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My University is currently on break, so I'd be making the appointment by email, and then meeting separately to discuss it.

In the email, is it a good idea to say explicitly that the appointment is regarding letters of recommendation? It seems like it would be, but on the other hand that seems tantamount to "asking via email," which of course is frowned upon when we're in the same city. Any thoughts?

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This may vary between departments, countries (I'm in the U.S.), etc., but I'd say:

  1. When making an appointment, it's almost always a good idea to specify what it will be about. When someone doesn't have a lot of time, this helps them figure out how soon the meeting needs to be scheduled, and it gives them a chance to prepare for it. The one exception I can think of is very delicate topics. For example, if you are meeting with someone to discuss an ethical matter, there might not be a short description you can give that wouldn't risk be misleading or omitting important context.

  2. I'm not aware of a belief that asking for a letter of recommendation via e-mail is rude or problematic (although of course this may depend on the local culture). In fact, I would prefer to be asked by e-mail. Partly it's just because I generally prefer e-mail for things that can be handled that way, since it's less disruptive. Partly it's because awkward situations are a little easier for me to handle by e-mail. For example, if a student didn't do well in my course, I may point this out and ask whether there's someone else who could write a more compelling letter. It's easier for me to find the right words in writing, rather than on the fly in a conversation.

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That's interesting. Every single resource I've been able to find on the topic recommends always asking in person when possible, but admittedly I don't know whether the authors were university faculty. In either case, I definitely know that I'd share your sentiments: I would feel very much put on the spot if someone asked me in person and I felt that I should decline. –  Xander Flood Jan 5 '13 at 18:14
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Just write the email right now asking for the letter. If you feel sheepish about "asking over email," just say "I'm sorry I didn't have a chance to ask you in person, but because we're on break, I wasn't sure how long it would take to set up a meeting."

The number 1 courtesy issue with asking for letters of recommendation is promptness and giving your writers as much time as possible to write and submit the letters. I think that completely overrides any concerns about medium, especially when it's not necessarily easy to meet with the person in question right away. I'd certainly much rather get an email about submitting letters than to go to the trouble of specially setting up a meeting with some amount of delay. (In fact, when students do ask me in person, I usually tell them to sent me an email about it so I have a permanent record of the request).

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