26

I am self-studying a course. Two years ago I began to use some lectures by a professor from the United States (I'm from a different country). He is retired now. While watching his lectures, I began to have some questions about the topics. So I usually sent him an email which he usually replies to quickly. This has been going for a long time and I am extremely grateful that he almost always found time to answer my questions and even answer my follow up questions.

Last month, I sent him an email. He didn't respond. This is perfectly understandable because he might be very busy. The next day I sent him another email asking another question, and he responded to wait for a week before he can answer me because he has been very busy. I'm pretty ashamed at this point because I'm not sure if I am annoying him already.

Finally, yesterday I thought he is no longer busy, I sent him an email to ask another question. He responded something like this (not exact words):

Sorry it looks like I am ignoring you. I have been very busy and answering your questions isn't a small amount of time.

Then proceeds to answer my question and asked if I understood.

Now I began to panic because he felt that he is ignoring me. The thing is I don't feel ignored at all. I know he's busy. In fact when I first started sending emails my hope is he would reply just a few times. I never expected he would help me a lot by always replying to my emails.

So my question is: how can I tell this professor that I don't feel ignored by him because I know he can be very busy and just answer my questions if he has the time? And also, if it matters, how can I express that I am extremely grateful he even answers my questions at all? I am not even one of his students. I just know about him through his lecture videos.

I am not sure what to do because I don't know the culture of the United States and I might offend him somehow by replying rashly. This professor has been very kind to me, and I do not wish to do something that might offend him.

6
  • 1
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is a phrasing request
    – Ontamu
    Aug 21 '18 at 5:52
  • 12
    @Ontamu Imo it's a culture and etiquette question, which is on topic.
    – Belle
    Aug 21 '18 at 7:25
  • 4
    @user1841243 what peers? The OP is self directed watching the online lectures of a retired professor...
    – Mr.Mindor
    Aug 21 '18 at 19:20
  • 3
    A small advice(not the answer) @morbidCode: gather a number of questions and send him one email with it. Instead of sending 5 emails with 5 questions, better send one email with 5 questions. Then give him time to answer and mention that.
    – lukuss
    Aug 24 '18 at 6:55
  • 1
    @user1841243 - I'm not sure that follows. Just because the professor doesn't personally feel as though he has time to respond to e-mails, it doesn't mean that OP's questions are inappropriate, excessive, or inappropriately excessive. On the other hand, the professor has no contractual or even moral obligation to reply to OP at all, given that OP is not a student - I'd say that the professor's replies are really at their discretion.
    – Lou
    Nov 16 '20 at 14:57
49

A possible gushing response:

Him: "Sorry it looks like I am ignoring you. I have been very busy and answering your questions isn't a small amount of time."

You: "Professor (Name), I can't express how much I appreciate the time and effort that you put into answering my questions. You've been doing me a huge favor and helping in my studies more than I can say. I'm always happy to wait until you have time to answer, and if you're too busy to answer any longer, I will completely understand and still be immensely grateful for what you've done for me."

If he doesn't say, "Yes, I'm too busy, sorry," I would suggest that you probably wait for the response to each question before you send another question. If the delay is so long that you fear that he may not have even seen the last question, you might make an exception, but in general, I would suggest one question at a time.

12
  • 7
    Sending one question at a time is not necessarily an ideal approach. I would say that asking the professor what they prefer (one or multiple questions at a time) is a better approach.
    – Federico
    Aug 21 '18 at 9:49
  • 3
    True. And I suppose I meant one email at a time, so that the professor doesn't have to shuffle through his emails to see what he missed. Aug 21 '18 at 16:23
  • 2
    A strong expression of gratitude for some tiny favor might be seen as mocking, but that's not the situation. It sounds like this professor has put in a non-trivial amount of effort. A strong sincere expression of gratitude, in that case, doesn't strike me as taunting, and I especially can't see how it's un-humble. Aug 22 '18 at 17:32
  • 1
    @phresnel while it might be true that professors are paid to help students, I am not his student. I am not paying him in any way. I am the one mostly benifiting from his help. I think the least I can do is show gratitude. Aug 23 '18 at 14:49
  • 1
    @phresnel--I think this is a culture thing. My suggestion is based on the fact that this professor is in the US, which means that he was paid (before he retired) to teach specific students at a specific time. His teaching is essentially a commercial transaction. So as I see it, this is absolutely an above-and-beyond favor--the professor didn't owe morbidCode even a response. Edited to add: Imagine, say, that your car mechanic was answering repeated questions about your adventures in repairing your car, for free. He might be happy to do it, might enjoy it, but he has zero duty to do it. Aug 23 '18 at 20:51
17

You need to break your dependency on this professor, for your benefit and his.

It is entirely possible that he has been too busy recently and will resume "normal service" in due course. You just need to be patient and find some other way to get the answers you need. Maybe there is a Stack Exchange site on the subject you're studying, or some other internet resource, where you can ask a community your questions.

But another possibility is that you're becoming too much of a burden on him and he is being polite, withdrawing support on the basis of being "busy". He most likely doesn't want to leave you high and dry. But on the other hand he wants a life, and has indicated that your questions take a lot of his time. You have said this has been happening for a long time and maybe it has started to become too long, for him.

Edit as requested.

I think you're asking the wrong question. You would come across as extremely arrogant to let him know it's OK with you that he's busy for a while. He is not your servant and he doesn't owe you anything. On the contrary you owe him a great deal of thanks. Consequently my answer focuses on how I think you should respond to the current situation.

The direct answer then, in my opinion, is "You don't".

3
  • 2
    Hi! This doesn't focus on the question "how to tell the professor". Can you please edit to include so? Thank you.
    – A J
    Aug 21 '18 at 11:20
  • @Dave the Sax by the end of the email, after his explanation, he asked me if I understood his explanation. Should I ignore it too? Aug 21 '18 at 13:08
  • 1
    No, I think confirming you understood his explanation is fine. Aug 21 '18 at 13:37
1

I am a US professor. I get occasinal questions from people who read my papers or course notes. See a related question of my own here. Please note that it does not apply to you! I'm linking to it because some of the explanations I give could clarify your understanding of interacting with professors in the US, which is what you are asking about.

The US culture is to be 'a teacher' and respond politely to questions that are asked politely. In addition, a professor appreciates it if

  • The 'student' has 'done their homework' and tried to figure out things for themselves.
  • The message and especially the question is clearly formulated. See e.g the rules for posting on this site.
  • The question does not make reference to materials not immediately accessible. E.g. if they mention a paper of mine, I may not have the exact version of the paper available. Attaching the paper + a clear reference to the formula, or copying the formula from the paper in the message helps me find the context.
  • A thank you message follows the reply.

It is OK if after not receiving a reply for about a week, you re-send the message with a simple note at the beginning such as:

"I appreciate you must be very busy! I hope you can help me with this if your time permits."

No reply means that the professor is too busy and you should not insist.

The fact that you receive an answer, or two, is not an invitation to ask more questions. The professor is under no obligation to tutor you. I interpret their answer "that replying takes time" as a polite way of telling you that you have used up your quota of their time. You are from another culture and eager to learn, and I am sure the prof knows this and looks on it kindly. If you have thanked him for the last reply do not send him any more mails. He knows you have appreciated their help; not writing will signify that you got the message. Success in figuring out the rest of the course on your own!

Note: there are also some exceptions. E.g. if you can offer something of value in return, such as helping create a new edition of the course notes. It is a rather rare case when a good fit is found, but one can make a polite offer, e.g.

"Prof. X, if you need help with editing/creating web pages, etc for this course that I am studying I am happy to volunteer. My qualifications are ..."

The other exception is when between question 1 and question 2 some substantial intellectual growth has taken place. I.e. question 1 is about some formula, and question 2 is about the importance of theory Y vs theory Z. Or the first time you ask you are an undergraduate, the next you are in a MS program (thanks to the course you studied). Then, you are effectively "a new person" and a professor will be pleased to know they had a role in your growth.

1
  • @OldPadawan thanks for the edits!
    – yo9cyb
    Jul 8 at 13:57

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.