If your professor has sent you a link to this page, two things are likely true. First, you probably sent an email that does not represent you in a way you would like to be represented. Second, while others might have scolded you, mocked you or despaired over the future of the planet because of your email, you sent it to someone who wants to help you represent yourself better.
In part, because only a click or swipe or two separate emails from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and texting, the lines between professional emails and more informal modes of writing have become blurred, and many students find the conventions of professional emails murky. We think we can help sort things out.
In the age of social media, many students approach emailing similar to texting and other forms of digital communication, where the crucial conventions are brevity and informality. But most college teachers consider emails closer to letters than to text messages. This style of writing calls for more formality, more thoroughness and more faithful adherence (sometimes bordering on religious adherence) to the conventions of Edited Standard Written English -- that is, spelling, punctuation, capitalization and syntax.
These different ways of writing are just that -- different ways of writing. The letter approach to emails is not always and forever better (or worse) than the texting approach. Knowing how and when to use one or the other -- based on why you are writing and whom you are writing to -- makes all the difference. So, if you use emojis, acronyms, abbreviations, etc., when texting your friends, you are actually demonstrating legitimate, useful writing skills. But you aren’t if you do the same thing when emailing professors who view emails as letters.
Effective writing requires shaping your words according to your audience, purpose and genre (or type of writing, e.g., an academic email). Together these are sometimes called the rhetoricalsituation. Some of the key conventions for the rhetorical situation of emailing a professor are as follows:
1. Use a clear subject line. The subject “Rhetorical Analysis Essay” would work a bit better than “heeeeelp!” (and much better than the unforgivable blank subject line).
2. Use a salutation and signature. Instead of jumping right into your message or saying “hey,” begin with a greeting like “Hello” or “Good afternoon,” and then address your professor by appropriate title and last name, such as “Prof. Xavier” or “Dr. Octavius.” (Though this can be tricky, depending on your teacher’s gender, rank and level of education, “Professor” is usually a safe bet for addressing a college teacher.) Similarly, instead of concluding with “Sent from my iPhone” or nothing at all, include a signature, such as “Best” or “Sincerely,” followed by your name.
3. Use standard punctuation, capitalization, spelling and grammar. Instead of writing “idk what 2 rite about in my paper can you help??” try something more like, “I am writing to ask about the topics you suggested in class yesterday.”
4. Do your part in solving what you need to solve. If you email to ask something you could look up yourself, you risk presenting yourself as less resourceful than you ought to be. But if you mention that you’ve already checked the syllabus, asked classmates and looked through old emails from the professor, then you present yourself as responsible and taking initiative. So, instead of asking, “What’s our homework for tonight?” you might write, “I looked through the syllabus and course website for this weekend’s assigned homework, but unfortunately I am unable to locate it.”
5. Be aware of concerns about entitlement. Rightly or wrongly, many professors feel that students “these days” have too strong a sense of entitlement. If you appear to demand help, shrug off absences or assume late work will be accepted without penalty because you have a good reason, your professors may see you as irresponsible or presumptuous. Even if it is true that “the printer wasn’t printing” and you “really need an A in this class,” your email will be more effective if you to take responsibility: “I didn’t plan ahead well enough, and I accept whatever policies you have for late work.”
6. Add a touch of humanity. Some of the most effective emails are not strictly business -- not strictly about the syllabus, the grade, the absence or the assignment. While avoiding obvious flattery, you might comment on something said in class, share information regarding an event the professor might want to know about or pass on an article from your news feed that is relevant to the course. These sorts of flourishes, woven in gracefully, put a relational touch to the email, recognizing that professors are not just point keepers but people.
We hope that these rules (or these and these) help you understand what most professors want or expect from academic emails. Which brings us back to the larger point: writing effectively does not simply mean following all the rules. Writing effectively means writing as an act of human communication -- shaping your words in light of whom you are writing to and why.
Of course, you won’t actually secure the future of the planet by writing emails with a subject line and some punctuation. But you will help your professors worry about it just a little less.
With wishes for all the best emails in the future,
PTC and CHM
Paul T. Corrigan and Cameron Hunt McNabb are assistant professors of English at Southeastern University.
Audit finds U. of Missouri at Kansas City gave false information to Princeton Review to inflate rankings of business school -- and reveals e-mails in which officials say they faced donor pressure on ratings.
The results are in. Inside Higher Ed recently released its third annual survey of college and university faculty members, focusing on perceptions of online learning. It showed that faculty:
Remain highly skeptical about the efficacy of online education
Consider the instructor-student relationship essential for learning
Believe that ownership of online courses belongs with them
Feel there is too little support for online course development
Don’t want outside companies to create their courses or curriculum
I suppose these results could be taken as bad news for those of us in the online education world. But to me, they all make perfect sense.
I shared faculty skepticism about online education for many years. True, my mind has been changed in recent years by online courses I’ve encountered that are easily as rich and meaningful as face-to-face courses. But caution is still warranted. Without careful and creative design, online courses can – and often do – amount to a stale collection of materials with little power to motivate or inspire.
By the same token, the most well-designed course can fizzle when the digital tools it relies on don’t work as they should. Moreover, it’s increasingly clear that online courses aren’t the right modality for all students or, for that matter, all instructors. So I not only understand faculty skepticism; I appreciate it. It’s to instructors’ credit that they want proof before they jump on this bandwagon: not only the evidence that online education works but also when, how, and with whom.
I also agree wholeheartedly that instructor-student (and student-student) connection is critical for effective online learning. Online courses require more, not less, from instructors: more communication, more engagement, and more feedback. If online courses are to serve students well, they will likely be strenuous both to build and to teach.
That having been said, when faculty build online courses that foster meaningful engagement, they often find the experience deeply satisfying. I’ve worked with faculty who feel more connected to their students in online courses than in their face-to-face courses. And I’ve heard students say the same. The trick is creating these connections over geographical distance. And that requires excellent tools, excellent pedagogy, and institutional incentives that make it worthwhile for faculty to invest the necessary time and energy.
Of all the results from the survey, the one that strikes home most for me is instructors’ conviction that they should develop and own the courses they teach. Amen to that! I recently spoke with an administrator at a university that has steered hard in the direction of publisher-created online courses. He sneered at my company’s faculty-driven approach to course creation, maintaining that faculty ownership of courses is a thing of the past.
I respectfully disagree. If meaningful education were just about content, we never would have needed universities, just libraries. But it isn’t. Education is about apprenticeship and mentoring: about putting disciplinary experts and students together, where the passion of the teacher for his or her field brings the subject to life and influences the students’ desire to learn more.
That relationship can’t be replaced by mass-produced courseware, nor can faculty bring the same passion to their teaching if they are merely facilitating a course someone else created. Teaching your own course your own way allows you to show students what you yourself love and find meaningful about your discipline. It’s central, not peripheral, to effective teaching. So I am in complete agreement with faculty that they and no one else should control the process (as well as the product) of online course creation, just as they do with residential course creation.
At the same time, I don’t see how faculty can possibly own the process of online course creation when the institutional support they receive for creating these courses is so often inadequate.
Online courses are a different animal than residential courses. They have to be designed extremely carefully for clear, intuitive navigation, coherence, and reusability. They require far more construction in advance of the semester than residential courses and thus a significant investment of time upfront. And they demand technical acumen that not all faculty members possess.
Instructors need help to do the job well. And not just casual, intermittent help: intensive help. Sometimes the necessary resources are available in-house through campus teaching and educational technology centers, but not nearly often enough, as the survey makes abundantly clear. It’s little wonder that faculty lose their taste for developing and teaching online courses if the support they need – never mind recognition for their efforts in the promotion and tenure process! – is missing.
And that brings me to the final point from the survey: faculty members don’t want outsiders developing or marketing their programs. Again, I can’t disagree. While I think there is a reasonable role outside partners can play in helping universities develop online courses and programs, it’s clear to me that we need a different model than the one currently offered by the big online enablers.
For one thing, rather than combining marketing, course development, and student retention services into one monolithic – and expensive – package, these services need to be disaggregated, so universities can pick and choose what they want and need from outsiders. Moreover, outside partners have to be flexible. Instead of providing one-size-fits-all solutions, they need to help universities identify the problems they’re trying to solve (e.g., linking remote campuses, increasing active learning, offering continuing education courses, generating incremental revenue, expanding access…) and work with universities to accomplish their particular goals.
Finally, the relationship must be collaborative. Universities have valuable expertise at their own teaching and educational technology centers. Outside partners should work closely with these units to fill in gaps, expand resources, and increase the institution’s capabilities. The goal should always be capacity building and empowerment, not long-term dependence.
So, yes, the results of Inside Higher Ed’s survey seem at first to paint a bleak picture for online education, but to me the results are encouraging. They confirm my sense that we can’t let outside companies take over the process of online course and program development and reduce faculty to mere subject matter experts.
At the same time, we can’t leave faculty on their own to sink or swim, without adequate resources or support. If we want to produce challenging, engaging online courses and programs we need to provide faculty with top-notch tools and ample pedagogical and technical support and put them back where they belong: in the driver’s seat.
Marie Norman is senior director of educational excellence at Acatar, a Carnegie Mellon-based company that helps faculty develop effective online courses. She has taught anthropology for over 20 years and is co-author of How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.