how to abolish deadlines

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!

A syllabus with no due dates?

Here’s my syllabus language about how this works:

  • 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.)
  • 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.

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?

Anticipated FAQs:

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



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Kirby Conrod

Kirby Conrod


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.