University Writing Center Blog

Posted on September 15th, 2013 by Jennifer Mahoney

by Ally Armacost, Student Consultant, University Writing Center

New semester, new classes, and new instructors. You attend your classes feeling fresh and energized, ready to take on new subjects and challenges. But wait, what does this chapter in the book mean? How do you do that assignment? What can you do to make up the quiz you missed because your car broke down? Asking these questions can be intimidating in the classroom, when there may be a queue of students with questions for your instructor, but you have options! Instructors check their Oncourse and email inboxes for student questions like these—but what sets a “good” email apart from a “bad” email? Writing an effective email to your instructor is a new first impression: he or she can see how you express yourself in writing and how well you can articulate your needs. The thing is, there is a “good” and a “bad” way to do this. Here’s how to tell the difference.

First, the broad issues: topics and integrity. You should be able to come to your instructors if you need help or require guidance. Email is a perfect platform to pose questions or inform your instructor of things you need to say—but your instructor is not on call. Do not demand information or action from your instructor, because waiting by the computer for student emails is not in their job description. Think of your emails as requests you are submitting to your instructor for his or her consideration. What can determine your instructor’s approval or denial of requests is reasonability: asking for further explanation of a course topic is reasonable; however, asking for an extension on your paper because you forgot the due date is not reasonable. By the same token, your instructor is not obligated to take flimsy excuses as reason for missing class, missing assignments, or generally negligent behavior. It can be tempting to tell white lies via email because you do not have to hide your nervous fidgeting and lack of eye contact, but the untruths read loud and clear on your instructor’s computer screen.

The second consideration you have when writing an email is language usage. Text lingo or slang of any kind is a big no-no when emailing instructors. There’s something to be said for the broadening horizons of language and the new-age lexicon created by technology—but, for now, stick to words not generally frowned upon by Merriam-Webster’s. You don’t need a list of the offending jargon. You know what I’m talking about.

Also, beware exclamation points, for they speak volumes. Rarely in an email to your instructor will there be cause for such emotion in your writing, particularly if you are writing out of desperation. “I have a flat tire!” is no more convincing than “I have a flat tire.” In fact, that exclamation point can make you seem too demonstrative and insincere. Allow your words to do the talking rather than your punctuation.

Speaking of emotion in writing, let’s address emoticons, or “smileys.” There is only one thing to be said of the use of emoticons in emails to instructors: NO. Don’t do it. Don’t even think of it. It’s as simple as that.

In summation, the most important thing to remember when communicating with an instructor is tone. The tone you strike in an email starts with your greeting, which skews the rest of the message. If you begin a perfectly professional and respectable email with “Hey,” you seem too familiar and, possibly worse, apathetic. Even if your professor seems “cool,” he or she deserves the dignity of a proper greeting. “Hello” or “Good morning/afternoon/evening” will start your email in a cordial but politely formal manner that shows an appropriate amount of respect for your instructor’s authority.

You have to give respect to get respect, and you wouldn’t want something as small as a winky-faced emoticon or a half-truth to ruin your instructor’s opinion of you. So the next time you start an email to an instructor, keep in mind how they will perceive it—and how they will perceive you.