How to email your professor

Having just gone through several episodes of email miscommunication, I thought it might be appropriate to put some notes together regarding the best approach to sending email to your professor (that would be me). It is important to recognize that I receive well over 100 email messages per day and am teaching multiple classes. Often the assignments are similar (not the same, but similar) in various classes. If you follow the approach described below, I can almost guarantee a quicker response and less email back and forth (it is a rather imprecise mechanism after all).

Subject line – This is probably the most important aspect of your message. DO NOT LEAVE IT BLANK. Yes, I was shouting. If you leave it blank, it may well go into a junk mail folder and never be seen by me (or may be viewed much later than you wanted). Tell me if you are supplying information or need some action from me. Begin with INFO: or ACTION: on the subject line. Next, tell me which class you reference (for example, CMWEB 123). Follow this with a synopsis of your request. Here is an example of an ideal subject line (no, there is not a CMWEB123 class):

  • ACTION: CMWEB123 – Please open quiz 3 so I can take it one time (I missed the deadline)

Message: Please be as specific as possible. For example, “I don’t understand the current topic” is quite vague and will lead to a series of back and forth messages. Tell me the specific part you don’t understand about a given lab, project, discussion or issue. If you have a question about a bit of code, include that in the text of your message (not as a separate attachment). Where possible highlight the important parts. It is also quite helpful if you include your actual name in the message. This would be first and last name. Do not assume your email program automatically places your name as part of the sender field (some don’t).

Attachments: DO NOT INCLUDE ATTACHMENTS. Yep, shouting again. I have concluded that when someone sends me an email with an attachment which is over 1 – 2 MB in size, I never receive them. They are lost somewhere in our system at school. This means that you are left wondering why I am ignoring you. And I am wondering why you never turned in the assignment you promised. Ok, so what do we do to transmit files – use a tool like Adobe SendNow. Yes, it requires an Adobe ID (free). You can send me files up to 100 MB in size. They are virus checked by the system and I do receive these notifications that a file is waiting for download. The alternative is that I:

  • never receive your message, or
  • receive a message with a QUAR (quarantined attachment) which I can not open (even if I forward it to another account), or
  • receive a message with a nearly empty attachment (which prompts me to ask you to send me the file again via an alternate means – like Adobe SendNow).

None of the above choices are optimal for my being able to help solve the problem you presented. Hence my desire for you to use an alternate tool like Adobe SendNow in the first place.

If you follow these simple steps, I can almost guarantee that our email communications will be more efficient. Lastly, if you do not receive a reply to an email message in a reasonable time, try an alternate means of contacting me (perhaps via Twitter – @Mark_DuBois or phone 909.mdubois). Keep in mind that I am prevented from setting an “out of office” assistant for email addresses external to the college. Therefore, I may be at some meeting or conference and unavailable. If that is the case, sending me another email message will simply add to the stack. This is why an alternate means is preferred.

Therefore, when you decide to contact me via email, please follow these simple steps:

  1. Include a meaningful subject line with ACTION or INFO, the course number, and a synopsis of your message.
  2. Be as specific as possible in your email message.
  3. Do not attach files (that is what Adobe SendNow is all about).
  4. Include your full name in the message itself.

If you follow these tips, you will reduce the amount of back and forth which often happens in the email game called – Is my professor clairvoyant? Short answer – NO. I am busy and you are busy. The quicker we can get an issue resolved, the better.

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