I have an academia related question for you. I graduated from a small liberal arts college in May 2011. I enjoyed my time there immensely. I was able to form some awesome relationships with my professors and some administrators (most of whom were my bosses for part-time jobs or internship supervisors). I moved to Japan for work about 6 months after I graduated, and I’ve been here ever since. Before I left, I visited my university and said goodbye to my friends and professors (and let them know about my moving/work plans). We all said the familiar refrain: “Let’s keep in touch!”
Question 1: Do professors *really* want to keep in touch? Or do they just say that to make you feel better as you leave the comfort of the college bubble?
Question 2: If they do really want to keep in touch, what are some appropriate, non-awkward ways to do that?
I’ve thought about emailing small updates, but every time I sit down to write one it feels awkward in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. I feel like I’m imposing on their busy schedules if I ask questions about them/their lives, but I feel self-centered if I only give information about my life. Is there some sort of script that could work in this situation?
Full disclosure: While there are no immediate grad school plans, I do want to go back eventually. So I might be requesting references at some point in the next few years. But I really would want to maintain some sort of contact even if I didn’t have grad school aspirations/need someone to say nice things about me.
Do you (or the Amazing Awkward Army) have any ideas on what is the most appropriate/least awkward thing to do here?
Thanks for your time!!
B. A. (Bachelors of Awkward)
Dear Bachelor’s of Awkward:
I really like this post from The Awl on how to get and keep a mentor. It applies to any field.
I teach college, and I definitely like to hear what former students are up to. I’m delighted when they get jobs, make great work, marry each other (that one Production 2 class was a hotbed of romantic glances, let me tell you!), and their success in life is my psychic carrot.
But I do not hold “keep in touch!” as an ironclad contract, no more than “friends forever!” was when it was written in a high school yearbook. It’s okay if it’s just a platitude – that’s why platitudes work, because you can take them seriously or ignore them if you want to with no hard feelings. Since the burden of keeping in touch is definitely on the former student, what matters isn’t the professor’s expectation about whether you’ll keep in touch (we don’t really have one), but your wish to keep in touch and what you do about it.
For you, I recommend postcards. Studying overseas you’re in a prime position right now to send people postcards, right? Beautiful photo of faraway location + a very short space to write a message + no expectation of reciprocity + person gets nice mail that is not a bill or a flyer = thoughtful and not-intrusive. There’s a postcard of L.A. on my fridge from a former student who just started her dream job, and it made my day when it showed up in my mail a week or so ago. Script: “Dear Professor, I am writing from (where you are), where I am (what you are doing). I often think of (thing from our class) as it applies to (what it applies to) and hope you are doing well. Best wishes, _______.”
A very occasional email is also great.
So here’s the thing to keep in mind. While I do want to hear from former students, I’m not thinking about them all the time. I wasn’t WAITING to hear from them. Occasional = once or twice a YEAR, unless there is some specific thing they need or some conversation gets started that we’re both very involved in. Some guiding principles:
Keep it VERY short. You don’t have to share all your thoughts or chatter about your life or ask them lots of questions.
Keep it relevant to the subject you have in common. If you really have nothing to say and are trying to think of something to say, there is no need to say anything. If you have areas of common interest, send them a link to an article or a book that you think they might like. Google them before you write – Have they had anything published or screened recently? “Congratulations on your book coming out, I’m looking forward to reading it,” is always a nice message to get, I would think. Better yet, “I read your book/saw your film/article/photo series/poem/short story/paper, congratulations.” “Thank you,” never goes awry.
You can give personal updates – “I got a job,” or “I reworked that thing I wrote/made in your class and got it published/into a festival/conference” is always a good one. “Here’s how I’m using something I learned in your class” is another. “I recently read something related to our class and thought you might enjoy it – have you seen this?”
If you need a favor, ask for it up front. “Dear ______, would you be willing to write me a letter of recommendation for graduate school? I really enjoyed your class and would love to get your support as I move into the next stage of my education.” It will help them write a good letter if you jog their memory about what work you did in their class. “My final paper for your class was called “Title” and was about x and y.” It’s also a good idea to update them on recent work and give them a little info on what you’re studying and what you hope to do with it.
Professors expect requests like this. It’s part of our jobs, and we had to awkwardly reach back and ask for letters when we went to grad school. So don’t feel like you have to make months or years of weird small-talk to work up to a request. If I don’t feel like I can write an enthusiastic letter, I just say no directly and suggest the student ask someone who knows them better. I would never write a letter of UN-recommendation. I also have a personal rule that if multiple people are applying for the same scholarship, I will write letters for the first two who ask me.
Don’t worry too much about your grade. If you failed the class, I will probably remember (and wonder why you’re asking me for a reference). If you were a super-standout A student I will probably remember. In between? I won’t remember and won’t think about it all that much. What I will remember is how engaged you were. Did you always come to class? Did you ask good questions? Did you try? Did you improve? Did you ask questions when you didn’t understand something? Did you have interesting paper topics or film ideas? Did you collaborate well with others? Don’t NOT contact someone because you didn’t get an A. Grades really don’t matter once you’re done with school and aren’t a referendum on how the professor feels about you.
How big is your favor, exactly? Can you make it smaller and more specific?
It’s often flattering to be asked to read a former student’s screenplay, but I personally have a blanket “No, sorry” policy about this because I know I will not get to it in any kind of reasonable amount of time and it will go sit in the awkward favor pile gathering dust and guilt particles. However, I will look at bios, synopses, log-lines, trailers, or even cuts of short films – anything where I can look at it in 20 minutes or less and give some immediate response.
Realize that asking your former professors to take a look at work – an article, a paper, your novel, etc. – that you are asking for a pretty big favor and a significant investment of their time, and do not be offended if they say no. Be very specific and targeted about what you are looking for and make sure it’s not just attention or approval. “Read this long thing and give me your thoughts (by which I mean approval)?” will likely get a groan. “Photography teacher, I am submitting a portfolio of 10 images for a grant next month and am trying to narrow it down from these 15 possibilities. Can you give it a quick look and help me?” or “I’m going to program where you went to grad school, are there any courses I should be sure to take or any people I should be certain to meet?” seems pretty reasonable to me.
If you ask them for advice or feedback, take it gracefully. You don’t have to agree with any of it or implement any of it, but you asked for their thoughts and they gave them to you. The correct answer is “Thank you!” and not a detailed explanation of why they are wrong.
Follow up. Say thank you for the initial favor, and say thank you again when you update them on how everything went. “Thank you for writing the recommendation. I got into school and will be starting in x program in the fall!” Or “Thank you. I didn’t get in this time, so I’ll be improving my application and trying again next year. May I ask you for a letter again?”
Watch for reciprocity. Someone who emails you to say thanks for the postcard or the article, or gladly gives you notes on something, someone who responds promptly and expresses that they are glad to hear from you, someone who asks you what you’ve been working on lately, or sends you an article or book or link that they think you might enjoy wants to be in that conversation with you. Over time if you actually share common interests and get along well, it will develop out of a teacher-student place and into a friendship or a good working relationship.
Be social, within reason. Every few years when I go back home, I call up my high school English teacher and take him out to lunch. It’s always delightful to catch up with him, and the lunch is a way to say thank you for times he read us Shakespeare plays while doing ALL THE VOICES and wrote insidious and great exams like “Describe how Hamlet is directly or indirectly responsible for every death that happens in the play. You have one hour.” (Seriously, that was the whole thing). So dropping by office hours for a few minutes or emailing a former prof to lunch or coffee or for a beer is not a crazy thing, as long as you’re respectful of their time and let them gracefully say no.
Don’t be a pest. If reciprocity is not happening, just like in any other relationship, take the hint and let it drop. Sometimes keeping in touch will get you that one recommendation letter that you need that one time and good memories of a class where you learned stuff. That’s a really good outcome, so don’t worry if you don’t create lifelong friendships with all of your teachers. No, really, don’t worry. We big awkward nerds like you, we are busy as #$%@!, and we wish you the best even if we never really bonded.