On deadlines and what to do about them

Last week was reading week at my institution. Mostly, my inbox was refreshingly quiet. But, in the smattering of student emails I did receive, there was a common theme: deadlines. What, precisely, was required before the deadline? What are the penalties for a missed deadline? Could I extend the deadline? So. Many. Questions. About. Deadlines.

Except for one my larger courses, the classes I teach involve essay- or project-based evaluation. So, the last six weeks of term are brimming with deadlines: proposal deadlines, group work deadlines, final project deadlines (oh my)!

A scrabble board with students’ least favourite word: “deadline”

For the last few semesters, I have been progressively flummoxed by what to do with deadlines.

The vectors of my problem are thus:

  • Deadlines are a necessary of writing projects. Whether submitted for evaluation or publication, writing projects need to be completed—and ideally sent into the world—at some point.
  • Deadlines are a centrifugal force in the operations of a university calendar. Application deadlines! Deadlines for course withdrawal! Deadlines for grade submission! So. Many. Deadlines.
  • Every writer, everywhere on the planet, has failed to hit a deadline at some point. Okay, maybe, not every writer. But, most writers. Because, writing processes are amorphous. And, for many folks, writing is balanced alongside the rest of life. Which means: deadlines missed.

And, in my role as a university teacher, all these issues bump into one another. So, setting and enforcing deadlines turns out to be part of the evaluative aspect of my job – whether I like it or not!

Charlie Brown expresses Kelsey’s precise feeling about deadlines.

And here’s the thing: except for some of my professionally oriented classes—where writing to deadlines is part of the curriculum—being able to submit work on time often is often separate from the course’s learning objectives.

Knowing this, I have occasionally wondered: Is there an alternative?

Is there a different, better, way of handling due dates?

Then, I remember one of my early experiences as a teaching assistant.

The professor in charge did not believe in deadlines. Work was assigned throughout semester and submission times were suggested, but students did not have to submit any work until the end of semester. I thought: What a radical —or at least interesting— idea!

In practice, not so much. For starters, a cluster of students received no feedback during semester. On top of that, several students left all their work until the end of the course and then ran out of time to complete it, resulting in them failing a very passable class.

One could argue—as the professor did—that this was the students’ fault. They should have managed their time better! Which, yes, sure. But, students exist in a neo-liberal schooling system, where they are expected to divide their energy between multiple courses that are not at all coordinated alongside the rest of their lives. So, of course that deadline-less work gets pushed back! And, also, you know: it’s not great pedagogy to give students zero feedback or grades throughout semester.

Knowing that I need to have them, I have experimented with various deadline strategies over time:

  •             I have tried firmer deadlines with stricter penalties.
  •             I have offered students the opportunity to choose between deadline dates.
  •             I have reduced or scaled late penalties.
  •             I have given students a built-in grade period between deadlines and penalties.
  • I have offered a “late token” for the semester.
  •             I have tried very hard to reduce the shame around late submissions.

Thus far, I have found that policies that are too strict over-emphasize the importance of hitting deadlines and cause undue stress.

Policies that are too flexible, on the other hand, tend to get ignored, which eventually leads to marking build up for me it also put students in a precarious submission when university-wide grade submission deadlines come into play.

Currently, I have landed on a system that combines several of these strategies. I offer a built-in grace period on all submissions. I also have a scaled penalty system wherein marks are deducted more significantly near the deadline but are reduced as time goes on.

I also have a generous accommodation policy that supports student and helps them distinguish between unforeseen, or reasonably challenging circumstances, and poor time management.

Light green accurately reflects how Kelsey would grade her own deadline performance

But, deadlines are still causing me problems.

In one of my project-based classes—where hitting deadlines is part of the learning objectives—students complete a writing assignment which is, then, edited by their peers.

Because of the state of deadlines more generally, I’m having a heck of a time communicating the difference between deadlines. Because, let’s be honest: in both the classroom and outside of it, some deadlines matter and other do not.

At university, most work will receive a grade … eventually. This is the same in the professional world, where many missed deadlines don’t have real world effects, beyond annoying someone. (Consider, for example, how infrequently academics hit writing and editing deadlines!)

Don’t tell my students, but the secret of deadlines is that most of them don’t actually matter

That is not the case in this class. Editors need work to complete projects, and the class moves quickly because there is lots to do.

“These deadlines,” I say, motioning at the syllabus exaggeratedly. “Do matter. Because they impact someone that isn’t the teacher.”

The students nod seriously. And then several students submit their work late. Which: sighs.

The missed deadlines are throwing some roadblocks in the class, which is making extra work for me.

At the same time, as semester rolls onward, there does seem to be progress.

On this last round of assignments, I had more than one student commit to submitting work to their peers but ask me for an extension in terms of my evaluation of that work. This suggests that they are beginning to be able to differentiate between different types of deadlines.

So, even though its rockier than I’d like, perhaps allowing students to experience practical—rather than evaluative—effects of missing due dates is contributing to their learning.

And it leaves me wondering if building in practical dimensions to work submission might better support students writing processes more generally.

As per usual, any thoughts on how you handle deadlines are most welcome!