Sunday, May 9, 2004

BOSTON - And then there was the Penn State student who used the “death-in-the-family” excuse once too often.

“It was an Italian student,” recalled Carol Shloss, an English professor of 30 years who now teaches at Stanford. “Every time he had a paper due, he had a grandmother who had died. That was a three-strikes-you’re-out rule. You don’t have three grandmothers — not in an Italian family.”

For college students, spring is the season of formal dances and informal lawn parties, of last gatherings of friends before the summer or life beyond the gates.

But it’s also when final papers come due, and the excuses begin to fly.

There are old standbys — illness, towed cars, family crises — but also new ones. Hard drives and computer viruses, not dogs, devour homework these days. One student told University of Central Arkansas composition instructor Beverly Carol Lucey that an exploding blender drenched his paper with an appetite-suppressant smoothie.

Some educators think late papers — and the excuse-making that goes with them — are on the rise. Many lump the trend with grade inflation as evidence of declining standards, a growing sense of student entitlement and a mollycoddling campus culture in which instructors are expected to act more like friends and therapists than teachers.

For instructors in the classroom, extension requests pose real dilemmas. More students have families and jobs these days. Are they better served by a compassionate extension or a harsh lesson on deadlines? Is granting extensions fair to students who turn in work on time?

Diana Archibald, who teaches English at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, lays down a tough policy on extensions, granting few, and demanding tow-truck receipts and doctors’ notes to corroborate students’ stories.

But she will make exceptions. One of her students works 50 hours per week, cares for a sick mother and pays a mortgage.

“When that student tells me she has to turn in something late, I say ‘sure,’” Miss Archibald said.

Life crises aside, many think plain, old sloth is the real problem.

A national student survey found that nearly two-thirds of students spent no more than 15 hours per week doing course work and about 20 percent of both freshmen and seniors they said to spend fewer than five hours per week.

Extensions for illness or family tragedy are reasonable, “but my impression is all a student needs to do is ask and he will be obliged,” said Bradford Wilson, executive director of the National Association of Scholars

“As an isolated phenomenon, it might not be so serious,” he said, “but it has to be seen in the overall context of diminishing expectations.”

At Wellesley College, students say extension requests are common and usually accommodated. The school also has a strong honor code, so excuses are assumed to be legitimate.

When a student died recently, one teacher offered students an extension, but trusted them to use it only if they were genuinely affected.

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