Paper Extensions and Death, or: Leave Grandma Out of It

Most of my students would be shocked to hear how many of their classmates’ relatives, friends, and acquaintances die in the days before papers are due. These dangerous points in the semester bring car accidents, hospital visits, possibly life-threatening illnesses (e.g., flesh-eating virus, bot flies, ebola), anxiety attacks, printer/hard drive malfunctions/explosions, etc. Enrollment in one of my classes over the past year almost guaranteed—at least statistically—that you, your entire family, and in fact all whom you hold dear were in for a dangerous ride that may kill at least one of you. And chances of death almost always increase dramatically in the weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break.

Because nearly all reports of carnage arrive via e-mail within 24 hours before a paper or some other important assignment is due, and because every report includes a request for an extension on that assignment, it’s easy to see what’s happening. One of the frustrating things for professors (at least for me) is that these types of requests are difficult to refuse. What if someone’s grandmother did pass away? What if your student was in a car accident? What if your student does suffer from anxiety issues? No one wants to be the professor who asks for a death certificate and then receives one along with a nasty letter filled with accusations of insensitivity. And no one wants to charge a student with faking an anxiety disorder and then discover, after the student has been talked down off the roof of the library by the campus police, that the student was telling the truth.

Some professors demand proof when they receive one of these seemingly fantastic excuses for not getting a paper in on time, but I am not one of them. It’s not because I am naïve or non-confrontational; it’s because I’ve concluded that extensions don’t make papers better. Students who are going to write a bad or mediocre paper aren’t going to miraculously crank out a good one with an extra week’s worth of time. And the student who worked hard on her paper and got it in on time would have written a good paper regardless of how much time she had. This is why I don’t worry about identifying “legitimate” excuses in a veritable sea of illegitimate ones; because I am unconvinced that an extended due date provides any sort of advantage. The data would suggest, in fact, that extensions most often yield lower scoring papers, not higher ones.

At the end of the semester I find myself longing not for these requests to go away—although that would be perfectly fine—but for my students to be candid with me. This spring I received nine pleas for extensions on the final paper: four grandparents and one friend dead (all in one day), a friend in the hospital, one car accident, and two illnesses (one life-threatening and one minor but still “the sucks”). I responded to each of them in the same way: I’m sorry for what you must be going through…please get your paper to me by the end of the semester so I have time to grade it before everything is due. As I typed these words over and over I kept thinking, Why won’t you just admit that you need an extension because you are busy and because you don’t budget your time well?

God knows that I empathize with the student who feels that there are not enough hours in the day. I understand feeling as though your professors are loading you up with work just for the heck of it, and that all of them have somehow collaborated to ensure that all of your papers are due on the same day. I get it because I have been a student. The rest of your professors should get it because all of them have also, at one point in their lives, been students. And any professor who says they have never missed a deadline is lying (sorry to throw us all under the bus with that one). We have all needed to ask for an extension in one form or another. We all miss deadlines on occasion.

The point of all this is not to suggest that students should request more extensions or that professors are obligated to grant every request that they receive; policies are policies, and you should make every effort to abide by the rules of the class that you have chosen to be a part of. What I am suggesting is that if you find yourself in need of an extension for whatever reason, attempt to be honest rather than to deceive. Instead of killing off friends and family members because you didn’t finish a paper on time, why not at least try the truth?

My reasoning is simple: as a group (I am talking to students now), you are horrible liars. As individuals you aren’t bad (some are better than others), but you aren’t asking for extensions as individuals; you are asking for them alongside others from your classes. And you are all using the same over-the-top excuses, which gives you away. So why not distinguish yourself from the falsely bereaved? When you need more time, for whatever reason, ask your professor for it. Worst case? She or he will refuse, at which point you have no choice but to finish your work on time. Best case? She or he will know, like you, what it is to be busy, and, inspired by your honesty, will grant your request.

But regardless of what happens, the honest path is ultimately the winning one, for it keeps your integrity intact and your grandmother alive.

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2 thoughts on “Paper Extensions and Death, or: Leave Grandma Out of It

  1. I once had appendicitis around Thanksgiving and a very serious MRSA infection in the early-to-mid December that followed it. I was horrified by the timing – everything was due! – and was grateful for professors like you, who mostly did not demand documentation.

    I had to photocopy my hospital bracelet and email that as an attachment to one person in order for him to be convinced…but he was the exception, and not the rule.

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