So, this summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about my course policies and my increasingly open pedagogy. I’m especially thinking about due dates (or their more ominous title “deadlines”) and flexibility. I wrote about how flexible deadlines helped students learn in my Spring 2020 classes here and I really don’t think I’ll ever go back to being the deadline hardass I was when I started teaching 15 years ago, when I really believed that strict course attendance and due date rules administered ruthlessly to all students regardless of anything else was the right way to run a class. I cringe when I think back on that, and to all of my former students, I’m really sorry. I’ve learned and grown, I promise.
There is, however, a strong pushback whenever I bring up flexible due dates, which I’ve done a lot this summer- I’ve discussed this with the excellent folks at APSA’s Online Teaching Workshop (sidebar for political scientists- go check out APSA Educate– the workshop contributed lots of resources, and there are many others that might be helpful), with colleagues in the KCC Open Pedagogy Fellowship, with other colleagues during other meetings, with folks on Twitter, basically with anyone I have talked to in the last 3 months. Many instructors who I really respect fall into the hard-liners category, often for the same reason- they say they enforce due dates because that’s what “the real world” will require, and they want to prepare students for their professional lives after graduation, or for the tougher 4 year colleges they will be transferring to after finishing on our campus.
I have several problems with this. First off, my students live every day in the real world. I don’t need to explain deadlines to them, because they already deal with hard due dates, like having to make rent, or not being able to- a 2010 survey of CUNY students found that 41.7% faced housing instability, and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic which has devastated the lives of so many New Yorkers as well as caused massive unemployment and economic slowdown which is likely to get much worse before it gets any better.
Furthermore, it would be downright hypocritical of me to demand on-time delivery of students work, because I am a habitual deadline blower! Like, seriously. I am late for everything- conference paper submissions, article reviews, returning exams, my own wedding.
And you know what has happened to me because of all this lateness? I’ve become a tenured professor of political science and a published author. The “real world” has not punished me too severely for my habitual lateness,* so why would I institute arbitrary punishment for my students? I think of it this way- there is hot and cold weather in the real world, but we don’t force ourselves to live in those conditions all day if we can help it. If it is cold outside, we turn on the heat in our offices, classrooms, and homes. If it is hot outside, we turn on the air conditioning. If we wouldn’t deny our students heat in our classrooms, in preparation for the cold outside, then we shouldn’t be excessively hardassed in preparation for the possibility that they will encounter hardasses in the future.
And everything I’ve been late on, I’ve had (what I believe to be) a good reason- I had other things to do, or care obligations, or I just forgot because life is busy sometimes. All of which apply to my students as much or more than they do to me- students have other classes, work and care obligations, and lead busy lives, without the privileges that come with being a tenured professor.
Due dates are important, and there are consequences to missing some of them, but what is the real consequence of a student submitting work late in my class? It may be slightly less convenient for me? Modified self-grading has really eased my grading burden significantly- I get to provide comments only, in conversation with students’ own self-grading reflections. I have heard some instructors offer different deadlines based on how much feedback students would like- the later they submit work, the less feedback they get, but the work is always accepted. Any inconvenience to me is far outweighed by the fact that I get to say, and really mean, that it is never too late to catch up in my class. If a student is willing to do the work, then I want them to do it, whether that’s in the schedule that I set up originally, or in the time that works best for them.
*Being late is still a jerk thing to do, and I’m honestly working on it. But I’ve had decades to improve, and am still not great at it, so extending the same flexibility to my students that I demand in my own professional life is the least I can do.