Monday, August 15, 2011

How to e-mail a student

[Advice for professors.]

As the writer of How to e-mail a professor, I want to offer some suggestions to professors about how to reply to e-mails from their students. I’m prompted to do so by what I hear from reliable sources about profs whose replies to student e-mails are cryptic, rude, or non-existent. Here are three suggestions:

Make your e-mail policy clear to students. If you don’t read and respond to e-mail from students, let your students know that, and don’t share your e-mail address with them. If you have a schedule for checking e-mail, let your students know how long they should expect to wait for an answer.

Reply promptly. I am not suggesting that you check your account constantly. I am suggesting that when you check e-mail and see something from a student, you reply. David Allen’s two-minute rule is relevant here: if it takes less than two minutes to do, do it now. The point of checking e-mail should be to deal with e-mail, not to postpone that work indefinitely.

Some professors make a point of delaying so as not to encourage students to expect instant replies. A better strategy would be to note in your reply that the sender has just happened to catch you online.

Don’t be brusque. (Don’t be this guy.) I like brevity in e-mail — keeping it to two, three, four, or five sentences can be just right — but even a brief e-mail can be made more human in three simple ways:

Address the writer by name.

Reply as if you’re speaking, not as if you’re writing a telegram.

Sign off. See you in class or See you next week can help make a professor sound less like the Delphic oracle and more like an everyday human.
Compare and contrast: which replies would you rather receive?

Maggie, yes, that’s a good idea. See you in class.



I don’t think that would work, Bart. Let’s talk about it after class.


This is a question for office hours.

Lisa, it would be easier to talk about this question during office hours. Come by tomorrow.
For every clueless student e-mailer, there’s another who has thought carefully about making a decent impression in pixels. Professors should do likewise. The longer sample responses I’ve suggested would take mere seconds to type. But if you’d prefer to sound like the Delphic oracle, well, that’s your business — and Apollo’s.

See you tomorrow,


[The two-minute rule, from David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (New York: Penguin, 2002): “If the Next Action can be done in 2 minutes or less, do it when you first pick the item up. Even if that item is not a ‘high priority’ one, do it now if you’re ever going to do it at all.“]

comments: 8

Stefan said...

Thanks for this post, Michael. It will help me remember that we professors and instructors are at least as likely as our students to write weak, confusing, or rude e-mails. I'll be sure when I ask students to read "How to E-mail a Professor" that I mention this side of the coin too.

Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome, Stefan. I plan on mentioning this post to students too.

Rachel said...

This is great advice.

Michael Leddy said...

Thank you, Rachel.

Christopher Murphy said...

With our semester commencing in just a few short weeks, this is timely advice that's very much appreciated. Thanks for sharing, Michael.

Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome, Christopher.

Julie said...

Thanks for this! I need something to give to my Teaching Assistants, and this is exactly what I needed.

Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome, Julie.