Good grammar, good graces
Everyday the proverbial naughty and nice list is growing. This is not a reference to Santa's famed inventory of children but rather, the positives and negatives of our international Internet addiction. The advantages of Internet research databases, social networking Web sites and online shopping markets definitely seem to outweigh the cons of the big, bad World Wide Web. But let us not forget that in an emotional or stressful or inebriated moment, our e-mail can be our worst enemy. Unfortunately, it is often our professors on the receiving end of a poorly constructed, ill-timed message.
Whether you need a recommendation, special permission number or, simply, advice, getting up the nerve to grovel at the feet of a professor and ask for a favor is tough, or, at least, it should be. However, the Internet has gone beyond connecting family, friends and strangers continents apart, and it has begun tearing down the boundaries between students and professors — boundaries we need and should want to keep in place.
In 2006, The New York Times ran a front-page article, "To: Professor@University.edu Subject: Why It's All About Me," detailing the misuse of e-mail within a university setting. Professors from across the nation addressed their grievances with student e-mails, which ranged from students inappropriately asking for notes after not attending class to more outlandish questions, like one regarding what kind of school supplies they need to buy. The article firmly asserted that while a professor may be more approachable via e-mail, the carelessness with which students use the mechanism could do more harm than good.
Yet, having had a professor just recently bring this issue to the attention of my class, it appears the long-standing problem has gone widely unaddressed. Misspelled words and SMS shorthand are unprofessional, and still they are commonplace in e-mails to professors. Sending out an overly casual message can easily give professors, and other professionals, a negative impression of you. Using ‘u,' ‘b' or ‘r' as stand-ins for actual words, can degrade an otherwise shining transcript or resume. Perhaps the potential ramifications of these e-mails should be considered with a higher degree of seriousness than the drafts themselves.
Certainly, most professors genuinely care about the wellbeing of their students and are willing to do what they can to help us out — supposing, of course, that we have given them any reason to feel that our appeal is worth their time. Turn on your spell-checker and put that internal check to work determining if your message is otherwise appropriate. If you are asking for something, do not underestimate the importance of being time-sensitive and gracious. Being demanding or acting entitled to a speedy response from a professor is likely as off-putting as improper punctuation.
So, in order to bring out the goodwill we know our professors to possess, it probably would not hurt to handle such requests with the utmost care. Figuring out who to ask is half the battle, but what you ask is equally significant.
I can remember a brief period during my volatile, early teenage years, when I demanded a lot from my parents and felt very entitled. If I was offered an invitation to go out, I rarely saw the need to ask permission from my parents. Yet, I did not hesitate to solicit, even expect, some spending money and a ride. Now, I have the unfortunate opportunity to watch my youngest brother go through the ‘terrible-twelves,' and I feel extreme remorse for the way I acted at that age.
I would like to believe I have cast aside all remnants of my bratty, 12-year-old self. My incredibly tolerant parents sadly had to suffer the wrath, but the least I can do is spare my professors the same fate. This sort of air of entitlement may not suit a tween, but it is even less tolerable on a college student. Politeness, along with correct capitalization, can go a long way. Do your best to petition to your professor's good nature with a tightly assembled, well-phrased e-mail, but prepare for the possibility that they may refuse your request.
Maybe, the adversary here is not really your e-mail. It may not be fitting to add e-mail to the naughty list alongside the various illicit materials that riddle the Web. But be mindful that although it may not seem as if you are talking to a superior when you have the computer screen to shield you, there are consequences to everything you say. If you would not pose the question, request or criticism to your professor's face, perhaps you should not be doing it over e-mail either.
When professor evaluation forms get passed around, it gets me thinking. Usually, my response is not based solely on the material they taught or how they assigned grades, but much more on my impression of the professor as an individual. It therefore stands to reason that the letter on my transcript does not make up a professor's entire opinion of me as a student. So, if ensuring I draft impeccable e-mails factors into that opinion at all, I would consider it worth the extra effort.
Larissa Klein is a School of Arts and Sciences junior. Her column "Definition of Insanity" runs on alternate Thursdays. She welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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