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June 2, 2007 9:17 PM   Subscribe

Registering for college courses… question on etiquette for a closed class.

I am heading back to school in the fall at the age of 30… I’m only taking 1 year of undergrad work (I already have one degree, but have chosen to go back for a complete career change) before I hopefully get into the grad program. We are able to register for classes online which is great, but unfortunately there were technical problems with my log on (which I had no idea there was a problem, I just assumed they didn’t have me set up in the system yet) so now there is one class that I can’t register for because it is closed already. I have been trying diligently to get in- by staying logged in pretty much at all times and refreshing the page to see if someone dropped (worked for one class)- but no luck. The department will sometimes do overrides, but not until the add/ drop period is over. That is after the first week of classes. I would like to know I have a place in the class. Going back to school by choice means that every course I take will be taken with the utmost seriousness. Is there some sort of etiquette on perhaps emailing the professor? I have successfully been able to enroll in one of their courses, but this one I truly feel is essential. Would it be wrong to email them? If I did, what could I say? I am a new student at this university, so I have no relationships yet. I know many others are trying to get into classes that are closed, so why should I be any different? Well as far as I’m concerned, I’m only different because I am an older student who is choosing to be there and believes in the importance of the knowledge to be gained from this course. But I’m sure there are other undergrads who feel the same way. Should I email the professor directly in a couple of weeks if I still have no luck? Would it do any good? Or would it just be annoying to the professor?
posted by MayNicholas to Education (33 answers total)
When I was in college I e-mailed the professor in hopes to gain entry to a class that was closed. I simply told him the truth. I poured my heart out about how I was very interested in the class and how I thought it would be beneficial to me, and might he have room for one more, etc. He let me in, graciously.

I went on to be the worst student in his class, and barely passed. Don't make the same mistake I did. I feel guilty to this day. (The mistake being poor execution. Go ahead and e-mail the professor. I believe that good professors have a genuine interest in a student's genuine interest.)
posted by iguanapolitico at 9:28 PM on June 2, 2007

Email them, be polite and businesslike. Explain your situation and the reasons for your interest in the class. Ask politely if there is any way that you can get into the class. Don't be over-the-top dramatic about it ("I'm throwing myself on your mercy" or anything like that). I would emphasize that you are only going to be at the school for one year, and so you won't have another chance to take it.

They certainly won't be annoyed, and it isn't rude. Just be aware that three things might happen that prevents you from getting a satisfying answer right away:
1. They might be away for the summer, so you might not get a reply soon. Probably they will have an auto-responder on their email if this is the case.
2. They may or may not be able to do anything about it, depending on the policies of the school. Some classes really have an absolute cap, some don't. Workshop classes (eg writing workshops) are often really capped.
3. They may just say "wait until school starts, come to the first day of class and we'll see if anyone drops".

If you get an unsatisfying answer, don't let that discourage you from emailing professors (whose classes you're in or inquiring about) generally!
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:28 PM on June 2, 2007

Is there some sort of etiquette on perhaps emailing the professor?

Nothing special.

Would it be wrong to email them?


If I did, what could I say?

"I'd like to take your course, but it's currently closed. May I receive a permission number to enroll [OR WHATEVER IS APPROPRIATE AT YOUR SCHOOL], or at least take my place on any waiting list that might develop?"

Would it do any good?

Depends on the professor and why the class is full. If the class is full because it was already at the fire-marshal limit for the number of warm bodies in the room, you're probably boned. If adding you pushes it over the arbitrary limit for a seminar-size class, you're probably boned. If it's just an arbitrary number like 50, you might have good luck.

Or would it just be annoying to the professor?

It shouldn't be annoying. It's part of the job.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:30 PM on June 2, 2007

When a similar thing happened to me, I visited the professor in her office and pleaded my case in person. She pulled a form out of her desk drawer, signed at the bottom, told me to take it to the registrar's office, and that was it. I had a slot in the class. On the first day of class, enough people had already dropped, not shown up, or otherwise changed sections that there were a couple seats open... even despite her adding me. It's something they plan for.

So, there's no harm in asking. And, unless the professor is an absolute jerk, I don't see why he/she would be annoyed. Dealing with students is part of the job, after all.
posted by jal0021 at 9:30 PM on June 2, 2007

I'm a professor, I don't see anything wrong with being contacted by a student for this purpose. Of course, were you my student I would just ask you to wait until the end of drop/add. There would be little point in granting an override now, when someone else might drop the class in the first week.

If you do contact the professor don't drown him (or her) with a list of reasons. If the professor is at all inclined to let you into the course, just one or two good reasons will do.

Further, don't compare yourself to the other students, it's a bit tacky. If this class is not offered in the spring, simply informing the professor that you'll only be in school for one year and that this is the only section you'll be able to take should be enough. It will be a point in your favor if the course is a requirement for a degree that you working toward.

Good Luck. (Oh, I almost forgot, many professors go out of town in the summer, many others become lazy about e-mail and school matters. So, don't be surprised or dismayed if you don't get a prompt response. For example, I check my school account about once a week (at most) over the summer.)
posted by oddman at 9:33 PM on June 2, 2007

I forgot something in the earlier post. From what you've said here I would grant you the override into any of my courses. Perhaps that will give you some reason to be optimistic.
posted by oddman at 9:38 PM on June 2, 2007

It never hurts to ask. I think you should consider trying to see the professor in person: emails are easy to ignore/brush off. Generally professors do have some discretion, but not always, and not all professors choose to exercise it if they do.

The question you want to simply and briefly pose is, can any exception be made to allow you entry into the closed course. If the answer is a flat no, it's a flat no, and it will probably be stated so. If it's anything else you have the opportunity to make your case.

The things you want to communicate concisely are that you tried to register in a timely fashion but were hindered by technical issues, and that you are committed to taking the course and working seriously at it. If being able to take this course is especially important for the academic plan you are pursuing you could communicate this as well. If the rules can't be bent, you might be able to at least secure a personal assurance that you will be allowed into the class after the drop-add period is expired, you might be allowed to audit the first week while waiting for that, etc. These are worthwhile things to ask about.

College is not mandatory and everyone there chose, in some sense, to be there. Yes, among younger, traditional students a larger percentage are no doubt simply going along with what their parents what, or post-high school inertia, and will not be as serious in their studies. Be this as it may, you express a sense of entitlement that is not pleasant and would not, I suspect, go over well as reasoning for why you should be allowed into this class. Stay away from that.
posted by nanojath at 9:41 PM on June 2, 2007

Normal protocol at my university is for the student to email and be sure to show up for the first day of class and speak with the professor.
posted by k8t at 9:45 PM on June 2, 2007

In my (albeit brief so far) experience working as an academic advisor at a small college, your best bet at getting into a closed course comes from doing one thing:

Talking to the department secretary. These are the people who will know which professors won't know or care about an having an extra student and who will know what obscure university policies to exploit to get you into a class. Treat them with the same respect you would give a professor or a department head and they'll really go the extra mile for you.
posted by Benjy at 9:53 PM on June 2, 2007

Yes: in general, definitely go to the first day of class if you're interested in getting in to the class. In most cases there will be a bunch of people there the first day who aren't enrolled and who all want to talk to the prof about getting in. Normal criteria for who gets to the top of the wait list: Do you need the course for your major? Are you graduating this year, so you won't be able to take it next year?
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:58 PM on June 2, 2007

Email them, just to cover your bases - hey, you never know. Although personally, the one time I did it - I received a sniping email stating that I should've made it a point to register early.

If emailing or signing up for an online waitlist (if there is one) is fruitless - be sure to bring an add card to the first day of class.
posted by Xere at 9:59 PM on June 2, 2007

I had two responses for a similar question. I respectfully emailed the respective professors, and one was happy to let me in, seeing that I already had a B.A. The other refused at first because I hadn't taken a 100 level English class that he said was necessary to pass his class. I then offered him the recommendation of professors from my old college, sample writings, syllabi, and a recommendation from the new college, and he ultimately let me. Be prepared to have to offer documents and references proving that you'll be super serious and the best student, etc.
posted by santojulieta at 11:17 PM on June 2, 2007

Seconding contact the dept secretary. S/he will also know whether the prof is currently on vacation and when they're back, how often they check messages, whether phone or email or both is best, etc. When you need special assistance, the dept secretary is an invaluable resource.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 11:29 PM on June 2, 2007

Seconding oddman: Don't give them the whole life-story routine. Just a polite email saying you'd really like to take their class, but didn't make it in, and whether they could grant you an override.

(At most places I've been, it was pretty standard to not grant overrides until the end of add/drop, or at least the first day of class -- professors wanted to see how crowded the room was, etc. -- so don't be discouraged if you don't get an immediate admission. Even if you don't get one, you should still go to the first few classes in person, and keep looking in the electronic system for any openings.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:44 PM on June 2, 2007

Email? No. When you're asking for a special favor, email is NOT the way to do it unless you've exhausted all other resources.

Find their office, it should have their hours on it. Go at the BEGINNING of those hours, not 5 minutes before they're over.

Walk in, confidently shake his/her hand, introduce yourself. "Hi, I'm bob Bobenstein, and I'm starting back at school this fall. You're teaching a class on thursdays at 4pm that I'd really like to take, but I noticed it was closed. I thought I'd come by to ask you if you have room for one more motivated student?"

Prof's are busy, emails are way too impersonal. He/she will be impressed that you took the time to come by. Make the request. You may get declined, if you do, drop it. You probably won't. Then, regardless of whether you get added or not, THEN send a thank-you email for their time.

The point is you've got a leg up on the other 10,000 18 year olds headed back to school in the fall in that you're not a spoiled little douchebag (I assume ;) ), let it show withing being whiny.
posted by TomMelee at 6:07 AM on June 3, 2007

Good advice but two things to add, depending on your school, and not because I think you personally will do these, but just in case anyone else ever takes advice from this thread:

Please do *not* wait until after the add/drop to make first contact. There is nothing more annoying than bringing a student up to speed after the first week.

The visit during hours idea is great, if it's during the semester, but during the summer we don't hold hours, and most of us aren't on campus anyway. We do check our email and our department secretary usually knows where we are. (Be nice to him/her, by the way. She does tell me when you cursed at her, and that does affect how I treat you.) Also, please don't try to ask this kind of favor thirty seconds before the class in question starts. The first day is just as crazy for us. We want to help, we want to talk, but at the point we're getting in character.

And, one bonus freebie: 30 is nothing. We like anyone who's motivated and prepared, regardless of age. After the first day, if we notice, it's usually to think "wow, what a great student that person is!"
posted by arabelladragon at 7:26 AM on June 3, 2007

Thank you all for the responses! I will keep trying via the electronic system for now. I live out of state, so visiting the professor is out for now. In a couple of weeks I'll contact the secretary (they are miracle workers- used to be one myself in a past life) before emailing the professor. Till then I'll keep my fingers crossed. Thank you all again!
posted by MayNicholas at 7:48 AM on June 3, 2007

One other possibility would be to phone the registrar and ask if they have any suggestions since the electronic system doesn't work for you. Worst case scenario, they'll just tell you to keep trying electronically, so there's nothing to lose by calling.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:28 AM on June 3, 2007

I called the registrar first. They referred me to the department where I spoke with someone who told me to keep trying and that they don't do overrides untill the add/ drop period ends. But she was nice enough to put a note in my records that I have been trying since this early and was hindered by technical issues.
posted by MayNicholas at 8:56 AM on June 3, 2007

If all else fails, go to the class anyway. It is likely that someone will drop, and if not, you have a good basis for pleading for an exception add. No one is going to grant you an exception if you haven't been attending.
posted by tylermoody at 10:00 AM on June 3, 2007

When does the class start? Most of the drop/add frenzy takes place during the drop/add period the first week of school. Once students sign up for classes over the summer for fall semester, they tend to stay enrolled until that first week and then go crazy. If the e-mailing doesn't work, stay extra-attentive during the drop/add period.
posted by jmd82 at 10:40 AM on June 3, 2007

I guess you mean the class is full, not closed.

At the university I work in, the instructor has no say or bearing on who is in his/her classes. In fact, instructors are told not to make promises of that nature.

If you spoke to me I would tell you to register in another class instead, but go to the first session of the one you really want, and then see what happens during add/drop. You can drop the alternate course if necessary. But there's nothing preventing you from continuing to check the enrollment until then, since people do move around a fair bit during the first couple of weeks.
posted by loiseau at 10:51 AM on June 3, 2007

Oh - and even if the professors makes a promise like that, be sure to check your enrollment afterward, because it happens that the prof doesn't or can't actually do anything about it and then you are stuck paying a fee to do a late add at the end of the semester so that you can get a mark. I'm pretty sure someone with this problem posted here a couple of months ago.
posted by loiseau at 10:53 AM on June 3, 2007

Email? No. When you're asking for a special favor, email is NOT the way to do it unless you've exhausted all other resources.

Email is exactly the way to do this.

Find their office, it should have their hours on it. Go at the BEGINNING of those hours, not 5 minutes before they're over.

Good Christ, no. Do not do this. Email. At most, phone and expect to leave voicemail.

Walk in, confidently shake his/her hand,

You're well on your way towards convincing me you're a smarmy ass, suckup, or some other hateful variety of student I don't want to deal with. Smarmy ass and suckup are also highly correlated with being a dimwit who steadfastly refuses to get it and turns into one of the 10% of students who take 50%+ of my time.

I don't think I've ever once had a good student walk in and confidently shake my hand when I'm seated at my desk. I've had plenty of dimwit frat-boy types do this, though. Which would you rather I thought you were?

I thought I'd come by to ask you if you have room for one more motivated student?"

Congratulations. If you'd emailed me so I could have looked at the enrollment at my leisure and given you a response in a few hours or tomorrow, I might well have said yes. But here I am sitting at my desk thinking about what the hell this weird coefficient means, and you've come in and put me in a position where I basically have to give you an answer right now. In these cases, the answer is almost always a simple, flat "No."

Prof's are busy

This is true.

emails are way too impersonal

This is not true. Impersonal and asynchronous is good. It's much less demanding than you showing up and looking at me with big sad eyes. Email says "Here's a concern. You're busy, so deal with this when you can. I can wait a bit."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:05 AM on June 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

@ Rou, apparently you're not teaching at a place with high academic standards/a significant number of motivated students/or carry a positive feeling that you are anything other than an academic god among the less worthy.

I'm thankful I never had you as a teacher, just as I'm sure you're glad you never had me.

I often went to meet my prof's, even when I didn't need the add/drop---I daresay none of them ever thought I was wasting their precious time--at least three of them hold weighty standing in their fields as well.

I still advise the OP that during the first week of school, you go meet the prof anyway, and thank them for their time and/or consideration. It's possible to be polite w/o being an asskisser, it's sad that common courtesy has degenerated so far that professionals would advise otherwise.
posted by TomMelee at 12:22 PM on June 3, 2007

Tom: Rou's advice is good in this limited context. Asking to add the course isn't really a "special favor" in the sense that you may be thinking of it as. It's more of a routine bureaucratic issue, where the prof has to pull up enrollment data and maybe talk to the office staff, and there will be several or many students in each class who have this kind of question. Taking office time to deal with it is not necessary. And moreover, trying to convince the prof of your upstanding citizenship (firm handshake etc) is not relevant.

In general it's an excellent idea to go to your professors' office hours (they will have special times set aside, where students can just drop by with any questions etc; these are called "office hours"). Many students don't take enough advantage of this. Professors are generally VERY glad to talk to students during these times.

But be aware that professors are working on their own research in their offices during other times. That's not to say you can't drop by, or that they don't like students or anything of the sort -- but if you have something you want to discuss, it's a courtesy to come during office hours or email to set up an appointment at another time. (Eg: "Dear Professor X, I can't make it to your scheduled office hours this week, but would like to speak to you about adding your Psych 101 class. Is there a time Tuesday morning when I could come by?") Coming in unannounced just to transact routine business, and dressing it up as if it were a job interview and the professor is going to be moved by the firmness of your handshake, is not the best method.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:53 PM on June 3, 2007

Just to add to the chorus here, I agree that email is the way to go. However, if this is for a fall class, I'm not sure there's any point in making contact now. In every school I've ever taught in (community colleges, small private colleges, huge R1s, mid-size state college, expensive private university) there is really nothing that I can do as your prof as long as the student registration system is still active. However, if you email me a reasonable time before the start of the semester indicating your interest, I will tell you to keep trying the registration system, and also to show up on the first day of class. Very often students who've contacted me before add/drop was up have been able to get in on their own, but if not I will usually put people's names on a waiting list, and offer them an available spot on a first-come, first-served basis.

If it really was the case that no one dropped, I might be inclined to check w/the dept. chair to see if it was ok to give you an override, but I would only do this if you had been diligent about attending class. I mention the dept. chair b/c at several places I have taught, profs who overloaded classes got reamed from the chair for overloading, b/c it causes a nightmare maze of other administrative problems (depending on the school). As others have mentioned, the department secretary should be able to give you a good idea of what the culture of the school/dept. is in this regards. Some places really don't care, and others are almost fascist about it. Good luck !

(oh, and I'm with ROU on the office thing-I wouldn't necessarily think you were smarmy, but it would put me on the spot and I would be a bit annoyed about having to drop everything for this request. Email is better)
posted by DiscourseMarker at 1:01 PM on June 3, 2007

Yes, I'm currently teaching at a third-tier state university, mostly teaching required classes whose modal student is poorly motivated and even more poorly prepared.

I often went to meet my prof's

Going to meet your prof is fine, and good. Lots of good things happen then.

But just show up and ask to get in. The extra trimmings you were advising to put on top of a simple request are, in my experience -- both here and as a TA at a near-Ivy -- danger signs of annoying students. The sorts of people who walk in and try to shake hands with someone who's already seated and who have everything framed just so are, usually, the sorts of annoying jerks who are always trying to sell you something. In my experience, here and at a near-Ivy, they're correlated with people who turn in consistently subpar work that's much more salemanship than scholarship, go through the motions of making comments in class even though their comments make it plain that they haven't done the reading, taking time away from students who have done the basic work, and so on.

It's our job to add in another student if the room can bear it and it won't harm other students. You don't, or at least shouldn't, need to sell yourself to the professor. You don't, or shouldn't, need to impress anyone with your anything. You don't need to go out of your way to make anything more personal. It's not a matter of wasting my time or not, it's a matter of having an honest interaction instead of being glad-handed.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:03 PM on June 3, 2007

And for the general office visit: Tom's advice to find the office hours and go at the beginning is good. It's especially nice if you have something specific you want to talk about, even if it's just a quickie, so it's not a purely "Hi I'm Tom Swift, boy adventurer, and I just wanted to introduce myself" kind of visit, but even those are fine and pretty common. There's no chance you're going to get a recommendation out of someone just by having introduced yourself, but if you go with an actual question or point of clarification or something, it can be a very nice and productive interaction.

I'm not sure why ROU would be seriously annoyed by a visit like this during office hours, except that it isn't the best way to get an answer (because as he points out, the prof will have to look some things up and it's best to give him or her advance warning so the looking up can be done beforehand).

The point is: don't be intimidated or discouraged from going to see profs during office hours!
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:03 PM on June 3, 2007

On non-preview, I agree with ROU about the "salesmanship" aspect.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:06 PM on June 3, 2007

I'm not sure why ROU would be seriously annoyed by a visit like this during office hours

I'm not annoyed by being visited. I'm annoyed by being glad-handed, and usually poorly.

If you want into a course, the right way to ask me is to walk in and say, "I'd like to get into this course, but it's closed. Can I add in?" At which point I fire off the appropriate email to generate the permission, unless the room is fire-marshal full or there's some reason why one more student really is bad. Or, more realistically, tell you that I can't do anything right now because I don't have the information, so please email me with the same request.

If you come in as Tom suggested, or come in under the false pretense of some other matter, I'll still add you in, but I'm already mildly dreading having to manage you in class.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:14 PM on June 3, 2007

For clarification, I wasn't trying to indicate douche-bagging your way into the class. I meant to indicate some degree of confidence and personal-interaction opposed to either some mode of self deprication and/or impersonal "I gotta get in your class man, hook me up."

That being said, I am not a Prof or even an Instructor, but I have many friends who are---and they often complain whole heartedly about mass emails begging entrance to a class--that was my point of reference.

Oh, and in the course of my *highly* beneficial (/cough) history degree, I actually had several prof's who made it clear they wouldn't add *anyone* who didn't come see them, but of course emailing to set up the appointment was generally acceptable, bearing in mind of course the common absent-minded-professorness of busy prof's who will simply forget the interaction all together.

Almost forgot, at my university, an instructor telling you they'd let you in meant NOTHING w/o the signed add/drop form from the instructor him/herself, really basically mandating an office visit. I guess I should have mentioned that first--oops. Rou, I apologize if I sounded smarmy or smug in either post, but your response rubbed me the wrong way--I often forget how hard it is to discern inflection via text versus speech. Forgive me.
posted by TomMelee at 7:02 PM on June 3, 2007

Rou, I apologize if I sounded smarmy or smug in either post, but your response rubbed me the wrong way

You didn't, but your suggestion did (to me, at the time).

Sorry that I came on too strong there. I know where you're coming from, but to me the confident thing to do is just come in and ask for what you actually want. And neither you nor the OP are my student (AFAIK), so I end up being blunter and gruffer than I would in real life.

I suspect that some of this will differ across institutions, with schools that enforce small class sizes having bigger problems. When most of your courses have 50--200 people, adding a few more in isn't a problem until you hit the fire-marshal limit. If you're forbidden from having more than 20, it's a bigger deal.

they often complain whole heartedly about mass emails begging entrance to a class

Weird. It's easy enough to write "I won't add you in as yet. Show up to the first class and we'll see if there's room." or "This class has filled, and you should not expect to add in." several times. Clever people, faced with 10 of these to write, might notice that their software can both copy and paste.

I actually had several prof's who made it clear they wouldn't add *anyone* who didn't come see them

Yeah, some profs seem to take a real delight in making students jump through personally-devised hoops to demonstrate their whatever. From talking to people about their undergraduate experiences, this seems to be more common at LACs.

I'm currently teaching at a third-tier state university

It just occurred to me that I'm actually done teaching there. and will knock the dust of the benighted town from my sandals in a few weeks. Huzzah!
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:09 PM on June 3, 2007

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