Deadlines and Empathy

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
—Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

     This blog post was supposed to go up on Monday. It didn’t. Time, holidays, ennui, other commitments, other deadlines, not knowing what to write, not wanting to write, wanting to write other things, not wanting to think: certainly these are some of the reasons it did not go up. Or rather, these are the reasons why I put off writing the post—but they are not necessarily the reasons why no post went up on Monday. The reason I was able to put off writing until I had something I really wanted to write about (this meta-analysis of deadlines that you are reading, hello and welcome to the post itself!) rests far more on my understanding of the academic community of which I am a part. No post went up on Monday because I knew that the WAC project would not crumble if a post went up a bit late; I knew that the WAC coordinators would generously allow that the ideas are more important than the timestamp, and I knew that the readers would, hopefully, understand. Or not notice. I know very few academics who have not sent in a conference abstract just under the wire, or spent part of a conference in their hotel room furiously editing the paper they are giving the next day, or used their commute to go over the assigned reading on the way to class. I would be skeptical of anyone who claimed they have never sent an email that started with “Sorry this is so late!”

     Deadlines, then, like dinner reservations, have varying levels of flexibility. But somewhere in the liminal space between the deadlines we have and the deadlines we set, a part of the academic community seems to have been lost in the shuffle. Late papers, or never-turned-in papers, or last minute emails with missing attachments; for professors, incompletes and unofficial withdrawals are the end of semester disappointments that seem to come out of nowhere. But what if we approach student deadlines like we do our own—with the expectation of empathy on the other end? At what point do we invite a student to join us in the academy as equals?

     My late work policy when I teach is as follows: all major assignments must be turned in to pass the class, but late work will not receive credit. This is a firm policy, to which I’ve made very few exceptions. However, included on my syllabus and reiterated in every assignment page and student conference is my policy on extensions—I will always grant an extension, with no reason (and certainly no ‘official note’) necessary, as long as the student asks for it before the assignment is due. I’m transparent with students about the hard deadlines at stake: when grades are due, when I expect to finish grading, when my other classes are turning things in. Most extensions are a process where I push the student to take slightly more time than they ask for, but where they understand the consequences of the new timeline they have undertaken, as opposed to the ‘ideal’ timeline I have built into the assignment due date. How can I ask students to behave with the scholarly rigor that I expect—and require—of them if I do not also extend the humanity and understanding that the scholarly community extends to me? How can I expect students to understand that I am human (and not a grading or knowledge machine) if I do not understand the same of them? How can I prepare them for a world in which staying up all night to hit a deadline will probably be less important than turning in work that satisfies them, and that means something?

     I hate to use the “now, more than ever” phrase—but now, more than ever, we must foster a sense of kinship and commonality in the university. We must use our curriculum to teach more than theorems or grammar. Empathy and humanity are not radical ideas, but they can be (and have been) used in radical ways, to re-shape the world and the people inhabiting it. As we prepare our syllabi for next semester, or remind students of their final assignments, consider how small acts can change the shape of the academy, expanding its borders and ensuring that it remains a space where everyone is someone.

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