up.

    • I completely agree with you, and I urge students who may need multiple extensions due to illness or personal events to seek out resources in the university that will communicate with faculty for the student so the student can focus on his/her emotional well-being. What bothers me are students who feel entitled to one-time extensions, and provide no context when basically demanding an extension; I have no shortage of these students, sadly, especially because I teach many pre-med students who have series of midterms during one week each semester but somehow can’t anticipate this.

  6. Some things I wish I’d been taught:

    On meetings:
    Before: write yourself up an agenda for things you would like out of the meeting – what are you meeting about? What questions do you want answered? What do you need from the other person? Bring this agenda with you to the meeting – it will help you to stay on task and not forget anything you wanted to talk about.
    During: Try to listen and talk in proportion with the number of people in the meeting – if there are 4 in total, you should be listening 75% of the time. Do not dominate a meeting, even if you’re gushing about how cool your research is. The exception being if the meeting is about you and your research – then you’re allowed to gush.
    After Take some time to process and record what happened in the meeting. Figure out if you have any follow-up questions and ask them either in person or by email if you do. Put any action items and their deadlines in your calendar, agenda, or whatever you use to prevent yourself from forgetting them.

    On being trained:
    Before: Read up on the technique/instrument you’re being trained on and get a general idea of the theory behind it. If you can find the manual online for the instrument in question, read the user’s guide section – you do not need to know advanced maintenance, but it would be nice for you to have a general idea of what you’re going to be trained on before you’re trained on it. If you can find a textbook with a detailed description of the technique in question (books with “practical” in their title are generally a good place to start, as are texts from before about 1980 – a lot of the texts from the 70s and earlier have a lot of emphasis on how to actually do these operations in a laboratory, where more modern texts focus more on theory rather than application), read that section. This includes lab manuals for lab courses.
    During: Be attentive and take things seriously. Take notes, draw sketches, and otherwise record what’s happening as it happens in a way that works for you. Do not talk with other students on matters unrelated to the training. If possible for your learning style, avoid interrupting your trainer with questions – they may be about to answer that question with their explanation. Be aware that if you’re training on an instrument, it probably costs more than your parents earn in a year, even if they’re professionals. You do not want to screw this up and break the instrument. Mistakes happen, but easily preventable mistakes that the trainer literally just warned you about will piss people off, especially if they cause damage.
    After: As with meetings, take time to process and record the training in whatever way works for you. If you have any questions, ask them. If you feel uncertain in the instrument’s or technique’s use, ask the trainer for a refresher – I guarantee, they would much rather you say, “I don’t quite remember this step. What do I do now?” than you bumble through and break something or injure yourself.

    On training someone else:
    Before: Refresh your memory on the theory behind the instrument and how to use it. Re-read the user’s guide, lab manual, or relevant textbook and do a few experiments yourself so the how-to is recent and vivid in your memory. Nothing destroys your credibility with students more than leading them down a garden path and then having to correct later, except perhaps making a habit of doing so.
    During: Be calm and confident – you would not have been asked to train your students if your boss didn’t have confidence in your abilities. Do not get offended or upset if a student interrupts with a question – some students need to ask questions immediately lest they forget them. Try to accommodate that learning style. Show as much as you tell, and show as you tell. I do the following: Verbal explanation of next step, step, repeat until finished. Repeat important points at least two or three times, then if possible, get the students to do it themselves. Do not fall into the trap of thinking more words is better – an avalanche of words opens you up to mis-speaking and confusing auditory learners, while visual and kinesthetic learners will get nothing or next to nothing from the lecture. Speak only as much as you do. If you are teaching large groups, get a stage actor or other performer to teach you how to project your voice – if you shout, even if it’s just to be heard, students will think you are angry and will become afraid of you. You need to walk the line between loud enough to be heard, not so loud that you’re scary. This is an easier line for some to walk than others (large people are generally seen as more intimidating that smaller people, for example), and students often do not respect someone they fear. You want to be respected but approachable to be an effective teacher.
    After: Ask if anyone needs anything repeated or if you were confusing in any parts. IME, students will not ask questions if the way you’ve phrased your call for questions puts the fault on them for being confused – they feel embarrassed. Sacrifice your ego a bit and place the blame for confusion on yourself verbally. It lowers the students’ inhibitions and embarrassment about not getting something. Be available and ready to answer follow-up questions after training. Try not to get annoyed with that one student (there will always be at least one) who simply seems clueless about how to do it – they are probably trying their best, and your teaching style is probably not well-suited to their learning style, which is not something either of you can really change in the moment.

    On marking:
    Before: Ask the professor how they would like you to resolve marking disputes – most say, “If you make a mistake, resolve it in the student’s favor.” but not all. Thoroughly read and accuracy-check the marking scheme. I guarantee you that if you don’t, it will come back to bite you – professors are human, too, and sometimes the marking scheme has a mistake. It is infinitely less annoying to wait for for a few hours for a correction before you start marking than to get halfway done your marking, realize the marking scheme has an error, notify the prof, wait for the correction, and then have to re-mark half the assignments. Trust me on this: check your marking scheme first. Exception: if you are using a spreadsheet to make it go faster, make or check the spreadsheet first, then use the spreadsheet to check the marking scheme. Then start marking.
    During: Do not leave the building in which the course is taught with the assignments. That’s asking to lose some of them. Mark in the same building and set up a bag or folder specifically for assignments for a given course or section. Set up an assembly line, so you mark one question at a time. This will keep you consistent and save time. Do not make a note for every error – this is time-consuming and will make your marking take far longer than it has to. Make notes only on major or catastrophic errors. For a student who obviously has no idea what is happening, make a note for them to come see you or the prof for extra help as appropriate. For a student who has no idea what is happening and then a miracle occurs and they get the right answer, refer that assignment up the chain for plagiarism. Likewise if you notice two or more students have the exact same assignment, number for number word for word, or mistake for mistake, or if they’re similar enough that it arouses suspicion. Exception: in cases where people are expected to complete assignments in groups but each hand in their own paper. Record all marks in a marking spread sheet and back it up. If necessary, upload your marks electronically. Check students’ marks with their previous marks – for an assignment that is far off from what the student normally produces, double check that your marking is correct.
    After: When handing back assignments, do so in a way that hides the mark from other students. If I’ve written the mark on the front page, I hand them back face-down, for example. If someone wishes to share their marks with peers, that’s their choice, but it is not your place to make that choice for them. If a student wants to question your marking, explain your choices (even if it’s just, “I followed the marking scheme set up by the professor”) and be open to the idea that you may have made a mistake (carry a calculator with you to double-check marking if you’re asked to). Resolve any errors you find according to the professor’s wishes. If you do not agree with the student that your marking is mistaken, refer the student up the chain to the professor. Odds are, they will back you up, unless they feel they made an error in the marking scheme. Either way, it’s not your problem once you’ve referred it. Be helpful and kind, but firm on these issues – students need to know you are consistent and that they cannot bully you into giving them an A they do not deserve. Be aware that if you feel bad for students that fail (I always feel bad for them), it will not get easier, per se, but you will get more practiced at it. If you are socially adept enough to do so, let such students see your sympathy but not your pity – being pitied is humiliating. Sympathy is comforting.

    On receiving marks:
    Review the assignment and the marking. Do double check the TA’s marking.
    Please do not protest a mark that is insignificant to current assignment letter grade. If I had a dollar for every time a straight-A+ student harangued me for an hour and then took it over my head to the prof and harangued them for an hour about a half point for significant figure errors on a 72 point assignment they made no other mistakes on, I’d be a much richer grad student (and, far far far more often than not, I was correct on the sig fig marking, so it’s even more annoying). Don’t do that. It’s annoying, it wastes the TA’s time, it wastes the professor’s time and believe me, it makes absolutely no difference in your final grade. I guarantee, even if you think it’s a mistake, the TA will make other mistakes in your favor on that scale, and it will balance out. You do not want to be that student that makes the TA resist the urge to sigh and roll their eyes as you walk up to them after assignments were handed out.
    Do not protest marks that you haven’t made sure to the best of your ability were given in error (i.e., “I have checked it three times and can’t see how it’s wrong, did you make a mistake?” is okay. “This has to be wrong, I’m not a B student!” without double checking your math is not okay), or protest marks because you disagree with a reasonable* marking scheme. If you want to earn the enmity of your TA and/or prof, make a habit of protesting marks unjustifiably.
    Do not attempt to protest a mark just because you think if you yell and plead enough, you’ll get a higher mark, or attempt to guilt the TA or prof into giving you a better mark. If the TA or prof is good at their job, you will not be able to bully them into giving you a mark you do not deserve. Don’t try. Again, this is a very good way to earn the enmity of the TA or prof and make sure you won’t get a good reference from them if you need one.
    Please do protest marks that make a significant effect on your current assignment grade. TAs are human, and we do feel bad when we make mistakes. If a TA is good at their job, they will correct any errors they make for you without making you fight them on it. Expect that they will double check your math again and not take you on your word that they made a mistake, and if they disagree about something major and you genuinely do not think they are right, please do take it to the prof. But if both you and the TA are being reasonable, it shouldn’t get that far.
    Do protest inconsistent marking between you and another student, if you notice it.
    Do protest unfairness or bigotry by your TA – bigotry and personal bias has no place in marking or in the classroom.
    Do keep taking your protests to higher and higher levels until you get marked fairly if you are certain that a mistake or unfair/bigoted marking is being done – I have had to protest a mark all the way to the Dean once, because it made the difference between a C+ and an A+. The professor had worded a question differently from the question they intended to ask, and I answered the question they actually asked correctly. They refused to revise the marking scheme to account for the fact that the question they did ask and the question they meant to ask were two different questions. and even told me that I answered the question as asked correctly but that “that wasn’t what I intended so I’m not changing the marking scheme.” That is a situation where it’s perfectly acceptable to protest over the prof’s head. Another situation where it’s perfectly acceptable: if you notice that people of a certain demographic group never get a high mark, even for assignments of the same calibre as someone outside that group – a person I know once had to protest to the Dean about how no woman in her class of 350 ever received a mark over 75% (a B in that program). That, again, is perfectly acceptable to protest.
    Do go into protesting a mark with the attitude that your TA or professor is likely competent and reasonable, and does not likely have it out for you in particular (unless they have already given you good reason to believe otherwise). Do try to stay calm and do approach it as trying to understand their marking, not in an accusatory “WHY DID YOU FAIL ME?!” kind of way (I have had students take exactly that tone with me, and it is upsetting and at times physically intimidating).
    Do be aware of your size, and do avoid looming at someone or otherwise acting intimidating if you are upset, particularly if your TA or prof is much smaller than you. You might just be clenching your fist because you’re frustrated, but to the woman 6″ shorter and 100lbs lighter with a past history of physical abuse, that’s very scary.
    Do not get offended if a prof or TA you know from outside of school refuses to mark your assignments and hands them off to someone else – they are avoiding the appearance of unfairness or bias as much for your sake as theirs. It’s not that they think you’d use the relationship improperly, it’s that they don’t want anyone
    else to think that.
    Do ask the advice of TAs or profs you know outside of school for such situations – they know more than you about the marking process and what is hurtful/upsetting/annoying to TAs and profs from students. Do not ask them to pull strings or use their influence to help you out with a mark.

    *”reasonable” is a judgement call, but IMO, “It’s not fair that this fundamental step is worth 25% of the question!” is not a reasonable objection. “It’s not fair that I lost all the marks on the rest of my assignment and got an F because I plugged something into my calculator wrong on the first step, when if made the same error on the last step I would have had an A-!” is.

    • Thanks for taking the time to write all this! If you’re interested, try turning this into a guest post on this subject – maybe focusing on the experience from a TA’s perspective?

      • I’d be happy to! I have some stuff on office hours (e.g., if your TA doesn’t have them, they’re not paid to have them, and therefore you’re essentially asking them to work for free in addition to disrupting their day and probably making them late for something important if you ambush them in the hall to ask about marks. It can wait for lab period.), time management (you can make it through undergrad with poor time management – I did. You cannot make it through grad school if you don’t learn good time-management, and my time management advice comes from the POV of someone who has executive function issues so it’s probably more useful to people who have problems with it since a lot of them will have similar issues to deal with), and lab attire (namely, that TAs aren’t being fashion police when we kick you out for having 3/4 of your thigh exposed, we’re protecting you, and that we don’t get joy out of nagging you to keep your goggles on, so please don’t be offended that we don’t want you blinded on our watch).

        • See our FAQ page for more info on guest posts; you can send a draft or an initial pitch to TenureSheWrote [at]

  7. Teaching Composition 1 and 2, I learned pretty quickly to add a paragraph on email etiquette to my syllabi — this supposedly so tech-literate generation has a very different idea of how to use email. I’m talking about emails without a greeting or closing, but also lacking all punctuation. My guess is these students have never had to email anyone but friends and family, so don’t know how to be professional in emails. Because many of my students were first generation college students, I decided to add a brief “how to” to the syllabus and to the first class discussion at the beginning of the semester. It’s helped a lot.

    • I think Annette is right – some people just do not know what is expected. I have also found that people from some other cultures do not routinely put a greeting or a signature, those from places where the written language is used totally differently from our European model. Sometimes this means I do not even know the name they want me to use when I write back. I have found that, if I gently explain to them the model we expect, and the reasons for it, then I get a polite and apologetic note back and they (usually) try to follow my examples next time around. I tcould be similar to those who have never needed to use email in a formal way before.

    • That’s great to know that information has helped; I have to say I find students don’t read my syllabus carefully (it is long, but has lots of useful information). I’ll try to emphasize this more, however.

  8. Under “Be Polite”, are you saying that asking a question during lecture is more disruptive that whispering with a neighbor? I’ve always been the time to ask a question during a presentation or lecture; I’m mortified that I’ve been doing it wrong this entire time.

    • No, I meant it is disruptive to ask a question to your neighbor instead of the professor. I’ve updated the post to make this more clear. Keep asking questions!

  9. Quote: “Also don’t write “this question was very unfair” on an exam or assignment – instead ask to meet the professor to discuss the question.”

    I actually don’t mind that one. Since, I have smaller classes, I like to pursue thoughts like this one a bit more after an exam. For instance, every blue moon, I’m actually convinced after a further discussion that the question was ambiguous or the wording was less than helpful for students. So, I would prefer more details than simply, “the question was unfair”. But, even that admonition has value for me. The question is seldom thrown out. But, every once in awhile…

  10. Pingback: Linkfest! (Part 1.) | Tea 'N' Mango Juice

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s