The View From 32


AUGUST 19, 2007  

Students, teachers, and late assignments

As noted yesterday, for better or worse the start of a new school year is about a week away. I've been thinking about things that I can do to make this semester's classes a bit more interesting, a bit more likely to lead to student success. In the Visual Communication & Design classes I teach at Cuyahoga Community College, I'm always trying to develop with students the right mix of creative freedom and professional responsibility.

The "creative freedom" aspect most often is seen in the classroom atmosphere—hopefully it's lively with lots of activity and discussion. The "professional responsibility" tends to revolve around things like showing up for class and turning assignments in on time. In this area I've always considered myself to be pretty tough, so when I read this question on the AIGA-Education discussion group:

I was curious to know late assignments policies at other schools. Do you allow work to be handed in late and if so are their consequences?

I fired off a reply quoting my late policy from a typical class syllabus:

All assignments are due at the start of class on the due date. Anything turned in after the start of class is late and receives a 5% grade deduction if i get it within 24 hrs. of due date. an assignment can be handed in up to one week late with a 10% grade deduction. After one week i don't accept late assignments.

I figured this would be one of a handful of replies. I was wrong. The discussion continued for three weeks, and combined into one document it's fifteen pages long!

Here's the posting that really got things going:


Hard-nosed? Why? Because Graphic Design is a deadline-driven profession. Blow off a deadline and it costs your client money, your reputation suffers and the design industry takes a stability hit.

To summarize a lot of passionate and diverse opinions, I'd put them into two camps:

  1. The design industry is deadline-driven, it's a cold, cruel world out there, and students need to learn how to deal with it by facing absolute deadlines in their excuses.
  2. The design industry is deadline-driven, it's a cold, cruel world out there (but not totally unforgiving) and students need to learn how to deal with deadlines, among other things, which is why they're in school.

As I read multiple comments over the course of several weeks I found myself going back and forth, sometimes thinking I should be tougher, sometimes not. I still haven't decided whether to change my existing policy—which seems to work pretty well, I might add—or continue using it. Ultimately, though, I think this issue is bigger than late assignments, and that's what I'd like to improve on in my classes.

The entire discussion thread was wrapped up a few days ago with a long posting by Meredith Davis, Professor of Graphic Design at NC State University, probably the leading thinker on design education in the U.S. A couple of her comments helped me get a handle on the bigger picture:

I believe as academics, we need to consider how we introduce students to reflective practice. How we actually slow down and pace the physical execution of work in order to design smart. How we teach students to find the intellectual challenge within the assignment that will sustain them when, as professionals, they think they just can’t face one more 4 x 9 brochure....How we ask them to connect what they’re doing in design to things people really care about....

We have to teach smart. We have to look at trends whose trajectories are likely to define practice for students across a fifty-year career. We have to challenge traditional paradigms of design education and invent new ones....And we have to value the reflective component of design as much as we do the active one. There are some great models for doing this and where they are successful, life is less frenetic; students are engaged in producing a body of work, in understanding big ideas that are at the core of the discipline and the practice. In other words, they behave like students, not trainees, and their output and mastery build across time, not in some last minute rush to the finish.

I think with clear explanations of a policy and fair but firm enforcement, you can deal with the late assignment issue pretty easily. But enabling learning about finding intellectual challenge in boring assignments, connecting design to things that people really care about, understanding big ideas... that's the challenge we need to take on as educators. Any thoughts on how to do it?

More on this topic:

AIGA-Education discussion list (you don't need to be an AIGA member to join)

Full discussion thread edited into a single document (71k PDF)


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