Thursday, 11 April 2013

Deadlines whooshing by

Many of our students’ assignments are now submitted online: the deadline is usually 11.59pm on the final day of submission. If you’re a tutor, you can go on to our ‘virtual learning environment’ and track the timing of these submissions. It’s an interesting read for an anthropologist of everyday life: mass behaviour made visible. There is always a small straggle of people who submit well before the deadline. Then the mass submission gradually picks up speed and strength on the final day, like a Tsunami wave, until critical mass is finally achieved around 11pm – although the number of students submitting around 11.59pm is, you may or may not be astonished to learn, still quite large. Nothing wrong with that: they still made the deadline and are only demonstrating that universal human trait, known as ‘leaving things to the last minute’, probably first exhibited by that hunter-gathering alpha male who was given a strict deadline of sundown to come back to the cave with something to eat.

‘I love deadlines,’ said the famously procrastinating author Douglas Adams. ‘I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’ Most people need some kind of deadline to concentrate the mind. For the writers on the 1960s satirical TV show That Was the Week, That Was, it was the ticking meter of a taxi cab outside the door. ‘Willis [Hall] and I tended to write our TW3 sketch at the last minute on Friday morning, when the BBC would send round a taxi to whisk it over to Lime Grove for the cast to learn and rehearse for the following evening,’ recalled the late Keith Waterhouse. ‘Sometimes, if inspiration faltered, we would hear the cab meter remorselessly ticking away in the street below even as we wrestled with the final lines. The fashion at the time for sketches without blackout punchlines was put down to the influence of Beyond the Fringe; I am inclined to think it was often more to do with the impatient presence of a cab at the door.’

I have never missed a deadline in my life. It is part of my suffocating eagerness to please. The trouble is, there is always another deadline to replace the one you just made. Sometimes my life feels like one long essay crisis. The modern, managerialist university has no memory: the deadline you just made is replaced by another set of hurdles to leap over. I guess this is how capitalism works: slash and burn, endless, limitless growth. Everyone in universities is now worrying about the looming deadline for the REF [the Research Excellence Framework]. But that will come and go, to be replaced by Year Zero and another set of deadlines. No doubt I will meet all of those as well - like the good, well-behaved, docile little boy that I am.


  1. Great post, Joe. I too feel the continual pressure of deadlines, both inside and outside of education, and I haven't even finished University yet. I am one of those students who submit assignments close to the deadline, not through procrastination, but through the painful idea of gaining a brilliant thought once the assignment has been submitted! Even then, the perpetual ticking of the clock renders my mind blank through the anxiety-inducing deadline tangibility. Speaking of deadlines, back to my assignments I go ...

  2. Thanks Maria - that did occur to me, that some students might submit close to the deadline not because they were doing things at the last minute but because they didn't want to let the essay go!