how to abolish deadlines

This is a post I have been meaning to write for ages, but I was finally spurred into action by this episode of Big Mood, Little Mood with host Daniel M. Lavery and guest Divya Victor. On the podcast, they give advice to an anonymous letter writer who, as a university instructor, is struggling to deal with increasing plagiarism while also trying not to be a cop. Lavery and Victor’s advice is spot-on, but I want to give some much, much more specific advice on how to cut down hugely on plagiarism, cheating, and other academic problem behaviors.

alt: a scribbly MS paint drawing; in the background, a laptop screen shows an hourglass running out. In the foreground, Kirby is panicking

Abolish deadlines.

What? you might say. So they’re just turning stuff in whenever? No one would get anything done!

Not true, I say unto you. How do I know? Because I’ve done it for the last seven terms of teaching.

First I’m going to give you the run-down of what this looks like on the student side (including my syllabus language, which you are welcome to copy word for word! But perhaps send me a nice email in case I ever get to make a tenure case somewhere). Then I’m going to tell you how this works out mechanically for me as an instructor. I’ve had a chance to trial-and-error it a bit, and I can edit this post to include FAQs if there are any Qs that get Frequently A’ed.

A syllabus with no due dates?

Here’s my syllabus language about how this works:

My late-work policy is that I will grade anything I can whenever you get it to me. No questions asked. Deadlines are included on the syllabus and Moodle as a guideline — I don’t recommend leaving everything until Week 12 and then having a really bad week. But there will be no penalties for turning things in at any time. The only real deadline is my ability to grade your work before grades are due, so keep that in mind.

That’s it. Really! Now, there are dates when stuff is strongly suggested to be turned in. This is because I will keep moving through my planned lecture/teaching schedule at a mostly steady pace. Students know from the syllabus when each thing is going to happen. If they skip Chapter 1 Homework then try to go back to do it while we’re already on Chapter 3, they know that’s going to be a pain in the butt!

Here’s how I talk to them about it on the first day of class, and advice I give them (which has worked pretty much every time they follow it):

  • Stuff being a few hours or a day late is fine. If it’s more than a week late, you might not get thorough feedback on the assignment without coming to office hours. This is to keep the grading work manageable for me (and TAs when I have them). (Note: I tell them this directly because it is actually important for students to understand that teaching is labor, and that our relationship is one constrained by labor on both sides.)
  • If you get really behind, ask for help! You can always just come hang out and do your homework in my office hours, that’s what they’re for!
  • If you’re behind, check with your classmates — you’re almost definitely not the only one! I’ve had groups of students who started working together on late work mid-semester (“Snails Club”) who found that it was WAY easier to catch up and feel confident in their work, and the back half of the semester was much easier when they had a support network! (Note: I allow students to work together on any assignment as long as they credit who they worked with, and make it very easy to tell what was written up by one person vs. what was written up collaboratively.)

When, inevitably, one or two students do get really behind, here’s what happens:

  • I reach out to them first if possible. I say something along the lines of “I notice I haven’t received any assignments from you in a few weeks, and I just wanted to check if everything is okay. Let me know if you need anything!” Sometimes they beat me to it; I usually try to send out the check-in emails around midterms.
  • Once I’ve checked in, over email or (my preference) a meeting, I reassure the student that they’re not in trouble, and ask if they want my help making a plan to catch up. (They usually do.) The plan generally goes thusly:
  • First, wait until all extracurricular disruptions are dealt with. Don’t try to do this while you’re still sick, or still caring for a family member, or anything else. If there are ongoing disruptive circumstances that won’t go away by the end of the term, let’s start talking about other options like dropping or taking an incomplete. I talk to all of my students about options like switching their grade to pass/fail at this point — it’s pretty much always a good idea.
  • Then, once you’re well enough to start approaching the class material again, find some study buddies as soon as you reasonably can. See above, “Snails Club.” There might already be one formed you can join! Snails Clubs have historically been very very welcoming and kind groups of students, so don’t worry about them snubbing you.
  • Don’t try to work in linear order. Do triage. In my Syntax 1, we drop the lowest homework grade. Look over the homeworks and decide ahead of time which one looks like a pain in the butt, and don’t do that one (unless you finish everything else). Start with the homework assignment that’s relevant to the most recent class you’ve attended.
  • Don’t try to do it all in a crazy sprint. Do not! We’re going to make a schedule where you’re doing at most a couple homeworks a week, never all ten (or however many) in a row. If it’s so late in the semester that this isn’t technically possible, we’d better talk about doing an Incomplete instead.
  • Do not lose sleep. Take weekends. All your usual human needs still apply, and you will not learn the material if you’re sleep-deprived and burnt out. I would much rather that you get some of the material, and actually retain those brain cells. A C+ and you slept every night is so so much better than a B- but you did three all-nighters and lost some of your life force.

When students take all of my advice as given above, they usually catch up! If not, it’s for a good reason! My class is not the most important thing in everyone’s lives, and I get that — it is absolutely nonsensical for me to take it personally if someone decides “no yeah I would rather get a C in Syntax because I’m putting that effort into my dope ass poetry class instead.” That’s their choice as autonomous individuals! My job as an instructor is to make it as reasonably possible as I can for them to get a grade that accurately reflects their effort and learning, and for them to do the amount of learning that they want to do!

This “deadlines are just sort of guidelines” approach has been working extremely well for me for the last two-ish years, both in that my students are less stressed and more attuned to the actual goal of the work (learning!) and in that I have had to deal with many fewer issues around academic dishonesty of any kind. It simply removes one of the biggest motivations for “panic plagiarism,” that last-minute panic where students believe that turning anything in on-time is the only thing that matters.

But what about grading?

One thing I really appreciated about that BMLM episode, however, is the recognition from Lavery and Victor that university instructors are also laborers, and the question I get the most from colleagues when I talk about this approach is Isn’t that way more work for you? Chasing down all those late assignments?

Short answer: nope! I don’t chase down shit!

The thing about this method is that the majority of students do actually turn the stuff in at or around the suggested date. Late work kind of trickles in, in little waves. Other than my midterm check-in emails (which, by the way, I had to do before implementing this system too!) this system is not any more work than what I was doing before. I grade the same number of things! It averages out!

The trick is this: I just pick a day of the week, that’s my grading day, and I grade whatever has been turned in since my last grading day. For example, let’s say my grading day this semester is Monday. Both my classes turn stuff in on Thursdays/Fridays, so Monday is great — I get whoever turned stuff in within a few days of the deadline. I grade all of the on-time work, any late work I happen to find as I’m poking through the Moodle thingy, and that’s it!

The other important aspect is that I am up-front with students about how I do this work so they can plan around it. I tell them explicitly that the due-date is Friday because I want them to take the weekend off (as should we all!) but that I will do a round of grading on Mondays. If they turn something in on Saturday or Sunday, it gets graded at the same time with the fresh batch. If they turn something in Monday night after I’ve gone home, or Tuesday, then they’ll have to wait until next Monday for feedback. Being clear with them about my schedule means I don’t get emails asking when things will be graded. It also means I don’t have to shape my grading schedule around their homework schedule — what makes sense for them doesn’t always make sense for me!

The other thing I really like about this system is that it significantly reduces the amount that my students and I feel like we have to nag each other. I don’t have to nag them to turn stuff in by 12:01am or whatever, and they don’t have to nag me to grade stuff right away because they know when I’m likely to get to it. Win-win!

Anticipated FAQs:

Q: Does this scale to my big 200-person lecture class?

A: No, but those shouldn’t exist anyways. God, what are we even doing here. Hire a bunch more un/deremployed PhDs as tenure-teaching-track and pay us actual living wages to teach intro to 30 students at a time, how bout.

(Edit to add: I stand corrected! Thanks to twitter user amyfou for this thread about how this can actually scale, given the right circumstances)

https://twitter.com/amyfou/status/1440502248685981699

Q: But if I don’t make them turn stuff in on time, then they might turn stuff in late.

A: They do that anyways, this just removes the part where we have to be shitty to them about it. I turn stuff in late too! I bet you do as well! We’re all doing our best here.

Q: I don’t want to do this, it sounds annoying.

A: Then don’t? I’m not your boss?

Q: Doesn’t this make students try less hard or take the class less seriously?

A: Not in my experience thusfar. I still get a lot of emails telling me that they’re turning stuff in late, or asking for extensions. I used to send cheeky replies that said “Please check the syllabus policy on late work and get back to me” but that started to feel mean. I have to remind them a lot that they’re not going to get in trouble, and they should focus on using the work to LEARN SHIT instead of use it to try and stop me from, idk, yelling at them or whatever else has made them like this.

In general, I find that this whole business is only possible when I 1.) act like my students are autonomous adults who get to choose how to spend their time, and like they’re here (in my class) because they want to be here; and 2.) tell them so explicitly.

Q: I’m going to try this!

A: Awesome! Please let me know how it goes!!

That’s all! Thanks for reading! If you like my writing about how I teach, you might also enjoy this post about grading participation. If you like my writing about ~being an academic~ whatever that means, you might like my posts about writing a dissertation, writing a paper, and dealing with revisions. This work is supported by my ko-fi tips. You can also follow me on twitter :)

Dr. Conrod is a linguist and scholar sort of at large. They write about transgender stuff, the linguistics of pronouns, and ways to work with your brain.