D. Why Professors Are so Mean?
Many professors have inflexible rules not to give makeup exams and never to accept late submission of problem sets or term papers. Students think the professors must be really hardhearted to behave in this way. The true strategic reason is often exactly the opposite. Most professors are kindhearted and would like to give their students every reasonable break and accept any reasonable excuse.The trouble lies in judging what is reasonable. It is hard to distinguish between similar excuses and almost impossible to verify their truth. The professor knows that on each occasion he will end up by giving the student the benefit of the doubt. But the professor also knows that this is a slippery slope. As the students come to know that the professor is a soft touch, they will procrastinate more and produce ever-flimsier excuses. Deadlines will cease to mean anything, and examinations will become a chaotic mix of postponements and makeup tests.
Often the only way to avoid this slippery slope is to refuse to take even the first step down it. Refusal to acceptany excuses all is the only realistic alternative to accepting them all. By making an advance commitment to the “no excuses” strategy, the professor avoids the temptation to give in to all.
But how can a softhearted professor maintain such a hardhearted commitment? He must find some way to make a refusal firm and credible. The simplest way is to hide behind an administrative procedure or university-wide policy. “I
wish I could accept your excuse, but the university won’t let me” not only puts the professor in a nicer light, but removes the temptation by genuinely leaving him no choice in the matter. Of course, the rules may be made by the same collectivity of professors as hides behind them but, once made, no individual professor can unmake the rule in any particular instance.
If the university does not provide such a general shield, then the professor can try to make up commitment devices of his own. For example, he can make a clear and firm announcement of the policy at the beginning of the course. Any
time an individual student asks for an exception, he can invoke a fairness principle, saying,”If I do this for you, I would have to do it for everyone.” Or the professor can acquire a reputation for toughness by acting tough a few times. This may be an unpleasant thing for him to do and it may run againsthis true inclination, but it helps in the long run over his whole career. If a professor is believed to be tough, few students will try excuses him, so he will actually suffer less pain in denying them.