Wednesday, September 16, 2009

From the Desk of the T.A. - A Dangerous Battery (of Excuses)

My friend, T.A., contributes two posts a week to Ph.D. Dep. His series From the Desk of the T.A. runs every Wednesday and Weekend Wisdom runs every Friday.

As a TA, I'm used to hearing some fantastically hilarious excuses. And while the excuse, 'The dog ate my homework,' has never been used, sometimes I wish it was.

Unfortunately, college students are much smarter, and more creative, than that. They know the following things:
1) I might not deal with them much beyond this class, so they can use some over-the-top excuses that may or may not be true
2) If they say something terrible happened, and I challenge it and am wrong, I will look like a total asshole

For instance, if a student comes up to you and says that his grandmother died, and as such, he can't turn in his homework, what am I supposed to do? (By the way, 'My grandmother died' is probably the new, 'My dog ate my homework').

And seriously, what sort of world is it where when someone approaches me and says his grandmother died, the first thing I think about is, 'how many times has your grandmother died when an assignment was due?'

Here are some excuses I've heard:

1) I have been sick and could use a couple extra days
2) I have been really sick and could use a couple extra months
3) I am dead, but pending resurrection, I think I'll need a few weeks
4) I've been really busy at work
5) I've had a bunch of job interviews this week
6) My house was robbed
7) Computer crashed
8) My computer crashed in a particularly exciting or unique way, which is different from ordinary crashes
9) My computer crashed after my house was robbed (my house was unguarded while I attended my grandmother's funeral)
10) We have, like, 4 other homeworks also due on that day
11) Also there are like, 2 tests on that day
12) I had a kid
13) You misspelled something on the assignment description, which took you 3.1 hours to fix, so I would like a 3.1 hour extension

You can see how those excuses vary from ridiculous to plausible, and my reactions vary from uncaring to sympathetic. So here's my take on excuses. I like to accept the first excuse, no questions asked (unless I know from someone else that this person is a serial excuser). This is because I'm not entirely jaded, and I'm open to the possibility that sometimes things happen.

What's really important to consider is what gets done after the excused period. Let's say I give a student a couple days because of an illness or something. I won't grade that student more or less harshly, but I will look at the quality of the work. If someone really takes advantage of the extra time and turns in a great assignment, I don't really care whether the excuse was legit or not. The point of the assignment was to learn something, and this demonstrates that you clearly did that, even if it took a little longer. On the other hand, if, after an excuse, I receive a crappy homework, I will tend to be much more skeptical in the future.

Here is a quick example. I gave one student several extensions during a semester, mostly for what seemed like flimsy excuses. First I think he was busy, then he was sick, then his house was broken into (in the third case, he actually offered to bring me a police report). I did not hesitate to give him an extension on any of them, because each time he delivered really excellent work. He needed an extension for the final homework (due to the robbery), but his submission was one of the best, if not the best, and it was clearly his because he sat down and discussed it with me for about an hour.

The absolute most important thing to remember about excuses, is the actual excuse itself though. Some years from now, you will forget the agony of grading, or the aggravating questions you get during office hours. But what you will definitely remember is when a student requests that you grade his work three years late because he had a kid a few months ago. Priceless.