Thursday, December 10, 2009

It's the Season of Excuses, and Inspiration

(From the December 10, 2009 Grand Haven Tribune)

Some people think of this time of the year as the holiday season. Or the end of the fall season and the beginning of the winter season. Or the season of love, joy, peace and so on.

All of that may be true. But it is also the season of excuses. That’s because final projects are due and final exams are happening on college campuses across the country. The excuses are coming in like a Canadian cold front.

I follow a group of professors on Twitter who maintain anonymity as “annoyedPRprof” so they can say what they really want to say to students. Here’s a sampling of some recently released frustrations:

  • “You have 891 points out of 1000 and you want an A? Too bad you showed up to class late 12 times this semester. I counted.”
  • You "forgot" to take your final exam? Really?”
  • “Independent study does not mean no accountability. You must finish the work we agreed on, I don't care how passive aggressive your emails are.”
  • When students don't turn in / submit assignments, do they think I won't notice and just give them an A anyway? Sheesh.”
  • “The 60 minutes you spent asking for a project extension could have been used for other things...e.g., finishing your project.”

These are funny, in a “misery loves company” sort of way. The reason I and some of my colleagues in the School of Communications at Grand Valley State University laugh at these excuses is because they are all too familiar. Let me give you a few examples of excuses I have received and the responses I give, or want to give (I’ll let you decide).

Excuse: “My grandma died and I have to go to the funeral so I can’t turn in my paper on time. Response: Just out of curiosity, is your grandma a cat? Because Professor Smith said your grandma died in September when something was due in her class, Professor Charles said your grandma died in October right at midterm time, and Professor Brown said your grandma died just last month when you were supposed to make a presentation in his class. (Yes, we talk to each other).

Excuse: “My girlfriend and I drove to Wisconsin.” Response: Wisconsin is a good place for you. Your story has holes in it like Swiss, and your performance so far this semester stinks like cheddar aged a week too long.

Excuse: “I forgot to set my alarm.” Response: Well, here’s an alarm for you—you get an F on what was due today.

Excuse: “I decided to change the focus of my project because what I had intended to do was too hard so I need to turn in the project late.” Response: You mean you decided to start the project an hour before you wrote this email, right? Bummer. I decided not to give extensions on assignment deadlines because then I have to grade them later—and that’s too hard.

Excuse: “My best friend got concert tickets for the night of the exam.” Response: It looks like your BFF is going to ruin your GPA. LOL.

Excuse: “The printer was out of paper.” Response: And you’re out of luck. By the way, how long does it take to add paper to a printer? That would only be a problem if you decided to print five minutes before class.

Yes, the excuse season can be frustrating. In weaker moments, I fantasize about getting even. I think to myself that when students ask me for a letter of recommendation, to complete a graduation audit, or to sign approval for any number of their needs, that I will reach into this list of excuses and offer one back at them. Or stare at my lap and send text messages to friends, then look up and say, “like, huh?”

But I won’t. A common trap for professors is to dwell on the excuses because they demand attention, when in fact they are rare among students. Most of my students are outstanding young people, striving for excellence, creatively brilliant, and even inspiring. There are good stories there too.

One story I heard earlier this week really moved me. A student came to me with tears in her eyes. I half expected a sob story and a lame excuse for why she couldn’t meet a deadline. Instead, she told me that she had been diagnosed with stage 2 cancer and wanted to drive the two hours home to tell her parents. She didn’t want to tell her parents this news over the phone, even though she realized this would mean missing class. Of course, I said, I completely understand.

Then came the inspiring part. She said she is really excited about her project and wanted to present in class as scheduled later in the week. I told her that was up to her, that I admired her courage, and would be thinking about and praying for her.

Now I’m tempted to have this standard response for future excuses: I’m sorry, I was just thinking about a student just diagnosed with cancer who is presenting her project on time. What was your excuse again?