Deadlines: are they real?

Should I trust a deadline and consider it to be something real?  Around the end of term that is surely a question rolling through the minds of many students. There is a entire genre of student folk-advice on managing deadlines and the professors that impose them.  Here’s a few thoughts from the angle of a deadline guardian.

Deadlines are arbitrary. As such, they are also flexible. Just because of this don’t assume that you can avoid a deadline.  There are serious consequences for missing deadlines.  I’ve lost book contracts and publishing opportunities over deadlines.  I’ve missed planes, appointments, and social gatherings.  Just the same we all (well, maybe not all) of us push the boundaries of deadlines.  As someone on the both the giving and receiving end of deadline pushing I’d like to suggest some general principles and observations on deadlines and how to approach them.

1) Deadlines are real. They are also arbitrary, but only within an abstract sense of that word. As a professor I can set the deadlines for assignments when I want – so arbitrary. However, I must have grades in by a set date (though I know of folks who push those deadlines too). When I set deadlines for assignments I take into account my thinking on what other people are doing, the administrative deadlines I face, the amount of student work I am assigning, the length of time I give students notice, and how long it will take me to mark the assignments.

2) Some profs appear ‘nice.’  We are the ones who get asked more frequently for deadline extensions. Please don’t confuse our outwardly calm and pleasant demeanour to mean we are totally okay with extending your deadline.  We might be wondering why the x@#l you aren’t asking Professor Holiday for an extension instead (maybe you are?).  My niceness might be a product of 25+ years of observations noting that even with that extra time the only person being fooled is the deadline pusher and the final product is no different than it would have been if done on time.

3) You have arrived at this point because of timing. Most related deadlines are known well enough in advance to be able to comply with them effortlessly.  From the vantage point of the first class of term  the end of the term deadline feels like a lifetime away (until it hits hard with half a paper completed).  Most undergrad papers can be completed competently within 3-5 days – start to finish.  In a regular school term a student has at least 85 days to prepare.  There should be no issue.  Of course there are: other courses, personal relationships, families, recreation, worry, anxiety, work, etc….  All the more reason to follow the advice that each student knows too well: plan.

4) Don’t explain, just ask. This is my most important piece of advice.  The very act of asking raises doubts about the veracity of your explanation.  So it is best to simply say “may I have have an extension please.” Then provide an explanation only if asked.  Guardians of deadlines hear all sorts of explanations.  We become jaded to the genre of excuse of which there are several varieties.  Please note that we try to consider these explanations at face value.  Yet, after years of hearing the same variations play like bad mall music you might appreciate we have lost our sense of wonder a tiny bit. Just the same, these are often stories based in reality and thus we do take them as they are given.

  • The sob story: These heart wrenching tales focus on the ways in which an immeasurable sense of grief has overtaken the writer and frozen their capacity to work.  One of my favourite versions comes from a friend who would explain to his profs that his girlfriend was pregnant and he wasn’t sure if he could hold on in school, he needed some space to deal with things….  At the time I wondered, did those profs ever count how many times this ‘girlfriend’ seemed to get pregnant? There are grief laden events in people’s lives that do affect us and disrupt our normal processes; I’m just not convinced that they occur at  quite at the rate that I observe as a deadline guardian.
  • The I can do better story: This is a variant that always puzzles me.  I appreciate that the storyteller here is wanting to convey the message: “I am a great student and under normal circumstances would have had this in on time but its not up to the quality I know I can produce so I need more time.” This student wants to reassure the deadline guardian that they mean no offence, that in fact their request of additional time is made out of respect for the deadline guardian. Interesting idea, not sure I agree with the sentiment. Ultimately this story reveals a kind of abdication of personal ownership over one’s own actions and a lack of reality – all things in life are time limited and we will never have enough to do the kind of job we think we can.
  • Professor Holliday assigned his paper for the same day story. I would respectfully ask that any student with a variant of this story seriously reconsider telling it. Put your self into Professor Nice’s shoes.  What do you think are the inside thoughts are when we hear this story?  Are we being respected or rolled over?  This is one of the worst excuse stories (irrespective of whether or not it is true).
  • The beyond my control story:  Circumstances beyond my control prevented me from completing the assignment by the specified day. This all purpose story is often stated in such a way that the listener is usually afraid to ask just what those circumstances are. These are one of the rarest stories deadline pushers tell. Thus, it  lends credence to the notion they may also be the most honest.  This storyline could involve any number of unstated disruptions that might range from too many nights at the pub to a tragic accident.  I suppose one could conclude that this might be the preferred story to deploy if one were in the need to deploy an excuse.

At the end of the day I would urge students to consider deadlines real.  Plan your term and drop courses if you can’t manage them and all the other things you are doing.  Also, don’t think that there should be no consequences for not getting it done on time.  That is the real driver behind the excuses, a refusal to accept the consequences that come from not making a deadline.  Asking for an extension is really about asking to avoid the consequences of not meeting a deadline.  I’m not that concerned about people missing deadlines – that’s your decision. Students are free to miss a deadline, but just as in other parts of life, there are consequences.

The best approach is, as my friend and mentor was often fond of saying, “It doesn’t have to be good, it has to be done Friday.”