This article by Ellen Boucher (the title is a little bit misleading) has provoked some thoughts. http://chronicle.com/article/It-s-Time-to-Ditch-Our/237530
Firstly, I can see the value of Boucher’s argument, especially for students who are experiencing tertiary education for the first time, the ‘first generation’ in their family to attend an institution of higher education. I can also appreciate Boucher’s point about students who are experiencing health difficulties, And, even if one is not in hose categories, there are many reasons why asking for an extension can be extremely, extremely difficult. In the four years of my BMus, I had to ask for one extension, and it was agonising. As it happens, I had very good reason for asking for it, and the lecturer granted it immediately. After this, I wondered why I had sweated and quivered so much in the first place.
However, ‘hard deadlines’ are things that will continue to dominate lives after education: both in real life and in work, deadlines of one form or another are imposed by external forces, and by oneself. For musicians, performances are a form of deadline: we know the date of the concert, exam, audition or recording, and it is our responsibility to make sure that we are prepared appropriately to give a good performance on that date and time. If one is playing a concert for which 400 tickets have been sold in advance, it is difficult, if not impossible, to say ‘No, this is too much, I can’t do this on Thursday, I’ll do it on Saturday instead.’ In this scenario, learning to deal with the pressures of the approaching date is part of the learning process at music college or university. In fact, every lesson, performance in class, or rehearsal is a form of deadline. It can be tough, but one needs to learn processes for dealing with the toughness. Hopefully, supportive teachers and staff can help with this. Sometimes things go wrong, and sometimes people cannot cope. Again though, learning to pull through is useful, even if it’s devastating at the time.
In terms of written assignments, particularly in courses with large student groups, deadlines are imposed for a reason, because there is a whole chain of deadlines in place, which many people need to meet, at departmental and faculty level, and then at university level. Assignment deadlines are not imposed simply to place extreme stress of students. The tutor or course director needs to meet these deadlines for grade entry etc. The tutor or course director may also be teaching several different courses, so sets deadlines so that they can meet further deadlines. It’s all part of a much bigger system, and whether or not one likes that, organisations need systems so that everybody – teachers and administrators – can do their work. And part of the reason why there are assignment deadlines is so that students, also, can learn about these processes. It’s to teach about time management, learning to work out how to complete a project on time, and how to find one’s own way of working effectively. Putting in place a grace period for students’ work is compassionate, but if a teacher has three courses, each with 40 students, and has to deal with the two deadlines for each course, that makes for more administration, more time spent marking and giving feedback. If other tutors are involved in the same course, there are implications for them as well, especially if they are on fixed-term, fixed-hour contracts. Difficulties can also arise if one teacher imposes a strict deadline, and another allows a grace period: it makes one look compassionate, the other a martinet, and that isn’t much fun.
Speaking purely from my own experience – that is, as a person who has a lot of deadlines all over the place (concerts, programme notes, editing projects, reviews, thesis-writing…) – I know that deadlines can still induce huge panic and despair. No matter how carefully I try to plan, things never quite go as planned. Even setting pre-deadline-deadlines (‘this piece is due with the organisers on 28 July …. my personal deadline is 20 July’) never quite works, because I know that only the organisers’ deadline is the one that really exists, and I can’t trick my indolent mind. However, as I know that (a) being paid and (b) being hired again in the future depends on that deadline, I must meet the deadline, come what may. Obviously, as a student, one doesn’t get paid for getting an assignment in on time, but the fact that grades are chopped for lateness is akin to payment and re-hiring. If you are capable of writing A-grade essays, but consistently submit them late, resulting in B- or C, this will affect your academic record, and in turn, your chance of getting scholarships, or other forms of help. And, unfortunately, scholarship applications normally have strictly enforced deadlines (as do job applications), with no grace period. If you want the money/job, you have to be on time. It’s a minimum requirement: the first step to winning the race, is, as many coaches say, turning up for the race. I understand that some people don’t like these competitive metaphors, or the notion of winning, but the same applies to achieving a new best time, or making any sort of improvement.
I ask myself, who am I to comment on Boucher’s article? I am not a lecturer, and I am not in control of any courses. However, I do have a lot of experience in teaching, tutoring, preparing people for exams and performances, and getting them ready in time. Or, rather, making sure that I teach them to get themselves ready in time. Rather than give a grace period, it would seem to me to be more productive (and ultimately more helpful for the student) to give them the tools to get themselves ready, and incorporate this sort of learning into courses, so that students are at least thinking about – if not actively working towards – assignment completion in a measure and consistent way throughout their course. At least in the early stages of the university student’s life, this can make tasks seem more manageable, and take the mysteries out of the research and writing processes. The secondary/high school experience does not really prepare first-year university students for essay writing, especially, it is a new skill to learn (which it was not even when I was in the first year of my undergraduate degree) for many students, so they need help with this aspect, but not fuzzy deadlines. Skills learnt in first year can be used in second year, and so it goes on …and on … and on…. So, in conclusion, ditching the deadlines is a very short-term solution to a long-term issue.