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I am a graduate student, and my fall classes start in a few weeks. I have already began reading the textbook for one class, and I have come across 1 or 2 things that I couldn't figure out. It's not the end of the world if I don't figure these out; for one, I can probably get an answer on math stackexchange. However, I like this professors field and would like to develop a little bit of a relationship with her. I would also like to show her that I am motivated. Would it be a bad idea to send an email with questions about the material before the class actually starts?

  • Has the professor set up a Slack channel for the class? – nick012000 Aug 13 at 12:01
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    Don´t you have better things to do than study things now by yourself that you will be taught in a few weeks anyway? Like do some serious relaxing, visit you parents, brush up on your skills in some language, or stuff you learned last semester, do an online summer school in programming? ;) – Karl Aug 13 at 21:01
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    @karl, speaking for myself obviously, but I used to read texts ahead of time also. Reason being that I used to relatively struggle with certain subjects, by exposing myself a little beforehand I felt more at par with other students ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ – Lamar Latrell Aug 14 at 21:23
  • @LamarLatrell Oh, I did too! You can argue much better with your teacher about sloppy or incomplete explanations if you already have a good idea what's to come. ;-) – Karl Aug 15 at 22:49
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Would it be a bad idea to send an email with questions about the material before the class actually starts?

First of all, I don’t mean to sound harsh, but generally it’s a bad idea to be a person who asks disingenuous questions not because they want to know the answers to those questions but “to show [someone] that they are motivated” and because they “would like to develop a bit of a relationship” with the other person. It’s dishonest, and the thing about this type of dishonesty is, the people the dishonesty is directed at are almost always better at detecting it than the dishonest person thinks. So this approach tends to not produce the desired outcome, and can sometimes backfire in unpleasant ways. And more specifically, most professors have had the experience of having a student try to impress them in various ways that come across as insincere. It leaves a bad taste, which does not help a while later when the student conveniently shows up asking for a letter of recommendation.

Setting this aside, if you have questions you genuinely want to know the answers to, there’s nothing inappropriate about emailing the professor. Professors often enjoy discussing course topics with students and answering their questions. If your questions sound sincere and not like something you contrived just to show that you have something to ask, I’m sure the professor won’t be offended by your email, and there’s a good chance that she’ll answer it. Whether she will like you more as a result or not, I don’t think anyone here can predict, so again, if that’s your true motivation then yes, it’s probably a bad idea to send the email.

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    I agree with this excellent answer, but would like to add that the answer to almost all questions can be found on the internet. That would mean that a good, motivated student could easily get by without asking any questions to the professor. I think it would make perfect sense in this case to ask a few of the questions to build a relationship and show your interest in the subject. Whether it is good to do so before classes start is another matter, covered by some of the other answers. – Louic Aug 13 at 9:46
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    @Louic This generally depends on how well established the material of the class is. This may depend on the field, but I don't think it is uncommon for a graduate class to cover material from methods introduced in some paper the lecturer published only a few years ago. – Discrete lizard Aug 13 at 11:32
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    @Louic it sounds like you’ve missed the point of my answer. It’s fine to ask questions of the professor regardless of whether the answers can be found online. But “building a relationship” and “showing interest” are bad reasons to ask them. – Dan Romik Aug 13 at 13:33
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    @Louic I did not emphasize it because I don’t think “building a relationship” is an appropriate, or advisable, reason to contact a professor. Even as a partial motivation. – Dan Romik Aug 13 at 21:05
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    @Louic it’s okay to ask a question if you want to know the answer to the question. I mean, if the answer is on the first paragraph of the Wikipedia page on the topic then you’d probably be wasting their time, so it’s less okay - I’m assuming finding the answer online wouldn’t be as easy as that, in which case it’s reasonable to contact the professor. Anyway, I’m not quite sure I understand what you’re getting at here. My answer and the above comments ought to make my position pretty clear. TL;DR: acting disingenuously is bad. – Dan Romik Aug 13 at 21:48
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For a moment, change your point-of-view to your professor's situation.

She receives an email from a future student asking about some topic that she'll most probably cover in her lectures. This student doesn't give her the chance to present the topics the way she wants, but ignores her efforts in preparing a course, tries to self-study it, and just wants to use her to fill some gaps.

This might not be the best way to establish a positive relationship.

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    It depends on the professor (and how the questions are phrased) whether she likes it or not. – Louic Aug 13 at 9:52
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    @user91988 I don't read this answer as "professor has big ego and doesn't want to help student", but rather "professor is a busy person: they will teach the students the material in their own time and their own way and would be happy to answer questions at that time, but may not want to take a lot of time engaging with students in this very different venue" – Ben Bolker Aug 13 at 16:49
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    For a moment, change your point-of-view to the professor’s” Hmm, I’m a professor so I think I know a thing or two about seeing things from a professor’s point of view. And from where I’m standing this answer is dead wrong, maybe not for all professors but for me and most professors I know. Your characterization of the student’s email is also incorrect. “Doesn’t give her the chance to present the topics the way she wants”? Please. She has every chance to respond politely and say she is too busy right now to address the student’s questions but will cover the topics in class in a few weeks. – Dan Romik Aug 13 at 17:04
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    In @RalfKleberhoff's defense: they didn't say "If I were the professor I would respond by telling the student to go f*** themselves", they said "the professor might not appreciate being contacted in this way, so it might not be a good idea". I'm not sure I agree with the answer, but I don't think there's anything wrong with it. – Ben Bolker Aug 13 at 19:38
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    You´ve got a point here. If you put yourself in the prof's shoes for a moment, you might also think wether there are perhaps five more of your type in the class. At which point the profs holiday spirit might start going on a dive. – Karl Aug 13 at 21:11
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This might depend on how much you ask and how you ask it. Expressing interest in the course with questions can be a good thing. Ask if the professor can "point you to" a source where you can find the answer. Or, ask if they can suggest some way to think about the issue you are having. But my personal guess is that it is less useful to ask for actual answers.

When you express the question, make sure you indicate you are willing to work for the answers and not just seeking shortcuts.

Some might not welcome such questions and some might not give much of an answer (other than "wait for the course"), so don't necessarily expect an answer.

This won't help answer your etiquette question, but note that Wikipedia is generally pretty good about topics in mathematics. I've noticed few errors and they seem to get quickly corrected.

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If you do choose to ask your professor, you would probably be well advised to frame your question in a manner very similar to how you would ask a question on one of these sites.

For example:

"I was looking at topic X and I am having difficulty understanding it - can you help?"

Is likely to not get a great answer, as it shows very little effort in understanding on your part (and is likely what will get taught to you at some point during the semester).

However:

"I was looking at topic X and I am having difficulty with the concept of Y as it seems to contradict Z... etc"

Would be more likely to get a response - i.e. you have attempted to understand this yourself and are able to ask a question that would get a concise and targeted response to explain what is wrong.

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I agree with the other answers---professors are extremely pinched for time and wasting their time is one of the best ways to make a negative impression.

If you want to build a relationship with this professor because you are interested in her research area, a better idea might be to spend the next few weeks to start reading her papers and the associated background literature. Take notes, both about background you don't understand and are hoping to learn from her class (so that you can ask questions as the topics come up naturally during the semester), and about potential extensions/generalizations/new directions that you could work on with her as an independent study. If she runs a reading group or seminar, ask to join the group. Use her office hours, once the semester starts, to talk to her about your questions and ideas related to her research.

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Yes, it is a terrible idea. Not only because you are not asking for the sake of learning but to "show off" some motivation and interest, and secondly because your teachers are on vacation and you should respect their time.

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First post. I didn't read all the replies but enough to know that I disagree with the majority opinion.

What they are saying is probably accurate as teachers are typically overworked and slogging through bureaucratic nonsense that is standardized higher education.

For a masters class though? You are paying this person...it seems reasonable to see what kind of value you are going to receive (potentially). I once had a Spanish professor in high school that allowed me to go as above and beyond as I wanted to at the time. Coincidentally this was further than even Spanish 1 & 2 after high school. So for me basic college Spanish was a waste of time and money because of this.

For a college course this would be added value. It's also helpful to know if they actually do have a passion for instruction (teaching). Myself, I'd probably just give you a series of links if I were lazy or confirmed the consensus of what you were able to find on your own (outside self-learning) if you had good questions.

I wouldn't be offended or put off by an "eager beaver" as it were, but I would probably find it annoying at some point and I might try and draw out "why" you are interacting with me in such a fashion. If it's too irritating that it would compromise how I instruct you (and others by proxy) then I might refer you to another teacher if one were available.

A 2 week trial period (or a month depending on when drop/add is) is not unreasonable for a large investment. To find great teachers takes a lot of guesswork, a lot of practical experience and providence of course. I would be open to scrutiny to this end and that is also how I look for instruction.

If "most" instructors aren't that way, that doesn't discount "every" one. It could be that you are quite limited in qualified instructors in a particular field and you have to take them "as is" but each learning source is a sort of interview and I'm not the only person surely who has this opinion.

I've had few great teachers. About a dozen good ones and the rest I wouldn't pay for if I had a choice at this point. I wouldn't recommend the taxpayers pay either for secondary school but that's a different topic.

Certainly judge your motivations for initiating conversation. If it's to have an "excuse" then judge the motivation of your excuse to initiate possibly. You could start with a simple introduction and go from there perhaps? The person's feedback can often go a long way and of course some interact fairly differently in person and during the term.

Thanks for the topic...it serves to broaden my instructing ability with scenarios I haven't encountered.

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  • Partly agree with the general idea, but two questions: (1) how do you assess "passion for instruction" just by asking a question before the course starts? You yourself mentioned that the you would "probably just give you a series of links if I were lazy", so how does it fairly judge the professor? (2) Regarding "2 week trial period", how does this directly apply here, where the question is about communication before the course starts? I assume by trial period you mean attending the classes and deciding whether to register for the course. – GoodDeeds Aug 14 at 21:01
  • For a masters class though? We don't know if the OP is a PhD student or not. You are paying this person We don't know if the professor provides the funding or not. Most PhD students have TA/RA. – scaaahu Aug 15 at 2:10
  • I'm not how to reply but @GoodDeeds I meant the 2 week prior to term for a slight gauge on the professor and then yeah the withdrawal deadline. It doesn't fairly judge the professor, but of course, if there were excellent interaction and and some useful groundwork pre-term that would be worth checking out, since the OP seems to be interested in that. With little to no expectations ideally. I like to think that any pre-term irritant could be overlooked by an experienced educator. – semi-anon Aug 15 at 2:51
  • "2 week trial period"? What are you talking about? That the professor should be obligated to dedicate 2 weeks of their vacation/course prep time before the semester starts to trying to sell you on taking their class? – Morgan Rodgers Aug 15 at 19:37
  • "You are paying this person." Nope! At the end of the summer, before fall classes start, your typical professor is generally working on sponsored research (which often pays the majority of their salary) before the teaching load hits, trying to help other grad students with thesis work or projects, prepping for the graduate course they're getting ready to teach (because grad courses constantly need to be updated), or grabbing some well-earned vacation. Students who think that tuition payment for a future course entitles you to their time right now are sadly mistaken. – pjs Aug 16 at 1:17

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