First, let me say this is a great decision! Too many students think that they have to suffer in silence rather than ask for help. So emailing your professor is a smart move, but it’s also one that has some built-in pitfalls for the unaware.
Okay, this is weird, but let’s start by talking about a TV show that began a long, long time ago on a TV station once famous for airing what were then known as “music videos.” The show was MTV’s The Real World, and it still might be on MTV — I have no idea whether or not it is because I am very old and quite honestly do not know if MTV is still a thing that exists in our world.
However (stay with me!), the reason The Real World is important to your questions is because it always began with the same tagline: “This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.”
I mean, look at these guys!
This, I think all future historians will agree, is where the idea of politeness suddenly became the antithesis of authenticity. Or, to put it another way, this is when we as a culture began to think that the only people who would bother with politeness were smarmy little cardboard simulacra of humanity with either 1) something to sell or 2) their eyes on our wallets.
Either way, to be polite was seen as the same as to be false … pretentious even! Real dudes didn’t bother being polite because authenticity, man.
What does all this have to do with emailing your sociology professor?
There are still some spaces and interactions that demand a certain amount of grace. It turns out, emailing someone with whom you have a friendly professional-yet-not-personal relationship is one of them. Clients, colleagues and bosses — potential and actual — all fall into this category. So do (most) professors.
What’s more, emailing professors has its own set of weird formalities. The professor-student relationship goes way the heck back in time to the middle ages (even if email doesn’t), which is where our ideas about college and higher education began. So there’s this built-in formality to the relationship that many (but not all!) professors expect.
The only problem? No one ever thinks to tell the students. (Except Eve Ewing because she is awesome.)
Let’s change that. Here are some good ideas for emailing your professors.
1. Use a greeting
Quaint? Yes. But greeting are markers of a certain level of formalness in written communication, and one thing that you need to understand about emailing your professor is that it is (at least at first) a formal communication. Jumping into a question or though without so much as a “Hi!” is fine in other kinds of writing, especially text messages, but you want to make sure that you begin with a certain formalness with your professor.
“Dear Professor SoAndSo” can sound a little too formal sometimes (though there are those who appreciate it). “Hi” or “Hello” work just as well.
“Hey Professor SoAndSo” is a greeting landmine, however. Some instructors find it too familiar. Better to stick with the others.
AND BY THE WAY … “Professor” is a perfectly fine title. “Mr.” is okay, I guess, but you’re getting into murky waters with “Mrs.” and “Miss.” Play it safe. Use “Professor.”
ALSO … Use your professor’s last name (at least until they tell you to do otherwise). Bonus points for spelling it correctly in the email! (Just kidding, you should always spell it correctly, bonus points or no.)
2. Use a subject line
While you might only have 3 to 5 professors, your professors could potentially have between 100 to 120 students. That’s a lot of emails! Make sure your professor can see what the email is about when they are wading through their inbox late at night. Make your email stand out!
3. Identify yourself
Because your professor might have more than 100 students, it’s a good idea to identify yourself and the class you’re in. It’s easy! If you begin the email by saying “This is Joan Jett from your 1pm ENG 112 class …” that makes it much easier for the professor to help you.
4. Use Standard Written English
Remember, this email is more formal that a lot of your communications, so it’s important that you use capitalization, full punctuation, correct spelling, and, for the most part, avoid overly cutesy emojis, smiley faces, cat memes, etc. Remember, this is a sort of business communication. There is a certain amount of formalness and politeness that is required.
Besides, “yo i just woke up lolz did we do anythink in class important please send notes k thanks” is not the greatest look coming from a student. Keep it simple, state your business, and make it look like you care.
5. Sign Off Politely
Again, this might seem like an overly formal move, but you’ll want to sign your name and maybe even include a closely (“Sincerely,” “Thanks,” “Best,” etc.).
Want a little more info on emailing your professors in college? This is a pretty good resource, if a little, uh, dated (“Netiquette?” really?), though this one is a little better (if more profane).