by Holly Genovese
Holly Genovese is a Ph.D. student in American Studies at UT Austin, with graduate portfolios in both Black Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies. Her work focuses on African American aesthetic resistance to incarceration in the American South. .Her article “The Only Panthers Left: An Intellectual History of the Angola 3” was published in the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice Working Paper Series and she has also been published in Quaker Studies, Fabric Journal and the edited collection Invisible No More. Her essays and criticism have been published in Teen Vogue, Jacobin, The Washington Post, The LA Review of Books, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Public Seminar, and The Chronicle of Higher Ed.
Refusing extensions doesn’t make you a good teacher. But it does make you an ableist one. As we have returned to the in person classroom, the predictions of disabled academics everywhere came true: the unprecedented access to virtual and at home resources, and to grace, that came with the pandemic have been rolled back. Some events are still being live streamed, but expectations to attend events and classes in person are returning (even as we know the technology is there to avoid this). And the extensions, shifted assignments, and generally lax policies of the last year are slowly being rolled back for firmer deadlines. Of course, some universities require this. But for those that don’t have restrictive university policy about deadlines during the semester, what do you lose from giving extensions? And what do you have to gain?
Why have strict deadlines? Why require doctor’s notes? Why does it matter if your student was “legitimately” sick and how do we even define that anyway? Many of my absences would never be counted legitimate, as why would I go to a doctor for the symptoms of chronic illness and pain that I am left to manage on my own? And how can you expect students, who often go without health insurance, to get a note? Why do you need to see proof of death, of loss, of trauma, when hundreds of thousands of people are dying?
The primary answer, the answer that nobody wants to give, is power. If we give students extensions or allow them greater freedom in deciding when to do their work, instructors lose power. We also lose the illusion that our students are children who cannot decide for themselves their priorities. But our students, no matter how young, are adults with other courses, full time jobs, children, and illnesses. Adults with lives, and the right to make choices about how they live them and prioritize their time. Why not allow flexibility on a paper so that your student isn’t completing 5 in one week? Why not allow an extension because your student is having an emotional crisis or is just so tired from pretending that life during a pandemic is somehow normal? If your answer involves the “real world,” you are denying that your students are living in it right now.
In a twitter thread on the subject, I’ve seen a few legitimate answers: giving incompletes (which are different than a simple extension) often leads to more stress, rushed work, and less time to manage responsibilities in future semesters. In some STEM fields, students struggle to move on with their work if they haven’t mastered earlier concepts. And for adjuncts, or others who are only paid during the semester, extensions and incompletes amount to unpaid labor. But these are problems of the university, not the students.
I’ve all but gotten rid of deadlines in my class. Students can turn their work in, at any time, by the end of the semester. If they need an incomplete, and their advisor agrees, I will grant it. I set due dates as guidelines (and make this explicitly known in the syllabus), so that students don’t get too behind if they can help it. And the result has been better work, more detailed papers, and students who are less tired, less stressed, and feel more like collaborators than ever before. Deadlines are seen as an integral part of higher education, but what if they weren’t?
I think this post brings up some very important points, but I also disagree with some things here.
The idea of not allowing students to hand in however many assignments they want whenever they want is actually not to exercise power over them. Professors often have very congested schedules and are encouraged – either tacitly or directly – to put teaching at the bottom of their priority list. Because of this, professors have more to do than the time to do it and no one is giving THEM extensions because we are expected to it last, so we cope by making schedules. It takes a lot less time to grade all the work for a single assignment at once, rather than just grade them whenever they tend to come it. Grading is one of the most onerous and time-consuming parts of teaching, and we often want to reduce the time we spend on it so we can focus more on having productive classes and meeting with students one on one.
To say that college students are all adults and should be able to make their own decisions about when to do what works for classes makes an important point but missed some critical nuance, I think. The nuance here is that a lot of college students are not adults, they are in late adolescence. You mention that college students are people with full-time jobs and families. That is not all of the students, and here is a reason students like this are often called “non-traditional.” It’s true that college courses are often not set up for students like this at regular Universities and 4-year colleges. Professors need to understand the needs of those students as much as another other that has extenuating circumstances..
As adolescents, however, most students often still need guidance about how to live in the less structured environment that is college. Many resident students find college the first experience where they are not being cared for, or monitored, by a set of adults (parents, family, teachers). They no longer have instructors who require daily check-ins and daily homework, who know them personally and will call their families if issues arise. They no longer live with people who try to make sure they do their homework, eat well, sleep well, and do not over-indulge in alcohol or drugs. Living without this guidance and supervision is part of the fun and growing experience of college. But I believe giving students some structure, though far less than in high school, is to everyone’s benefit.
All that said, I think one of the central points here is very important: someone shouldn’t have a deadly illness, a dying roommate, or a death in the family to miss a class or need to hand in an assignment late. Being too rigid in this makes it very difficult for students who have little experience living on their own and managing the large workload of college. Absence and lateness policies should allow for students to miss classes or hand in assignments late without needing to give an excuse. This I agree with. For most of my classes, attendance is not mandatory in the explicit sense, but they miss almost all of the instruction if they don’t come. Show up, don’t show up, it’s your education. Students also get a number of “get out of jail free” cards to use for late assignments – each one can be used as a one-day extension, with the option to apply multiples to a single assignment.
The answer is not to throw away deadlines or accuse professors of using them to feel their power or control students’ lives. We use deadlines to control the chaos of our lives. It has to be a team effort between students and professors, a team effort to make each other’s lives a little easier.
Allison Robinson says
I agree with you 1000%
So if you have 120 students, each writing 10-20 page papers, 3-4 a semester, and they all turn them al in on the last day, and you have a week to grade, what do you do then?
First, different disciplines have different needs/expectations for a wide variety of reasons left unaddressed by this article. Ableism may apply in some cases, but as a catch-all to push back against reasonable course structures? No.
Second, this could be flipped. It’s potentially ableist to expect a professor to adequately assess an entire semester’s worth of work for all the students at the grade deadline. We’re humans with our unique limitations, as well.
Finally, course structures can be viewed as boundaries. Always beer aware of people who push against your clearly defined boundaries. More often than not, it’s an aggression.
If you have a demonstrable learning or time challenge, get an official accommodation from the institution. If the syllabus is untenable even with accommodation, drop that course. If an emergency arises, most of us will work with a student’s reasonable request.
The goal is mastery of the course content.
Yikes. I have seen this take so many times, especially on academic Twitter, and every time I can only assume that people who believe this teach no more than 50 students a semester. Some of us teach 400+ students a semester and this policy of “turn things in when you are able” is simply not practical and to demonize any professor who does not adopt this policy is ignorant at best.
Should professors be as flexible as they can without students being near-death sick? Absolutely! Should they avoid making their students jump through insane hoops to get a week extension? Of course!
While it is true that being 100% stringent with deadlines and allowing no flexibility or exceptions CAN be ableist, expecting professors and IAs to grade hundreds of assignments (in my case each one is a 3-4 page essay) in the last seven days of the semester is also ableist. (I’ve seen some suggest “just have them write shorter essays.” I would, TRUST ME, except we are required to hit a minimum number of assigned written pages in each course) So unless the university registrar also adopts a “turn in your grades whenever you can” policy, holding students to a reasonable deadline is not the sadistic power trip this author suggests it is.
I am a passionate advocate for my students, encouraging them to evaluate and prioritize their mental and physical well being, especially after the challenges of the last two years. I lost my dad to depression several years ago, so yes, I am very passionate about this. Should I not also be an advocate for myself? For my IAs? Do we not face many of the same challenges our students do? This author tells us to keep in mind that many of our students have jobs and young families. Don’t many/most professors have those things too? And if they don’t, do they not have their own personal obstacles that could make grading hundreds of assignments in a week challenging if not impossible? IAs are usually full time graduate students, expected to read three books a week, write weekly papers, and conduct research to create original scholarship in order to graduate. Is it ableist to ask them to do more heavy lifting than they already do?
Again, professors who teach only a hand full of students may find this “make your own deadline” approach doable, but it just isn’t realistic for all professors or IAs. And I do not believe it is correct or fair to demonize professors who quite literally cannot adopt this policy. I hope the author of this article remembers that we are human too and deserve the same compassion and understanding she says we should give to our students.
I am glad you came to this conclusion. However, I disagree with the “Power” aspect. The policy you have explained, I have been doing for almost 20 years from grade levels 6 to post-graduate, and the rationale was to accommodate people’s life and give them the opportunity to provide their best work. This started for me when teaching 6-8 grade STEM where students were rushing to meet a deadline. The products at the end of the deadline were trash and the students that did not finish, were being downgraded because of a behavior issue and not an academic issue. In response, I created “move-on” dates. The move-on date represented when we would transition to the next project. If you were not finished, you can keep working, but you cannot switch partners till your group was caught up. The project quality went up so much, that I had to eliminate a criteria item for assessment. I then transferred this idea to 7th and 8th-grade social studies and found that 90%+ of my students’ assignments were turned in by the end of the grading period. In turn, grades went up, and state test scores went through the roof. Another unattended effect, I found that many students who were “missing assignments” were also students with near-perfect attendance. After meeting with these students and their parents, they were able to submit their “missing work” and get caught up with no grade penalty. Students learned a bit about keeping pace and about their ability to complete work. The unattended benefit was that these students were covering the content twice in the same semester.
Once again, this is not about power, but just good pedagogy. I do this same philosophy with my undergraduates and post-grads, and they love it. Instead of move-on dates, I use D2L’s End Dates and Due Dates to accomplish the same thing. Due Dates are like move-on dates and students can turn in the assignment before grades are due. End Dates are more traditional, and the assignment must be turned in on time. End Dates are normally attached to group assignments and Due Dates are attached to individual assignments. It respects them and their time. I also feel weird getting excuses from adults.
Another aspect of good teaching is the growth model. I am not a one-and-done teacher with assignments. Students can always resubmit addressing the feedback. Students are in education to learn, not to be punished. There is nothing wrong with everyone getting an “A” when they have demonstrated they understand the knowledge. I take it as a source of pride that everyone has mastered the content.
Robin Bernstein says
This is a very good and useful post. Thanks!
Regarding deadlines and other course policies, I think the key question is, what do we want our students to learn? Our course policies, like every aspect of our classes, are pedagogical. They teach something. They can teach compassion, including self-compassion. They can teach students to see and understand power. They can also teach discipline, responsibility, punctuality, etc. What do your specific students most need to learn–right now? I wrote a bit about this approach in a blog post a few years ago: http://racialinnocence.blogspot.com/2016/05/three-steps-to-designing-powerful_19.html .
What’s really ableist is to think all students with special needs MUST need an extension. Extensions are often sought by students due to special circumstances. While I agree there’s no need to be asking for “proof” universities do have a a designated office to do this kind of process when a student is need.
“And for adjuncts, or others who are only paid during the semester, extensions and incompletes amount to unpaid labor. But these are problems of the university, not the students.”
Would like to see a solution for this first before we ask adjuncts to do free labor.
Finally, I find this post so short-sighted. A “submit whenever” policy might work for a small class that requires no mastery going into different courses, or where the topics within the course do not build upon each other. Additionally, it might be doable with a small class, not with 100+ students course. As instructions we don’t have a “submit whenever” grades policy from our insitutions, I’m not sure if teaching students deadlines aren’t important would set them up for success in academics or in industry.
Sherri Gutierrez-Green says
This is insane. Academic Twitter at its most virtue-signalling. No one who is respected by their students and who actually wants to inculcate mastery would do this. And yes, I am sympathetic to students and offer brief extensions when warranted. Taking away structure hurts students. Finally, your comments about adjuncts is a convenient washing of the hands. “Yes, it’s a problem, but not my problem, so it does not take away from my argument!”
This is nonsense.
Arriving very late here but thought I may have some points to add to the conversation.
1) – “But it does make you ableist.” This way of speaking, be it to peers, juniors, or those above us in rank, is extremely toxic. Many young professors and senior graduate students are terrified that an accusation of being “racist,” “sexist,” transphobic,” “ableist,” etc will truncate or explode their career. These are not declarations that should be made on so little information as “refusing extensions.” Why? In what context? Were alternatives provided to the student? Is the instructor under directions to make this ruling?
2) Please consider the division of labor in University education. Many Universities have graduate student teaching assistants doing the bulk of the grading. They are busy and deeply stressed. They can’t be expected to stand at attention whenever a student feels “ready” to submit. It is exploitative to expect as much.
3) May I underscore point 1 again?