I'm a student enrolled in an university in Italy. I'm currently taking a course on probability theory, but the way is it taught is, whilst very good, not very thorough; I mean that in class some of the most difficult part are skipped. As such, I'm studying those part on the book by myself. Since this is a completely new topic for me, I often wonder if I'm understanding the proofs correctly, and if I'm able to correctly apply the theorems.

For this reason I sent an email to my professor, kindly asking to review a short proof (that I've written in latex, so it was pretty and all) specifying that I wasn't sure if all the operations and the theorems employed were indeed well used. The professor did not answer my mail.

My question is, was I wrong with sending the email in the first place? Is it bad etiquette to do so? I especially don't want to appear like some sort of "smart aleck" or anything, I am honestly trying to understand the topic. Of course I don't mind that the professor didn't reply, I know he must be pretty busy. On the other hand, I also have the feeling that if I can't get any feedback I may as well study the books by myself. What is even the point of being enrolled in the university then?

I hope someone with experience (maybe a professor!) can share their thoughts.

  • Always assume positive intent, but there's nothing like a face-to-face question.
    – Aaron Hall
    Jun 2 '14 at 20:55
  • 1
    Are there any TAs or doctorands who assist the professor? If so, you should contact them first; follow the hierarchy/pyramid!
    – Raphael
    Jun 2 '14 at 22:20
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    If you were polite, there is no reason that an email showing your interest in the course would be considered as bad practice.
    – Taladris
    Jun 3 '14 at 4:34

As @paulgarrett has said, there's nothing wrong with sending this sort of email, and (one hopes) many professors will be pleased that a student is showing more initiative than the average.

However, from the professor's perspective: unless the answer is "Yes, that's exactly correct", or "No, you clearly haven't understood the first thing about this course", providing a helpful answer can be quite time-consuming. Explaining why your proof is not quite right may require material that's outside the scope of your current course; it may also require the professor to sit down and produce a lengthy response. Sometimes, there are also nuances of "it's not exactly wrong, but it's not entirely right either" that are difficult to translate into written form.

Thus, it's all too easy to put this sort of question to one side, with good intentions of replying later that never quite come to fruition. I suggest the best strategy, assuming you've given the professor a reasonable amount of time to respond, is to go see the professor in person (perhaps during his office hours, or after a lecture), and (politely) ask if he's had a chance to look at the proof you sent. Take a print-out with you. You will at least get a better sense of whether this professor welcomes your questions or not.

  • 7
    One would hope the professor would ask the student to come to office hours to discuss the proof.
    – Bill Barth
    Jun 2 '14 at 13:59
  • 4
    Yes, indeed. But never assume malice where incompetence would do...
    – avid
    Jun 2 '14 at 14:17
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    +1. Conversations like this can be much more efficient and productive in person than over email. Jun 2 '14 at 17:27
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    I see your point. I would have loved a scheduled appointment, now I am a little bit unwilling to go talk to him, because I think I may be perceived as too insistent. This is probably what I will do, though. Anyhow I sent the email 15 days ago. Thank you very much for the response!
    – Ant
    Jun 2 '14 at 19:16
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    @Ant As someone who constantly struggles with not wanting to come off as "pestering" people I need something from, I completely understand where you are coming from. That said, I have slowly been improving in this manner, visiting professors and bosses in person if e-mails go unanswered, and so I wanted to share what I've learned: never once has any of the people I was afraid of annoying actually been annoyed. Every one of them was glad I came in, apologetic they hadn't answered the e-mail, and almost all had a response similar to "oh, I meant to get back to you about that!"
    – KRyan
    Jun 3 '14 at 18:46

Being a mathematician in the U.S., from my perspective it is entirely reasonable to send (nicely typeset) questions to one's professor. I always respond to my students' email questions. In fact, I respond to polite emails from people I've not met, if the email seems to be addressed to me specifically (as opposed to a mass emailing) and not machine-generated (spam...) and concerning mathematics that I'd be assumed to have an expert opinion about. After all, wouldn't this be a natural way for the scholarly community to operate?

Still, yes, it is true that if one is trying to absolutely optimize status, engaging in any not-status-enhancing activity would be pointless at best. It's not surprising when people thinking that way ignore anyone who can't add to their status.

In summary, email questions as you describe are entirely reasonable, and not at all impolite. At the same time, depending on the recipient, it is also entirely unsurprising that they'd ignore you, unfortunately.

  • 1
    Thank you very much for the response! I'm happy to know that it is not my fault :) The professor seems very competent and willing to help, though.. I'll probably try to go see him in person.
    – Ant
    Jun 2 '14 at 19:20

I agree with the answers posted so far, but yet wanted to add another view of sight. It is neither bad etiquette nor wrong to ask these questions.

From my personal experience while being a student and later working on a PhD I can tell, that professors tend to be very busy throughout the whole year. E-Mails sometimes remain unread for quite some time. The best way to approach your teacher is probably after class, so he can put a face to the name. He might then tell you, that it is inconvenient at the moment, refer to a tutor or teaching assistant or maybe schedule a separate meeting. Some of my teachers also took this kind of response as a means to discuss it later in class, if there is enough time.

When I was a PhD student my supervisor referred some students to me in order to help them unpuzzle their questions, since he has had no time to efficiently take care about them. I do also consider this a nice practice.

I have met quite a number of lecturers and almost all of them were very happy if they receive any kind of feedback. Most of them came also to the conclusion, that a personal talk is more fruitful, since this would answer some of their questions, too.

In conclusion, your teacher might not have read your e-mail and I think it is appropriate if you try to meet him after class and ask him about that.

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