On Campus

Due diligence

Is it wrong to pretend deadlines matter when they don’t?

Over my twenty-something years associated with universities, I have come to terms with a lot of things. I know how I like to teach and how to talk to students in my office. I have personal policies about electronic devices and when a personal touch is too personal. Yes, years after tenure, I pretty much have this professor thing figured out.

But I still haven’t found a way to handle due dates for assignments.

You would think it would be simple. Set a date and expect students to hand it in on that date. But what if the student gets sick or her mom dies or what if the student just didn’t bother and is willing to make up a story to get an extension? In short, in addition to the due date, you need a policy for extensions. For a while I had a policy borrowed from one of my own undergraduate classes which said you could have an extension if you requested it in writing and in advance. One year I tried giving two dates, one that was the official due date and one a week later that was the extended due date — in other words, I gave everyone an extension in advance on everything.

Sadly, whatever your policy on extensions, some will always try to get you to make an exception. Instead of asking in advance, they ask you the day of or the day after. Instead of taking the extra week as an extension, they think of the extended date as the real due date and then want an extension on that. And so it goes. At some point you always end up in an awkward conversation with a student (very awkward if the student is crying) and trying to figure out if he is telling the truth or not and if the allowance you are making for him is equivalent to what you allowed to someone else. And what if you have already said no to someone else?

And this is to say nothing about late papers. What happens when the student simply hands it in after the due date? Do you refuse to accept it? Or dock so many marks per day? How many? Do weekends count? Is there a maximum?

The whole thing is a nightmare.

The last few years, I abandoned due dates altogether. I simply indicated how many assignments were to be done and reminded my students (ad nauseum) that they needed to plan ahead to make sure they got them all done by the end of the course. This arrangement has the benefit, for me, of not having to deal with the issues related above.  I don’t have to entertain requests for extensions because there is no due date to be extended. Hand it in when it’s done.

By the same token, no due dates means no paper is ever late. So there are no late marks to worry about. Simple, elegant, and, best of all, great for students who (in theory) are free to work on my papers when they have time according to their own particular schedules. There’s just one problem with not having due dates.

Students don’t hand anything in.

As far as I can tell, without a specific deadline hanging over the heads of our young Damocleses, students, for the most part, simply put off doing the papers at all until its too late. I have precisely one student this year (in all my courses) who has kept up to the expected pace on paper writing in the absence of due dates. I have one course where the grand total of all papers handed in over the whole year is exactly one. Since September.

In a sense, the problem lies not with the students, but with every other professor in the university besides me. If other professors adopted my beautiful system, it would work for everyone. But since everyone else uses old-fashioned due dates, everyone else’s paper seems more pressing than mine. My students reason that they can always push mine off another week because mine can be handed in any time, but their paper for Professor Urgent is due tomorrow.

Obviously, I’m not going to be able to convince everyone to change their policies for my sake. So, what am I to do? Go back to the old system of due dates, extensions, and late marks? Never! I have a plan, but I’m unsure about it since I think it might be evil.

Here’s the idea: I set out my course outline with due dates as normal but do not include anything in the syllabus about extensions or late penalties. I am simply silent on that point. But in my mind I already know that students will assume there is some penalty for a late paper or that late papers might not be accepted. But their assumption will actually be wrong, because in my mind, I will have already decided that I will give any student any extension they want without penalty. And I will accept papers late without penalty. I just don’t tell them that. Then, when they come to my office worried that I will not accept their late paper or refuse an extension, I can be all magnanimous and say, “Oh, I understand. A dead gerbil can be very trying. When do you think you can have it in? Monday? Great.”

The student will think that I have been kind and generous and understanding. They will think I treated them as a person (which supposedly students like) when really I was going to give them whatever they asked for anyhow.

I feel a bit bad about this plan because it seems deceitful in a way. For one thing, there would be a policy in force that is not stated on the syllabus. On the other hand, the policy would still be applied equally, or at least, equally to everyone who asks.  Still, I worry that more diligent students might feel hard done by if they knew that others were getting extensions that they didn’t know were even an option. But then, as far as I can tell, even good students need to have a deadline, so maybe my lie by omission would be doing everyone a favour.

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