How to Communicate with Your Instructor Without Being Accidentally Offensive

College Advice

Introduction

Communicating with instructors can be a challenge for colleges students, even seniors.  Below we break down some of the common mistakes students make when emailing, and how they can be avoided.

YOu ARe Explaining Why You will MIss All or Part of Class.

Scenario One: The Other COMMITMENT

You write: I scheduled an interview over it.  I double booked myself and have an internship that overlaps with your class.

Your instructor hears: I don’t value your class. I value these other things more.

The solution: You already know you are not free during specific times during the week.  Don’t schedule other commitments over them.

SCENARIO Two: THE “Mandatory” Event

You write: I have a mandatory club event.  I have a mandatory meeting for another class.

Your instructor hears: I don’t value your class. I value these other things more.

The solution: Most club events are not mandatory.  If your sorority or fraternity is requiring you to miss class to stay a member, they are wrong and you should bring this matter to the attention of your school.  Your education comes first.  You go to class before you go to extra-curriculars.  And if another instructor schedules another meeting over your class, the correct course of action is to inform them that you are already in class at that time and need to reschedule.  Almost no instructor will say no.  If they do, tell your other instructor, who will likely write an email asking why someone else is telling their students not to attend class.

Scenario Three: Illness

You write: I am sick.  I have the flu and strep and constant vomiting and diarrhea.  I can barely get out of bed and the amount of bodily fluids I am expelling is astounding, I tell you!  Astounding!

Your instructor hears: You trying too hard.  You don’t have to convince them that you are really sick and they don’t want to know the gory details.  (Privacy laws in the U.S. mean they cannot even ask.)

The solution: Bring a doctor’s note if you need your absences to be excused.  If not, just take they day off and try to recover.  You can email your instructor that you are ill and would like to know what you missed in class, but you aren’t required to provide any more information than that.  They don’t need to be convinced of your physical inability to get out of bed.  They want you to rest and to get better–and to keep the flu to yourself instead of spreading it throughout the class.

Scenario Four: You Have Reasons

You write: It’s my birthday.  I want to go on a date.  The bus arrives late so I will be late every day for class.

Your instructor hears: I don’t value your class and I am not even trying.

The solution: If you have free absences, take them and don’t explain it’s because you’re blowing off class for fun.  If you know the bus arrives too late for you to get to class, take a different bus and arrive earlier on campus.  You knew your schedule for months.  You were expected to work out a valid timeline to make sure you arrived on time for all your classes–and stayed there for the duration.  School is a professional environment.  If you wouldn’t show up ten minutes late to work every day, don’t arrive ten minutes late to class every day.

You Want to Schedule a Meeting.

Scenario One: You need a meeting Right now.

You write: Can I meet with you in 20 minutes?  I’ll be there in five minutes.  Can you come in to campus just for  me?  What about Saturday?  Are you free?

Your instructor hears: You not realizing that they are not always on their email waiting for meeting requests.  You  not realizing they have other commitments and might not be able to squeeze you in last minute.  You not realizing they have a personal life, too, and maybe a family.

The solution: Plan your meetings ahead of time.  Attend office hours if possible.  If not, give your instructor a few days’ notice about wanting to meet at different times.  That way they know to clear their schedule for you.  The nicest instructor in the world is not going to be able to meet in five minutes if they live an hour away or at weird times if they don’t have a babysitter for their children.

Scenario Two: You Need Lots of Help

You write: Can we meet from 1:00-2:00?  Can we meet Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday this week?

Your instructor hears: You not realizing they have other commitments and other students.

The solution: Ask for a 20-minute meeting.  Don’t ask the instructor to keep adding office hours several times  a week to accommodate only you.  Give them time to meet with and help their other students.  If you have other resources such as a TA, classmate, tutor, or Writing Center, use those options, too, so you can allow other classmates access to the instructor.  If the instructor offers additional help, that’s different and you may accept their very generous offer.  Remember they don’t typically get paid for mentoring/tutoring and they don’t typically receive professional acknowledgment or advancement for it, either.

You Need Details About the Assignment

Scenario One: You Don’t KNow what the Work Should Look Like

You write: When is the assignment due?  How many words should it be?  Did you want it in MLA or APA?

The instructor hears: You didn’t read the assignment prompt or the syllabus and you weren’t paying attention in class.

The solution: Read the syllabus and the assignment prompt.  Email a classmate with your question. Then email the instructor as a last resort if you still can’t find the answer.  One of the most important things you can learn in a professional environment is always to initially assume that YOU made the mistake, instead of someone else.  That way, you won’t accidentally write an email saying that the instructor didn’t do what they were supposed to, when in fact they did.

Scenario Two: You Are Struggling with the Work

You write: I am having trouble with the assignment so can I not do it at all/provide a shorter essay than my peers/ forget the research?

Your instructor hears: I do not like hard work and so I give up.

The solution: Frame your email as a question.  As in, “I am having trouble finding research for X reasons.  How can I change my methods so I can complete the assignment?” Or, “I am having trouble meeting the word count.  Do you have any strategies I can try to add content to my paper?”  Present yourself as trying to find a solution rather than trying to get out of the work. Again, school is a professional environment.  If you wouldn’t tell your boss you don’t feel like completing an assignment, don’t tell your instructor that, either.

You are Trying to Use Your Rhetoric Effectively in Your Email.

Scenario One: It’s urgent.

You write: URGENT in the subject line of the email.

Your instructor hears: You being overly dramatic about the assignment–it’s actually not urgent for you to know if assignment 2 is due in one week or two.  “Urgent” implies some sort of personal emergency.

The solution: Just title your email what it’s about.  Don’t add adjectives.

Scenario Two: You Need an Answer Now

You write: Please respond ASAP.  I hope to hear from you soon/promptly/quickly.

Your instructor hears: You being rude and demanding about how and when they should respond.

The solution: Sign off with a polite thank you or a wish for a good day/weekend/whatever.  Your instructor will answer your email when they have time.  They are busy with professional and personal commitments, too.  If they don’t answer after a few days, it is then appropriate to send a polite reminder email.  However, most instructors understand that professional email etiquette requires a response the same day or the next, so in most cases you won’t be waiting long.

Scenario Three: You Know You Asked for Something that Goes Against Course Policy

You write: Thanks for being understanding.

The instructor hears: You trying to convince them that they are a warm-hearted individual who will bend the rules for you because you were very polite about it and told them how to respond emotionally.

The solution: Don’t try to ask for special exemptions.  If you have an emergency or personal crisis, that’s one thing and almost all instructors will work with you to make sure you complete the work.  If you are trying to get out of the attendance policy because you just prefer to do other things that day, it’s best not to bother.  Your instructor fields these requests all the time and, unfortunately, your desire to get a Shamrock Shake on the last possible day it’s available isn’t likely to melt their heart with understanding.  In fact, in that case, you should, if you must, quietly take one of your free absences and let your instructor assume it was a mental health day/for an illness/something else.

Conclusion

I write these examples somewhat playfully.  However, it is true that many students do not quite realize how they may be coming across when they write.  So just keep some key concepts in mind.  Be polite.  Don’t expect your instructor to treat you as the special exemption–all their students are busy and struggling but they have to be fair and try apply the same rules to all.  And remember that your instructor is only human and has other commitments.  It’s that simple.

One final note:  College is hard.  Instructors really do understand that and sympathize!  Hence why many give out free absences or don’t require documentation for absences.  If you really need a day off for some reason and don’t want to tell them why because it’s personal or embarrassing or you just don’t feel comfortable talking to that particular instructor, you can!  A helpful hint, though: It is hard for instructors to work with you if they don’t know that you have an ongoing issue.  In this case, one or two absences may not be enough.  You may need repeated extensions because you are secretly pregnant, are struggling with a mental health issue, or just feel sad because of a family or personal situation.  Even if you are just feeling blue because you had a fight with your best friend, you might want to bring this up and see what your instructor can do to help.

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12 thoughts on “How to Communicate with Your Instructor Without Being Accidentally Offensive

  1. Ravenclaw Book Club says:

    These are very good tips! I rarely need to e-mail my seminar leaders or anyone at uni, but one time I didn’t go to a seminar because I hadn’t done the reading and didn’t want to feel useless in class, but I felt like e-mailing my seminar leader about it would just be a waste of his time. However, he e-mailed me after the seminar to ask if everything was alright (I had never missed class before), and I thought it was so sweet that he had taken the time to e-mail me that I confessed everything 😂 He responded sounding quite amused, and told me not to worry about it. He was a strange guy but always really nice – I think I’ll remember him for a while 😀

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, that is the flip side. Some students don’t email instructors at all or nearly enough because they feel weird about it or don’t want to bother instructors. But there are valid reasons for emailing, of course! Explaining that you will miss class and are sending in the work early/want to know what you missed, giving a heads up about accommodations you might need, asking if you can change a paper topic (or another fairly quick question that doesn’t need a full-length meeting to be addressed).

      Instructors do want to be emailed! They just want the emails to be professional and show the students in the best light. I do know some instructors will email back helpful tips like, “I believe you meant to address me Dear Prof. X and not with ‘Hey'” or “Emojis shouldn’t be in a professional letter.” They mean well. However, it’s best if none of us have to be on the receiving end of this helpful advice!

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    • Krysta says:

      I’ve heard some weird excuses for missing class. I think it’s a little concerning that some students don’t understand it’s really better for them professionally speaking not to admit publicly to some of these things. Yes, life happens and sometimes you can’t make class/just fall asleep and miss it/really believe that going to the dance means you should get an extension on your work. But not all instructors may be amused by a wild excuse and if the student needs a recommendation letter in the future, the instructor may remember how So-and-so was the student who tried to get out of class for a date or thought that dancing till midnight was a a valid reason for not turning in an essay they knew about for weeks or whatever. Not a great way to begin a letter to a future employer or grad school. :/

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Briana says:

    On a somewhat related note, one of my friends just received an email from a student who took his class a couple semesters ago that contained one line: “I still have nightmares about your class.” No greeting, closing, or any explanation. I asked, and apparently he barely remembers who this student was; they did not generally have a bantering relationship where this email might come across as funny or cute instead of just weird.

    People might read this post and think “Well, that’s obvious! I would never write that!” But hindsight is 20/20. I got bizarre emails from students all the time, and so do all the instructors I know.

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    • Krysta says:

      Oh dear. He probably felt really vindicated when hitting send, but sometimes being rude isn’t worth it, even if it feels good at the time. I’d also point out that because instructors do receive odd emails all the time most won’t be hurt or guilty or however the student hoped. They will probably just delete it and move on. Not worth it at all.

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