“The dog ate my jump drive and gave it the coronavirus!” A professor’s plea for honesty in the age of COVID-19

Since the beginning of education, students have offered educators false reasons for missing assignment deadlines. “The dog ate my homework,” later became, “I ran out of loose leaf,” which begat “The printer ran out of ink,” which led to “My floppy disk/Zip disk/thumb drive got corrupted,” which came along with “My computer got a virus” and of course “I SWEAR I uploaded the right file…”

One tried and true excuse has been that of illness or death, which unfortunately hasn’t taken a break during this time of coron-apocalypse. A fellow educator asked this question in a “pandemic education” group:

Sorry if this has been posted by another….rcvd an email from a student asking for advice on how to handle their two roommates lying to profs about family members having the virus to get extensions on class work.

Is anyone asking their students for documentation? Or is it the honor system for the most part?

My initial question, naturally, was, “What the hell is wrong with people who would falsely claim this, especially now?”

During a regular school year, I get it: You’re hung over. You overslept. The Packer game went into OT on Monday Night Football. Claiming illness isn’t the end of the world.

In fact, when it comes to missing class, I don’t have an attendance policy. I’m like Planet Fitness: You paid your monthly dues to be here, but if you’re not here, I’m not losing any sleep over it. You get the results you deserve based on your efforts.

What I never understood was when a student would falsely claim something catastrophic to get out of a jam. That never sat well with me.

I vividly remember one encounter with a student who showed up in my office to tell me she was going to miss class later that week. She obviously had been crying and she was visibly shaken by something.

“My grandfather died…” she began, as she started to cry again. I found a few renegade napkins in my desk drawer and handed them over as she tried to compose herself. “I’m going home tomorrow for the funeral and I’ll be gone the rest of the week.”

I offered my condolences, told her to take as much time as she needed and that we’d catch her up when she was ready to return. What she said next blew me away:

Her: “When I get back, I’ll bring you a copy of his obituary.”
Me: “Why?”
Her: “To prove where I was. My other professor said he wouldn’t accept an absence without it.”

I couldn’t fathom that, not even having watched this scene from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” about 100 times. Asking for proof, something I would do as a matter of course as a journalist, seemed beyond the pale in this situation. I told her not only did I not need it, but that I didn’t want it.

“If you felt you had to lie to me about the death of your grandfather to get out of my class, you have problems that I can’t solve,” I said.

The idea that someone would lie on that grand of level for such an insignificant reason as my class just boggles my mind.

I think a large part of it is that I work in a field in which credibility is our stock and trade. If you throw away your credibility, it’s not like a boomerang. In fact, it’ll never come back. In trying to train students to be honest and clear with their sources and their editors, I’d like to think they learned how to be honest and clear with me.

Another part of it goes back to something I wrote a few years ago about why it’s a stupid idea to lie to your journalism professors. We’re like a mix of bloodhounds and pit bulls: We dig into something until we’re totally satisfied and if we find malfeasance, we’ll burn you so bad you will wish you had died as a child.

I’ve caught students lying to me (or lying in general) more times than I care to count. In most cases, they get in a jam and they try to cut a corner, figuring they’re doing something I’ll never manage to catch. Maybe that’s true, as I’m sure several former students are reading this and thinking, “You think you’re so smart, Filak, but I totally pulled one over on you…” However, I like to think I’ve got a pretty good batting average, and even if I don’t, lying this way is like passing a cop as part of a group of speeders: Even if he’s only going to get one of you, it totally sucks if it’s you.

Here’s the thing I think students need to understand: Your professors are all screwed up, too, right now.

We’re working from kitchen tables and basement work benches with makeshift equipment. We’re not on our regular schedule, either sleeping too much or not enough. We’re failing at various tasks, despite our best efforts.

(For some reason, I keep linking the wrong podcasts to the wrong days. The same kid gets there first each day and emails me about it, with a “Sorry to bother you again…” note. I tell him the same thing each time: “You’re never a bother and thank you for helping me find and fix this.”)

We’re watching the same news reports that terrify everyone else and we’re not above being scared of something ourselves. Friends and family are locked away from us. People we know are losing jobs and businesses. Our health, which a lot of people take for granted each day, is now a constant sense of fear, with every cough or sniffle leading us to retrace every step we took over the last two weeks.

We’re clinging to as much as we can that’s normal, and it feels like every day, more of that normalcy slips through our fingers.

And we have no idea when, or even if, that normalcy will return.

I can’t speak for all professors, but I would bet dollars to doughnuts that we’d be much more willing to extend deadlines, offer help and do anything else students need in this time of crisis without anyone giving us a false sob story.

The truth is much more viable at this point in time:

“I had trouble getting online because there are five of us in the house, all trying to livestream a lecture at the same time.”

“I got called in to the grocery store and I had to work a double, because someone else was sick.”

“I’m trying not to worry about everything right now, so I played XBox until 3 a.m. and I overslept.”

“I haven’t seen my family in more than a month and it bothers me to the point of distraction.”

“I lost my job and I don’t know what I’m going to do next.”

“I just can’t. I’m sorry.”

Professors are as human as anyone else. We want to understand and help.

Just be honest.

One thought on ““The dog ate my jump drive and gave it the coronavirus!” A professor’s plea for honesty in the age of COVID-19

  1. Steven Chappell says:

    A great post, Vince. This is truly a universal issue. It’s just been a couple of years ago, but I had a student tearfully tell me her grandmother had died, and she needed to go home for the funeral. This was the Monday before Spring Break was to begin. Two days later, her Facebook feed was filled with photos of her partying on a cruise ship.

    She received all zeros on her missed assignments.

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