Cyberspace: the final frontier. These are the enterprises of the modern student. Her undergraduate mission: to explore strange new syllabi, to seek out help and resources, to boldly go where many students have gone before…
…Her professor’s UTmail+ inbox.
Okay okay, maybe e-mailing a professor isn’t quite as exciting or high stakes as hiking through Andoria, but it can feel like a monolithic task. I have heard all sorts of horror stories—everything from sending a prof the wrong e-mail to accidentally using a text abbreviation!
After three years of interacting with professors through various mediums, I think I am starting to get the hang of it.
Here is what I always keep in mind when I’m drafting an e-mail:
- How should I start it?
Titles are very important in Starfleet and in academia. I know my professor worked really hard for that PhD so I make sure I use the appropriate title when addressing him via e-mail. I check to see how my professor signs off his e-mails or do a Google search to figure out how to address him.
- What would Wesley Crusher do?
Wesley is a cool kid. In addition to owning the most enviable sweater collection in all the galaxy, he is very clever. He takes initiative and tries to figure things out for himself first, which is probably why he has such amazing knitting skills. Taking initiative is important when e-mailing profs too. Before I send a question off to my professor, I check through my course materials to make sure the answer isn’t there. This applies especially to cases where I am having technical difficulties; often, a quick Google search or the Blackboard Help bar can show me how to solve the problem myself.
- Is this question right for e-mail?
Do you think Scotty would want to explain his formula for transwarp beaming via e-mail? Of course not! He would just use said formula to beam you over and explain it to you in person in his charming Scottish brogue. If I don’t think my prof would be able to answer my question in two or three sentences, it’s probably a question to bring up in office hours instead.
- How does my professor write?
I take a cue from the aptly-named chameloids—aliens who could shape shift and mimic other species—when I’m writing e-mails. If my professor’s style is very formal, I try to echo that; if my professor addresses the class in his e-mails with “Dear jellyfish, algae, and narwhals” (Literature profs are the best), I know I’m safe to throw in a joke or two if I so desire.
- Am I rambling?
Lieutenant Uhura communicated like it was her job! (Because it was). She was always clear and concise and she knew how to get to the point efficiently and politely. Similarly, I make sure that my e-mails are brief and clear, starting with a clear and specific subject line—be sure to include the course code—and signing off with my name and student number.
- Hey Spock, can you proofread this for me?
I double check to make sure my e-mails are free from errors, typos, and the like. If I read it out and it sounds like something Spock might say, I know I’m safe; Spock’s grammar and syntax are always impeccable.
I apologize that this post turned into one big Star Trek reference, but in my defence, I just finished drafting an e-mail to someone who happens to be a big fan of sci-fi. It’s all about knowing your audience!