Cognitive Daily

When we are wronged, we expect the wrongdoer to apologize. But some apologies just don’t seem to cut the muster. As a teacher, my least favorite excuse was always this one: “Can I have an extension on the assignment? I’ve got a really important assignment due in _______ class.” If the other class is so important, what does that make my class — chopped liver?

But clearly sometimes students — and others — do have acceptable excuses for their transgressions. Where do we draw the line? Today’s Casual Fridays survey hopes to find out.

Click here to participate

As usual, the survey is brief — just 5 questions, which should only take a minute of your time. You have until 11:59 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, May 3 to participate — or until we have 250 responses, whichever comes first. Then don’t forget to come back next Friday for our analysis of the results!


  1. #1 Rob Knop
    April 28, 2006

    One thing: start from the beginning not accepting excuses that are lame (including assignments in other classes).

    I taught a graduate class last year, and was forgiving for the first half or so of the term about assignments. Students being students, they wouldn’t start the assignment often until the night before, at which point they would find out it was hard. I’d have a lot of students in my office the morning the assignment was due asking questions– in other words, asking them too late. They didn’t learn it was too late, though, because after that morning I gave a global extension on the assignment.

    Then I did on the next one– many of them were in other first-year grad classes, and had big assignments.

    After a while, though, I got sick of being the pushover whose assignments could get pushed off if there were other assignments, and I drew a line. Despite many students coming to me and very seriously and earnestly trying to tell me how hard it all was, I told them to go talk to the professor of the other class and get *that* assignment put off if they couldn’t do it. I also said, foolishly, that I wasn’t going to adjust my course schedule just because they were all poor at managing their time. (I still think that was a *reasonable* thing to say, but it was a *foolish* thing to say.)

    I took it in the chin BIGTIME when student evaluations came due. No sympathy, they said, it’s always their fault when the assignments are hard, they said, etc. Never mind that I was a pushover for the first half of the term; they won’t remember that. If anything, that made my strict behavior later worse, becuase it wasn’t anticipated. Big mistakes on my part. Next time, I’ll be firm from the beginning.


  2. #2 Rob Knop
    April 28, 2006

    Question on the survey — you ask for political rankings on the Liberal…Conservative scale.

    What does Economically Conservative mean nowadays? ‘Cause what the Republicans who identify themselves as conservative are doing doesn’t resemble at all what I tend to think of as economically conservative.

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    April 28, 2006

    On liberal/conservative, I’d say just use your judgment. That’s why I avoided the Democrat/Republican distinction.

    On how to handle students, I have to agree: You have to start out tough, to show them you’re in charge. You can always ease up later, but it’s difficult to tighten up later if you’ve already shown yourself to be a softy.

  4. #4 Jaclyn
    April 28, 2006

    Browser oddness, maybe:

    It would not let me select the same liberal/conservative level for both Econ and Social. When I selected the second one, the first one became deselected.

    Firefox on Mac OS X 10.4

  5. #5 Jokermage
    April 28, 2006

    I noticed for myself that when it came to the insult, I was much less forgiving than missing the meeting. I think it is partially due to feeling “dishonored”. By insulting me, you make me lose respect in the eyes of others. If you later come to make excuses for what you did to me, it just seems hypocritical.

    On the other hand, I have had times where I had to break a commitment. In those cases, I knew what I was doing wasn’t fair to the other party, but external constraints literally made it impossible for me to uphold my end. Since I can relate to this problem, I am more forgiving.

    I hope this makes sense.

  6. #6 Mark Frank
    April 29, 2006

    Of course it is not just he excuse but the context that matters. Do they often make excuses? Did they sound really distraught? Is this an office where everyone has 16 deadlines all the time? etc.

  7. #7 Katherine Moore
    April 29, 2006

    Normally the death excuses would work on me for pretty much anything, but it just doesn’t make any sense that having your father die would cause you to insult me. So, I only allowed the spouse one to be acceptable, because I could imagine a scenario in which I would sort of remind you of your spouse and you’d be very angry with your spouse and take it out on me.

    As for the meeting I allowed those other death excuses (but not the dog one) as well as the illness one. I’d be glad my friend didn’t want to infect me (though on second thought he/she could have let me know more than 15 minutes before for an illness…I probably should not have allowed that excuse.)

  8. #8 Lab Cat
    April 29, 2006

    Frustrate with the same thing as Jaclyn, why can’t I be both socially and economically liberal?

  9. #9 Blar
    April 29, 2006

    I think that “I have an important assignment due for another class” is a good reason for an extension. The point isn’t that the assignment for your class is unimportant; it’s that the assignments are both important, and the student wouldn’t be able to give them both the attention & effort they deserve if they have to be turned in at the same time. If the assignment for your class was unimportant, then the student could’ve just thrown something together instead of asking for more time to do the assignment well. Of course, it would’ve been best if the student had planned ahead and finished one of the assignments well before the deadline in order to clear the time for the other, but a lot of the time that just won’t happen. This study by Ariely & Wertenbroch found that students do better work and put more effort into their work when their deadlines are spread out rather than coming all at once, even if they’re highly motivated executive-education students, and presumably they also learn more.

  10. #10 Scott Reynen
    April 29, 2006

    I don’t think the first and second situations are really comparable. In the first, the excuses aren’t really explanations for *why* something happened, but on the second they are. There’s a big difference between “sorry I kicked you – I have a cold” and “sorry I coughed – I have a cold.” And one suggests the excuse comes before the problem, while the other comes after.

    Also, I don’t think your initial statement “When we are wronged, we expect the wrongdoer to apologize” is universally true. I think we expect that wrong behavior will be recognized and corrected, but whether or not that involves an apology is very dependent on culture.

  11. #11 James Hanley
    April 30, 2006

    As a political scientist, may I comment that asking political affiliation on a simple left-right (conservative-liberal) scale is not very revealing?

    While for any individual policy issue respondents may align along a line (and usually in a fairly normal distribution), across multiple policy issues that doesn’t work.

    My own casual surveys of my students often reveal strong libertarians and a surprising number of strong statists (believing in substantial regulation both socially and economically).

    Obviously you don’t want to make that part of your surveys too complex, but as it stands, it is too simplistic and doesn’t provide any real added value.

    J. Hanley

  12. #12 Dave Munger
    April 30, 2006

    Sorry to all about the problem reporting political affiliations — I think that’s my fault. Given that I’ve been away for the weekend and we now have over 200 responses, I think it’s a little too late to fix. This reminds me of Stephen Colbert’s style of questioning: “George W. Bush: Great president, or Greatest president ever?”

    J. Hanley, I agree that the political affiliation thing is quite simplistic, but why don’t we wait to see if the data does offer any additional value? I’ll be happy to admit it next Friday if it does not.

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