Avoiding End-of-Semester Bitterness through Trust and Flexibility

Midterms have come and gone, along with March, and now we’re staring down the last four weeks or so of the semester. One of the perks of working at Grand View is that the end of the semester falls in the last week of April, earlier than any other institution at which I’ve taught, by far. But that early endpoint is a bit of a double-edged sword, as I feel like I’ve just finished midterm grades and all of a sudden it’s a sprint to the end of the semester. Both faculty and students feel the end-of-term crunch as projects come due and graduation deadlines loom, while it seems like we’ve been at this for years, instead of since last August. As we prepare for this hectic final stretch, it’s worth remembering that stress and burnout aren’t just things our students experience; they can shape our response to the end of the term as well.

One of the ways in which I’ve noticed end-of-term fatigue at work is in a greater degree of impatience for what are common student behaviors. For example, requests for a few-day extension on an assignment seems routine in February, but by the end of March might feel like it’s grating on our very last nerve. Students who email us about falling ill, or experiencing a family emergency, might be met with a more skeptical perspective in early April than would have been the case two months ago. We certainly don’t mean to come across harshly, but sometimes the year catches up with us at inopportune moments, and we extend less of the benefit of the doubt to our students than they deserve.

Two essays from the Chronicle of Higher Education that I’ve seen recently have prompted me to think about the ways in which my end-of-year frantic-ness might be affecting the ways in which I’m interacting with students. Rob Jenkins’s “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Trust Students” addresses interactions throughout a typical semester, but what really stood out to me was this injunction:

Never be disrespectful or demeaning toward students — either individually or as a group, in class or outside it. Resist the urge to trash talk students in conversations with colleagues. Students often hear about it, and they will never trust someone who badmouths them behind their backs.

How many times have we been in the faculty mail room or killing time before a committee meeting and spent those minutes venting about student behaviors to someone else? I’m not saying there’s no place for that type of venting, but there are times when the complaining takes place within earshot of other people–including other students. It doesn’t take long for word of those conversations to spread, and the damage it can do to our relationships with students is significant.

Jenkins also points out something we might recognize in principle, but forget to embody in our practice:

Don’t act like your course is the only one students are taking. Recognize and allow for the fact that they often have competing priorities.

Just because a student doesn’t make my course the first priority in their study schedule or daily calendar doesn’t mean they hate the course, nor is it a personal judgment about me or my instruction. As athletic schedules grow more complicated, student government and choir trips occur, theatrical productions go live, and any number of other events take place, we need to remember that we’ve told our students they should be trying to get the most out of their college experience. Working with our students to help them negotiate these commitments alongside doing the required work for our course might take some additional time, but it’s time we are obligated to spend. This doesn’t mean that attendance becomes optional, or anything goes when it comes to scheduling, but it does mean that we would do well to remember that our students are juggling a number of important commitments at this time of the year–commitments that include, but are not limited to, the course they’re taking with us.

That leads to the second article I’ve recently read, one which touches on a subject with which many of my students (and me, too, if I’m being honest) struggle: deadlines. In her essay “It’s Time to Ditch Our Deadlines,” Ellen Boucher argues that we might be able to mitigate a significant degree of our students’ anxieties (and the deleterious effects thereof) by rethinking our approach to assignment deadlines. Boucher’s contention is simple and direct:

As professors sympathetic to the needs of our students, many of us end up feeling like we are merely reacting to student crises rather than preventing them. There is a simple change, however, that can make a big difference in students’ lives: Stop penalizing students for late work. Strict deadlines only serve to reproduce the inequalities of access and inclusion that universities are trying so hard to correct.

She goes on to describe her own approach, in which any student who requests one may get a two-day “grace period” to submit an assignment, no questions asked. If, at the end of the grace period, the student still is not finished, they must meet with the instructor to discuss the status of the assignment and formulate a concrete plan to finish it. The results, Boucher discovered, were well worth the effort:

Since changing my policy, I’ve seen higher-quality work, less anxiety, and fewer cases of burnout. Most of my students do take the grace period occasionally throughout the semester, but the great majority complete their assignments by the end of the two days. And when students are having serious difficulties, there is a support system in place to integrate them back into the classroom.

Reading this piece sparks some interesting questions: what purpose do rigid, inflexible deadlines really serve? How can we ensure that we’re assessing student work which reflects what they can truly do, as opposed to what they can do when forced to rush through a task because of unforeseen circumstances that take up the remainder of their time? But what about the idea we need to teach students how to keep deadlines by prioritizing their time? Boucher makes a good point about this:

The conventional wisdom has long been that punishing students for missing deadlines is good for them. Strict deadlines force students to prioritize their academic work over more frivolous commitments and serve to teach them valuable time-management skills.

Trouble is, that assumes most students are irresponsible or lazy rather than overwhelmed or struggling. It also ignores the fact that most working professionals — including professors — learn early on to distinguish between “hard” and “soft” deadlines, between the grant proposal that must be submitted on time and the book review that can be shelved for a week or two.

In other words, there’s more nuance involved, and perhaps our approach to deadlines should reflect that. Boucher’s point about higher-quality work is the key here, I think; knowing they have a brief grace period if they need it is enough to help students make better choices when it comes to finishing large assignments within a short time frame. If nothing else, the temptation to cut and paste an essay from various websites might be mitigated by the prospect of a brief extension. That alone makes me a fan of a Boucher-style “grace period” for student projects and assignments. After all, as she argues, “it’s time we give our students the same respect and flexibility that we demand in our own careers.”

Both of these pieces speak to the idea that we ought to extend more “grace,” more of a benefit of the doubt, to our students on a consistent basis–even (especially?) at the end of the academic year. This year, in particular, seems to have been a more trying and anxious one than usual. It stands to reason our students have noted the ambient stress that seems to have been all around campus over the last several months, and perhaps it’s affected them, too. As we move towards the end of the term, then, it’s worth thinking about the ways we can avoid anger and snark in favor of trust and flexibility.

Have a question? Need some assistance? Want to check out a book? Come by the CETL in Rasmussen 208 or contact us to set up an appointment.

Finally, I wish you a week filled with as much happiness as lunchtime for this Hedgehog seems to be:


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