How to Win Friends and Influence People When Composing an Email to your Prof or TA

Communicating with university professors and teaching assistants can be tricky. How do you ask for help without coming off as needy? How do you request clarification without appearing to not pay attention in class? And how do you get into their good graces without resorting to flattery? It’s much easier than you think – and it’s a much more common problem than you know.

Students who would never make unreasonable demands of their friends think nothing of bugging and bothering their TAs and professors, making excessive claims for attention and affecting an inappropriately chummy demeanour. While it’s true that profs and TAs are there to teach, to assist and to enlighten, this does not mean that they are answer-spouting automatons ready to cater to your every whim. Before you pen that rushed email to your instructor or instructor’s assistant, briefly meditate on the possibility that they are, in fact, human just like you.

To begin with, unless your professor has expressly stated that you can call her by her first name, don’t use her first name in the email; opt for the respectful form of address: Professor Smith or Dr. Smith. Your professor suffered through nearly a decade of post-secondary schooling for the three letters – PhD – following her name. Don’t act like they don’t matter.

TAs are more casual creatures, as they are just in the midst of completing their graduate degrees. You’re usually safe using their first names in email communications. But if you’d like to err on the side of caution, go with this form: Mr. Smith or Ms. Smith. The upside of this latter approach is that the intended recipient will appreciate your courtesy and possibly tell you to just call them by their first name. A respectful attitude in emailing professors is likely to yield the same result.

Another tack to try is the simple introductory “Hi Michael (if I may)”, followed by a comma, followed by a line break, followed by the message proper, etc. Those three words – “if I may” – are polite without being pretentious, and are unlikely to incur any ire on the addressee’s part.

Next, before you rush into what you want from them – and especially if you’re emailing them for the first time – you need to write a nice, vague, general statement to set a positive tone. Try something like “I hope this email finds you well” or “Thank you for this week’s enlightening lecture/tutorial” or even “I lost all my notes, can you explain the course to me? Just kidding.”

Once the preliminaries are out of the way, get to the point of your message. Don’t insult your TA or prof with questions that were already addressed in class, or with questions that translate to “Do my work and my thinking for me, chop-chop.” If you missed class, look to your classmates for notes and briefing. At this point, the most you should expect from professors and TAs is clarification of obviously vague areas, sufficient guidance (aka steering in the right direction) and helpful hints about assigned work and readings.

It bears repeating: they are not there to do the work for you. So keep it short and simple, and make relevant queries.

On the other hand, if you’re emailing purely to flex your thinking muscles, know that engaging your instructors in lively online discussion is a great way to garner their appreciation. It shows that you’ve put some serious thought into the coursework. TAs and profs are inundated with messages that, for lack of better words, are whiny and self-centered, and it is a rare delight to converse with students who are informed and curious, and ask intelligent questions. Of course, they may not always have the time to type back a lengthy response, but that’s what office hours are for (well, one of the reasons for them, anyway).

Finally, end on a grateful note. Even the old “Thank you in advance” will suffice. While you’re not writing an English Lit thesis here, and while this email is simply a piece of unofficial academic correspondence, a sincere and thankful approach usually brings about the best response. So be nice to your profs and TAs. They are, after all, in charge of your grades.

On the other hand, some of them may be naturally curmudgeonly. With this breed of instructor, you’d best turn the other cheek and turn on the charm. Again, they decide your grades.

Word Count: 735; The Lexicon

August 19, 2013:

editor writer


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