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Same old dog, same old tricks

As term-paper deadlines and finals near, students look for ways to get out of neglected work – but their excuses are nothing their professors haven’t heard.

There was at least one time throughout the course of history when the-dog-ate-my-homework line actually worked.

And it worked on a seasoned University administrator, nonetheless.

“Well, I really have had, in all seriousness, ‘the dog ate my paper’,” said Dwayne Smith, associate vice provost and professor of criminology.

“The person came and said: ‘I know you’re not going to believe this, but the dog ate my paper.’ And so I said: ‘For what it’s worth, bring me the rest of the paper.'”

She brought him a tattered paper, and Smith allowed her to redo the assignment. Because this took place before the days of word processors, the paper was typed on a typewriter,

making its literal loss to a canine plausible.

To this day, though, Smith said he’s unsure if there really was a dog, or if she just ripped the pieces herself.

“It was pretty creative, anyway,” Smith said, laughing. “I later had visions of her force feeding some paper to a poor dog.”

Smith, like other educators at the University, receives a slough of excuses – some fabricated and some fair – for missed assignments and exams around finals time.

And, like other educators, Smith treats bad baloney with a mix of frustration and cynicism – not to mention disciplinary actions such as failing a student on an assignment. But what he and other educators generally agree upon is that there’s a standard set of excuses ranging from the moronic – weddings incidentally scheduled during finals week – to the morbid – myriads of dying grandmothers.

But teachers, who have collected mental libraries of excuses are on to students’ schemes, know most excuses aren’t true, have the statistical backing to prove it and aren’t going to be lenient.

After the dog excuse, the next most incredulous type Smith has received has been the out-of-town wedding.

“It also seems that people seem to disproportionately schedule weddings that people have to go out of town right around finals time. They claim they made their reservation months ago and, quote, ‘forgot to look to see when the final was,'” he said.

Smith made the students show him their travel tickets. He said the wedding excuse has been used only a happened few times, but in two cases, the students actually produced tickets.

Another excuse Smith and many other professors receive is the death of a grandparent.

Alluding to a tongue-in-cheek article he read, Smith summed up the phenomena succinctly: “There seems to be a rash of grandparent deaths around finals times,” he said.

In a certain sense, though, poor and dishonest excuses at this time of the semester are like throwing salt into a wound. Teachers are bogged down with grading papers and tests, so bad excuses are frustrating, Smith said.

“For many instructors, it is a very hectic and harried time for them,” he said. “If I’d been a cartoon and there had been a bubble above my head, my typical reaction (to excuses) would have been oh please, p-l-ee-ze (sic).”

For Susan MacManus, distinguished professor of political science, the most common excuses she gets are technological malfunctions and dying grandmothers.

“You know, the most common one is that their printer died,” she said. “This is the one that just gets me: ‘I had totally finished my paper, but when I went to print it out it didn’t save and I have to start it all over again.’ And of course that’s laughable, and most people are taught to save every whatever.”

Another excuse she said she gets is that a student tells her he or she has e-mailed an assignment, but fails to have documentation to back the claim up.

Common doesn’t mean creative – and it certainly doesn’t mean uncourageous in the context of student excuses.

The most ridiculous excuse MacManus said she’s ever received dealt with a student who went on vacation, knowing it was finals week.

“The most bizarre one I’ve ever got is a student who decided he’d just go to the beach with his girlfriend’s parents and blow off the last week of class and hope that I’d be understanding,” she said.

The student wound up failing the assignment, MacManus said.

“I don’t think the beach trip was worth it.”

For MacManus, bad excuses aren’t annoying because of the work that she’s putting in at the end of the semester – rather, she feels students who actually do the work will be treated unfairly if slackers are given leniency.

“When professors give in to these kinds of less-than-plausible excuses, it makes other students very angry who have stayed up all night and given up weekends to stay in the Library,” she said.

“For the students who have done the right thing and given up time at the beach and parties and actually knuckled down and done their work, they’re the ones I’m thinking of when I just crack down on the students who are giving me ridiculous excuses at the last minute.”

The preponderance of such a limited set of excuses, of course, raises the question of whether there’s any way some of the more popular ones could be justified.

As for the possibility of an upswing in grandparent deaths at the end of April through the beginning of May and the end of November through the beginning of December (the calendar dates of exam season), it’s unlikely that is the case, said Kay Perrin, associate professor in the department of community and public health and director of academic and student affairs.

“I’ve never read anything that substantiates that claim,” she said.

Perrin, for the record, said she doesn’t have a favorite excuse.

“It’s everything from, flat tire on the way to the exam to oversleeping to ‘I worked last night, I overslept,'” she said. “You know, I mean, plausible things, but you know it’s a final exam. There’s got to be priority here.”

Another common excuse that doesn’t hold water, from a public health standpoint, is the increase in student car accidents around finals, said Etienne Pracht, a professor of in the College of Business Administration who has studied the effects of red light cameras on traffic accident mortality extensively.

Using trauma as a gauge of the number and severity of car accidents, it appears there are fewer dangerous accidents around spring finals, as trauma “actually goes down after the first quarter of the year, so for them to use that excuse in April (and) in May, which of course would be the beginning of the second quarter, seems a little counterintuitive, because that’s when they eventually go down,” he said.

It’s possible, though uncertain, that seasonal shifts in car accidents could affect grandparents.

In Florida, Pracht said, there are more traffic and car accidents in December. There are also more snowbirds, or elderly people, who come to sunny Florida from the North for the season.

“We do have more accidents. Whether that’s related to grandparents dying, I’m not sure,” he said.

But because the elderly are less likely to weather severe car accidents well, they are more likely to die during this period, which happens to fall during winter finals.

Thus, there may be an upswing in grandparent deaths because of the added presence of snowbirds, Pracht said, though it’s inconclusive.

For people between the ages of 16 and 64 – where most USF students fall – there’s no seasonal increase or dip in car accidents, he said.

So the excuse, though perhaps related to grandparent deaths, may not have statistical backing, Pracht said.

For the record, Pracht – who doesn’t teach undergraduate classes – said he doesn’t investigate fishy excuses or punish students directly for fibbing.

“I never question,” he said. “I have more important things to do than question students.”

He’ll give a makeup exam, but with one caveat: “Their makeup’s going to be a little harder than the actual exam.”

The most common excuse he gets related to cars is “that their computer got stolen out of their cars or something … they were at their beach over spring break and they left their laptop in their car.”

But that’s not the wildest excuse he’s ever received.

“The craziest excuse I’ve ever gotten was that a kid was in jail and couldn’t take the exam, and he actually produced his police report to back it up,” he said. “So, I guess even though it was true, it was still funny.”

Ghosts in the machineAnd what about claims of e-mail malfunctions around finals time – papers sent into cyberspace by their deadlines only to be sucked into the abyss?

Alex Campoe, information security manager with the University, said that he wasn’t sure about seasonal increases in malfunctions for Blackboard, but that USF’s e-mail system hadn’t failed in quite some time, and there’s no reason it would be likely for the system or e-mails to fail during finals season.

“Failures don’t have any particular time to happen,” he said.

The last time there was a massive failure with the campus e-mail system was around early January 2008, he said, and the problems were widely known.

If a student claims to have sent an e-mail that the teacher did not receive, however, there is a way Campoe can check to see if that’s the case.

“We have logs every time somebody sends an e-mail,” he said.

Requests to see these logs are uncommon, Campoe said, and a lot of ghost e-mails can be chalked up to overzealous spam filters.

Other times, the student did send an e-mail and the professor did not receive it, but it remains unclear how many claims of failed technology are real or fabricated, he said.

Teachers’ rightsSherman Dorn, president of USF’s chapter of United Faculty of Florida and associate professor of educational foundations, said he’s used to excuses around finals time.

“I get my share of deaths in the family and sick animals, cars that break down and, occasionally, students are honest and just say ‘I partied too much,'” he said.

Dorn said he hasn’t heard complaints about the University not standing behind teachers who punish stragglers.

He did say, however, that the undergraduate council was developing guidelines for teachers to follow when handling absences and late work.

“The Undergrad Council was asked by the (Faculty) Senate Executive Committee to come up with a draft of guidelines on excuses in general, and issues about makeup work to be consistent and to just sort of recognize rules for various things,” he said.

In the draft thus far, some things have been laid out as hard-and-fast excuses, like jury duty or hospitalizations. The handling of other absences and excuses for missed work – for example, when a student stays home sick but does not go to the doctor – would be up to the teacher.

Dorn offered one bit of advice to students in light of the bourgeoning policy:

“If you really have something happen to you, make sure you have the documentation,” he said.

From Russia with loveIn a second interview with the Oracle on the topic, Smith rethought what he previously described as the most incredulous excuse he’d received.

Smith was teaching an online class at the University of Massachussets one summer, and one of his students was on the University hockey team, which was traveling through Russia.

The student had arranged with Smith to take his exams at an Internet cafe, where there was a Wi-Fi connection.

“So when I get the exam, he was only half done,” Smith said.

He said he later learned that the wireless network went out when the student was taking the exam in Russia, and that he couldn’t complete the exam immediately, as the team was traveling through rural parts of the countryside where there were no wireless connections.

“But the excuse was, ‘my wireless connection in Russia went down,'” he said. “And knowing what I knew about the Russian infrastructure at that time, I believed it.”