Extensions

It’s that time of year. Canadian universities are done, but the CEGEPs and universities in some other regions march on, while teachers and students alike battle to make it through to the bitter end. Everyone’s tired, everything is due, and the result is an awful lot of extension requests. Some students have 3 tests in one week, others have 3 papers due the same day. “Could you possible give me just a few extra days,” they ask, one by one, as they fall into the empty chair beside my desk. Make an exception for one of them, and you have to make an exception for all. So what do you do?

 

Everyone has a different policy. Some of my colleagues flat out refuse to grant extensions, except in cases of medical or family emergencies that come complete with the requisite paperwork. There is something to be said for this approach since it follows the rules that most of us lay out in our syllabi. That said, many other teachers are willing to make exceptions, and they create a secondary list of criteria for granting extensions. Some people only grant extensions to the class as a whole, forcing students to lobby their peers and reach a consensus about what is fair and what is not. Then there are the people who grant individual extensions and evaluate the situation on a case-by-case basis – workload, stress, or how long a student has waited all become factors in this scenario.

 

Personally, I’ve tried a variety of approaches. When I first started teaching I tried being a hard-ass. I swore that I would only grant extensions if they had documentation proving that they needed it. But then that first student came to see me, and I discovered that I am – in actual fact – a marshmallow. As long as you come to see me more than 24 hours before the assignment it due, your odds are pretty damn good that you’ll get what you want (the exception being if you’ve already asked for another extension earlier in the semester).

 

My memory is not usually that good, but one thing I can vividly remember is the only two times I ever asked for an extension. Both times it was because of workload, and both times I was denied. I was always an over-achiever as an undergrad, so I would dutifully map out all my due dates into my day planner at the start of every year. A couple of times I quickly realized that I was headed for trouble, despite my best efforts to make do. So I went to see my professors to plead my case. The response that greeted me was the standard: “I don’t give extensions,” and “if it’s about workload, why are you coming to see me and not going to see someone else?”

 

Now that I’m a teacher myself, I understand all too well why these professors didn’t want to give me the extension. But if I think hard enough, I can also remember the hot-red rage caused by being denied – something that happened more than a decade ago now. As I said, I tended to be a good student and these were not last-minute requests or requests that resulted from poor time management. They were the result of a full-time course load, working 30 hours a week, and being absolutely belligerent about my desire both to sleep and to produce good written material. Some students are poor planners, yes; but not all of them are. Sometimes, the workload of a college or university level student is simply too much. So every time someone asks me for an extension, my memory of these exchanges comes back, and I say “nnnnnn-OK.”

 

I know some students use and abuse my tendency to grant extensions, but I try to look at it like the justice system: better a guilty person go free than send an innocent one to jail. I also just can’t buy into the “out there in the real world” ideology that dictates students should learn to deal with the occasional shitstorm that the world will throw their way, preferably sooner rather than later, because life has been “too damn cushy” for them up until now. For starters, I work in the same institution in which these kids are studying, so if they don’t live in the “real world,” neither do I. I’m not convinced that’s the case. More importantly, when the inevitable clusterf*ck does occur in one’s “grown-up life,” there are always people that have your back. Sure, no one’s going to change your deadlines when work is piling up, you have to move, and you and your significant other just broke up – but most of the time, no one’s going to tell you to suck it up and just deal with it either. More likely, a friend or colleague is going to help you move, cook you some food, or at the very least, buy you some booze. And since no one is going to give these kids a bottle of whiskey any time soon, I tend to throw them a bone and just give them the extension when the crisis hits.

 

Don’t get me wrong, for the most part, I respect the different approaches that my colleagues take when it comes to this issue – as long as they are consistent and avoid being condescending. My sense of things is that students are fine with whatever you do, so long as the rules are clear and things are fair. Sally will take the late penalty, or stay up all night getting the paper done, so long as Jonny has to do the same thing. And today’s students even take the “real world” comments a lot better than I ever did.

 

In my classroom, however, I suspect I’m going to keep giving individual extensions, even when – as was the case this past week – it means that I only get half of the papers in on time. I like the opportunity for learning that the one-on-one extension-request meetings produce. These conversations force my students to articulate what went wrong and help teach them that sometimes you need to ask for help – and ask in such a way that it acknowledges you are asking for a favour and not making a demand. They also give me a space to help students figure out how to avoid similar problems in the future or, at the very least, teach them that they have to seek assistance earlier in the term. When I have this kind of a meeting with a student, it tends to open up a dialogue, and I hear from them more regularly because they do start coming to me for study tactics, help with essay outlines, or questions they had about course material.

 

I’m not sure there is a “right” way to deal with extension requests. But I’d love to hear what others are up to and what people think of my particular approach. As always, feel free to leave comments below and let me know!

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One thought on “Extensions

  1. In almost a decade of university teaching as both a TA and a Lecturer, I don’t think I ever denied a request for an extension. At least, I didn’t as long as it was made in advance of the deadline.

    My policy was to have a very strict late policy with deductions accruing immediately after the deadline. But deductions were low enough (3% per day) that some students strategically decided to take a small penalty in order to have more time. There’s a lesson in time management and cost balance there too. At a certain point specified in the syllabus, assignments would no longer be accepted. I made no mention of or discussion of extensions.

    BUT, if students came to me in advance asking for an extension, like you, I saw this as a valuable moment of one-on-one contact in which I could get insights into their work habits, time management, assignment organization and research. We would talk about these things and discuss ways they could succeed. If they still wanted an extension, I would ask them to set the date. No one ever took advantage. If anything, I sometimes suggested to them how unrealistic the self-imposed deadline might be, and we negotiated something a little longer. Rarely if ever did students violate the new deadlines that they negotiated. Again, another valuable lesson learned through doing.

    Part of the reason for my generous (if officially unspoken) late policy was the amazing generosity I had had from my own undergraduate professors. Like you, I was driven to succeed. Sometimes I was an overachiever and took on too much. In the rare instances when I couldn’t make it happen, I went to them, and was never denied an extension. My professors knew I was dedicated and that I’d simply hit a roadblock for one reason or another. And when my requests for extensions were of a personal nature, I was never asked to produce proof. I was taken at my word with no questions asked. When I began teaching I wanted to extend the same respect to my students. To ask for proofs immediately signaled that I didn’t trust their word. And, really, if some kind had just suffered the death of a loved one, I wasn’t interested in forcing them to collect documentation!

    To be honest, I really didn’t have the time to stress over the rare student who might take advantage of me. Life’s too short. Instead, I focused on the students who found themselves overwhelmed by new experiences, learning how to manage their time, or simply ones who happened on something that excited them as a subject for a paper too late to finish in time. All offered us both further opportunities to learn.

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