On lateness, good pedagogy, and accommodations

On lateness, good pedagogy, and accommodations

Here is one thing we need to say out loud as faculty: it is almost impossible NOT to miscalculate how long it will take to do any given task of research or thinking or writing. For this (and probably other) reason(s), academics are notoriously terrible at meeting deadlines. And we ought to allow our students to have some growing pains in this regard as well.

In twenty years as a faculty member, I’ve tried every form of lateness policy I could devise, in regards to the turning in of student work, to try to balance humane teaching with the needs of the class as a whole. I no longer have any policy at all, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute. But the one I have liked best, ideologically and pedagogically, was when I had a set number of “freebie” days of lateness. A student could attach them all to one assignment and turn it in a week late without penalty, or divide them between multiple assignments to get a little grace period for each. This was my effort to acknowledge that snow days and childcare and illness and paying jobs and hunger and midterm week when every class has a paper due, and a thousand other things, can derail a paper from its intended due date. And that requiring students to explain their personal struggles, whatever they might be, was often an added burden. Students could simply take charge of their own deadlines and modify if necessary, indicating at the tops of their papers when they turned them in how many late days they were using.

My policy required no explanation for why they needed the extra time because I was not interested in adjudicating whether a delay was “excused” or “not excused,” a decision I often find is simply an exercise in power and/or cruelty. There is no reason to make students guess which difficulties are “really” problems; rather, acknowledge that everyone has struggled to meet deadlines for one reason or another, and trust students to decide how to manage their competing obligations and when they needed a grace period in which to do so. In addition, I made clear that larger scale extenuating circumstances — say, a death in the immediate family — were situations in which the Dean of Students could intervene to offer support and help and help navigate more extended deadlines as needed.

The downside of this policy was that I had to keep records of who had used how many late days, and to figure out what the grade penalty would be for those who exceeded those days. I also had to keep up with papers coming in all the time, and a constant wondering if the missing grades in my book were due to me misplacing a paper that came in at a one-off time or a student not turning something in.

While I liked this policy from the standpoint of respecting student needs and trusting them to manage their own time, and its benefits outweighed its inconveniences, I have ultimately given up on having any lateness policy at all because they are now all utterly un-enforceable.

In the last five years or so, I have seen an enormous uptick in the number of students who have been granted official accommodations by campus offices, for reasons of disability, mental health, or timely crisis. These accommodations almost always include leniency with deadlines. Now that some 25-50% of my students in every class have some form of documented need, which I am legally required to meet, and I know that there are surely other students with needs no less pressing though perhaps less officially acknowledged — needs like food or housing insecurity, complicated work or family obligations — which make it difficult to meet every deadline, I find it both simpler and more ethical not to have baked-in lateness penalties. If 50% of my students have accommodations letters, and 25% more of them come to me willing to ask for extensions for other reasons, do not hard deadlines actually only serve as a penalty for the 25% of students who do not advocate for themselves in these ways? And given everything we know about how much harder it can be for students who are not cis-gendered, white, and well-versed in institutional bureaucracies to “self-advocate,” do I not run the risk of further disenfranchising some students by having draconian late policies?

I am comfortable with all of this logic. I feel better when I am willing to be flexible about deadlines, and to help students navigate the complexities of being many things in addition to being a student.

But here is where all of this leaves me: utterly unable to predict when work will come in; feeling overwhelmed by the fact that I have to check my email, moodle dropboxes, and various stacks and piles of paper in every bag I own to figure out if a given assignment for a given student has been completed; and, most importantly, feeling increasingly as if my ability to teach, and students’ ability to learn is being impeded by the utter lack of deadlines, rather than being helped by it.

When I assign any kind of written work in a class, I scaffold it carefully. I give short assignments early in the term that ask students to work predominantly on a single skill, and longer assignments later that ask them to bring these skills together. I have proposals due before bibliographies, which are due for comments and suggestions before paper conferences, which happen during the drafting process. I have group work that enables wide brainstorming and crowd-sourcing of material due early enough that everyone can benefit from what everyone else finds, when they are writing the more formal analysis a few weeks later.

But NONE of that scaffolding works if everyone’s stuff can be turned in at any time. It difficult to execute a thoughtful pedagogy of scaffolded writing and research if half the class is still at the stage of writing proposals during the week when draft conferences are blocked off.

I am not suggesting that students who need flexible deadlines should not be granted them. But I am at a loss, as a teacher, to figure out how to balance the flexible deadline with the need to keep the class moving forward. In short, I think I need some kind of policy, some hard deadlines, some inflexibility, but I don’t know what that should look like, in terms of addressing all the very real issues I mention above. I want to provide thoughtful teaching that accommodates a wide variety of needs and acknowledges that school is not the only things students are doing. But it is not practicable for every due date to be merely a suggestion, since that makes it impossible to have course material build meaningfully on prior work throughout the semester.

I would love to know how others think about this, and what policies they have set up to address the competing issues of accommodation and scaffolded pedagogy, which are both goals of best practice.

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