Excuses and Impression Management

Christine Whelan | Posted on 06/30/10

For anyone who has ever taught a college class -- and endured a barrage of excuses and pleas for extensions -- Janis Prince Inniss's open letter to students on the W.W. Norton blog is a must-read. 

Can you imagine a professor ever telling students the following?

Dear Class,

When I was creating my syllabus, I forgot to mention that there is one more exam covering everything we did for the semester-yes, it's cumulative-and a 20 page research paper. I know that this is the last week of class but could you please excuse me? Pick whichever reason you like best from the following to excuse my lapse:

A. My child had a fever and I had to take her to the doctor and then to the hospital and I didn't get any sleep at all that night. And my dog was hit by a bus. Plus, my computer was acting funny. I think it has a virus. (If you're taking an on-line course, add this: I was having trouble getting into Blackboard and Blackboard kept kicking me out.)

B. I was focused on my career and really needed to get some other work done to make sure I get promoted.

C. I really didn't understand that I was so supposed to put all of that in the syllabus. It's so hard trying to figure out months beforehand what I'm going to do with a class. The university wants us to hand in the syllabus long before the class even starts. I didn't expect all of this to be so hard. I'm really good at all the other things I do and get really good evaluations on all of my other work.

D. This is the last class I'm going to teach. I've always got good evaluations for all the other courses I taught and I really don't want this class to bring down my overall evaluation grade.

E. I just need an extension. That way I can add this information to the syllabus and nobody will have to know that it wasn't there when you first got it.

No? And why not? Because we understand what it means to be professional -- something that we as professors, perhaps, need to do a better job conveying to our students.

OK, the piece is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it raises a great point and could be a lesson straight out of Erving Goffman's research on impression management--and why it's necessary to be aware of how others view us, and how our own actions shape how others react to us.

This fall, I'll be teaching a class on the Sociology of Everday Life. I'll be sure to include this in one of the early weeks of class.

What kind of cues do we give to superiors to let them know we're good students or good workers? We participate. We turn in assignments on time. We ask thoughtful questions. We try to help out the team rather than asking for others to do our work for us.

Not for school but for life we learn. After reading Prof. Inniss's blog, I'm getting excited to turn the Sociology of Everyday Life into a news-you-can-use Life 101 class for my students. Any other suggestions on what to include?

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