I’ve been seeing a lot of conversation on Twitter about granting extensions to students. Much of it is framed in terms of compassion and kindness.
There seems to be a prominent school of thought that you should just do this, almost automatically. That position is often accompanied by some pretty judgemental things about those who do not grant extensions, as if there is never a decision to be made here.
Compassion and kindness for whom?
I am a big fan of compassion and kindness. There are a few other things I’ve noticed about this conversation, though:
- An assumption that “we” (academics) need to be kind to students.
- An assumption that just giving an extension is kind, regardless of the situation.
- An implicit assumption that being kind to yourself is less important than being kind to students.
- A lot of talk about students’ mental health, other responsibilities (e.g. family, other jobs, etc), and the impact of the Covid pandemic on students’ cognitive and other capacities.
- Very little connection between the discussion of extensions and the discussion of academic mental health, academics’ other responsibilities, and the impact of the Covid pandemic on academics’ cognitive and other capacities.
In other words, when I see this kind of discussion, I read it as part of a larger conversation in which many academics are sacrificing their own wellbeing to achieve ideals that may be unreasonable in the context of working conditions in academia, higher education policy, and the pandemic.
This isn’t just about extensions. It’s about how much work you are assigning. It’s about how much feedback you are giving. It’s about how much preparation you are doing. It’s about how much pastoral care you are providing. It’s about whether you can find time to write or do other research work. It’s about how many hours you are working and what that’s doing to your health, your relationships, and your cognitive capacity.
What if you need an extension?
I have also noticed that my clients are very reluctant to ask for extensions for their own work.
When they do ask, they tend to feel really guilty about it. This often leads to underestimating the amount of time they really need, which increases the chance that they will not finish by the extended deadline and will need to ask for a further extension, something that is even more difficult. All of this leads to a lot of self-recrimination. It can also contribute to imposter syndrome.
Usually I am the one to propose asking for an extension in conversations with clients (either individually or in group coaching in the Academic Writing Studio). The problem they come to me with is about how to find enough time to get this thing in on time, or how not to drop this ball. Sometimes this conversation is with a client who is literally contacting me from a hospital bed. It has even taken the form of “A medical professional has advised that I take X weeks sick leave. How do I make sure this does not affect …” [insert obligation here].
I am not breaching any confidentiality here. This has happened more than once. The obligation has been a book deadline, a class they are teaching, an article they need to get in, or just a general sense of “without falling behind”. This is why I wrote Yes, you should take sick leave.
Furthermore, a lot of my clients struggle with perfectionism (which is categorically not striving for excellence). I don’t always suggest they ask for an extension. Sometimes I ask them questions to help them see that they really could meet the deadline, if they lowered their expectations about the work required.
- That might be acknowledging that Revise & Resubmit is what you are aiming for, when you submit a manuscript to a journal.
- It might be encouraging experienced teachers to allow themselves to wing it a bit more, rather than spending more time on preparation.
- It might be questioning how much feedback is really useful on student assignments.
Sometimes we’re not even talking about a deadline set by someone else. A lot of my clients set deadlines and expectations for themselves that far exceed what others expect of them, and then feel bad asking themselves for an extension.
Does any of that resonate with you?
This is a serious question. Take a moment to make a note of which specific bit of that made you think: “I am in this picture and I do not like it”.
Note: as in, get out a notebook and a pen and write it down.
If you have a gremlin who has jumped in to judge you for doing any of these things, tell that gremlin to go get a cup of coffee. There is nothing wrong with you. Lots of people are in a similar situation.
That said, I’d also really like you to consider whether you can honestly say you don’t think the same things about students who ask for extensions, that you think about yourself when you might need an extension.
I’m sure that will be uncomfortable, either because there is a part of you that does think they should be able to do whatever it is your gremlins think you should be able to do. Or, because you think that you are somehow less deserving than they are of compassion for whatever it is that has led to needing an extension. Keep breathing. Being compassionate to yourself is really difficult.
You are worthy of compassion. There are lots of good reasons you might need an extension.
You have taken many years to develop the habits that make this hard for you. You won’t fix it today. But you can take a small step.
What would be kind to the students?
You want your students to succeed. Extensions are a normal part of working life in many areas of work. This assignment is probably one of several for your class. They are also juggling other classes, and a lot of other things that are none of your business.
I’m guessing that you want your students to feel like they are capable of doing the work required and doing it well (whatever that means for them). I suspect you want them to feel like they have some control over the things they are juggling in their lives.
These are probably the same things you want to feel when you need an extension. You know you could do this specific thing if you just had more control over the sequencing in relation to all the other things you need to do.
Sometimes automatically granting an extension doesn’t feel like that. Sometimes it makes the person receiving the extension feel bad about themselves, like they are already a failure. This feeling can be exacerbated if they need multiple extensions. A lot of magical thinking about getting back on track quickly is born of this kind of feeling.
What does kindness mean in this context? I propose that kindness is helping the student achieve their goal, and maybe also helping them feel more in control of their work.
What would be kind to yourself?
Your desire to be kind to students might feel like it’s in competition with your desire to feel more in control of your workload. You are trying to juggle more than one class, your administrative responsibilities, and your own research and writing, and whatever you have going on outside of work (which is legitimate and none of your students’ or employer’s business).
The very fact that students ask for extensions can make you feel bad. You might feel like you’ve overestimated what is reasonable to expect. You might feel like extensions will mess up your carefully planned series of scaffolded assignments. You might feel like the students don’t take your subject as seriously as other classes.
It is hard to be kind and compassionate when you are resentful. You don’t want to blame the students, but you do have a lot of other demands. You have a hard deadline to submit the final grades. You have assigned this particular thing at this particular point in the semester for a reason, and the feedback you will give is intended to contribute to their learning.
What is kindness in this context? I propose that it is staying aligned with the pedagogic values that frame your course design, and being honest about your capacity for flexibility in the context in which you work.
A proposed process.
Based on these principles, I’ve sketched out a process that might be kind to both students and yourself. If this won’t work for you, I hope it sparks some ideas about things you could try.
The public conversation that prompted this article sometimes suggests that having a process for asking for extensions is itself unkind. I agree that you can compassionately accept that they are incapable of meeting the deadline. You don’t need to know the reason, much less approve or disapprove of the reason.
That doesn’t mean you don’t develop a process for asking for an extension at all. It should require minimum extra effort from you, while supporting students in managing whatever they are juggling to optimize their performance in all of their classes. I strongly encourage you not to make this a process that requires individual meetings with you to discuss their options. That is not kind to you.
I’m thinking of a guideline for how to submit a request with a set of questions to answer.
- The date they propose to submit the assignment.
- What other work do they need to do for your course after this assignment?
- How will they sequence the other work, given the delay on this piece?
It makes sense to encourage them to pre-emptively ask for extensions on later assignments as a way of planning out the rest of the work for the course so they do not exceed a hard final deadline. Be kind to yourself by making that hard final deadline early enough that you have the capacity to grade everything before your hard deadline for submitting grades.
This policy can come with an automatic yes, as long as the plan to get everything done by the final date is there. You then have more certainty about when to expect things. They feel more confident about being able to do this. Your assignment sequence and its purpose are reinforced.
You will also need to consider what kind of feedback you can give between the proposed dates, or in what circumstances the student acknowledges that they will not get feedback on the earlier assignment before preparing the next one.
Some problems can’t be fixed with an extension.
There is a limit to how much you (and your students) can do individually to address systemic problems.
One benefit of the process I’ve proposed is that it gives both of you an early warning if the problem is something bigger. If a student struggles to make the plan for how this extension will affect the rest of the course, they probably need to see you, or their advisor or personal tutor, to talk about the bigger problem and their options.
- Maybe the student needs a referral to the writing centre, or counselling services.
- Maybe there is a hardship fund or other support that would help them.
- Maybe they are struggling with perfectionism and you can help them make reasonable plans for what is good enough to submit (or refer them to any support that counselling services or student services offer for that).
If their problems are bigger than that, their options may include things like dropping a course, taking an incomplete, deferring some of their work, or taking a leave of absence. (This varies a lot by institution.) Their advisor or personal tutor might be a more appropriate person to discuss this with because whatever is going on is affecting all of their courses and the options might include deciding which course to drop or defer. Referring them quickly might be the kindest option for both of you.
Your goal is to help them feel in control of their choices as much as possible, and to direct them to support that will make things easier.
Warning: Sometimes you will need to acknowledge that things are really bad, and what they want (whether that’s a particular grade or to complete the course and degree as a whole) may not be possible right now. Not because they are broken. But because the system is, and you can only do so much. That sucks. It really does.
But as the prophets sang, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try, sometimes, you get what you need.”
As I was writing this there were a couple of discussions on the podcast All The Things ADHD that covered similar ground:
- S3:E4 No We Are Not All A Little ADHD is a follow up to something they got to in their usual roundabout way in the previous episode. This episode is more about accommodations, but extensions are an instance of accommodation, I think.
- S4:E4 Two Educators Walked Into A Productive Discussion is a more structured conversation. The way Aimee lays out the issues around goals versus form is particularly helpful. She also raises some important points about your identity and how requests for extensions can feel hurtful.
In one of those, they refer to Lee Skallerup Bessete’s post: Self Care Or Presence about presence and related issues around what we require of students.
Pressure vs Ease uses cattle farming and the movement of livestock as a practical analogy to illustrate the difference between when pressure, or when more positive approaches can work better.
This post was originally sent out to recipients of the newsletter on 12 November 2021. Subscribe below to get first access.