Before the Fall 2008 semester, I had the opportunity to be part of the First Year Experience (FYE) program. I was part of the “Professor’s Perspective,” where professors talk about what we do, what we expect from students, and how college is different from high school. A lot of it has to do with things that high school students just don’t know. College is a different culture and schools can be different. When I was an undergrad at Berkeley, we called all of our professors “Professor.” In grad school at WashU, we called them all “Doctor.” Some of this is institutional. Some of it is just plain common sense, if you think about things from a professor’s perspective.
Preparing for my lecture, I decided to speak with my colleagues about what they would like incoming freshmen to know. Here are a few suggestions for students based on those conversations with my colleagues.
1. Address your professor as “Professor X” (X = last name) unless she tells you otherwise. You can call her Doctor X, too — that’s always nice. If she tells you that you can address her by her first name, then feel free to do so. (Note: if she signs her e-mails with her first name, that is not an invitation to call her by her first name — I don’t sign my e-mails “Dr. Switzer” and don’t really know many professors that do. I personally don’t mind if students feel comfortable enough with me that they call me Dave; other professors loathe it.) Never ever ever call her Mrs. X or Ms. X. We worked hard for our PhDs. Well, maybe we didn’t all work hard, but we worked for a long time on them anyway. We earned that doctorate. Respect us enough to honor that.
2. Proper e-mail ettiquette can go a long way. Unfortunately, most students have grown up with instant messaging and no longer know where the Shift key is located on the keyboard. Maybe we shouldn’t, but we take it as a sign of disrespect when you address us at the same level you would address someone you just met in a chat room. If you send me an e-mail, you should do a few things. (I think these hold for a lot of professors, and you can never go wrong by being too formal).
- First, start it with “Dr. Switzer” or “Hi, Dr. Switzer.” — something along those lines. Don’t start with “Hey, dude.” I’ve received that e-mail before. I’m not a dude. I’m your professor.
- Second, get to the point. Think about what you’re going to say and say it as succinctly as you can. You have 4 or 5 professors, so communicating with them may not seem like a burden on you. We have over 100 students, so we like to save time whenever possible.
- Third, use proper grammar, spelling and punctuation. Capitalize the first word of a sentence. Don’t use abbreviations like “c u l8r” or “wtf was up with ur lecture 2day?”
- Fourth, if your e-mail requires a response and you get one in a very timely manner, send back a quick thank you. It shows us that you acknowledge that we’re going above and beyond for you, trying to be helpful. And we like being appreciated for the work we put in. We won’t think you’re a suck-up — we’ll think you’re one of the few students who really understands just how much we care about helping our students.
3. RTFS. Read the freakin’ syllabus. It costs you virtually nothing to fire off an e-mail asking when the final exam is or when the homework is due. (Hint: go to the SCSU main page, click on “current students” then click “academic calendar” and click on the “final exams” link to find out when your exam is.) The majority of questions students ask are actually in the syllabus. We wrote it for a few reasons. One of those was so that we wouldn’t have to answer the same question from 30 different students about how much of the course grade the homework assignments are worth.
That’s about it for now. I could go on and on but I have the feeling if I did, you’d think I was a grumpy old man. I’m not. The vast majority of the time, this job is the best job in the world and I feel lucky to have it. As professors, we want to know that you’re taking your education seriously. And treating your professors with a little bit of respect makes us think you do that. And when we have students that we feel are taking our classes seriously, 90% of us will bend over backwards to help them. Some day you’ll need a letter of recommendation for grad school or a scholarship or something. When that day comes, you’ll be glad you were friendly and respectful to your professors. I know I’m not writing a letter for the guy who sent me the “Hey, Dude” e-mail any time soon.
Update: I almost forgot one more good thing not to do. If you miss class, never e-mail your professor and ask, “Did I miss anything important today?” That makes me want to answer, “No, you missed nothing of consequence whatsoever. I stood up in front of the class and rambled for 50 minutes about complete nonsense, none of which will ever be useful to you in this class or in life overall.” Hopefully you’ll pick up on the sarcasm and not e-mail me back and say, “Okay, good.” If you miss class, it is your responsibility to get notes from another student. If you have a nice professor, you may take a stab at asking if he/she can tell you what you missed. But don’t ask if it was important. For us, it’s all important, whether you see it that way or not.