Sorry this got a little long...

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 ignore 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.

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is a phrasing request – Ontamu Aug 21 at 5:52
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    @Ontamu Imo it's a culture and etiquette question, which is on topic. – Belle-Sophie Aug 21 at 7:25
  • How are you worried about him being busy... it's obvious from his polite answer that you are handfull asking more than your proportion of questions. Are you asking a lot more questions than your peers. If so, then you should check with them on where they get their answers... – user1841243 Aug 21 at 11:12
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    @user1841243 what peers? The OP is self directed watching the online lectures of a retired professor... – Mr.Mindor Aug 21 at 19:20
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    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 at 6:55
up vote 45 down vote accepted

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.

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    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 at 9:49
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    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. – RamblingChicken Aug 21 at 16:23
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    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. – RamblingChicken Aug 22 at 17:32
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    @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. – morbidCode Aug 23 at 14:49
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    @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. – RamblingChicken Aug 23 at 20:51

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".

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    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 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? – morbidCode Aug 21 at 13:08
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    No, I think confirming you understood his explanation is fine. – Dave the Sax Aug 21 at 13:37

You mentioned the professor is retired now. To me his reply sounds like initially he thought you'd just be asking him one or two questions, but now you are basically using him like he's your professor with regular office hours. He's very politely letting you know not to bother him anymore and let him enjoy his retirement (he should be less busy now, shouldn't he?).

Don't tell him you don't mind, leave the guy alone.

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    While I can't say that this is an invalid interpretation as such, this answer does seem to be entirely speculation. – Cubic Aug 21 at 13:13
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    Yes. As any answer would have to involve a guess about the professor's intentions and the meaning of his response, this is hardly avoidable. This is how I would read it. – user32849 Aug 21 at 13:22
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    Well this speculation is definitely possible. The last part can easily be negatively interpreted to mean "stop bothering me" ... [...answering your questions isn't a small amount of time.] – goamn Aug 22 at 7:05
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    Well, neither we nor the OP know exactly what the prof has in mind. Thus the obvious recommendation is to simply ask, rather than to make assumptions. "Hi prof, thank you very much! I of course completely understand that you're busy and appreciate the time you've taken to respond. Will it be ok if I ask more questions in the future or would it be too much trouble?". Personally, if I were the prof, I'd answer "feel free to ask, but I can't guarantee I'll respond promptly or at all." – Meni Rosenfeld Aug 22 at 9:46
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    "he should be less busy now, shouldn't he?" : that's pure speculation. Don't forget that retired people don't have free week-ends and holidays anymore. – Evargalo Aug 22 at 12:23

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