March 06, 2014

Why My Paper is Late: Excuses and Justifications

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

It’s the middle of the semester now, time for papers and exams. It’s also time to hear many excuses and justifications by some students about why their papers are late, why they can’t take an exam, or why they did not do as well as they could have on the exam.

Part of human interaction involves the explanations we provide about our behavior to one another, often to save face or create a positive impression of ourselves. In a classic 1968 article, sociologists Marvin B. Scott and Stanford Lyman define these explanations as accounts,  “statement(s) made by a social actor to explain unanticipated or untoward behavior.” They note that accounts come in two varieties: excuses and justifications.

We’re all familiar with both: excuses are when the person recognizes their behavior was wrong but provides a rationale explaining how it was not their fault (My printer broke! My dog got sick!), nor should the behavior be seen by others as central to the character of its actor. Justifications don’t claim that an act was wrong, but instead explain why it should be viewed as acceptable by others (The test was unfair!).

I hear a lot of excuses about why a paper was late or why a student’s work was not as good as they think it could have been. Personal or family illnesses—some reported months later as a last-ditch excuse to try and get their grade changed—top the list. Other excuses highlight extenuating circumstances beyond their control, like traffic jams or computer failure. These excuses might be true; the point of an excuse is to distance the outcome from the character of the individual. But they might also be lies, making it difficult for instructors to have sympathy after hearing so many excuses that turn out to be falsified. (I once had a student turn in a doctor’s note documenting an illness that took place a year earlier; when I pointed out the discrepancy he dropped the class).

Sometimes people justify their behavior, not only accepting that it was okay but trying to convince others as well. Scott and Lyman observe that people attempt to “neutralize” their actions using a handful of techniques, called “techniques of neutralization.” They will likely sound familiar to you, as we hear them regularly from others—and sometimes are what we tell ourselves to justify our own behavior. Two are particularly relevant for thinking about excuses about papers and exams.

In denial of injury, we claim that an act isn’t wrong if no one is hurt by it. (If everyone cheats, no one is breaking the curve! What can it matter if I turn my paper in late? You can’t grade them all at once, right?) (Actually, it “hurts” other students who were honest or might have benefited from more time too).

When people condemn the condemners, they criticize those who criticize them. They may claim that others do the same or worse but aren’t being punished. By condemning the condemners, one can also claim that those who punish you actually benefit from said punishment. (Okay, I cheated, but so does everyone else. Why am I being made into an example? He didn’t give us enough time for the exam! The questions on the test were totally ridiculous! This class is boring!)

Why do we make excuses and justifications, especially when we know they might not change the outcome of our behavior? We might hope that they will change what others think about us and distance our actions from our character.

For instance, I will occasionally have a student who has missed many classes come and see me to let me know why they have missed without asking for anything in return. Often these are students who have had genuine crises—family emergencies or mental health challenges are common. Over and over I hear, “I just want you to know that I take school seriously,” and “I did not mean to be disrespectful by not coming to class.” While they might not be able to salvage their grade, they can try and salvage a sense of self. Many plan on taking future classes with me and want to feel that I think highly of them, despite previous actions.

Excuses and justifications are central features of the way people interact with one another. What other excuses and justifications are you familiar with?


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Interesting facts!The article it's well structured so i have learned some things from it,thank you!

Thank you very much. I did go think by myself thanks to you. You did really help me.

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