Dear Professor: What kind of a person are you anyway?

The American magazine US News and World Report, which compiles the best known university league table in the United States, publishes something called the Professors’ Guide. Most recently this has a piece entitled ’18 Etiquette Tips for E-mailing Your Professor’. What interests me about this is not the advice the authors dispense, but rather what kind of person they think an American university professor is, based on the nature of that advice.

So for example, our professor appears to be a very formal kind of man or woman. They should be addressed with their title and surname, and the email should end with a ‘relatively formal but friendly closing’. The email should only ever come from a respectable domain name.

Our professor has had a humour bypass, and will not appreciate any kind of informality, jokey tone or even a nickname for the sender. Emoticons and smileys are absolutely out, the prof hates them.

The professor isn’t particularly over-worked and won’t appreciate something complex in the email that might require a bit of thinking. Remember, ‘your prof might get 25 or 30 E-mails a day’. God be with the days when I got as few as that…

The professor really doesn’t want to know anything about anyone else. He or she hits the roof if a student tells them their life story or beliefes and views in an email.

Some of the advice dispensed in the piece is sensible enough: make the email look reasonably good, proof read it, keep it to the point. But I hope that the professors in receipt of these notes or questions from students are less pompous, intolerant, unhelpful and work-shy than the authors of this piece seem to suggest. And I hope that students reading such advice are not driven to the conclusion that really they shouldn’t think of their professor as someone who can empathise with them and show kindness and tolerance.

Over the past few years I have, as a university president, received hundreds or more emails from students. Many of these did not abide by the rules suggested here. But often these emails gave me some insight into what students felt or what kind of reassurance or help they needed; or what was good and bad about their experience of the university. So in the end I would much rather suggest that a students should be themselves, perhaps remembering that the partnership between students and teachers should be one of mutual consideration and respect. But they needn’t worry too much about exactly how they have expressed themselves.

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22 Comments on “Dear Professor: What kind of a person are you anyway?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Perhaps I am pompous and intolerant but I can’t say I like it when students email me assuming that we are on first name terms. I don’t know is it common for secondary school students to address their teachers by their first name, my guess is not.

  2. Jilly Says:

    I’m with Kevin on this – students call me by my first name in person, which is at my behest. But an email to someone in a work context (which college is), and about a work matter, should be more formal than spoken conversation. It should not start ‘hi Jilly!’, which they often do. Students should be learning the mores of adult communication whilst at college – I do sometimes shudder to think of them going out into the workforce and using their style of emailing to managers, clients, etc. It’s about understanding nuances of tone and register, and it does matter.

    And the ‘respectable’ email address matters too, as an issue of both practicality and self-interest. It’s only practical for us to communicate with students via college email (not least because the wilder shores of other email domains will be blocked by our spam filters). And they also need to learn that sending formal communications from a silly email address undermines their credibility – I have seen cases of students sending CVs and job applications from very unwisely-named email accounts.

  3. Janey Says:

    I can’t say I agree with Kevin and Jilly. The majority of blue chip companies I have worked for or worked with would have a more informal tone in their communication and to use “Hi Jane” to a manager or even a client would be commonplace. I would go further to say that to email using the greeting “Dear Mrs so and so” would be considered very odd indeed. From what I understand the Educate Together schools also encourage children to address their teacher using first or preferred names. So all in all I think society is becoming less and less formal and it is up to universities to keep up with this and not alienate themselves with “hang ups” over titles.


  4. I’m with Janey on this. I think the academic environment is far too formal. Even in DCU I had to struggle initially to get people to stop addressing me as ‘President’ (which I really hated). I always suggested the compromise that they could call me ‘President’ if what then followed was insulting…

    As for students, I encouraged all of them – i.e. all DCU students – to call me by first name. I don’t think my authority ever suffered.

    And as for email addresses, forget that altogether. Students on the whole no longer do email. Let them contact you via Facebook.

    • Al Says:

      Were you ever called Ferdinand Von President?

      Back to work here…

    • wendymr Says:

      It astounds me that anyone would actually encourage Facebook use, given that site’s widely criticised privacy policies. Thankfully, I’m not required to use it for anything, because I would refuse.

      I’m sorry, but I absolutely disagree on the point of email. Email is the business correspondence method of choice, and I’m entirely with Jilly on this one: students need to learn business communication skills, and in fact business culture in general. Post-graduation, they’re far more likely to lose jobs for lack of business culture navigation skills than for lack of technical skills. Now, I wouldn’t insist on the use of titles except to people not known to the emailer (I was never Dr Richards to my students), but use of good spelling and grammar, a professional email address and general business etiquette should be encouraged, whether they first-name you or not.

  5. Jilly Says:

    I may not have been very clear in my first post. It’s not the use of a first name I’m objecting to (that’s perfectly normal in most working environments, and universities are no exception, we all use first names). It’s the use of ‘Hi Jilly’ instead of ‘Dear Jilly’ at the start of the email. I don’t think that’s acceptable with anyone other than close friends, and certainly not in a work communication which has some kind of formality to it (so for a student, a request for an extension, for example).

    When that is added to the poor grammar, lack of capitalisation etc, it renders many student emails inappropriate for basic adult communication: and it’s not how colleagues (beyond very close immediate colleagues engaging in informal emails) write to each other.

    • wendymr Says:

      I’d actually be happy to see custom move away from ‘Dear…’ as the preferred introduction to correspondence, but for a different reason. I work a lot with speakers of English as a second language, including communicating online with them in a volunteer capacity on an immigration advice website. Very frequently, I get messages which begin Hello Dear – which of course has completely different connotations. These ESL-speakers have clearly heard that ‘Dear’ is an appropriate way to begin written communication, but haven’t learned the correct way to use it.

      (And then, of course, there are the ESL-speakers who have been taught that Dear Sir is always appropriate)!

  6. Niall Says:

    I’m with Janey too. Most of the emails I receive from my university colleagues start with either ‘Hi Niall’ or just ‘Niall’. My communication with students (though less) is similar.

    I worked in IT industry for many years and it was normal practice to call both clients and managers by their first name. In Educate Together schools the children do call their teachers by their first name though this is unusual (I think) in primary education.

    I don’t quite understand the point about a ‘respectable’ email address. Most of us in our personal capacity need to use hotmail, gmail etc.
    This seems normal to me but one should avoid having a silly email address when applying for jobs etc.

  7. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    On the subject of communications in general, Professional communications seems to have fallen by the wayside. It is something that probably needs to be developed in third level system.

    Interestingly, the Instite of Actuaries take Communications so seriously they have created a dedicated module in their exam system.

    (I could do with improvement in area of professional communications myself.)

  8. Vincent Says:

    I don’t think ‘Hi’ at the start of an E-mail is anything more that the ‘Dear’ at the start of a letter. Which was an abbreviation for something like Jilly, Lady of the Marche, Great High Female Pandorum, Serene Light of the Green Belt, GREETINGS.
    You should read the shite Henry VIII put on his letter to the Pope when he was trying to get a leg over the Butler wan.
    It’s simply different format different formals.

    On the main point, surely membership of a college eases the need to be that formal. Or rather the formality is still there but couched in a different format.

    • Jilly Says:

      I’m afraid I don’t agree, Vincent. I don’t think that the basic courtesies change from letters to emails – so what matters is who you’re writing to, and what your relationship to them is, not which format (letter vs email) you’re using.

      So while I expect my friends to begin with ‘hi’, or in fact skip the courtesy greeting altogether, I don’t expect students or less-close colleagues to do the same: especially if the content of the email is serious.

      Would expect to get a letter from the Revenue Commissioners which began ‘hi Vincent!’?

      • Al Says:

        Horses for courses???

      • Vincent Says:

        Well, I would expect an upper-case ‘H’ on the E-mail and without the chaff as a suffix. But with a letter I would expect the current protocols for letter structure.
        But what I’m far less fond is that assumption when you ring up eircom or some such, where you have added your first name in the intro’, they for some twinky reason assume the rights to use of it for the entire conversation.

  9. kevin denny Says:

    I think there is a certain bogus informality about asking everyone to call you by their first name (“Hey dude, I am the Pope but you can call me Ben”) but ultimately its up to individuals themselves to choose & I don’t accept that I have hang-ups about this.
    I don’t really blame students for being a bit gauche as I was pretty gauche too at that age ‘though not in this particular regard.
    Personally I have never and would never interact with a student on Facebook, other than a few who actually are friends, since I choose to take its label as a social-networking site at face value.

  10. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    What about if you have your own fanpage, and all your students become “fans”?

    You are allowed to have fans, surely?

  11. Anon Says:

    Hmm. I am a postgrad and am shocked at the emails sent out by my course director to our whole class, as are the other students. Apart from the fact that the emails are always full of typos and sometimes include links to pop songs, the person involved also uses this mass mailing as a forum for expressing bizarre personal opinions (I think the person is trying to be “cool” and funny.)

    The point here is that many of you seem to think that college staff communicate in a more appropriate manner than students, which is not always the case. Further, I expect a staff member to address me in the way that they wish to be addressed. You want me to call you Professor X or whatever? Fine, but then call me Ms. X. It should work both ways.

    By the way, in my experience, workplace communication (outside of academia) is generally a lot less formal than some posters here seem to think. I really wonder whether some people think that their perceived (desired?) authority is derived from a title. Not so. I have never known a repected person who demanded to be addressed in a certain way.

  12. Greg Says:

    Anon makes a good point about reciprocity. I’m finishing a degree in a recently suspended geology program and have always called my professors Dr. X, in person and email. Most of them never return emails, and I’ve never once been called by my name.


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