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Semiotics 101

September 21, 2005

Every semester I hear the same shopworn appeals for special dispensation for missed deadlines, even though my syllabi specify that only written requests from a dean or a doctor will be considered. Referring students to the syllabus usually evokes astonished assertions that surely it was an oversight to exclude their particular circumstances, which, in the sweep of Western civilization, are unique.

It’s been at least 10 years since I’ve heard an original excuse, and I was beginning to suspect that the hip-hop generation was imagination-challenged. My mistake! New students simply don’t have the semiotics background to understand the difference between the sign (message sent) and the signified (message heard) of academic discourse. It’s not until the sophomore year that students begin to grasp this, thus I offer this humble Semiotics 101 lesson for first-year students, lest they inadvertently offend their professors. 

Message Sent Message Heard
"I was so busy with classes in my major that I simply didn’t have time for your assignment." "Your subject is so irrelevant I’m surprised it’s even offered at reputable schools.  Did you lack the requisite skills to become a garbage collector?"
"I work full-time, care for small children, and am involved in community charity groups. It’s hard to find time to juggle all of this." "Unlike slothful bums like you who just show up to class, put in an occasional office hour, and then bugger off to drink coffee, and nap in the faculty lounge."
"I was completely done with my paper, tried to print it, and found out that my processing system is incompatible with that of the college." (Variants: "My ink cartridge ran out," and, "The computer erased everything on my diskette.") "I haven’t started this paper and I’m hoping you’re a big enough sap to fall for such a lame excuse."
"This assignment was unfair and your instructions were unclear." "I have never misunderstood anything in my life. The problem is that you’re a sadist. How did you escape the Nuremberg trials?"
"I had a 24-hour stomach virus and was so sick that my roommate got scared and took me to the infirmary. Doctors said it was probably just food poisoning." "My roomie and I went out drinking at a local bar. The local fauna was looking fine, the music was loud, and I got plastered. But I wasn’t going to work on your silly assignment anyhow."
"A close relative died last night." "It was actually the aunt of my fourth cousin thrice removed and last night was the 14th anniversary of her death."
"You’re too demanding. I’m spending all my time on your course and neglecting all my other classes." "That’s because yours is the only one I have a prayer of passing."
"I’ve been under a lot of pressure and am seeing a therapist who suggested that extra time to do my work would be helpful." "OK, it’s not a real therapist, but my friend did get a B in Psych 101 so I’m sure she knows what she’s talking about."
"I have a learning disability." "Others seem to get things right away, but I have to study so I must have an LD. If you don’t pass me I’ll get someone to certify I do and sue your butt under the ADA."
"I’m sorry I missed the deadline, but I couldn’t get back from break because of the snowstorm." "The parties on Aruba were so good that I stayed an extra three days. Did you know that ‘snow’ is a synonym for several classifications of powdered controlled substances?"
"If you give me a break this time, I promise I’ll never miss another deadline and that I’ll put extra effort into all other assignments." "Yeah, and Bambi’s mother will come back to life, dodos will roam the wild Australian plain, and cold fusion will power every American home."

I could go on, but these humble examples should suffice to make first-year students realize that all utterances are texts and that they cannot privilege their interpretations over those of their professors. Armed with that knowledge there is but one failsafe response: Meet the deadlines!

 

Bio

Robert Weir teaches humanities and American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and at Smith College. He is the author of four books, numerous articles, and has been teaching for 26 years. He has fielded approximately 47,311 excuses.

 

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