Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Misere me

A rant about the delicate tenderness of the snowflake, and the granting of extensions.  

Not the extraction-of-information-from-students-via-medieval-torture-devices kind of extenstions, however much we sometimes fantasise about such things, but the additional-time-to-complete-work-due-to-exceptional-circumstances kind.

I work in the UK where semesters are not so neatly bounded: teaching ends, then there are several weeks of official examination period, then a few more weeks of paperwork before the exam board at which marks are formally submitted to the central administration.  Assignment dates for non-exam components are generally fixed for the first week of the examination period or before.  This means that there is room in the system for 'exceptional circumstance' students to be granted an extra week or two on coursework without serious delay of the system, and an academic needs to mark the work once it is handed in.  This is annoying because it messes up any batch marking system one has and means a module can be 'not quite done with' for weeks longer than necessary.

Supposedly, there is a robust system to ensure circumstances are exceptional.  A single member of staff, chosen partly for their adherance to rules and unsympathetic reputation among students, is in charge of extensions, so students are treated equally.  There are clear rules about the (very small number) of circumstances permitted and evidence required.  Yet in the last few years, there are apparently more and more exceptional students.

I am supervising 12 final year projects, a year-long double-unit capstone module begun last May and due to be submitted at the end of April.  The students have had a YEAR to do this work.  Yet as of this evening SIX of those twelve have 'exceptional circumstance' extensions.

Marking final year projects is pretty time consuming, so I scheduled a couple of days in my diary in early May - but now half the work is coming in at different points between the 30th of April and the 28th of May, and my diary is kind of full of other things, like research committments, and marking 150 first year exam scripts.  I can't leave them all until later, because the first lot of marks have to be handed to the office (for labarynthine quality control processes about which I may rant another time) in mid-May, so I now have to find a series of 2 hour+ slots through the month to mark all the 'exceptional' cases as they come in.

Do modern workplaces really allow this much leeway to their employees?  If not, how does 'supporting' students in this way help to prepare them for the "realities and rigours of employment" as the faculty brochure promises?  I know the university doesn't; medically mandated sick leave, giving birth and the death of parents are greeted with verbal sympathy but the onus remains on the person to sort out coverage of their duties or suffer the consequences (I guess if you actually die someone else would do it?). Politicians tell us we are archaic and not at all business like, so maybe this is one of the features we will acquire one day.

Apologies for the horrible graphic...though I guess it's in keeping with the proud CM tradition...


  1. I kinda like the graphic (well, I like the little hamster. It took me a second or third look to realize that the other object was an "extended' hamster -- though if the instructor is also a hamster, then it works very well, since it sounds like the instructor in this case is being overextended/stretched to the limit).

    It's definitely an odd phenomenon that even as we are being urged to teach more efficiently, streamline things, and generally act more like assembly-line workers, we're also being urged to accommodate more special circumstances, needs, etc. I'm all for being supportive, especially when there truly are special circumstances and/or needs (and there have been a lot in my classes this semester), but the bottom line is that such efforts take time and energy, including the sort of energy that neuroscientists keep reminding us is used up when we're forced to repeatedly refocus our attention. It may be, in many cases, energy well spent, but if the system were being reworked to accommodate this relatively-new expectation, we'd be teaching fewer students, not more.

    I also can't help thinking that at least some of the students need to learn the lost art of finishing something as well as they can by the deadline -- and discovering either that the work they produce under such circumstances really isn't that bad, or that they need to learn to plan better.

    1. Cc, what you decribe reminds me of Walmart. Their pricing is cut throat, they keep their payroll costs low but they will let a customer return items for any reason, even bad reasons, just to keep the customers coming back. It's not a bad business model and it's consistent with your description of academia.

  2. "labarynthine quality control processes about which I may rant another time"

    They glance at them - it takes time.

  3. "Do modern workplaces really allow this much leeway to their employees?" Time to find out.

    I think if 1/2 your batch of raw material is cut off, then you have every right to request deferment of the batch operation till all the material is in. I see you've said you "can't leave them all until later", but that may bear reconsideration. It sounds very much like your circumstances are exceptional.

    Hey, it can't hurt to ask, right? I mean, my students seem to think it can't hurt.

  4. I was trying to remember why "misere me" was so familiar. Of course, there's "miserere mei deus" as part of Psalm 51, which has been put to music by various composers (I've performed more than one such piece in choirs), but that wasn't it. Slowly it came to me: Gilbert & Sullivan.

    Peter Paul & Mary have a nice take on it. Please to enjoy.