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2016 August 11

Email to professors

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:37
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This is the time of year when many semester-based colleges are starting classes again, so there are the usual spate of blog posts from faculty trying to orient the new students.  On perennial theme is on how to communicate with faculty, since so many students seem clueless about it.  (Two years ago, I plugged the book Say This, NOT That to your Professor, which I still recommend.)

Today, I happened to see the post How to Email Your Professor (without being annoying AF), in which Laura Portwood-Stacer provides a template and explanations:

10 Elements of an Effective, Non-Annoying Email

Here’s a template you can follow in constructing your email to a professor. Each element is explained further below.

Dear [1] Professor [2] Last-Name [3],

This is a line that recognizes our common humanity [4].

I’m in your Class Name, Section Number that meets on This Day [5]. This is the question I have or the help I need [6]. I’ve looked in the syllabus and at my notes from class and online and I asked someone else from the class [7], and I think This Is The Answer [8], but I’m still not sure. This is the action I would like you to take [9].

Signing off with a Thank You is always a good idea [10],
Favorite Student

Element #1: Salutation …

Element #2: Honorific 

Element #3: Name …

Element #4: Meaningless Nicety…

Element #5: Reminder of how they know you …

Element #6: The real reason for your email …

Elements #7 and 8: This is where you prove you’re a wonderful person …

Element #9: Super polite restatement of your request …

Element #10: Sign-off …

The hidden Element #11: The follow-up …

I don’t think that Ms. Portwood-Stacer is a professor, as her advice seems more appropriate for freelance writers than for students.  It isn’t bad advice, but I’d recommend something slightly different.

First, I don’t care much whether students include elements #1, #2, and #3, though I agree with her that “Hey!” is offensive. I don’t mind students using my first name, and I tell them so, but I agree that it is probably safer to use “Professor X” if you don’t know the person’s preferences.  In a formal business letter, the proper salutation is important, but in an e-mail without CCs it can be omitted.  (In an email with CCs, it is important to indicate who is being addressed.)

I disagree strongly about #4. I read a lot of email every day, and don’t want to have to wade through meaningless noise.  Skip the chitchat and get to the point—don’t waste my time.

Along the same lines, move #6 to the front. Ask your question or make your request directly, don’t bury the lede. After you’ve made a clear request, then provide the background information: who you are and what you’ve already done to try to get an answer. Make this more complete—if you are asking for something in my role as undergraduate director, for example, I need to know your major, your concentration, and which year’s catalog you are following.

The “thank you” at the end is nice, but a followup thank you message after my reply is appreciated more—the extra trouble taken makes the thanks seem more sincere.

One missed point—provide your full name and your nickname if you go by that in class right at the beginning of the message: This is Ridiculous Name Overly-Hyphenated, who goes by “Rid Overly” in class. I have to read my university e-mail with Google, which does an absolutely horrendous job of showing me who messages are from (there are probably 40 people it identifies to me as just “David”).

Use the official University e-mail address, as FERPA rules require me not to discuss your academic record with anyone but you (unless you’ve given explicit permission otherwise). We’ve had incidents of people pretending to be students to get information they had no right to, so I’m trying to be careful to respond only to the official email addresses. Remember to edit your campus directory entry, so that your email is associated with your real name, and not just your userid (I have no idea who “alkim345” is).

So rewriting her example for a classroom question:

This is Ridiculous Name Overly-Hyphenated, who goes by “Rid Overly” in Class Number. 

This is the question I have or the help I need.

I’ve looked in the syllabus and at my notes from class and online and I asked someone else from the class, and I think This Is The Answer, but I’m still not sure.

This is the action I would like you to take.

Thank you.

For an advising question:

This is Ridiculous Name Overly-Hyphenated, who goes by “Rid Overly”. 

This is the question I have or the help I need.

I’m a bioengineering major in the bioelectronics concentration, following the 2013–14 curriculum. I plan to graduate in Spring 2017.

I’ve looked at the curriculum charts, in the online catalog, and at the online advising web pages; I asked the professional advising staff; and I was directed to ask you.

This is the action I would like you to take.

Thank you.

If you need to meet with me, which is not needed for a lot of routine things, but is sometimes quite useful, add

May I come to your office hours next week at 3:15 p.m.?

Technically, you don’t need an appointment for open office hours, but those who have reserved slots ahead of time take priority over those who drop in. If you can’t make scheduled office hours and want to meet in person, say something like

I have a conflict during your office hours, but am free at the following five times …, would any of those times work for you?

2015 August 8

Advice for CS students

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:48
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Katrin Becker has collected advice from senior computer science students to those just starting out, which she has collected in her blog post Worth Sharing: Advice for New Students From Those Who Know (Old Students).   She summarizes the list as follows:

Top 10 list [Highlights]

  • Start Assignments Early: they will take longer than you think.
  • Make friends.
  • Ask questions.
  • Practice Programming. Try Stuff.
  • Make sure Computer Science is really what you want to do.
  • Choose options you will enjoy.
  • Go to class.
  • Don’t take too many CPSC courses in one semester.
  • Plan your programs on paper before you start typing.
  • Remember to have fun.

and goes on to give specific quotes from students for each of these categories (plus some other unsorted quotes).  Some of my favorites include

Be nice to people. You never know when they will be able to help (or hinder) you in the future.

You’ll enjoy it more if you treat your work as a full-time hobby, and not just a path to a job.

Working in groups tends to be harder, not easier.

Of course, a lot of the advice applies to any engineering major, and some to any college major.  Even the advice about programming applies to other design tasks.

2014 October 13

Say this, not that

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 17:00
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This summer I bought my son a book to prepare him for college: Say This, NOT That to Your Professor: 36 Talking Tips for College Success. He read most of it, and found it to be reasonably well-written, somewhat poorly copy edited, and worth reading once. Most of the advice in the book he felt was just common sense, but that only means that he has been raised in an academic culture.  What the child of a professor sees as common sense in dealing with professors may seem arcane for someone coming from a different culture—perhaps the first in their family to go to college.

For the past 3 years, over half of our admitted students are first in their family to go to college. So what my son finds “common sense” may be the cultural knowledge of academia that many of the students at UCSC are missing.

After my son left for college, I decided to read the book for myself, to see if it was worth recommending to students at UCSC.

The author, Ellen Bremen, apparently teaches communication at a two-year college (Highline Community College in Des Moines, WA, about an hour and a half south of University of Washington by public transit), and some of the advice she gives seems to be more directed at two-year college students than research university students.  For example, she provides no advice on how to ask a faculty member if you can join their research group, because most 2-year college faculty have no time to do research, but she provides a lot of information about what to do when you miss half a quarter’s classes.

Her example students also seem to be a bit more clueless than the students I see at the University of California.  Perhaps this is because of the stricter admission criteria to UC, or perhaps she has selected the most extreme cases to use as illustrations. Or maybe I just haven’t dealt with enough freshmen—I generally see students in their sophomore through senior years, after they’ve had a chance to get acculturated to academia.

About 3/4 of Bremen’s book is dedicated to what students do wrong, and the last quarter to how students can deal with professors who screw up—about the right ratio for a book like this. Although the actual incidence of student mistakes and faculty mistakes is a larger ratio (more like 10:1 or 20:1), the student mistakes tend to fall into the same sorts of things over and over, with only the players changing names, so a 3:1 ratio is reasonable.

The advice she gives is generally good, though she recognizes only the teaching role for faculty, and assumes that all faculty have as much time and desire to meet one-on-one with students as she does.  At UC, many of the professors see their research role as more important than their teaching role (and the promotion process, summer salary, and publicity about faculty activity clearly favor this belief), so faculty are a little less willing to dedicate 10 hours a week to office hours or meet with students at random times outside office hours. I’m doing a lot of additional appointments this quarter, and it really does break up the day so that I can’t carve out a chunk of time for writing papers or programming.  In previous years I’ve kept one day a week free for working from home, free from student interruptions and meetings all over campus, but this quarter I’ve not been able to do that, so my research time and book-writing time has dropped to almost nothing.  Just coping with the pile of email from students every few hours eats up my day.  I find that a lot of student requests can be handled more efficiently by e-mail than by scheduling meetings—the extra non-verbal communication that Ellen Bremen is so fond of often gets in the way of the actual business that needs to be transacted.

Overall, I think that Bremen’s book is a good one, even if some of the advice is slightly different from I would give.  I think that she would do well to work with a second author (from a research university) for a subsequent edition, to cover those situations that don’t come up much at 2-year colleges.  Despite those holes, I still recommend the book for UC students, particularly first-in-family students.



2012 September 14

Time of the year for college advice

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:17
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Its the time of year for giving well-meaning advice to new college students, so I picked out two articles that I thought worth discussing: gives 7 Tips for Not Screwing Up College, which was commented on by Grace at Cost of College. (If you’re only going to read one of them, Luke’s is funnier, but Grace’s is shorter.)

The seven pieces of advice are

  1. It’s Not About Getting a Degree, It’s About Becoming a Person
  2. Work Beyond the Course
  3. Take Up a Martial Art
  4. Try Everything
  5. Level Up Your Social Life
  6. Choose a Subject You Care About
  7. Don’t Do Anything Easy

I can sympathize with the intent of all the advice, but “Try everything” and “Level up your social life” are only good advice for some people.  There are many college students trying to do too many things (and so doing none of them well enough to get much out of them) and who are spending far too much time on their social lives.  College is the easiest time of your life to develop friendships, and it is worth spending some time on that, but not all your time, as some students seem to.

The martial art that Luke suggests is aikido, because of the emphasis it puts on ukemi (falling practice).  I agree that learning to fall without getting hurt is a very useful skill, and much more likely to save you major injury than any of the other skills taught in martial arts classes.  Aikido’s emphasis on defending oneself by avoiding getting hit, rather than by blocking blows or punching and kicking back, is also a good metaphor for living the rest of your life.  The one downside to aikido: it can be hard on the knees.  That’s usually not a problem for  youngsters, but it can become a problem for people who do aikido all their lives.  (Disclaimer: I started aikido in grad school and did it for many years, but as I got into middle age I kept having to take a year or two off to let my knees recover.  It’s been about a decade since I last trained.)

In a rather different vein is 10 Questions You Should Never Ask Your Professor, by Jill Rooney, Ph.D.  I’ve never liked the phrase “There are no stupid questions”—in part because it seems to beg the continuation “… only stupid people,” which is the opposite of what people usually intend when they say it.

There are stupid questions, and Jill Rooney lists 10 that she thinks are stupid (or at least very clumsily worded).

  1. Did we do anything important when I was out?
    Everything we do in the class is important.  Or perhaps nothing is.  You can ask if there were any new assignments or changes of schedule, but don’t expect professors to have the same idea of what is important that you have.  And don’t ask professors to repeat their classes for you, just because you couldn’t make it to class.
  2. Why do we have to learn this?
    I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what stuff to include in a class and what stuff to exclude (take a look at the 60 blog posts I’ve written about designing a circuits course, for example).  Don’t expect a quick response.  If you don’t want to learn what we have to teach, change courses, change majors, or change universities.
  3. Do we need the book?
    This is actually a good question, if it isn’t already explicit on the syllabus.  The standard at our university is to list required and recommended reading separately.  If it is on the syllabus, expect an RTFM response.
  4. How much work do we have to do in this class?
    The standard on our campus is 3.5 hours a week in class plus 10–12 hours a week outside of class.  I teach engineering classes, and we try to follow the standard.  Let me know if you as a class are spending much more or much less than that, and I’ll try to adjust the course.
  5. When will final grades be posted?
    Generally within a few hours of my getting the grading done.  Now go away and let me do the grading.  (Actually, I get very few students bugging me about grading, because I try to be on time.  Only students who took incompletes and took forever to finish the work have to wait—I hate having to grade stuff 6 months later, and the students have already shown a lack of interest in timeliness.
  6. How many footnotes/sources do I need?
    Footnotes are your grandmother’s way of doing citations and are not suitable for modern publication. You need to cite every source whose information you use, because claiming someone else’s work as your own is the academic sin (we call it plagiarism).  You need to read enough different sources to provide the level of depth and breadth that the assignment calls for. Need a number?  How many sources have you read already?  OK, you need a lot more than that.
  7. Do we need to know this for the exam?
    If the only reason you are taking the class is to pass the exam, you are in the wrong class. I don’t often give exams, but give assignments that require you to think for much longer than an exam.  Anything we do or say in class may be important at some future time.
  8. Do you have a stapler?
    Yes, it is in my office, and it will stay there.
  9. Can I leave early?/Is it OK if I go to my club meeting?
    I’ve never had a student ask for permission to leave early. I have had students tell me (generally apologetically) at the beginning of class that they would need to leave early because of an unavoidable conflict (for example, child care closing early that day). It is a stupid question to ask, but politely informing the faculty member before class that you will have to leave early (and then sitting near the door so that the exit is not a big production) is polite.
  10. Are you sure you that’s right?
    Actually, I encourage students to point out my mistakes. Unlike Jill Rooney, Ph.D., I do make mistakes, even in class.  Also, my ego is not so fragile that I need to cover up my mistakes or disguise them as “academic debate”.

Note that none of these stupid questions are about the material of the course.  Questions to clear up misunderstandings about the material of the course are almost always appropriate. I teach best when I have good feedback from students—some of my best classes have been responses to spur of the moment questions asked in class that were not at all what I was planning to talk about that day.

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