For my upcoming students
Last year, one student’s email became famous online, not because he wrote the most beautiful note of gratitude or delivered the most persuasive request for a paper extension, but because he wrote a drunken, profanity laced message to let his professor know: 1. He is sorry that he is bald, 2. He can “hook him up,” and 3. He will need an extension on a paper due to his upcoming hangover. If you are curious to learn more, all you need to do is Google “drunk student email.” I mention this because in an English class we would refer to this as a failure to meet the rhetorical situation. The rhetorical situation refers to how our purpose, audience, stance, genre, and medium shape the construction of our texts.
Most commonly, students will email their professor when life interferes with their ability to complete their work or if they have questions about an upcoming assignment. In either case, the student should remember their purpose is to solicit help, whether that help is to be given more direction or more time. To best achieve your purpose, you must consider your audience.
Your audience is your professor, who is (despite any rumors) human. Humans respond best to polite requests, not frustration-driven demands. Accusations or negative comments usually result in feelings of defensiveness, so be careful of the stance you present. Also, remember you have a professional relationship with your professor. This means you do not address them as “Hey” and write a collection of fragments, typos, and LOLs.
Remember the medium. With emails there are no take backs when you hit send, unlike on social media when better judgment may cause you to delete a post or Tweet. It is good to remember an email message is a particular genre. It may even be an unfamiliar genre. Do not treat it like a text message or social media chat. It is more akin to a writing a letter. The example below fails to meet the expectations of the genre, utilize the features of the medium, or consider the audience.
Lately I have been reading how periods should not be used in text messages, as recipients perceive this as less sincere. This is not the case with emails. It is actually good to think of text messages and emails comparatively. Text messages to friends tend to be an informal form of communication. Email messages to professors and professional contacts are written formally. Like letters, emails usually include salutations and closings, at least when beginning a formal thread of conversation. Like business memos, they include a subject line, letting the reader immediately know what the email is about. This allows individuals to prioritize messages in their inbox.
The example below meets the expectations of the genre, utilizes the features of the medium, and is written in a manner that fulfills the purpose and considers the audience.
The example above has all the proper formatting and information. The subject line succinctly tells the recipient what the email is about. It begins with a formal, respectful salutation. The content is polite, succinct, and grammatical.
TIP: You may not know whether or not your professor holds a Ph.D. If you do not know, it is best to use the honorific “Professor” rather than “Dr.” Often in higher education, we avoid gendered honorifics (Mr., Ms., and Mrs.).