An instructor by any other name...
September 3, 2011 10:57 PM   Subscribe

How should I address a university instructor I don't know in an email? Possibly overthinking things.

I need to email a course instructor in a different department at my university to ask permission to audit his course. I cannot for the life of me figure out how to address him.

The class in question is an introductory language course. I'm a Ph.D. student and I would never address any of the faculty members in my department as "Professor Lastname" -- they all go exclusively by "Firstname" to the grad students. Addressing the instructor as "Firstname" seems awkward and overly forward, though, given that he has no idea who I am. I don't want to offend him by being too familiar.

I sometimes get emails from undergrads that start "Dear Prof. ootandaboot." Much as this strokes my ego and inspires happy little daydreams of academic success, it also gives me an idea of which students are clueless enough to think that anyone who stands at the front of a university classroom is a professor.* I got his email address from his website, which makes it clear at a glance that he does not have a Ph.D. and is not a professor. So, "Dr. Lastname" and "Prof. Lastname" aren't really appropriate. I don't want to sound like an outsider by being overly formal or overstating his title.

But then I worry that using "Mr. Lastname" to address someone I want to take a university course from, when probably the undergrads in his courses are emailing him as "Prof. Lastname", could seem a little bit like saying "Hello I would like to convey that I have taken note that you lack a Ph.D. or professorship." I don't want to offend him by sounding petty or judgmental.

I feel like I've eliminated all the reasonable options. This has already taken up too much mental energy. Please help me, academia-savvy MeFites! What's appropriate here?

*Not judging! It's helpful for me to know that they may need extra explanations about academic-protocol-type-stuff.
posted by ootandaboot to Education (46 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I think where you've overthought this excessively is in equating the salutation "professor" with the official job title" professor." It's perfectly common (and perfectly reasonable) to call anyone who is teaching at a university "professor" in an email, even if they're technically only an instructor or a lecturer -- and here it's your best option.

First email, Professor Lastman; subsequent emails, however they signed their email back to you.
posted by gerryblog at 11:03 PM on September 3, 2011 [14 favorites]

I've always addressed my university instructors as "Professor So-and-so," whether I've known if the person actually has a PhD or not. Better to be overly formal and have them correct you than to sound too familiar. I'm sure he won't think much of it either way.
posted by sunnychef88 at 11:09 PM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's an email. Leave the salutation off. Doesn't feel overtly rude to me, but avoids rubbing in his Instructor-dom and possibly painful ABD status.
posted by LucretiusJones at 11:15 PM on September 3, 2011

Seconding Gerryblog. He's not going to think you're unaware of the university pecking order; at worst, he'll think you're very formal and polite.
posted by hungrytiger at 11:17 PM on September 3, 2011

I don't see why you can't just start in with something along the lines of, 'Hi, I'm SunnyChef88 and I'd love to swap murders with you', or whatever you need to say.

Just took a look through a bunch of my emails of varying levels of formality, and didn't see a 'Dear X' anywhere.
posted by Garm at 11:19 PM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd go against the grain here and say that I wouldn't call him "professor so-and-so" if he's not a professor. It's not such a horrible thing, but it just strikes me as culturally wrong for some reason based on my experiences with the academic hierarchy rat race.

You could always just avoid the issue entirely by starting the email with "Hello," or just launch right into "I'm ootandaboot, a Ph.D student in such-and-such who would very much like to audit your course in advanced underwater basket-weaving." You're writing an email, which means the standards are way relaxed and he's unlikely to be paying much attention anyway. I'd be shocked if he spent one one-thousandth of the time parsing your salutation as you've spent thinking about it.
posted by zachlipton at 11:23 PM on September 3, 2011

Always be overly formal and polite with someone who you a) don't know and b) are asking something of.

After he replies back you can respond accordingly which will probably be a lot more informally than your first email (but take your cues from how he signs off his email).
posted by mleigh at 11:24 PM on September 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

I also agree with gerryblog, just greet the professor by saying "Hi Professor [insert name here]" and sign off the email in a semi-formal way by saying "Sincerely" or "Cheers." The worst case scenario is that a) you sound too polite (although there's nothing wrong with that) or b) you call the professor in some way that they don't like. Not all people want to be referred to as "doctor" or "professor" because they want to create a more-personal and less 'mechanic' relationship with you. The person will let you know what they want to be referred to as based on how they sign off the email. This is more common than you would think as some people don't even want to be referred to by their legal name or would prefer to use their initials instead of their name when communicating via email.
posted by sincerely-s at 11:24 PM on September 3, 2011

This probably says a lot about my own ability to overthink things, but I would just take an alternate route:

Call him or stop by in person during his office hours, then follow up via email -- at which point you've met and can call him by his first name.

(I would also probably come up with some sort of additional question about the class as an excuse for not simply emailing my request.)
posted by desuetude at 11:26 PM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

OK, but isn't everyone a little more formal in a written first-contact, than they would be face-to-face or after a relationship of whatever kind is established?

Anyone in front of a class did get called Dr. Whatever by me, until they told me to call them something else. Because in my experience, people do not get very shirty when they are mistaken for someone of higher status than they in fact possess -- but the reverse is not true.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 11:32 PM on September 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

If I have no idea, I use Professor or Dr. (and Dear or Hello) and give them the ego-boost/benefit of the doubt until they've told me otherwise. It's not at all clueless to do this in an e-mail if you're not sure about the person's title or status or what they want you to call them. I believe this is the standard advice in the Chronicle of Higher Ed forums, too.

(I teach myself, and have recently interviewed for college-level positions and had to e-mail people whose titles I didn't know.)
posted by wintersweet at 11:59 PM on September 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm a university professor, and I have to make these same decisions a lot when I don't know. I've also been on the receiving end of such emails, back before I received my PhD. Here's what I do:

If I've never met them before, I use Dr. or Mr.; I would never use Professor (even for professors). I completely agree with your reasoning behind not using professor. After the first email, I look to see how they signed their name. If they used their first name (or first and last name), then I use their first name in subsequent emails. Basically I take the way they signed their email as a cue for how to greet them later on.

I would not recommend leaving off the greeting if they don't know who you are. To me, it reads as rude, unless you've had previous contact with them. I will say that there is a cultural difference between the US and Europe here: it is more acceptable to leave the greeting off in the US. But I still wouldn't recommend it.

So, my recommendation: Start with Mr., then try to change to something less formal after the first email based on the response.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 12:17 AM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've emailed instructors/professors/adjuncts that I didn't know very well before and tend to just stick with "Hello," as a salutation. Informal, yes, but less so than just jumping into the body. Is he listed in your university directory as something other than professor? If yes, and you want the more formal salutation, go with Mr. That is the title he gets with anyone who is not familiar with his doctorate/professorship or lack thereof. He is used to people calling him Mr. Lastname. Only outlier eccentric-types are going to be offended by this use. There is no use in worrying about whether he's one of them.
posted by asciident at 12:45 AM on September 4, 2011

Though it doesn't seem to matter in this case, since I suspect you are in North America, but my experience is that this level of thought can actually be important in some fields in many European universities. There tends to be a more rigid hierarchy and failing to acknowledge that will make some people rather prickly. Better to know it can be an issue than never think about it.

I agree with the above two suggestions. Either start with "Dear Mr Lastname" or just "Dear Firstname Lastname." Depending on how old he is, I would probably go the former if older, or the latter if younger, just since my experience is that relatively young people will be More uncomfortable with the title Mr than perhaps other generations.
posted by Schismatic at 1:32 AM on September 4, 2011

For an initial contact, "Dear Professor So-and-so" is fine. Even if he doesn't hold the academic rank of professor, you can use it as a courtesy title, just like commanders of naval vessels are often called captains even if that is not their official rank.
posted by brianogilvie at 3:16 AM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is it possible to call the department secretary and ask him/her the instructor's preference? Or if there is no secretary, someone in administration? Or one of the guy's colleagues? If you know someone who has taken his class before, ask them what he goes by. Or, call his direct line during off hours and see how he refers to himself in the message greeting. Maybe you could stop by his office, stick out your hand and say, "Hi, I'm ootandaboot" and then just have a quick conversation.
posted by Kangaroo at 3:45 AM on September 4, 2011

You are way overthinking this.

I work for an academic department at a university, and this is what I most commonly see.

In the first place, we have our Ph.D. full-time faculty with the occasional stray Ph.D. lecturer-contractual faculty.

But we also have a few full-time faculty with Masters degrees and a bunch of lecturer-contractual faculty with Masters.

They are all almost exclusively referred to as "Professor" or by first name by students taking classes with them.The term "professor" is not limited to people who are also doctorate holders. It is used for anyone who is not a student teaching a course.

So, you have a bunch of options here.

If you know the person in question holds a doctorate, you could address the e-mail as "Dr. LastName." If you know the person does not hold a doctorate, you could address the e-mail as "Mr/Ms. LastName." If you don't know either and want to make it easy on yourself, "Professor LastName" is just fine for an initial e-mail and you can follow up with how the person signs off the e-mail response.

Still yet, you could go to the department assistant and ask how the professor in question likes to be addressed.
posted by zizzle at 3:52 AM on September 4, 2011 [6 favorites]

It may sound odd to some, but I think full name can be a good first start:
Dear Jane Doe:
I'm a PhD student...
firstname lastname
posted by Mngo at 5:05 AM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was kind of confused by this question, because in the US, it seems that most instructors are colloquially referred to as "Professors" even if they don't necessarily have a PhD and don't have the tenure-track title of "Assistant Professor" or the like. But I know this is different in other english-speaking countries, so I think we need more information about where the OP is from.
posted by muddgirl at 5:26 AM on September 4, 2011

In the US it is like muddgirl said common to refer to college instructors as professor. I'd start all e-mails with Dear Professor X. I'm a professor and I get e-mails from vendors and students all the time who don't know me. Vendors always use Dear Professor X. That's how I did it when I was a graduate student. That's how I do it when I'm writing some professor I don't know formally.

I think academia might be behind the rest of the world holding onto the "Dear" convention. We still use it all the time, though. It serves a purpose.

You can't go wrong with Dear Professor x.
posted by vincele at 5:42 AM on September 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

The one thing you shouldn't do is: Professor Firstname or Dr Firstname. That's a weird mix formal and friendly that always weirds me out.

Other than that: err on the aide of formal. Nobody will be offended if you're too formal at first, but aome may be offended if you're too colloquial.
posted by eisenkr at 5:53 AM on September 4, 2011

Academic support staff here - don't say "professor" because frankly it sounds a bit naive. I've often been in a situation where I have to email non-PhD researchers who I've never met. I occasionally use Dr. anyway if the person has a reputation for being cranky, since I read a Ms. Manners column a long time ago that suggested it was better to use Dr. wrongly and have to dial it back a notch than to risk being too informal. In general, I use Mr. or Ms.

And I receive a lot of emails from faculty and students - the ones (that are not from office friends) which lack a salutation come across as curt and demanding. Even the pickiest faculty who have the most contempt for support staff take the trouble to write "Hi Frowner" or "Dear Frowner"

I'd go with "Dear Mr. Brilliant, I am a PhD student in Program. Dr. Mentor recommended that I contact you about...." (I often like to reference someone both of us know, just so that Mr. Brilliant has some immediate sense of where I fit.)
posted by Frowner at 6:45 AM on September 4, 2011

I'm also a university professor and am on the opposite side of the fence from Philosopher Dirtbike. It's funny how that works sometimes. "Mr. monkeymadness" always sounds weird to me, (no too informal, but just odd), like I'm a high school principal. "Professor" has always seemed perfectly acceptable to me, both when I taught before I had my PhD and after. If they're not a doctor, then "Dr." is certainly out of the question. Honestly, I don't think there's anything wrong with "Hello," with no name attached if you're undecided. Still, "Professor Stranger," is what I advise. No "Dear". As others have said, however they sign their email is how they should be addressed in the next email.
posted by monkeymadness at 6:49 AM on September 4, 2011

I've emailed instructors/professors/adjuncts that I didn't know very well before and tend to just stick with "Hello," as a salutation. Informal, yes, but less so than just jumping into the body.

When people email me for the first time like this at my university, I figure they're international, or an undergraduate with very low level of sophistication or manners. I'm not a professor, just a staff person who handles a lot of email communications from students, but just getting a "Hello" from someone who obviously saw my name somewhere since they have my email address, which is my name, makes me roll my eyes.

On the other hand, I do not judge them poorly for going overly formal, if mistaken ("Hello Dr/Professor Squeak Attack") or using something along the lines of "Hello, Ms. Squeak Attack" or "Hello Squeak Attack."

We're informal in our address to professors in my department, but I'm always very careful when emailing lecturers and professors in other departments to be polite, especially when asking for a favor.
posted by Squeak Attack at 7:09 AM on September 4, 2011

I think of this PhD comic when I e-mail professors to ask for something like that.
posted by thewestinggame at 7:19 AM on September 4, 2011 [7 favorites]

I'm also a professor, and I would recommend simply addressing this person as "firstname lastname." I often receive emails of this sort, and send emails of this sort, and including the full name retains a sense of respect and formality without getting tangled up in the issue of job title/degree. I absolutely hate it when I'm addressed as "Ms." (despite my moniker!) so I would shy away from using "Mr." Just "Dear firstname lastname" should suffice.
posted by Ms. Toad at 7:37 AM on September 4, 2011

If the person in question is a professor I address her/him as "Dear Professor Lastname".
If s/he is some or other lecturer, it's "Dear Firstname Lastname," unless some indication on the web points toward that s/he likes her PhD REALLY much, in which case I write "Dear Dr. Lastname."
After a few turns of getting persistent Firstname answers I write "Dear Firstname (if I may)."
posted by Namlit at 7:47 AM on September 4, 2011

At most American universities all it takes is a 30-second web search to figure out the status of a given instructor. Check the department webpage: if the person is listed as regular faculty, then yeah, address them as Dr. or Professor so-and-so (depending on local practice, which you'll probably be familiar with). If the instructor shows up on the grad student list, then use Mr/Ms. Or you can make a quick phone call to the department secretary, who will be happy to tell you whether the instructor is a grad student or a faculty person. Don't guess on this, and do, by all means, go with the formal address first.
posted by philokalia at 8:14 AM on September 4, 2011

When in doubt, ALWAYS address an instructor as Professor. If you're 100% sure the person does not teach any classes, use Dr. As you say, no one will be insulted if you overestimate their title, and it is insulting to go the other way, and deny them a title to which they are entitled.

I'm a professor at an institution where students almost exclusively use first names with their professors. While I don't think twice when they use my first name, when I am addressed as Professor Lastname, I am favorably impressed.

For the love of all that is holy, do not use Mr. or Ms. or God forbid, Miss with a college instructor, unless they tell you to do so. Coming from a student, Mistering a PhD is deeply gauche.
posted by BrashTech at 8:18 AM on September 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

(I don't even answer work emails that come to me addressed "Philo Kalia" or worse, "Mrs. Philo Kalia." My title is right there in the department directory, so anyone who has the email address also has the proper form of address, and ought to use it.)
posted by philokalia at 8:19 AM on September 4, 2011

I would go with "Mr." He's not a professor or a doctor, so it's just as inappropriate to call him one as it would be to, as you put it, take note of his lack thereof by going ahead and calling him one of those options anyway.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:21 AM on September 4, 2011

But according to many US university conventions, he is a "professor;" although it may not be his job title, it's his job function. This doesn't apply if the OP is studying in Canada or the UK.

I think (if the OP is in the US) that it's best to err on the more formal end.
posted by muddgirl at 8:33 AM on September 4, 2011

I think "professor" is the appropriate formal salutation for a first contact with someone teaching a university class. He'll almost certainly sign the email with his first name and you can go by that from then on (and if he doesn't, dude's got issues...).

That said, almost no one, PhD or otherwise, is going to bat an eye at being called by their first name by a grad student. I would have just used the first name when I was still a PhD student; I'm not sure a quick email calls for formality.
posted by deadweightloss at 8:34 AM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

First of all, don't worry too much about it; nothing crucial depends on your choice of salutation and it's not something for which any sane email recipient would seriously pass judgment on you.

But the answer is that it's actually a bit of a complicated question of tone, as you can see from the disagreements here among different people's answers. The answer will be context-dependent for your campus (and department), since different places have somewhat different cultures and etiquettes about using "Professor" for instructors who don't hold the rank of [something] Professor. Some places the title gets comfortably thrown around for anyone teaching a course, but other places people do sometimes kinda laugh behind the student's back when they address, say, a grad student as "Professor."

Still, there are at least three separate factors in this specific situation that tilt me toward using Mr.: (1) not regular faculty, (2) lacks PhD, (3) teaching intro language course. That last one, which hasn't realy been discussed yet, is what takes this from "could go either way" to "use Mr." to my ear, anyhow. It's far less of a big deal, and more customary, in the context of language departments for an instructor who teaches the language, but isn't necessarily a full-fledged academic specialist in the literature, to have and be addressed by a different rank/status than the PhD-bearing faculty in the same department.
posted by RogerB at 9:10 AM on September 4, 2011

I would not recommend leaving off the greeting if they don't know who you are. To me, it reads as rude, unless you've had previous contact with them. I will say that there is a cultural difference between the US and Europe here: it is more acceptable to leave the greeting off in the US. But I still wouldn't recommend it.

I am a college professor (technically an assistant prof.) in the US, and I think this is not really the case; in fact, I have a friend who has done research specifically on email protocol and faculty vs. student perceptions, and her research, along with my own anecdotal conversations, suggests that US faculty do often prefer a standard greeting.

I also agree that using Dear Professor Soandso is by far preferable to Mr. Soandso. I'm pretty sure that's how all of my non-PhD holding colleagues would rather be addressed. Professor does indeed have a dual meaning here--I would find it very odd if someone addressed an email to me as Dear Assistant Professor DiscourseMarker. I have a PhD, but I'm fine with being called Professor in an email, when it's from someone I don't know.

Sometimes I get email addressed to "Mrs. DiscourseMarker" which is just....ew. Don't do that.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 9:22 AM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Dear Professor Lastname" or, a little more suavely, "Dear Professor" for the first email, then follow his lead in the signoff thereafter. If he signs it Dr. Bailey, the next one is "Dear Dr. Bailey," and so forth. If he signs it Joe or J.B., but you don't want to write "Dear Joe" or "Dear J.B."(!) in the next one, go for "Hello--" or nothing.

My TAs used to laugh (in a friendly way) at undergrads calling them Professor, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it in a written communication or if you have to get their attention at, say, a talk or something.

In more old-fashioned pockets of the humanities--maybe elsewhere, I don't know--"Dear Professor," no lastname, past the first email or two, is an affectionate salutation for one's advisor or another close, supportive (academic) relation. The academics in my past with whom I'm still close, I call them "Dear Professor" in writing, even if in person we have long since progressed to Joe.
posted by skbw at 10:51 AM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's a lot of people saying that they won't be insulted by being called "professor", but that's not really the issue. When I was a graduate student teaching, it just looked silly to me when someone called me a professor, and I can attest that other instructors felt the same way. It's not really a big deal, but if I were still a graduate student, I would avoid it.

But I'd also like to reiterate what others are saying; on the scale of things to worry about in your day, this rates just below "did I put the right amount of cream in my coffee?" That is: not very important, and easily made-up-for.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 10:52 AM on September 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

The instructor in question doesn't seem to be a graduate student, but rather a non-tenure-track, non-PhD instructor.

If the OP is concerned about how to address a fellow graduate student who is teaching a class, to me that is a different question than how to address someone who is nominally higher up on the academic food chain.
posted by muddgirl at 11:08 AM on September 4, 2011


I am a graduate student in this other department. I would like to audit your class.



Bob is not going to be offended. Even if you're not in the same department, you're closer to colleagues than anything else, so a collegial tone is fine.
posted by J. Wilson at 11:47 AM on September 4, 2011

I am a graduate student in this other department. I would like to audit your class.

Actually, as a professor, I would be a bit offended if a grad student I don't know addressed me by first name in an initial contact. If we work together, first names are fine, but I find excessive familiarity by students I don't know presumptuous and off-putting.

I'm in the camp that says "Professor X" is the correct way to address a university-level instructor with or without a PhD. They can then let you know how they want to be addressed in the future.
posted by Superplin at 12:09 PM on September 4, 2011

What you shouldn't say is "Dear Instructor."
posted by skbw at 12:22 PM on September 4, 2011

I always address my prof's formally unless they (repeatedly) correct me (usually gently, by signing their first name in an email). I just think it's more appropriate and respectful, and it recognizes and sets a certain professional boundary. If they have a Ph.D., I always call them Dr. Whatever and if not, then it's always Professor Whatever. It doesn't matter if they actually have a formal professorship or are adjunct or sessional instructors, I always refer to them as Professor.
posted by 1000monkeys at 12:28 PM on September 4, 2011

Best answer: Stop thinking. Do this:

Tear up three pieces of paper and quickly write upon them your three best options: Dear Professor X, Dear Firstname Lastname, Dear Sir (which nobody has mention but I think is nice, of course I'm a southern USian by birth and not an academic).

Fold them up in teeny tiny pieces. Take your time with this part. Adherence to irrelevant details is something we already know you enjoy. :)

Close your eyes and pick one!

Write necessary email using chosen salutation.

Forget about it! Find a better use of your time. Personally I suggest watching cartoons from the couch (It's Sunday!) YMMV.
posted by dchrssyr at 1:20 PM on September 4, 2011

And, of course, proofread for typos and grammatical errors; a skill at which I'M obviously no good.
posted by dchrssyr at 1:23 PM on September 4, 2011

Response by poster: Well, looks like a split decision, so I guess I'll be taking dchrssyr's advice...right down to the cartoons and the couch. Time to stop overthinking and get on with my life. Thanks for weighing in, everyone.
posted by ootandaboot at 2:56 PM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know you've resolved it at this point, but in my experience having grown up and worked in Academia, as an Instructor and in other slots (daughter of 2 professors), you really can't go wrong erring on the side of overly formal when you don't know the person. People may laugh to themselves, or think you're overly formal, but you won't offend the professor (like, *cough*, my father) who INSISTS on the title. He would be Dr. So-and-so (he has a Ph.D.) but would never be upset by Professor So-and-so. I don't know any administrator or professor or instructor (and I know many, many such people) who would be offended by Professor at first contact.

I also would find it really weird to sign something, even to a student, Professor MyLastName, but would be offput by a student who I was CURRENTLY or PROSPECTIVELY teaching referring to me by my first name. (I admit that I am an overly formal stickinthemud brought up by very European (Austrian) parents who were overly into formality.) FWIW.

On the other hand, I wouldn't remember what you addressed me as after the first time we met, unless you did something far more egregious (e.g. Are you an easy grader?)
posted by eleanna at 7:05 PM on September 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

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