To Accept Late Papers or Not?

Faux x-ray of a dog with math supplies and homework in its stomach


Duncan Moench

Image Credit: 

"Homework Evidence" by Glenn Jones

For whatever reason, perhaps due to my own misjudgment, many of my students are becoming increasingly – and overwhelmingly – sick right before their papers are due (some multiple times already this semester). This of course means that instead of spending valuable time preparing lessons or working on my own research, I am spending far too much time emailing back and forth with the student, creating new deadlines, and worrying whether to ask for doctor's notes. And if I ask for a note, do I ask only in the suspicious cases?

The whole activity turns me into a babysitter rather than a college instructor. And in the long run, does it do a student any good? When you are stick on a “real job” deadlines are rarely adjusted. Unless you're in critical condition, most of the time, you simply have to work through the pain and inconvenience.  

My policy is clearly stated on the syllabus. Late papers will be marked down half a letter grade for every day they are late, which would seem to be a reasonable enough penalty. On the first day of class, I warn (with a stern face) that if they are “genuinely” sick, they must email the moment they feel abnormal and this moment “cannot be hours before their paper is due." Students don't seem to hear any of this message about penalties or are exceptionally skilled at ignoring them; all they hear is “he accepts late papers.” I have left the window open and their procrastination can crawl right through. 

Students seem to instinctively know that if they email the day of, I can’t say, “No.” If I do, I’ll look like an ogre and am giving them clearance to burn me in their evaluations. I’ve created my own double bind—and something that benefits neither party.Could I require them to post on a blogg that they are sick and the reasons why? Would this use public pressure - and exposure - to curtail their negligence? 

Maybe, but for now I've had it -- and I won’t be accepting late work any more. And as Harry Truman said, “I’ll sleep fine knowing I did the right thing.” Dear Lord, I just compared late papers to possibly the greatest military tragedy in world history (and I would be on the wrong side of it); I really need a break.


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