20 December 2011

On Late Assignments

Once, many long years ago, I worked in a factory that produced finished apparel for women and children. Our output were not high-priced outfits wrought with great skill and attention to detail, but rather, were mass produced apparel manufactured without great concern for precision or exactness and meant for sale in bargain stores and basements. I think that the products were not to be worn by the children of the upper or middle classes!
Once, I remember, an order was late, and the manufacturer who had contracted with us to make the garments called irate at the delay and threatened us that if the order wasn’t filled within the week he would refuse to pay for the finished garments and would stop sending orders to the factory. I understood that if the order wasn’t shipped within the week, then his sale of the garments to his customers would be cancelled and he would lose his income. There are, I learned, serious consequences for lateness in business. 
Students regularly write to me apologizing for papers that are or will be submitted late. They ask for brief extensions. There are all kinds of reasons they offer for having not yet completed an assignment; many are graduate students with full-time jobs and families. I always offer the extension. I answer that I would prefer to have a good paper a day or two late than a mediocre (or worse) paper on time. Students thank me for my patience. I can’t read and comment upon all the papers immediately; I wouldn’t get to some papers until tomorrow or next week anyway. 
But the question I have now is this: why does it matter that an assignment is turned in late? I understand why a late order of garments or television sets or bed sheets could have disastrous results for sales, but of what consequence could there be in handing in a late project for a school class?  What would it mean for the learning that it took a day or seven longer for any learner to arrive in her effort at a sufficient level of competence and confidence to make public her work and brave evaluation. Why must learning occur within a specified time frame set arbitrarily by someone other than the learner? Is the learning any less meaningful that it took a day or week longer than expected? Why does an excellent paper lose five points for having taken twenty-four hours longer to perfect? 
These are rhetorical questions and, of course, I expect no answers. What I am asking is why we set such severe deadlines for completing assignments when our goal is to produce life-long learners? If a student can show that she is engaged in the work and merely asks for additional time to complete and polish the product, or the student offers some personal reason for the delay, then it could only be the fear or animus of the educator that would provoke him to refuse the student’s request and penalize her for refusing to turn in on time an assignment that does not presently meet the standards set by the student herself? Actually, it seems to me that such a request displays a student’s great respect for the teacher and the process that she would not waste any one’s time on work that is not yet of sufficient quality to present publicly. 
I understand that a late call to the warden might have catastrophic results, but I can see no consequence to the learning for turning in a late assignment.


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