How not to Email a Professor: A Lesson on Audience

Professor Michael Leddy’s “How to email a professor” is making the rounds on Facebook for the third time in as many years. While there’s much good advice in there, there’s also advice that seems useful mostly for students with professors who think like Leddy.

There are other ways to think, though, and examining a handful of differences between Leddy’s perspective and how I would have my students email me provides us with an interesting chance to think about the role of audience in professional communication (as I do in my advice at the end of this post). In what follows, I use Leddy’s headings to aid the reader in her comparisons of our positions.

I should say quickly that Leddy’s post dates from over six years ago, and his own opinions may well have changed in the interim. So I direct this post not to him, but to students and faculty everywhere. [Rainbow appears.]

“Write from your college or university email account.”

College and university email accounts that I’ve used are spam-ridden, have inconvenient webmail interfaces, and lack features for integration with desktop clients (e.g., fully-supported IMAP access). I try never to use mine; frankly I’d rather get a Facebook message from a student than a message to any institutional email address.

And while I agree that email addresses should be professional rather than “salacious”—which seems, at any rate, a strong word to describe any of the examples he uses (even “qtpie2005”)—I can’t see any difference in professionalism between “” and the series of odd initials and numbers that comprise most email addresses. And since Gmail accounts are free, if I were the proverbial qtpie2005, I’d simply create a second account for my professional communications.

“Choose an appropriate greeting.”

Leddy bristles at “Dear ____,” but it’s quite common in my sphere. As a graduate student, many of my professors used it; I, in turn, picked up the habit of using it with my students, especially when addressing them as a group.

In fact, if I haven’t heard from a student before, I prefer they begin with “Dear,” as I would when writing to a colleague I didn’t know well, or to a writer who had submitted to the fledgling literary magazine I help out with. Here as in the first case, a student following Leddy’s advice would actually do slightly worse with me—to whatever insignificant extent they’d do better with Leddy, at least.

“Sign with your full name, course number, and meeting time.”

Leddy notes that signing “eliminates the need for stilted self-identification (‘I am a student in your such-and-such class’).” It seems to me, though, that making me scroll down to the end of your email to find out who’s email I’m reading is inconsiderate. If a student doubts that a professor will know him by name—as he probably should, depending on the class—he should identify himself as quickly as possible.

“Don’t send unexpected attachments.”

It’s not clear from Leddy’s post whether it’s the “attachments” or the “unexpected” that he has a bigger problem with, but the points he makes in this section and my responses are as follows:

  1. “It’s bad form.” Not so much an argument as an assertion, and one I couldn’t disagree with more. I’ve never thought for a second that it was rude to send me an attachment without some kind of prior authorization.
  2. “Attaching an essay with a request that your professor look it over is very bad form.” Context is everything. If a student wants to send me a draft to glance at, I am more than happy to do so, and it saves me time. If we have a lot to talk about, I will suggest we meet in person—but why should it be on the student’s shoulders to decide that for both of us? After all, I’m the teacher here; she’s the one who’s not sure how to feel about her paper.
  3. “Your professor is supposed to print out your essay because you’re not coming to class?” I never print out student work, and they only turn in work electronically. This issue is a non-starter for me.

My Advice: Know Your Audience.

To be fair, some of Leddy’s advice seems applicable across a far more broad sampling of professors (for example, “Proofread what you’ve written.”). Still, rather than issue a set of fixed rules, I would advise my students to learn as much as they can about how each of their professors prefers to communicate.

How? By observation, first of all. Start with the basics of professionalism, to be sure—and as always, Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab has a fine guide—but beyond that, read your professors’ emails carefully and respond in ways that seem consistent with their tone and formatting. (If this process seems familiar, consider how you’re learning to write the academic essays with which you’re all apparently surprising Prof. Leddy.)

Also, by asking. A simple question like “Do you prefer to be called Prof. Goldstein?” goes a long way. I’d rather play a part in shaping your professional communication to my liking than have Prof. Leddy do it for me.

Showing Students the Money: A Pragmatic Defense of the Humanities Education

Buried in Lauren Russell’s article for CNN on the increasingly “career-driven” college student lies a glimmer of hope for the humanities education: Although “[b]usiness and technical majors fared better in the job market this year,” a university career advisor notes, “‘[c]hoosing liberal arts doesn’t necessarily mean joblessness’” (emphasis added).1 Time for English majors to break out the champagne, I guess.

David Brooks, meanwhile, begins an op-ed piece in The New York Times with a common defense of the value of the humanities education against Russell’s familiar and painful set of job-market statistics. Brooks notes that “[s]tudying the humanities improves your ability to read and write.” Such work also makes you familiar with “the language of emotion,” to which he credits the enormous success of the iPod, by way of a focus on the device’s branding.

Sounds great, right? It’s undeniable that doing a lot of reading and writing—minimum requirements for any humanities course at any institution, I hope—makes you better at reading and writing, valued skills at most jobs. It also makes sense to think that understanding why people have been painting and telling stories for so long—and, to a lesser extent, what they have been painting and telling stories about—will earn you some kind of knowledge about the human animal, which might prove useful to you in creating successful products or brands, as Brooks claims.

But there is something wrong here. Industry may value good readers and writers already on the payroll, but it’s relatively rare for most companies to know ahead of time that they ought to seek out such capable humanists in the first place. (Russell’s story aims primarily to support this point with hard numbers.) Understanding human emotion and the language that accompanies it may have helped Steve Jobs brand the iPod, but, as he’s fond of noting, he dropped out of Reed College after one semester. However useful the humanities education may prove once you’re on the job, not even Brooks argues that it gives you a leg up as a job seeker. I don’t know of anybody who has.

So it makes sense that Rebecca Mead’s defense of the humanities education in The New Yorker attempts to sidestep the question of what kinds of jobs a graduate might or might not land. She writes:

[O]ne needn’t necessarily be a liberal-arts graduate to regard as distinctly and speciously utilitarian the idea that higher education is, above all, a route to economic advancement. Unaddressed in that calculus is any question of what else an education might be for: to nurture critical thought; to expose individuals to the signal accomplishments of humankind; to develop in them an ability not just to listen actively but to respond intelligently.

On the one hand, it’s valiant of Mead to try to make the case for a sui gratia approach to the humanities. On the other, she might as well have typed her argument in ink made from the ashes of hundred dollar bills.

That is, if we want to sell the humanities within current labor and economic conditions, we need an argument that appeals to people making tough, smart choices about whether to go to college, and, if so, what to study. We need an argument that works within that utilitarian calculus, specious or not, because it’s the one many parents and students use—and they do so for good, fiscally responsible reasons. To push the humanities on those it won’t benefit financially, as Mead would and Brooks might, is a little like a real estate agent pushing inflatable mortgages: Sure, your client gets the house, but at what cost?

I want to offer here a defense of the humanities education that is career-oriented (unlike Mead’s) and that focuses on job seeking rather than personal or even professional betterment (unlike Brooks’s). It begins with my own experience. Since I graduated in 2002, I’ve found success in a field that, like most, doesn’t reward anybody for being able to quote Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror from memory, which at any rate I can do no longer. Yet I feel almost certain that I could not have secured the jobs I have—let alone succeeded in them, a point we can again concede to Brooks—without my liberal-arts education. (Emphasis on “liberal”; I went to Hampshire College.)

I learned how to package and sell myself—my skills and my potential value to a company—just by learning how to package the ideas in my Division III, a kind of intensive senior thesis. In doing the work of the project, I learned how to research anything, whether previous scholarship on early cinema or techniques for the job search. I learned how to talk to people, how to make arguments out loud, how to respond to skepticism off-the-cuff, as one must so often do in interviews. These skills have won me many job offers.

I’m presenting anecdotal evidence here, and I also learned at Hampshire the limitations of argumentation based on such things. But we can acknowledge that my story would not be everybody’s and suppose that the value of the humanities education might be much more individual than blanket defenses (or attacks, for that matter) can tolerate. For some, an education in the humanities may well be the path to the jobs they want, while for others career-focused degrees might be the better choice.

The task for humanities programs and liberal-arts institutions is to preserve those aspects of themselves essential in allowing the right students to find the humanities and learn from them. At Hampshire, this means preserving a flexible but rigorous program operated, in a sense, by capable faculty working as teachers and advisors. Yet liberal-arts schools must also be honest about the fact that selling one’s degree in the humanities on the job market requires a special set of strategies. My point here is just that it’s not impossible to make the argument that getting a degree like mine can, in fact, be a pragmatic decision.

1: I think there’s some slippage in this whole conversation between the terms “humanities” and “liberal arts.” I’m content for now to blame it on the writers I quote, some of whom mistake the focus of one’s education (which may lie within the humanities, depending on your major) with the curriculum in which it takes place (which may be in the liberal arts, depending on your school). [Back to article]

Profitable Humanities, Cont.

Since it came up in a discussion of my previous post (and in the comments there), here’s my position on the bigger question (that is, should we be measuring the worth of the English department [or others] in financial terms?):

For me, the problems with addressing the financial value of the humanities are two: first, an in-principle objection: That’s just not the right way to think about it. Many commenters on Facebook have countered this objection with a real practical concern for which I have no solution, namely, that financial considerations seem to be the only ones that matter to administrators.

But to take one example of why this line of thinking can be troublesome: If we start working on these terms, don’t we have to mention that part of the reason we can be so profitable is that our faculty make less than in other disciplines and we rely so heavily on adjuncts and graduate students?

My second objection is more pragmatic: There’s no way to win this fight. There’s no meaningful way to cut up the numbers in which we come out even or ahead. Implication: The author of the original article‘s net-operating-profit-or-loss analysis is not “meaningful.” I feel like if he had spent ten minutes with a VP of the University, he might’ve realized that the road he’s on leads to dark places for the humanities. But no, he asked the Assistant Dean of the Humanities—responsible only for the operating budget of the humanities division and its departments—to crunch some numbers.

This feels a little like arguing that there’s no problem with the economy because my accountant told me that my family is saving responsibly. The ship is sinking; it’s pointless to think about whether any one cabin has flooded or not.

Profitable Humanities: Too Good to be True?

At first, I was entranced by a piece in UCLA Today about the extent to which departments in the hard sciences do or do not subsidize humanities departments. In it, Robert Watson, a professor of English at UCLA, notes that based on student fees and expenses, the English department there profited by $5.5 million (about a 10% margin), where “the physical sciences,” taken in aggregate, faced a loss of about the same size.

Lovely, I thought. This kind of fact appeals to the contrarian in me, because it gives me ammunition against detractors against what we do. I felt much as I did upon learning that the U.S. Postal Service hasn’t taken a penny of taxpayer money in decades. Ha!, I thought.

As I kept thinking, though, I ran into this problem: For every department to pay its own way is not enough, because a university is greater than the sum of its departments, from a budgetary perspective. That is, no students pay fees directly for many parts of the administration (from student affairs to the landscaping)—nor for the endowment, new construction, or other long-term considerations.

What’s more, the departmental fee-based income (or loss) is really small potatoes in a University’s operating budget1—or in terms of its overall income (or loss). The money that really matters comes in from donors. Case in point: In 2007-2008, UCLA received $481 million in new gifts and pledges alone.

That’s a huge chunk of cash compared to the English department’s profit or the comparably tiny loss from “the physical sciences,” with relatively little associated cost—perhaps a few million? And again, that’s just new gifts; the year-after-year stuff surely multiplies the number tremendously.

The more important question, then, is this: How much donor money does English bring in, as compared to engineering, medicine, athletics programs, and so on? Without any hard evidence, I can’t help but suspect those numbers are far more damning for the humanities than the short-term profit-and-loss figures presented by Prof. Watson.

(The flip side of this, which I’m invested in personally and professionally, is that general financial strength is probably the wrong measure for worth when one’s considering something like an English Department. But that’s really off-topic here, isn’t it?)

1 UPDATE: Further research confirms this “small potatoes” hypothesis. In 2007 – 2008, UCLA’s total spending on operations and capital expenditures (a mostly useless but dazzling figure) was $4,269,679,000. That’s over four billion dollars. At about one-eighth of one percent of that overall spending figure, how much can the English department’s operating profit really matter?