Wednesday, December 18, 2013

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.

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