As the middle of the semester approaches and assignments start coming due, the e-mails start coming in. Students start coming to me before or after class or poking their heads into my office between classes. I know what they’re going to ask. Some of them know the word for it; others just know what they need: a few more days to work on their papers and projects. An extension.
There’s always a reason. The flu. Grandmother passed away. Father in the hospital. Car trouble. I know pretty much what they’re going to say before they even open their mouths. And I know what I’m going to say, too: yes. Always yes. I never ask for proof (though my students will often bring me notes and I will look at them out of respect). Anyone who asks can have a few extra days.
I have known professors who take pride in never having granted an extension, or if they do they want to see the doctor’s note and the obituary in the newspaper and they will run the story down like an investigative journalist tracking a political scandal. For them, deadlines are deadlines: the line past which you’d better be dead and have a note from God if your paper isn’t done. I respect my fellow professors who teach this way, but it’s not my way.
I have reasons for my policy. I am a teacher, not a timekeeper. I care far more about what my students learn than about how quickly they learn it. Sometimes people just need a little more time to get their thoughts in order and I would rather see a thoughtful and well-reasoned paper on Wednesday than a slap-dash hack job on Monday.
As a history professor, I am asking my students to do the hardest thing I know of: to step away from everything they think they know about the past, the world, even themselves, and reexamine it with a critical eye. I know how exhausting it can be to go through that process. I expect a lot of my students and I expect it just as much from those who get an extension as from those who turn their work in on time. Of course I’d rather just have good papers turned in by the deadline, but when compromise is necessary, I’d much rather compromise on deadlines than on the rigor of research or the crafting of arguments.
Most of my students are living through the worst years of their lives, studying and working at the same time, set adrift from the networks of school and community that have supported them thus far. The stresses of school reverberate through their family lives. Many of them are just getting by; an unexpected illness or car accident can throw them spinning out of control. The least I can offer them is a few extra days to write a paper.
I know the arguments in favor of being strict about deadlines, but they do not move me:
Making deadlines is a critical life skill that students should be learning in college. Yes, it is. And how do we learn new skills? By trying, failing, learning from the experience, and trying again. Missing a few deadlines is part of figuring out how you work best. I think that giving people a little room to make mistakes is a vital part of teaching. I still expect them to do the work and I still expect it to be good; giving them a little leeway for life’s unpredictability is part of the teaching process, not a subversion of it.
It’s not fair to the people who got their work done on time. Perhaps not, but is it fair that one student is going through a sudden and unexpected emotional trauma just when no one else is? Fairness is more than just treating everyone the same. The world doesn’t stand still and wait while one student is catching up. The reward for those who got their work done on time is more time to spend on other things.
They’ll take advantage of you! They don’t. Very rarely does the same student come back to me asking for a second extension on another assignment, and when they do it’s because of an ongoing issue that has seriously disrupted their life and leaves them needing more than just a few extra days. I’ve never had a student just turn up asking for an extension on everything; if I did, we’d have to have a more serious conversation about it. No doubt some of those grandmothers are still alive, but I’m not going to treat every grieving student like a hostile witness just because a few might be faking it.
They have to respect their professors. When a student comes to me and shares something deeply personal and painful about their life, that is respecting me. Respect is earned, not demanded. If I want my students to respect me, that begins with my respect for them, for their honesty, their integrity, and their willingness to do the work I am asking of them. When I hear people complain about students not respecting their professors, I suspect that what they really mean is not respect but fear. The last thing I want is for my students to be so afraid of me that they won’t come to me with their problems.
Perhaps if I were teaching a different population of students I would feel differently. My students are mostly working-class kids from modest backgrounds. They’re the products of public schools under No Child Left Behind. Their schooling to date has beaten into them the notion that the only thing that matters is results that can be tallied and quantified like test scores, grades, and deadlines. It is one of my most important roles as a professor to undo some of this damage. There are two things I want my students to learn to value above results.
First, I want them to value process. The processes of historical inquiry and critique are difficult but important. I want my students to understand that history isn’t about names and dates, in the same way that mathematics isn’t about counting and chemistry isn’t about the periodic table. When my students see that I consider the quality of their work more important than its timing, they begin to value that work, too.
Second, and perhaps even more important in the long run, I wan them to value themselves. Their lives are already full of pressures to undervalue themselves, to work harder for less reward, and to place themselves and their own needs last. I want them to know that it’s all right to know their own limits and value their own well-being. If they can tell their professor they need a couple more days to finish a paper, maybe they’ll be able to tell their future bosses that they deserve a raise or that they don’t have the time to take on another project.
I have no interest turning out the next generation of obedient automatons for the factory floor. There are plenty of times in my students’ lives when missing a deadline is not an option. They don’t need my help to learn that. What I hope they learn from me is that the things in life that are really worth doing are worth taking the time to do well.
Image by Erik Jensen
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