Adventures in Ethics and Science

Chad says all the online academics are obligated to respond, somehow, to this New York Times piece on emails from students to professors. So, I shall.

But, rather than digging into the details of the article itself, or worrying about the sample size upon which it is based, or the assertions by at least one of the professors interviewed that she was misrepresented, I’ll just share some advice. This is based entirely on my email likes and dislikes, so take it with a grain of sodium chloride.

  • Before emailing an urgent question to your professor, spend a moment or two making sure you are not already in possession of the answer. Is the thing you are asking about explained in the course syllabus? On the course webpage? In a handout distributed in class? If not, go ahead and ask. (You can, of course, skip the step of checking the information you have — but you may get as the full reply to your question, “The answer is on p. 4 of the syllabus.”)
  • Speaking of urgency: While your professor’s inbox is always open, your professor may have to devote some of his or her time to activities in the three-dimensional world: commuting, attending committee meetings, eating, perhaps even sleeping. You must accept that your professor may not check email messages every hour, round the clock, and through long weekends. You must also realize that your professor may not be able to retrieve a message you send 10 minutes before classtime before he or she goes to class, as actual transit time between office and classroom is required. Cultivate patience, or at least try not to have a coronary from impatience.
  • It is fair to ask a professor to look over a draft of a paper ahead of its due date, provided you recognize that the amount of useful feedback your professor is able to provide will tend to be proportional to how much time is left before the due date (i.e., a draft submitted a week ahead will get more detailed and thoughtful comments than a draft submitted 8 hours ahead). Also, recognize that the professor may say no to your request.
  • Regarding emails to the effect of, “I see that you include a lot of (essays/in-class discussion/group work/other assignment type) in this course; I think (essays/in-class discussion/group work/other assignment type) are (too easy/too hard/not to my liking) and would prefer to do some other kind of assignment instead”: Such requests may seem reasonable to you. However, to the professor, they suggest that you (the person signed up to learn the material) feel more competent to design the course than the professor. Even if you are, you should consider the way such a message will be received by your professor. As well, you should consider whether your professor has good reasons for asking you to complete such assignments, and whether there might be some benefit to you of doing assignments of formats which are not already your strengths. (Perhaps participating in discussions, for example, could increase your skills in oral communication.)
  • “How U doin?” is generally too informal an opening for an email to your professor.
  • Sending an email to a professor you have never met, a full three weeks into the term, saying “Please send me an add code for your class” is in poor form. Actually showing up to the class you are hoping to add (or presenting yourself to the professor in person) is a better way to convey that you will, in fact, show up for class meetings once you have added the course.
  • If you email to find out whether a class is full — even if you REALLY REALLY need it to graduate, which you need to do at the end of the present term or all sorts of misfortune will befall you — accept it when you get a message that says, “Sorry, it’s full, we couldn’t add anyone else if we tried.” Do NOT repeatedly email your tale of woe in hopes that the answer will magically change.
  • Don’t send your professor a virus.
  • Also, emailing your professor naked pictures, of yourself or others, is probably a bad idea.

Your mileage may vary.


  1. #1 coturnix
    February 21, 2006

    So far, I have had only positive experience with e-mail frm students. They are rare, respectful and to the point. I guess my mileage will vary as I age….

  2. #2 Dr. Free-Ride (Janet)
    February 21, 2006

    Really, most of the emails I get from students are just fine — good questions, useful feedback, delivered with wit, and showing regard for me as a fellow human being.

    Those that aren’t, I figure, stem from not spending a moment to reflect that I am a fellow human being deserving of regard. It happens.

  3. #3 Doran
    February 22, 2006

    What about this sort of email: the one from a student whether at your university or not who is interested in your research. How would a student (like myself) go about introducing himself to a faculty member out of the blue?

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