Monday, December 9, 2013

Extensions and Excuses

I don't know which I like least, the hyper-apologetic, sometimes self-flagellating, emails begging me for an extension, which are often accompanied by far more detail about students' personal lives than I need or want to know, or the ones simply announcing that a paper will be late, with the implicit assumption that I will approve an extension. The latter are often accompanied by an equal level of detail about the activities in which the student will be engaging in lieu of finishing the paper, but the tone tends to be  self-congratulatory.  The list of things students will, by their own accounts, be doing this weekend/early next week in lieu of working on the paper(s) they owe me includes teaching Sunday School, going on a major-related but nevertheless pretty glamorous-sounding out-of-town trip, and saving lives (a shift as an EMT).  They will also be supporting family and friends through various difficulties, and -- an ever-popular option when there's important academic work to be missed -- playing airport-shuttle driver (despite the fact that we have multiple professional services of that sort available in our area, the airports are all accessible by regular public transport, and the drive to the farthest one can eat up a morning or afternoon at most, not a whole weekend).  They are also, of course, studying for exams in apparently more important classes.   At least no grandparents have died.

This term, I seem to be getting more messages that simply assume I will approve an extension. I'm not sure why.  Maybe it was something in the wording of the whole-class end-of-semester reminders email, which included a reminder that anyone who wouldn't be done with the final paper by the deadline should contact me to discuss an extension?  Or maybe there's a change in student behavior?  Or some anomaly landed a higher-than-usual proportion of narcissists on my class rosters this semester?

Whatever the reason, I'm not feeling energetic enough to wrestle with these characters via email this week, so there will be no challenges or consequences to the self-congratulatory email writers as long as I get their work by the drop-dead deadline specified in the syllabus.  But, as the instructor in a class that is supposed to emphasize adapting tone, content, etc. to the situation, audience, etc., I wonder whether I've failed somewhere along the way.  Or are they just misreading the nature of the situation? Or reading it all too accurately? 


  1. Oh yes, the airport-shuttle drive. That is an ever-popular excuse, but I see the conflict. The professional services are way too pricey for my students' budgets, and making a family member take a bus to or from the airport? That's not possible culturally for these subordinates.

    As for all the extensions, why allow them at all? Or without a grade penalty?

    As for audience address, I did my senior research project about the development of that skill in young writers, comparing it to Piaget's stages of cognitive growth. The sixth-graders showed no clue about what the reader did or didn't already know. That was predictable but delayed -- in tests with puppets, four-year-olds already have a "theory of mind." Something about the task of writing caused a disconnect. On the other hand, the college students almost universally knew which details to explain to a naive reader. This was back in the 1980s at an Ivy League school. These days my CC students write remarkably like those sixth-graders did. Often worse.

    1. But: "I don't know which I like least, the hyper-apologetic, sometimes self-flagellating, emails begging me for an extension, which are often accompanied by far more detail about students' personal lives than I need or want to know, or the [self-congratulatory] ones simply announcing that a paper will be late . . .accompanied by an equal level of detail about the activities in which the student will be engaging in lieu of finishing the paper."


  2. Around here at the local HS, in an effort to keep graduation rates up, students are allowed to turn work in all the way up to the end of the term, and the teachers must accept it. They are allowed to retake tests.

    This sets up an expectation on their end that college will be the same, and it's become my colleagues' and my aggravating job to become the brick wall they slam into their first semester in college. It sucks. I had a student tell me the first day of spring semester (as I was explaining my deadline policy) that they should be able to turn work in whenever. I kept my temper and said "Well, you can try that but you won't like the results." (The student flunked out of my class. Surprise.)

    I have a statement in my syllabus that clearly explains the policies regarding turning in their work--and that I will accept it late (if at all) at my discretion, penalties TBD. I always have two or three who test me, but that number is increasing.

    1. That "turn it in whenever" high school mentality is common. I have had several students "inform" me that they will do a 16 week course in the last 8 weeks. I usualy inform them that they have been dropped for non-attendance or that they have a 0 at midterm. Brick Walls Unite!

    2. And yet I always have students act surprised when they find out that college isn't as hard as their high school teachers claimed it would be because their professors allow extensions and the like. They express to me, "We were told by our high school teachers that college would whip us into shape."

    3. Then they have nothing to whine about when you become a hardass. "Your high school teachers told you to expect this. Why are you surprised?"

      Set deadlines, reasonably so they won't have a leg to stand on. Homework has 7 calendar days to be turned in. Major things like essays, projects, and papers have a 3 week advance notice. Tell them on the 6th that the final turn in time is end of class on the 27th. Not close of business, not midnight, end of class.

  3. A new mantra: Brick Walls Unite!

    This is college, not the 13th grade. What, it's not fair? Your parents did you a grave disservice if they allowed you to grow up thinking life was fair.

  4. I think BurntChrome is onto something with the hypothesis that high school rules are influencing college expectations. I'm pretty sure the high schools around here offer a fairly high level of do-over and catch-up opportunities.

    And I suspect they do it, at least in part, for the same reason I do: I just don't have the time and energy to sort through the flood of excuses (some legitimate, some not), rationalizations, pleas, etc., etc. that would result if I were to try to enforce a "no late work," or even a "late work is penalized" penalty. I could easily spend the great majority of my time this week corresponding and/or meeting with a small number of students about late work, rather than, as I plan to do, grading the work I have in hand. In some ways, my position is very much like that of a high school teacher: I see students in relatively small classes/sections, which creates an expectation of personalized treatment (being able to remember not only names and faces, but also illnesses and other special situations), but I see a lot of them in aggregate (4 sections; I suspect most high school teachers have 1-2 more, and more students per section). If I had half the students/sections, I think I could muster the energy to administer a system of lateness policies and penalties fairly, and to deal firmly but kindly with the inevitable pushback. If I had very large sections, strict enforcement of firm coursewide policies and penalties would become a necessity (and I think, on some level, students -- at least most students -- would understand that).

    In this in-between spot, and teaching a required course that takes in students with varying levels of preparation, and, at least the way I teach it, seeks to push all of them, from the least to the most prepared, to think critically, and to do some things they haven't done before, I find that being somewhat flexible about deadlines (as long as work is progressing) in the middle of the term, with a drop-dead deadline at the end, is the best of various less-than-ideal solutions. But it does create particular headaches at this time of year.

  5. I'm not so sure. Being flexible about deadlines in the middle of the term creates the expectation the same will happen at the end, if they just push a little.

    I'm also wondering about the effect of a statement like "anyone...should contact me to discuss an extension". It makes it very clear that you're open to that possibility, so they just have to think about the excuse.

    My syllabus this term was silent about late homework, but it did have a "no make-ups" (of tests) policy, which was enforced (except for the guy who brought me the admission/discharge papers from the E.R.) I have found that the less I say about this on the syllabus, the better. (Then they have to ask, a psychological hurdle.) Also, I was teaching a large section, and I had TAs. The TAs were instructed not to accept late homework, and for any exceptions the student would have to contact me. This happened only twice, and I let it pass.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.