Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Student Excuses: Some Things Never Change

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Grandparents are always dropping dead left and right at the beginning, middle, and end of the university semester or quarter system. Somewhere out there is a graveyard of unfortunate grandparents who never lived to see their grandkids make it through their first semester of college. "I couldn't submit my paper on time because I had to attend my grandma's funeral," is a fairly common statement made by American undergraduate students. (See the recent Chronicle of Higher Ed news piece on the "dead grandma phenomenon" for more classic examples:

In my time as a teaching assistant/instructor in the history department at Comprehensive National University (CNU), I fielded a myriad of comments, complaints, and concerns from students who worried they'd be penalized because of a family tragedy, a case of the stomach flu, a car accident, a family ski trip, a dramatic break-up, a 3-day old rancid burrito, a birthday party, an infectious spider bite, or a freak case of twisted testicles (I kid you not!) Mostly, these cases of student excuses bordered on the dull and tedious (a dead grandma, a twisted ankle, food poisoning, and the like). They all had the same lame reason for not submitting a paper or coming to class. It was a rare day when one of these students actually blew me away with their creativity and/or deviousness, or just plain bad luck, as in the case of the testicles mentioned above. NB: That guy had a signed note from the local ER, BTW, so it was pretty clear it was legit.

The thing is, undergrads are notorious for waiting until 3am to start a paper or study for an exam. Sure, they might have had 4 weeks to prep for the paper or exam but they're sure as hell not going to plan in advance! Start a paper one week early? Are you joking? Study for several nights before an exam? Are you nuts?! It's not that they're universally lazy or apathetic, they're just . . . busy. Really busy. Just ask my 20-yr old younger sibling. And lest anyone think I'm being overly harsh, remember I was an undergrad once too. Although I never claimed to have a dead grandma or a case of twisted testicles which prevented me from completing an assignment. But that's just me.

When tasks and deadlines therefore inevitably start to mount up come exam or paper time, and undergrads began to feel suddenly overwhelmed, the natural solution for many students is to fish around for a reasonable excuse: like a dead grandma. No one wants to admit the obvious: "I'm just so freakin tired and behind schedule because I stay up late with my friends most nights drinking and partying and hardly have time to read and write or think. I have to take all of these boring courses, including your's, and write all these pointless papers, when I'd really rather be doing something else. Anything else. So can you just, like, get over yourself and your "standards" and let me turn the paper in later, when I'm up to it? What's the big deal anyway? It's just a stupid history paper."

What they don't realize is that when they're speaking to me after class and saying, "Blah, blah, blah, can't turn in paper/take exam because my grandma yada yada yada  . . ." what I hear is, "I don't give a sh@! about this class; you're just a sucker like the rest of them; I've got better things to do." And so on. They speak, but I hear what they're really saying; we all do. We're not dumb. So let's just skip the pretense and start getting honest with one another, students. It will save everyone time and emotional energy and not place a death jinx on grandma.

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