The Pseudos of Due Dates

The word pseudos in ancient Greek meant an untrue belief and was used to characterize a wide array of falsehoods: lies, delusions, biases, ignorance but also, interestingly enough, works of art like epic poetry and drama. Indeed, a philosopher like Socrates made it his life’s mission to extract pseudos from thinking and hold it up to the light of reason. Plato went so far as to suggest the exile of the poets in The Republic. These Greeks argued that any belief failing to meet reason’s demand for consistency, logic and evidence ought to be scrapped. And just recently I have scrapped a bit of false belief about the pedagogical benefit of firm deadlines.

A colleague of mine, who is a bit of a Socrates-type, occasionally drops by my office. Inevitably we end up kvetching about the more onerous parts of the job. So a while back I was complaining about students who don’t meet deadlines, and he responded by asking, “Why do you need deadlines?”

“What do you mean? You must have a deadline or students will never learn time management.”

“But they already know how to manage their time,” he said. “You aren’t letting them do it. You’re managing it for them.”

It instantly struck me that he was right. What logic or evidence supported my merciless adherence to deadlines? Did I know for a fact that they taught time management? I hadn't a clue, but I nevertheless have believed for years that deadlines were essential. It took only 10 seconds of reflection to see how wrong this idea is. My students are enrolled for anywhere from 14-18 credits with instructors who never coordinate the scheduling of their assignments. Moreover, nearly all the students work and, in many cases, have family obligations that are equally demanding. So what time is left for them to manage? About the only thing they can control is what obligation gets to suffer this week.

So I have been experimenting with new ways for students to hand in work that offer greater flexibility. I tried the idea of "due weeks" for a while, but over the past year I've moved to a system with even more flexibility. Here are its main features. First, anything that comes in on time can be revised as many times as the students like. In other words, if they hand in anything at all at the due date--a single page, even a paper with just their name on it--they have until the end of the course to revise it. Think of it as a place marker that signals to me that they intend to do the work. This allows them to manage their work load by shifting my assignment to a less hectic time. If they hand in nothing at all, it's a zero. There's no going back or make-up work.

I have also tried to build in more opportunities to score points than are needed to pass the course. So, for example, the completion of daily response questions is not a daily requirement in my freshmen honors seminar. They are free to turn in as many or as few as they want. There is a set number they need to complete for an A, B, C, etc., but it won’t necessarily imperil their chances of passing if they decide to skip a day or even a week. They do have to plan ahead and decide which responses they plan to answer given what's happening with the rest of their schedule. In other words, they get to manage their time, their workload and even their final grade.

You might think that students would take advantage of this system by place marking everything and dumping it all on me on the last day of class, but that hasn’t happened. Most who put in place markers turn in the work within 10 days of the original deadline, or they wait until they have a free weekend and revise three or four place-marked assignments. More than once, too, they’ve told me how much they appreciate the flexibility.

It has also somewhat alleviated the chore of grading. I used to get hit with periodic waves of essays that I felt pressured to have back in a week. My office would contain oppressive-looking three foot high stalagmites of ungraded work. The papers don't come in waves now; they are spread more evenly throughout the semester. To be sure, my stack is at any moment an inch or so deep, but my office is happily free of stalagmites these days.

This system may not work for everyone, but so far I like it.

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