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“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” —variously attributed to Douglas Adams and/or Jerome K. Jerome

Friday’s piece in Inside Higher Ed about deadlines and their effects on students struck several nerves with me. It’s a topic close to my heart.

Within academia, I’ve noticed an unusual clustering around the extremes on deadlines. We have significant numbers of people who enforce them with an unbecoming zeal even in the most trivial cases, and we have many who treat deadlines as something between advisory and imaginary. In my own observation, the higher you go in the prestige hierarchy, the more porous deadlines get. Even deadline evasion is often a class prerogative.

Most of us who went to graduate school in academic fields are familiar with dissertations that drag on forever, or even with “incompletes” old enough to get tenure themselves. On the hiring side, I’ve learned to discount any assertion that a dissertation is “almost” done. Having been burned enough times, I divide them into “done” and “not done.” “Almost” can mean, well, almost anything.

Part of the reason that I post to this blog as often as I do is an appreciation of the function of deadlines. If I didn’t feel externally compelled to write—even if that compulsion is really self-imposed—then I wouldn’t write. Deadlines focus the mind. They’re restrictions, yes, but they’re also generative. Deadlines help muscle the “important” into the niche of the “urgent,” without which they just don’t get done. There’s always something else to do.

For students who’ve historically struggled in school, a series of low-stakes deadlines can be helpful in allocating time and effort. Everyone is prone to procrastinate to some extent; having deadlines set for you can help you develop the habit of overcoming stationary inertia. Presumably, as folks get more accustomed to overriding the urge to procrastinate, they can be set free to set more of their own deadlines.

Sometimes that works. But we all know very high performers who just can’t get things done on time. The urge to procrastinate never really goes away.

Taking procrastination seriously can lead to changing some long-standing habits. For example, I don’t recommend faculty set deadlines of midnight. Set deadlines during daytime hours, or early evening at the latest. If we know that students are going to wait until the last minute anyway, why encourage sleep deprivation? A “high noon” deadline is more likely to encourage healthy behavior than a midnight one.

In my very early days of teaching, when I was fresh out of grad school, I noticed quickly that giving too much leeway meant that many students didn’t actually finish very much. They needed deadlines, even if they didn’t always meet them. Deadlines can break seemingly overwhelming tasks into smaller chunks, each of which isn’t all that bad. Learning to do that for oneself is a valuable skill, both in the workplace and in life generally.

My own view on deadlines is more pragmatic than dogmatic. They’re mostly helpful, but the best approach comes with asterisks. Life happens; being too authoritarian on trivial deadlines winds up punishing people for circumstances beyond their control. As a manager, I notice who generally meets deadlines, and I’m much more likely to forgive the occasional lapse from someone who’s usually on top of things than I am to forgive someone who just never bothers. Building credibility over time with deadlines can give folks the buffer for those stray moments when everything goes wrong. They happen.

Of course, some deadlines are harder than others. If someone falls unconscious, I want the ambulance here right now; “we’ll get to it when we get to it” is not an acceptable answer. But most academic assignments aren’t like that. Deadlines can help make tasks legible. Legibility combined with some discretion seems like a pretty good default position, as long as the discretion is used fairly.

If dissertating taught me anything, it taught me that.

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