Mastering the Human Event: Communicating with Professors


In this post I wilowl-postl focus on how to speak with and write to your Human Event seminar instructor (aka HFF).

The following guidelines apply to communicating with professors of all of your classes, so adapt them as you need. The most common way that you will likely interact with your HFF is by email. So let’s cover a few do’s and don’ts about that.

1. Do read the syllabus carefully to understand the HFF’s own rules regarding email procedures. That may tell you all you need to know. Otherwise, read on and adopt the following approach.

2. Do include a clear and specific subject. Don’t leave the subject blank. Make sure that you announce in the subject line what your email is about: a specific writing assignment, a question about a grade you received, a request for additional information about a policy or an assignment, and so on.

3. Do adopt a formal voice in the body of your email. Although HFFs will differ about the level of informality they prefer in communication from and with students, it is best to err on the side of formality. So always begin your email with a standard letter salutation, like “Dear Dr X,” – do not write “Hi Professor!” or “Hi!” or no salutation at all.

4. Do use the appropriate title: “Dr or “Prof” are fine. Why? Because they earned it and it is simply good manners to show due respect for their achievement and status. Don’t use “Ms,” “Mr,” “Mrs,” or “Miss” because (a) these titles do not reflect the professional status of the HFF and (b) academic style avoids gendered language.

5. In the body of your email, get to the point, stick to the point, and end it. Your Human Event instructor is a very busy person. They do a lot more than typical tenured, disciplinary faculty, and they don’t get paid as much as their tenured colleagues. This makes us grumpy. Respect their time and workload by limiting your message to what you need to know. They will appreciate it!

6. Do use an appropriate closing:

Thank you,

Robert the Bruce

Your HFF is more accessible to you than any of your other teachers at university, including most graduate student teaching assistants. Don’t abuse that accessibility by stalking behaviors or being over-familiar with them. Your HFF is incredibly friendly and funny, yes, but they are not in your peer group. If you’re not sure about the appropriate boundaries in how and when to communicate with your HFF, then ask to discuss this with them. They will be more than happy to do so.

Basically, anything you do to communicate with your HFF should show that (a) you are going to adopt a professional posture toward them, (b) you respect their position, and (c) you respect their time. Conducting yourself maturely and as a serious person will go a long way toward establishing a great rapport with your HFF.

Although the majority of this post concerns communication by email, I encourage you to speak with your HFF regularly, too. Some HFFs will require meetings with you to discuss your papers or other assignments. But others will not. Pay attention to their posted office hours and make a point to visit three or four times in the semester, or once a month. There’s always something that is course-related that you could (and probably should) ask about, or arrange ahead of time by email to discuss something in person so that your HFF can be prepared.

Again, don’t abuse their accessibility. HFFs will often be in their offices outside their posted office hours. Avoid unannounced visits at those times. They are probably there because they need to work on other projects, assignments, grading, research, and so on that may have nothing to do with the Human Event. Respect their space and time. That said, many HFFs encourage you to arrange office visits at times outside their posted office hours, but make sure that you do this in advance and in writing. We often have 10 things we’re thinking about at once, and if you only request a visit verbally, like mentioning it after class, your HFF might forget. So put your request in writing. Owl post is appreciated.

And by all means, show up when you say you will! Do not be late. And don’t give late notice for canceling. “Late notice” here is a phrase that means “less than 24 hours.”

Finally, I want to reiterate that your HFF may have already covered some or all of these matters in their syllabus, so read it closely. And feel free to use the guidelines I’ve suggested here as a springboard to have this discussion with your HFF.