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When I was teaching a full course load of 12 hours of writing-intensive classes (ranging between 60 and 130 students per semester) deadlines for student writing assignments were unbreakable.

The reason? My workflow. As a contingent instructor with a Tu/Th teaching schedule, supplementing his income with outside work, I had to get everything read and responded to between Thursday collection and returning to class on a Tuesday, or I would experience catastrophic ripple effects. This made for some unpleasant (but necessary) weekends of all grading, all the time.

The reason I gave my students for the unbreakable deadlines?

Because in the “real world” there are no extensions!

Even at the time I knew this was a lie, but it seemed preferable to the truth, that I had to hold them to a hard and fast deadline because needed sufficient flexibility to handle my own deadlines as I juggled my various responsibilities.

I have a lot of deadlines every week. I try to blog at least once (and usually twice) a week for Inside Higher Ed, I write a weekly newspaper column for the Chicago Tribune, and I have a full-time job where I’m consistently working on a mix of both internal projects for the company, and external projects for clients at various stages of completion.

Oh, I’m also teaching a first-year experience class that meets once per week for three hours. 

And…I’m working on two book projects (one fiction, one not), as well as miscellaneous freelance bits and pieces I occasionally dabble in.

My experience in the “real world” is that deadlines are often flexible. Academics who are years late on delivering manuscripts can obviously appreciate this. As professionals we are given the autonomy and latitude to push deadlines when it’s agreed that pushing that deadline is in the interests of creating of the best possible end product. A publisher would rather wait six months for an excellent manuscript than stick to a deadline and have something significantly inferior show up.

In fact, the only rock-solid deadline I have every week is that first-year experience class. It is going to meet at a specific time and place no matter what. 

Other deadlines are quite firm, but usually at least a little flexible. The Chicago Tribune wants me to file on Tuesdays, but I can also nudge it back a day or two with sufficient notice. (This creates a ripple effect on my editor who will rearrange her own work flow in response.) Sometimes when I’m going to be travelling I file multiple columns early, which is not ideal, but acceptable. 

I’m even allowed to skip a week, though I am very hesitant to take this offer unless it becomes truly impossible to file something.[1]

Inside Higher Ed puts no restrictions on which days I publish, so I often look at the rest of my workflow and make a call as to whether or not I need to put in some weekend hours to deliver on those expectations. 

Internal projects for my employer always have deadlines, but those deadlines are often aspirational and may get pushed because of unforeseen events or the higher priority of projects for clients. Projects for clients have multiple deadlines along the way in order to stay on track towards a final delivery date, but these often shift as events dictate. Sometimes even that final delivery date moves because, as with publishers and those book projects, everyone would rather take a little more time to deliver the best possible project than to hit a previously designated deadline.

I’ve come to realize that one of my chief skills is not meeting deadlines, so much as managingthem. It is only through learning how to manage deadlines that I am able to meet them. But an important aspect of being able to manage my deadlines is having sufficient freedom and autonomy to move those deadlines around.

This results not only in significantly better work products, but also allows me to do more work, as I can slot book projects into small pockets of time where I’m not under a more immediate deadline.

For the most part, students are not given the autonomy to truly learn how to manage their deadlines with an eye towards maximizing quality and performance. For sure, they’re required to manage many different deadlines while they’re in school, but without the freedom to move any deadlines, it’s hard to argue we’re allowing them to produce their best work, or that their best work is even something we’re interested in. The fixed deadline rules over quality of production or performance.

Finals week is perhaps the most obvious example of this tension. Sure, if students have three in a day they can move one, but the scheduling of finals is not oriented around students doing their best work. Finals are to be survived at best. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a policy of hard deadlines in a course. As I say, I’ve had to use them myself. When someone wields power over you - as is the case for the instructor/student relationship - they can force you to meet a deadline. Students are likely to experience this at least early on in their careers, but their first job isn't their only job.

This is why I think it is a mistake to use the “real world” rationale to enforce those deadlines when the real world doesn’t really work that way, especially when succeeding in the real world requires a more sophisticated ability to manage deadlines. I think it's more honest to simply acknowledge that the power structures in a course mean that an instructor has the authority to set deadlines. I believe it to be a more honest accounting of how deadlines truly work.

Students have some deadline latitude in my courses. Under the grading contact, I give a two-week submission window for full-credit. At times, this allows students the necessary freedom to turn in something far more accomplished than under a no-excuses deadline. (This is usually students who take an extra day or two beyond the initial deadline.) However, this freedom also results in some students struggling with getting their work done on a timely basis. 

My hope is that even the latter group of students are learning something valuable for their futures, that maybe they’re experiencing a “good” kind of struggle that results in lasting lessons.



[1]I have a possibly irrational fear of being “Wally Pipped” out of my slot, so I make submitting a column for each week a high priority.  

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