Another day, another half-dozen emails from students inquiring about seminar registration.

One of the biggest problems with Yale — I know, I know, there are so very many — nor do I mean that as a joke — is how little actual guidance and mentorship students receive: how hesitant we professors are to actually profess, at least in the old fashioned-sense. Not sure what the old fashioned sense is — good, go look it up, young padawans! When it comes to the big things, sure, we’ll probably advise your senior thesis; when it comes to the little things that help determine how one gets to do the big things well — like how to best contact professors in the first place — well, you’re on your own for that, kids! 

So in the spirit of the season (the registration season that is — it’s not even close to Christmas despite the music in the dining halls, and besides, I’m Jewish), I’d like to offer a few suggestions to the students for the next time around. Let me emphasize these suggestions will not apply to all situations and professors (nothing does — that’s lesson one), but they will hopefully offer at the very least a template to play with. Playfulness and inventiveness is good. We don’t have enough of it around here, to be frank.

Oh, and a qualification or two before I profess, er, pontificate any more. To all those who have emailed whom I have not responded to, I’m sorry, really. Heck, I’m writing this op-ed partially in penance for not properly responding to most of your emails. But more importantly, it’s intellectually shameful that we even have a system where you are expected to give reasons for why you are applying to a course in the first place in the course catalog, and where it’s becoming expected that you should write to help get a spot. There’s something wrong with a system where one is expected to artfully, catchily, concisely enumerate why one is interested in taking said course in the first place. Whatever bureaucratic “sense” it makes, it’s annoying and degrading. I know it, and you know it. 

However, since it’s currently the system we have, the operative question for all of you is how to make the best of it. And so if you’re going to email professors, here are a few tips:

1) Please say something. “And just what does that mean?” you ask. We don’t want to read long emails trying to impress us with who you are, or your breadth of interests, or what related classes you may have taken any more than you want to write them. Laundry lists of your qualifications and rich interests are not helpful. Be particular, be specific, be concrete. If you’re going to bother to email us in the first place, explain what in particular excites you about the course.

2) Be short. As Mark Twain quipped, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” You do have the time — clarify what you want and why! 

3) Or if your email is going to be long, be fun! Be honest and genuine about what interests you. And if that makes you sound weird or strange — good, that’s when you know you’re being real! There is an open conspiracy at our school — run by our good friends’ snark, ambition and insecurity — against being unsure, curious, naïve, enthusiastic, weird, unusual, idiosyncratic, you name it. Be different. Be actually different. You’ll be happier, even if it’s harder, and we’ll notice. And we’ll be more interested, to be honest, in having you in class. 

Before I get off my soapbox, let me add a final point. Don’t waste our, or your time, trying to get into all the courses you are trying to register for. The system is designed in such a way that it makes sense for one to sign up for as many courses  — if not majors, in order to get priority in certain courses — as possible. And while it makes sense to maximize one’s chances, it’s also draining. 

I’m now finally old enough to say, back in my day … so, back in my day, shopping period meant a fair bit of shopping, of visiting the classes one was most interested in. By the end of shopping period, most seminars were not full and so if you really wanted to take a certain class, you were often able to, so find the seminars you really want, and introduce — like, actually personally introduce yourself — to the teachers you want to have. If you don’t get in this time, at least they’ll remember you — and next time for that class, you’ll be first in line! 


Mordechai Levy-Eichel is a lecturer in political science and humanities. He is the winner of the Lux et Veritas Faculty Teaching Prize and all too infrequently writes at