Dealing with Difficult Deadlines

I have lost track this academic year of the number of times I have said to a student: ‘the deadline is the last possible date/time for submission, it is not an indication of when you should start the work’. I have lost track of the number of times when the student has attempted to school me in just how wrong I am about this and that of course deadlines are an indication of when to start the work. And it is, of course, entirely our fault (those who set the deadlines) when students cannot do their best because they have too many in the same short space of time. Poorly planned deadlines (our fault) have also been cited as reason for not paying attention in class (too many deadlines, can’t take on more information; have to get work done for a deadline today), not attending project laboratory sessions, and many other things.

Firstly, a deadline is the date/time we’d like the work in please. It’s usually selected to be sufficiently far after the necessary course content has been covered (skills, theory, techniques, lab session) and also marks the point at which the lecturer is willing to set the 3-week marking return clock ticking. Deadlines are an indication of when we’re ready to mark the work.  It is no coincidence that the week just before a holiday is a prime deadline time – marking is arduous no matter what and being able to use a little non-teaching time to pace ourselves is vital to a consistent marking job and reasonably detailed feedback. When marking and intense teaching collide, no one benefits.

A deadline is a real world thing. We’re all bound by them. It might be a journal special edition deadline, a grant application deadline, a paper review deadline or it might be a tax return, completion date on a house purchase, or a job application closing date. And in the real world, on many occasions, 2 minutes late is late and not considered. Imagine if, instead of a cap of 40% on work marked as late, you had to wait until next academic year to submit the work.

A deadline is, however, a whole lot more. It is an excuse to submit something that is good enough. In the case of our grant applications, there is always something that might be changed or additional preliminary data that might be acquired. Deadline = off my desk = good enough for a reasonable chance at funding. It is, therefor, the makings of an excellent excuse: I didn’t have enough time to work on the grant because the deadline was too close so it didn’t get funding. Totally not my fault, all the fault of the person who set the deadline and couldn’t take my procrastination  schedule into consideration. Actually, submitting anything without a deadline, without the stress that inspires greater effort in the hours/days leading up to the deadline is really hard. But last minute work is not great work. Truly great work requires time and consideration. It requires proof-reading and enormous care and attention to detail. It requires hours of carefully directed effort.  When we say ‘complete the work and come back to it a couple of days later with fresh eyes to proof read it’, we mean it. And we’ve learned the difference between reading work and reading what we think we’ve written the hard way.

Good enough ultimately runs both ways: on one hand it is an excuse to only do as much as you can in the time you’ve left yourself, on the other hand it is a signal that it is OK to stop and move on. The former is a problem if is your standard way of working – nothing will ever be truly excellent (and if it works in the short term, it will fail in the longer term). The latter is a necessity for those of us who hold tight to our ideas and work and are generally terrified by the act of setting them free on unsympathetic reviewers or assessors.

Ultimately, deadlines are not the problem. Planning is. And workloads are. And over assessment is. And pressure for performance to be measured as metrics: x submissions, y papers, £z in the resesarch pot per annum.  But human nature is also the problem and the drive created by a little bit of deadline inspired stress to get on with something and complete it.  And for some reason, the deadlines have to be external for that to happen.