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    In Praise of the Late Term Paper

    It's that time of year again, or actually one of the two times each year, when semesters end and bleary-eyed college professors scale mountains of ungraded papers and exams. One of my friends claims that he can track the academic calendar by the crescendo of professors griping on Facebook and Twitter about bad papers, worse excuses, and outrageous examples of student entitlement. Some of this is necessary foxhole camaraderie, some of it verges on the unprofessional, and some does a lot more than verge. Too many lame papers and excuses will put most people in an ugly mood. But I want to give two cheers to one group of students who never get any love at this time of year: the students whose papers are late because they take the assignments seriously.

    I like an on-time paper as much as the next person. Meeting deadlines are an important adult skill that students should be learning. Of course, I admire the excellent students who always do their best work by the stated deadline. That is intrinsically admirable. And when every student is late, it becomes impossible to help any of them; the greatest obstacle to rescuing students from their last-minute emergencies is the sheer number of other last-minute student emergencies. 

    But all that said:

    I've read some papers in my time that should have been late. I have read papers that have been turned in on the due date or earlier but that the writer hadn't even begun to work on seriously. Oh, those papers were presentable enough. They weren't full of comical errors. There was nothing to quote on Facebook. The margins were correct. But the papers were nothing. The writers had done as little work on them as they felt they could get away with, and avoided most of all the labor of thinking hard about anything.

    Some of those papers would have been good papers at a lower level. The writers just stuck with what had worked before, handing in a polished introductory-class paper in an advanced class, or a meticulous high-school paper in a college class. Faced with the problem of an assignment that explicitly demanded a rather different paper, some worked tirelessly to misconstrue the assignment and find some loophole that would justify writing a simpler, more familiar assignment. And then, hoping for extra points, the writers handed those easier pieces of writing in early. They preferred to be judged on promptness rather than thoughtfulness, and many of them reasoned that there was no more room to improve their essays, so spending a few more days won't help. The saddest part is, they were right. They had set themselves elementary writing tasks, using skills they mastered years before, and executed those tasks well. It is like watching a high school senior filling in a coloring book, or listening to a forty-five-year-old playing "Chopsticks" on the piano. There is no way to do those tasks better, which is why I did not assign those tasks in the first place.

    Those are the most demoralizing papers that I read. The mess and chaos of students trying to write something that they are not yet quite capable of bringing off does not bother me. But the orderly, sealed-off neatness of a paper that refuses to learn or grow makes me ask myself what I'm doing in the first place. That refusal is polite but insistent and unbendable. And sometimes the only thing that breaks through that stubborn insistence is a grade that makes the student upset.

    On the other hand, some of the students who do accept the assignment and try to do it honestly find themselves struggling. They are trying to work out new skills, in response to new demands, and that doesn't happen on a predictable timeline. The work is messy. Progress is non-linear. So sometimes the deadline rolls around while the student is still up to her or his elbows in wet clay, trying to find the piece's shape. Those students aren't late because they're lazy. They're late because they are working hard. Giving them a few extra days to complete an assignment is productive, because they will use that time productively. Their papers will genuinely be much better a few days after the deadline than they could have been on the appointed day. An extension leads to a better product.

    Not that every student who needs such an extension will ask for one. Some do not feel entitled to one, and some students will simply abandon an entire class in despair because they don't have a paper written on time. Of course, the same class will contain some squeaky wheels who are trying to get themselves as greasy as possible, and who will have no qualms about asking for all kinds of special arrangements. Some of the more demanding students prompt eye-rolls, but the only real harm they do is distract the professor from the students who are suffering in silence. It's important to shake your head clear at the end of the semester and look for the students who are in danger because they haven't asked you for anything. Many times, those students are the ones who generally enjoy less privilege in their daily lives: more likely to be the first in the family to go to college, more likely to have gone to a troubled high school, more likely to find tuition a major burden. Those students don't expect to get any breaks because they usually haven't gotten any. They read the rules in your syllabus, which some of their more affluent classmates simply view as initial negotiating positions, and take those rules seriously. If they can't meet a deadline, they just assume they're done for, because that's consistent with their previous experience. The only way to persuade them differently is to show them differently, and you can't wait for them to come to you.


    How do you pick them out from the crowd, Doc?

    Which ones?

    The ones who need to be chased down are obvious if you look. They didn't hand in work, and they haven't said boo about it. The trick is to go talk to them before you have to turn in an F grade.

    The ones who need an extension because they're working harder don't get extensions I wouldn't offer to other people. (If someone wanted to write a minimal-effort paper and ask for an extension to write it, I would probably grant that extension. But if I got a nothingburger paper a week late, I wouldn't go especially easy on it.)

    But at the end of a semester you usually do have a sense of how students approach their work if there have been a number of earlier writing assignments. People who put real intellectual effort into the first two papers are likely to take the final paper seriously, too.

    The hard workers.

    Unless I misunderstood you, it sounded like the hard workers often didn't ask for an extension because they didn't feel entitled to it--but then took more drastic ways out.

    How do you let them know that they can have an extension if they need one to finish their paper?

    I guess, in the beginning, you don't know, but later, you can make some good educated guesses.

    Well, the ones who won't take an extension are a subset of the people who could use one. Some do ask.

    The ones who don't ask identify themselves on deadline day by not turning anything in. (Of course, some total flakes do the same thing.) I can't offer unasked extensions to selected students in advance, but I can be quick to chase down the good students who haven't given me something.

    In college, I was very proud of never asking for an extension, ever. (They were given out pretty freely.) One of the hardest lessons I had to learn in graduate school was that turning something in on time was not, in and of itself, a virtue. Doing quality work was more important--assuming you were acting in good faith and negotiated something reasonable and mutually-acceptable with your instructor (a few days, a week).

    Yes, ideally you should meet every deadline with great work. But a great paper turned in a couple of days late is better than a half-baked one turned in on time. This idea infuriates some people, for reasons I don't quite understand (see the recent tempest here), but as your post notes, the primary point of a major college-level assignment isn't to train you to be a dutiful rule-follower but to inspire you to learn, grow, and improve, and that doesn't always happen on a schedule.

    In my early days as a draughtsman, I learned that clients would pester you for drawings: "I don't care if they aren't perfect, we need whatever you've got, right now!" They would shake your hand and smile as you handed them the bluelines. A few hours later it was phone call after phone call, "Where's this? Where's that? These are no good!"

    If you took the time necessary to think it all through, and double-check everything, they would complain and complain until drawings were delivered, but then you'd get some peace and quiet as you rushed to finish the next job.


    Appraisal reports work the same way. Eventually you have to stop answering their phone calls in order to finish their report....then they leave messages that they are ready to sue you and you ignore these...then you finally Fed Ex the report, thinking that maybe they'll pay and maybe they won't....and they become:

    blissfully happy....they have never seen such a fine job...they never expected this....they are going to recommend you to all and sundry, etc....

    P.S. This all happens because they inevitably change the job from how they explained it at the start. If the job was as they explained it when they first contacted you, then you would have been able to complete it within the time you estimated. But the latter never happens; they always add more stuff or don't have what they said they had or don't exactly need what they said they need, but something different.....and you think: if you could charge correctly for your time when things change like attorneys do, you would be well off and not broke like you are...wink

    Thanks for this; it's been ages since I was one of those students but it's still good to have it, better late than never.

    I should add, though, that when I was a T.A. I did see the other side. And I'll say this: you've got to admit that some of the excuses are hilarious and one wants to share them because of that.

    And grading papers (along with some tough love from initial profs in grad school) made me learn about myself that I was one of those eternal researchers who wasn't made to draw myself a deadline where I have to sit down and write up what I learned. Still have this trouble doing appraisal reports (see comment upthread.) Getting it perfect takes as long as it takes. Perfection takes until you're beyond fluent in whatever you're doing, it takes almost until you're bored with the topic, that's the thing....

    I'd like to add something that is sort of off topic but I want to share it. The one thing I remember most from grading exams in particular, not papers, is how astoundingly, jaw-droppingly smart and talented some people are under pressure, way way above everyone else. You're going along reading the same essay answer over and over and over, some clearly have studied a lot and others clearly haven't, and then you get that one, the one that is so far above the others that it just knocks your grading curve all out of wack....

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