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I wrote the following email to a professor (I've removed any personal or specific details):

Dear Prof. Last name,

Hope this email finds you well.

I am Name, an undergraduate in the mathematics department.

I write to enquire about Course code - Course name being offered in fall semester. What can I expect from the course content and what are the prerequisites? Would it be along the lines of Name of a Book?

One sentence describing previous courses I've taken

Looking forward to hearing from you soon. Thanks for your time!

Best,

Name
Department
Institution

The subject line was:

About Course Name next Fall Semester

I thought this email is perfectly fine, and it's how I generally write to professors. To my shock and surprise, I got the following response:

I am sure very soon you will be writing many more official emails, so you must know how to address them appropriately. You may see course content on the department webpage.
Initials

Could someone help me figure out (i) how to respond to this, and (ii) what went wrong so I can avoid it in future emails (to any professor in general)? Thus far, no professor has pointed out so explicitly that something is wrong with the language of my email - so I'm in a state of great confusion right now.


Additional details:

  1. I haven't interacted with this professor before, so this was my first email to them.
  2. It seems I was at fault for not checking the course content on the department webpage before writing this email. However, that page has not been updated in years and I just wanted to make sure the content is still the same. Lastly, I think this wouldn't have made them feel that I addressed them inappropriately - since that has more to do with email etiquette than the content of the email.

Follow-up question:
I'm thinking of apologizing and explicitly asking how I can improve my email's language: "Thank you for your reply, and sorry for the seemingly inappropriate language of my email. I would be grateful if you could kindly pinpoint what part of the email was inappropriately written, so I can be more careful in all future communication."

Would this be a good idea? I read somewhere on this very site that it's never impolite to ask how to be polite.

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    Please don’t write answers in the comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. Some info has been edited into the post; existing answers-in-comments and other discussion has been moved to chat. – cag51 Apr 7 at 19:30
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    A number of interpretations of the wide-open-for-interpretation phrase "how to address them appropriately" in the professor's response are in comments to Dan Romik's answer (press "Show XX more comments" to see seem all (e.g., "Show 15 more comments")) – Peter Mortensen Apr 8 at 13:46
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    We have removed a few more answers in the comments. This question already has 17 (!) actual answers, so answers-in-comments will continue to be deleted. If you are not requesting clarification or suggesting improvements, please use the chat (link above). See this FAQ for more details. – cag51 Apr 10 at 3:57

16 Answers 16

166

There is nothing inappropriate (that anyone can see here) in the way that you've written your email. The response from the professor suggests that they're some combination of (a) incredibly time-constrained, (b) sloppy and unclear in how they communicate, and (c) a jerk.

  • It's possible (as user2768 suggests) that the essential "offense" in their eyes was to ask about things available in the online site. If so, then their first sentence was a sloppy and mostly mindless piece of aggression that doesn't really mean what it says.

  • The curtness, snarkiness, and level of aggression communicates that they don't like interacting with students by email, do not want to spend time on it, and want such querents to go away and not bother them.

  • Given the above, writing them again and asking for more time to be spent on even smaller minutiae -- like revisiting what they meant in a hastily-written throwaway email, and to spend even more time parsing the grammar of the original student email that they've already expressed contempt for handling -- is only likely to make things worse.

I suggest that you accept this line of inquiry as not useful and likely to produce only further confusion and frustration on both sides. Do not email them again on this matter. If you must email them again in the future, on some different matter, make it as brief as you possibly can (shorter than your original email), and try to pose a question that can be given a very short, clear-cut answer.

I'll say that the only thing the professor really got right there was in accurately predicting your next instinct would be that, "very soon you will be writing many more official emails", and to be aggravated-in-advance by that prognostication. Resist the temptation to fully prove them right!

Also, consider asking around if this professor is good to interact with (maybe people you know or a ratings website). If their course is not required, then you may be getting a signal that they're just not a good professor.

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    Honestly, this deserves the +1 I gave it just for reminding me that the words "querent" and "prognostication" exist :) Separately, it's also a good answer. – Stuart Golodetz Apr 7 at 15:11
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    B is the real problem. All professors have more stuff than time, and anyone can be a bit grumpy by the five millionth question on how to find basic course information, but they really need to figure out how to manage their own time (e.g. use pre-written replies for basic questions) and be able to separate some of their emotions from their dealings with students. Which is two more points in the "sloppy" column. Combine with unclear and I would just avoid if at all possible. – user3067860 Apr 7 at 15:33
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    Definitely point 3 – Strawberry Apr 8 at 9:47
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    Point 3 could be extended to "don't bother them again at all if you can avoid it; certainly not with questions you could answer from publicly available sources". I think independent of any details of form, subject matter and character: This was the message the professor's answer carried. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Apr 8 at 14:40
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    I wouldn't see he professor as a jerk. What he did write was a polite way a forum community would answer UTFG or STFW. – Crowley Apr 8 at 18:21
98

Your language isn't the problem, your email is well-written, but you've seemingly wasted the professor's time. You could have looked up the information, as they have explained: You may see course content on the department webpage.

Comments suggest I'm ignoring the professor's words:

you must know how to address them appropriately

The word address can mean speak to, perhaps write, in this instance. I believe the professor is annoyed that you've written to them and you should have done your own research first. An appropriately written email would ask a specific question beyond what's online.

Given you've seemingly annoyed the professor, I suggest you don't respond.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment. We can only move comments to chat once. – Massimo Ortolano Apr 8 at 15:50
  • Agreed. The Prof just referred you to some webpage where the course objectives, content, parallel reading texts, etc are (hopefully) listed. Don't take it personally - he probably get emails like yours every day and hence the dry response. But if the web pages don't give enough specifics on this course then by all means write, or make a brief appointment to see, the professor involved. – Trunk Apr 10 at 0:34
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Your email is impeccably written. If I compare it to the emails I receive from my students, it would fall in the 99th percentile in terms of email etiquette, grammar, formatting, and including the information relevant to the question you are asking.

Your email also compares very favorably with the professor’s reply, which violates several standard rules of email etiquette. Seems to be a case of the pot calling the kettle black if you ask my opinion.

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    How would you suggest I reply though? I'm thinking of apologizing and explicitly asking how I can improve my email's language: "Thank you for your reply, and sorry for the seemingly inappropriate language of my email. I would be grateful if you could kindly pinpoint what part of the email was inappropriately written, so I can be more careful in all future communication." – epsilon-emperor Apr 7 at 7:26
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    Your suggested response seems, well, impeccably written. But given that this is a professor who seems to react badly even to well-written emails, perhaps it is better just to not reply. Honestly I don’t know, and don’t have a specific recommendation what to do, sorry. – Dan Romik Apr 7 at 7:29
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    My thoughts too, although for me it'd probably be in the 90th percentile (but this was 15+ years ago, when IM wording shortcuts and such were less common and before twitter), and I agree with @wimi (comment under the OP's question) that it's best not to reply at all, and most definitely do not ask the professor to "pinpoint what part of the email was inappropriately written". Someone who responds to the OP's first email as described is almost certainly going to give a much more angrily worded reply to such a follow-up email (if a reply by the professor is written at all). – Dave L Renfro Apr 7 at 13:40
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    @epsilon-emperor I really suggest you to not reply. This type of attitude from a professor was not uncommon when I was a student some thirty-odd years ago: many (not everyone, but many yes) professors considered students an annoyance and any inquiry/interaction would cause a harsh response. To give you an example, during the first year, I approached a professor in a corridor asking a question about signing-up for the final exam of his class; he literally answered: "What do you want from me? ask the student's office!" And turned away without even saying good bye. – Massimo Ortolano Apr 7 at 14:30
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    @PeterMortensen I don’t know what you’re referring to, can you clarify? – Dan Romik Apr 8 at 14:32
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Since no-one here is the teacher in question, it is difficult to know exactly what they meant. The only way to be sure is to ask them, but given your initial contact with this person, that is probably a bad idea. If the person really meant that you were wrong when addressing the mail (and were correct), I can see only one possibility:

  • The person is not a professor, but a lecturer/teaching assistant/PhD student/...

To berate a student over this is a bit nit-picky in my opinion, but it might be caused by an underlying annoyance, such as:

  • You can read about the content, including answers to the questions you asked, on the course web-page, where the teachers' correct title might also be displayed.

Honestly, it can be quite annoying to receive emails with questions which could have easily be answered if the person asking the question had bothered to look. I am not saying that is is definitely the case, as I have not seen the course web-site, but it might be.

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    Why is it a bad idea to ask them? If I was disgruntled for some reason, I would always interpret it favorably if the person made an effort to avoid that in the future. (But I wouldn't have written the professor's email like that to begin with.) – lighthouse keeper Apr 7 at 7:52
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    @lighthousekeeper From the response, it's clear that the professor is not someone who likes to engage with students—they may actually think that students are just an annoyance—and thus better let it go. – Massimo Ortolano Apr 7 at 8:47
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    Exactly as @MassimoOrtolano says. The person has already indicated that they are not interested in lengthy mail exchanges by answering like that. You following up with more questions will most likely not be fruitful. Just let it go. – nabla Apr 7 at 13:05
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    I think it's that the student can research and find course information on their own. Imagine if hundreds of students are emailing professors to ask about several courses that professor teaches. A lot of professors wouldn't mind advising current students on courses they might take, but it is not their job to act as advisors to every undergrad student. – Issel Apr 7 at 14:33
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Suggestions have been made that the Professor's problem might be grammatical (some nit with your opening?) or formal (he prefers to be referred some other way, a different title or something?)

But what if he is giving technical advice? That is, perhaps he is referring to emails in particular, since he mentions them.

Note that emails in email software are often displayed in some form like:

Fred Bloggs <john.smith@university.example.com>

Emails must also have a subject line, which should be relevant.

  • What was the subject line of the email, if any?

  • Was the display-name that you used, if any, correct for him? While the "display name" part is how it's saved in your address-book, is purely cosmetic and does not help the email reach he correct destination, if it exists, it is visible to the recipient, and should typically represent the same person as the email address itself. We would probably expect a professor to be put out by: Asshole Prof <bloggs@university.example.com>

  • Was the email address you used his correct, direct email address? Not a group email or some department, but direct to him personally? We probably wouldn't expect that admissions@university.example.com would reach the correct professor unless someone in the admissions dept was kind enough to look up his email for you and forward the email.

  • Does the subject line of his reply contain "Fw:" or "Fwd:"? If so, this too suggests it had to be forwarded to him from wherever you incorrectly addressed it.

  • If he included your original mail and/or headers, do they show signs of being forwarded, perhaps even with commentary from the forwarder?

  • Check for further comment or instruction written inline in the included text if he did include a version of your original email.

  • Is your own email address appropriate? I've even received emails about job vacancies from some very salaciously-named hotmail email addresses. It's not always a good look.

For example, if the email you have looks like this:

From: Bill Bloggs <bbloggs@university.example.com>

To: Inquiring Student <titty-emperor@titty-boom-boom.example.com>

Subject: Re: Fwd: [No Subject]

I am sure very soon you will be writing many more official emails, so you must know how to address them appropriately. You may see course content on the department webpage.

= B.B.

From: Trevor Smith <admissions@university.example.com>

To: Bill Bloggs <bbloggs@university.example.com>

Subject: Fwd: [No Subject]

I think this is probably meant for you, Bill? Either it's for you, about Math 102, you, or Jane Bloggs, teaching Math 103. They seem confused - maybe just point them to the web page? Thanks!

T. Smith, Admissions Secretary,

Example University.

To: That One Math Guy <admissions@university.example.com>

From: Mr BoobMan <titty-emperor@titty-boom-boom.example.com>

Subject: [No Subject]

Dear Prof. Bloggs, [Actually, it's Dr Bloggs]

Hope this email finds you well.

I am Epsilon, an undergraduate in the mathematics department.

I write to enquire about MATH 102 - More Math, [You probably mean Math 103 - Yet More Math? I see you've already taken my Math 102 course] being offered in fall semester. What can I expect from the course content and what are the prerequisites? Would it be along the lines of "Math 103 by Prof J Bloggs"?

I've previously taken Math 101 and Math 102.

Looking forward to hearing from you soon. Thanks for your time!

Best,

Epsilon Q Emperor, Esq.

Math Dept

Example U.

... then there's a whole LOT going wrong!

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    The names cracked me up, +1 for that. – AppliedAcademic Apr 8 at 9:58
  • Thanks for edit suggestion, @DanHenderson - I learned a thing! :D – Dewi Morgan Apr 10 at 1:13
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Another thing that is slightly unusual (and possibly may considered inappropriate by someone) is the signature. In my experience, usually you don't sign your e-mails "Name - Department - Institution" unless you work there. Being a student does not earn you that right.

That said, I agree with the others that the mail is not particularly inappropriate or noteworthy.

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    @epsilon-emperor "Hope this email finds you well" is not inappropriate – theonlygusti Apr 7 at 14:02
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    @theonlygusti IMO It is 100% inappropriate. It is simply a waste of words. You don't mean it literally, and it is irrelevant to the question (which was also a waste of words, since the answer was easy to find without wasting the prof's time). – alephzero Apr 7 at 14:55
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    @alephzero It is not “100% inappropriate”. Such email openings are standard. You may think they’re an unnecessary convention, but that’s a far cry from “100% inappropriate”. – user76284 Apr 7 at 18:44
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    @alephzero What makes you think OP doesn't mean it literally? – Daniel Hatton Apr 7 at 19:35
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    @jamesqf I also work in US academia/industry, and it’s not uncommon at all. Not sure where you can find more specific information, but see e.g. here. – user76284 Apr 7 at 23:15
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First, no reply is needed and will probably result in another push back.

But the only problem I see, other than possible insensitivity by the professor, is that, while one letter might be fine, if it is short, it takes time to read (with your personal details) and more time to answer. Imagine being on the other end and getting 30 of these (300?). What if yours was the 15th such mail? This why course websites exist. They are supposed to provide the information you ask for and depend on students reading and interpreting them in their own situation. Had you targeted some missing piece of information there, and asked about that, then the professor owes you some explanation.

The book(s) listed and syllabus, even if only in outline, should be enough to answer your questions. A personal reply shouldn't be needed.

But, it would probably be a mistake to reply to the professor's email. At least nothing more than "Sorry. I'll re-read the website".

If there is no course website at all, then a query, or maybe complaint, to the department might be in order. But that doesn't seem to be the case here, given the reply.

It would be wise to "step gingerly" around this prof for a while, however, in case they are just a jerk.

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You didn't break any rule but you may find the professor not well. I suppose the professor's work consists of:

  • Teaching undergrads (preparing the course, preparing and avaluating test)
  • Supervising PhDs
  • Being active researcher (filling up grant proposals, filling up reports, filling up bugets, organizing lab work, writing articles, reviewing articles)
  • Being member of some in-university or in-other-university comittee
  • Being an opponent to theses (reading, questioning, assessing)

Their schedule is quite full of many things and reading long email has a huge PIA (pain in the ass) score.

Let's go to your email then.

Dear Prof. Last name,

This is perfect, unless they are not a professor.

Hope this email finds you well.

Too personal and does not address the issue. Waste of time

I am Name, an undergraduate in the mathematics department.

I would not recommend introducing yourself in the very beginning of the e-mail, it is distracting from the main topic.

I write to enquire about Course code - Course name being offered in fall semester. What can I expect from the course content and what are the prerequisites? Would it be along the lines of Name of a Book?

This should be the first sentence. There is all you want to ask for and it is polite and quite information dense.

One sentence describing previous courses I've taken

This is not relevant to the question. You are asking for list of the prerequisities, not evaluating them.

Looking forward to hearing from you soon. Thanks for your time!

Too long and pushy. "Looking forward to hearing from you" is sufficient.

Best,

Too informal. "Yours sincerely; With kind regards", these are the proper phrases.

Name

Department

Institution

Just Name. You are not working in the department. Maybe you can add that you are a student of the programme at your faculty.

I think the key problem was that the professor needed to get to fourth paragraph of your e-mail to get what you are asking for. The other was that the answer is already available on the oficial webpages.

The answer was poignant and sarcastic. But the professor gave some time to answer you. If you asked such question on some forum, the answer would be quite rude and even lacking basic advice. The professor

  • Pointed you where to look for the answer.
  • Pointed you to look for more effective approaches to written communcation
  • Gave you a hint that you should polish your witing style (address the e-mail) and change your way how to get information (address the issue). not only from them.

I can see the hidden message to be "Look, kid, I am not your mom to answer all your questions 'Mommy, where is my [something]?'".

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    +1, although I am not sure why you might assume that the professor would be thinking negatively (refer to your final statement). – Rob Mcelvenny Apr 10 at 4:02
  • I didn't mean it negatively. More like sarcastic. Or "tough love" – Crowley Apr 11 at 20:11
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The one thing other good answers here have not touched on is this :

What can I expect from the course content

This is an awfully open-ended question. The professor can probably summarize the course in ten different ways for ten different audiences - which type of answer are you looking for, exactly?

This forces them to guess what you're interested in knowing, or otherwise to cover everything you might have meant, which is a tall order of a person as exceptionally busy as a university professor, perhaps only to find that you'll email back with even more questions because they didn't correctly guess what you failed to communicate in the first place.

So, while the window-dressing of your letter was superficially exceptionally polite, the content of your ask was really quite lazy and thoughtless. This professor likely found that the request, in and of itself, was offensive - not because of how it was stated, but because of its content.

Asking your professor to summarize rudimentary syllabus information is a bit like treating them like a phone book. It's an enormous waste of their time. You wouldn't call the CEO of a mobile phone company to ask about rate plans - same thing here.

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    +1 You as a student don't ask the professor to write you an essay, assigning essays is their job. – Jasen Apr 10 at 4:13
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General rule: be concise.

  1. Show you did some efforts, next time mention in the email "I have seen that the course page has not been updated in years and I was wondering if it still actual" but only if you feel the course is outdated;
  2. You will be following his/her course, why should he/she care about the previous courses you attended?

I have a general question: why did you write the professor, what is your goal?

I have the feeling you would like to build a connection with this professor. There is nothing wrong, but don't be impatient, wait until the course started.

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    About 2 - So they have some idea of what courses I've taken before and if I satisfy the prerequisites for taking their course. – epsilon-emperor Apr 7 at 5:48
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    I wrote to the professor, not with the aim of building a connection, I really just wanted to know about this particular course they are offering next semester. "Wait until the course has started" - that doesn't make sense, because I need to decide right now whether or not I want to take the particular course (it's an elective). – epsilon-emperor Apr 7 at 5:50
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    @epsilon-emperor it's your duty to know if you satisfied the prerequisites of the course. If you did not, then you cannot take the exam of the professor, but usually it is NOT a professor's choice: it is a decision taken when the course plan was started/defined, the current professor is simply "putting in practice" that course plan. – EarlGrey Apr 7 at 7:58
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    If you literally have questions to the OP, they should be in comments to the original question, not in an answer. – Daniel R. Collins Apr 7 at 14:30
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    “I was wondering if it still actual” I think you meant to say “up-to-date”. Are you German by chance? Many German speakers are not aware that „aktuell“ and “actual” don’t mean the same thing. – Michael Apr 7 at 14:52
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I think the email is fine, however if I need to critisise the mail, there are two formulations which would trigger me

Hope this email finds you well

This is not only a cliche phrase used in many Nigerian scam mails which people tend to get nearly weekly (at least in the past). It can also be seen as a greeting between peers. I mean, it’s probably different in different cultures/regions, and I would probably not use it with people who are sensitive. Having said that, it is a very nice thing to start an email with a pleasantry.

What can I expect from the course content

Here is a similar issue. „Expect“ is a perfectly fine word, but it does have the connotation of „prove to me it’s worth my time“.

So if the professor is stressed out, triggered by the greeting and they feel students should stick to reading the course syllabus (especially for lower years in some universities it’s unusual to have any contact with professors before a course) this might have triggered them to their response.

The „address appropriately“ may not refer to salutation or title, but refers to routing - the fact that it should be sent to student help or a tutor instead of the professor (again, just guessing this might be different for other universities).

Having said that, I would understand the „sure very soon“ meansm: He understands and does not feel offended, and I would not follow up on this matter.

You need to find out how distant/approachable the teachers in your organisation are, as this can vary widely. Rude answers like this one will set the tone.

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The email is very well written. Do verify that the name is not misspelt; some take great offence to this. Additionally, please check if the website offers any details on communication, I.e. TAs to contact etc. If there are any guidelines there, do follow them.

A lot of professors (especially at the type of institute I infer you are at) simply don't respond to these mails due to time constraints. This may or may not be justified, but it is the prevalent culture. The class strength could also be a consideration here.

Finally, I would strongly recommend that you don't respond with anything besides thanks. Close out this communication and don't worry about any adverse effects, most likely the person won't remember this after a few days. This is rather culture-specific advice, which wouldn't apply in other settings.

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so you must know how to address them appropriately

Maybe they were upset that you didn't address them as "Doctor". Doesn't justify the impolite response, but some people are sticklers about that.

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  • Yeah, there's a wealth of different titles in academia, and you should try your best to use the correct one when you're writing an email to someone. – nick012000 Apr 8 at 15:03
  • Isn't "Professor" a higher status than "Dr", and thus to be preferred when someone has earned both a doctorate and been granted a professorship? Either way, yeah, this would be a complete overreaction. – Cody Gray Apr 10 at 8:05
  • @CodyGray some people insist on all titles (I.e Prf. Dr. Dr. x) and also depending on the professor it might be more or less prestigious than the Dr. – eckes Apr 13 at 7:42
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I said part of this in a comment upthread, but in the light of the reworded question, it becomes an answer.

There is a way one could construe the process such that the professor's response is not negative at all.

Step 1: the professor misunderstands "hope this email finds you well" as "hope this email reaches you".

Step 2: the professor now believes that the student has expressed doubt about whether the student has formatted the e-mail address correctly.

Step 3: the professor now wants to reassure the student that "yes, at this stage of your career, of course you're routinely formatting e-mail addresses correctly".

Step 4: the professor expresses this sentiment in the very awkward but well-intentioned form "I am sure very soon you will be writing many more official emails, so you must know how to address them appropriately"

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    This seems unlikely at first, but following a kinder version of Hanlon's razor ("never attribute to malice what could be a misunderstanding"), it makes a lot of sense. (+1) – henning -- reinstate Monica Apr 9 at 9:16
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  • I would not reply to the answer of the professor, which I find dismissive; I agree with the other answers until this moment. It seems to me that the professor shows zero interest in making that subject interesting for students. Maybe they don't care about the number of the students enrolled on it. Maybe the course content isn't worth signing up for.
  • A better answer would be "I've checked the course webpage and it reflects the current requirements. It's similar to that book. You're welcome to join."
  • Regarding your email, I think you can make it shorter and you can specifically cite the course expectations/content on their webpage that you wonder about.
  • If you write in an email "thank you for your time", you are implying that they are doing you a favor by using their time resources to answer your question or helping you with something. Maybe they don't consider this as an opportunity that would benefit them in the long-run, but just as a waste of time.
  • Maybe in your email you have used an excess of polite clichés.
  • If you want you could ask one of your colleagues or one of us to ask the question to the professor in a new email to get a better answer. Or send the question to another responsible for the course.
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A Professor is not a demi-god (or full one). He is human, fallible, and as with humans you get all kinds of cases on the "Am I an Asshole Or Not?"

In your case, he hit the mark "Yes, you are - a flamboyant one". With flying colors.

To answer your question:

  • your email was perfect, much better than the "hello, pls snd info on crse for Fri 4. Thx J" you sometimes get. Keep that level of communication, it will be really useful in the future.
  • his answer was the one of someone so full of himself that he forgot why he is in Academia in the first place. Just mentally flip your middle finger and move along.

It really should not bother you.

EDIT: who would have thought that there is actually a site for that? Ah, Internet...

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