Wednesday, September 2, 2009


I’ve been teaching college for ten years, and during that time I’ve heard my share of excuses from students. Sometimes they skip class, or fail exams, or get arrested during their oral presentations, but they always seem to have excuses for why their grades should not suffer as a result of missed work. Over the years, some good excuses have come my way, while others…well, let’s just say they have been less than convincing.

With millions of young people trying to succeed in school, it seemed that my expertise in the field of excuses could be used to help you, today’s student, to succeed in your own educational pursuits. Hopefully, my years of suffering through unimaginative nonsense like "My dog ate my homework," or "My grandmother died again," could be used to educate the next generation in what makes a really fine excuse.

Excuse Rule #1: Keep it simple.

There’s nothing worse than an overly complicated excuse. Many high school teachers and college professors get annoyed quickly, and nothing brings on annoyance like some long, drawn-out tale. The fact is that your instructors really don’t want to know the whole history of your life any more than you want to know the gritty details of theirs. Instead, keep your excuse simple and to the point. Your instructors will appreciate not having their time wasted. Poor excuse: "I’m sorry I was late for class, but I was on the way here, and this squirrel ran into the road in front of my bike. I swerved to avoid it, but then I ran into this dog, who was chasing the squirrel. If that wasn’t bad enough, the dog was dragging this little girl by the leash (the leash was on the dog, not the girl), and I almost hit her with my bike, too. So, my bike was covered with dog drool and the little girl was crying, and I had to walk them home, but then I started worrying about what happened to the squirrel, so I…."

OK, you get the idea. This annoying excuse goes on way too long. This student will likely lose extra attendance points just for rambling. Better excuse: "I’m sorry I was late, but I almost ran over a rabid squirrel." Perfect. This says it all in just a few words. Plus it gives the instructor a heads-up that the student might develop a serious health problem (rabies) at some point in the future. Having rabies is an excellent excuse for missing a final exam.

Excuse Rule #2: Make it believable.
Some students believe they’re Zena Warrior Princess or a Dungeons and Dragons tenth-level Ranger, but professional educators are usually more grounded in reality. Inventing excuses that make you sound much cooler than you actually are is a one-way ticket to failure. Make sure that your excuses cast you in a believable light, even if that light isn’t terribly flattering.
Poor written excuse: "Deer Perfeser, Im sorry I missed clas, butt I wuz compeetng in a big speling be."
Do I have to spell out what makes this excuse unbelievable? Better written excuse: "Deer Perfesr, I cood not be in yer clas cuz I had a job careying dikchunairees four the kids in the big spelng be." Excellent. This is believable, and it makes the student sound like she’s trying to be a useful member of society, despite obvious intellectual shortcomings.

Excuse Rule #3: It’s someone else’s fault.
This rule should not be overlooked by anyone serious about making excuses. Under no circumstances do you want to be blamed for your own failure. After all, if you contributed to your own downfall, then your teachers could legitimately impose some penalty on you for it. On the other hand, if you are a hapless victim of circumstances completely out of your control, then no compassionate person could expect you to suffer further.
Poor excuse: "I’m sorry I didn’t get my term paper turned in on time. I was going to work on it over the weekend, but NASA called me up and needed someone experienced to help talk one of their satellite astronauts back down to Earth. Seems he got a little freaked out up there, after circling Uranus, and kind of froze up."
Yes, this does blame the situation on someone else (NASA and a rookie astronaut), but it violates too many of the other rules. First off, this student has violated Rule #2 and created an unbelievable excuse. This guy is not a NASA-trained astronaut. Maybe the girls at the party Saturday night believed it, but your teacher will not. Actually, even the girls didn't believe it; they were just being polite. Any instructor would be insulted by this one, but a physics professor, in particular, may throw the student bodily out of the classroom. Plus, it’s a little too long (see Rule #1). It’s a common mistake to make things too complicated when trying to lay blame on others.
Better excuse: "Sorry I don’t have my term paper completed yet. The Health Department has sealed off my bedroom and I don’t have access to my books or computer." This will definitely work. It’s someone else’s fault (insensitive bureaucrats), while being totally believable and simple. This student will be given loads of extra time to finish the assignment because the instructor will want the paper to be fully decontaminated before being handed in.

Excuse Rule #4: Use flattery.
It sounds basic, but too many students ignore this very effective technique. If you can get your instructor’s attention off of you and your flagrant disregard for school policy, then you’d be a fool not to, right? So you just get the instructor’s mind off of you by offering something far more interesting to think about – namely, the instructor herself!
Poor excuse: "Sorry I missed the exam, but I was busy doing homework for one of my other classes. The other class is one I’m actually interested in, so I think it’s way more important than your class. I’m just taking your course because I have to in order to graduate. And I don’t get much out of coming to your class, anyway, because I usually fall asleep during your lectures."
It’s a shame this student needs to pass this class to graduate, because that will never happen. Her best chance for graduating now is transferring to another school.
Better excuse: "I can’t believe that I missed your exam! I was up half the night studying for the test because I love this class so much. I’m sure you understand. Anyway, because I went to bed so late, I overslept. After learning so much from you, I was planning on majoring in this subject, but if I have an ‘F’ on an exam in here, I don’t know if I’ll be able to."
Bingo! They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, so here’s a student who’s imitating and flattering her instructor at the same time. It was a nice touch when the student said, "I’m sure you understand." Throwing this in acknowledges the instructor’s superior intellect.
Excuse Rule #5: Excessive gore could work for or against you.
In my years of teaching, I’ve gotten some pretty gruesome excuses from students. I’ve seen emergency room paperwork smeared with blood (it could have actually been red paint; I didn’t have it analyzed), I’ve had students pulling up (or down) clothing to show off stitches and scars, and there have been graphic descriptions of burrowing, parasitic insects. Generally, I turn green at these excuses and agree to any make-up assignment the student suggests. However, there are high school biology teachers, plus university nursing and medical school professors, who live for these excuses.
They want to examine puncture wounds - sometimes with surgical tools - and they long to hear exactly what color the boil turned after it expanded to cantaloupe size. If you’re not prepared to provide these details, don’t go down the path of gore.
Poor excuse: "I’ll need to leave class a little early today. I have an appointment with a specialist who’s going to look at this thing that’s been growing on my back. My regular doctor didn’t know what to make of it, so he tried to lance it himself in the office. Well, he never thought there’d be that much pus! And the smell! They had to call in a federal Hazardous Materials team to clear the building. Anyway…"
I would have stopped listening when I heard the word "specialist." I never need to hear about anything that happens in a specialist’s office. That’s their own gross business. I would probably suggest the student leave class right that very second, just in case her pus starts flowing again.
However, this student might be speaking to a medical school professor whose specialty was devoted to excessive pus. If that’s the case, then the student had better have a disgusting growth available for public display or she’s not getting out of that classroom one second early.
Better excuse: "Sorry I have to leave class a little early. I’ve got a doctor’s appointment because
I have to get something taken care of ... um ... down there." Not bad. It’s not gender-specific, so either a male or female student could use it. Also, even a medical professional is unlikely to insist on many details in order to avoid embarrassing the student. The primary problem with this one is that it must be said in private. If other students hear someone making this excuse, unpleasant rumors may begin to circulate around campus. Best possible excuse: "I think I’m going to throw up!"
This is a classic. Any instructor can’t get the student out of the room fast enough. Even the most hard-core medical school professors don’t want anyone spewing on their gleaming mahogany desks.
Excuse Rule #6: Don’t forget the details.
Last, but not least, are the little details necessary for producing good excuses. For example, a note from a doctor would not be written a cocktail napkin. Believe it or not, an appointment card from an a real doctor’s office that simply says something like, "Appointment scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday," would carry more weight than a used pizza box that reads, "Jane is very ill with the pox and will not be in class all week. Sincerely, Jane’s Doctor." The really great thing about doctor’s appointment cards is that they don’t even need to have the patient’s name or medical condition on them to make them seem official. Students have taken their little sisters’ orthodontist appointment cards and used them to back-up claims of undiagnosed brain diseases.
Along the same lines, a mother would not write a note to her daughter’s teacher on the inside of a matchbook. And a death certificate would not be scrawled in crayon on a sheet from a spiral notebook with the frayed edges still hanging off of it.
Details should not be ignored when students are making their excuses in person, either. If a student claims to have been involved in a car accident, then a whiplash collar is a nice accessory to wear around campus for a week or two. If a student says she was bitten by a dog, then a poodle dangling by the teeth from a selected body part may be in order. If a student calls an instructor and claims to be in the emergency room, then sounds of a huge party in the background will give away the excuse as bogus. Oh, and don’t forget a little cough or sniffle when calling to report illness. It’s a good way to remind the instructor that you’re contagious, and everyone would be healthier if you just stay home.

There you have it. All the information you need to make successful excuses throughout your school years. And with just a little creativity, you can adapt this list to the needs of the newly-hired employee once you graduate. The same basic rules apply. For example, in both school and workplace situations you want to keep your excuses simple. In college you might say, "Sorry I missed class, Professor. I overslept because my roommate used my alarm clock to put out the fire." This is good –simple and to the point, and it’s someone else’s fault. Once you’re on the job, you could easily modify this to, "Sorry I was late for work, boss. My alarm clock is still being held as evidence at the police station." See how easy that is?
I hope you’ve found this list instructive. Now you’re ready to go out there and make some excuses of your own. Sorry I can’t stay to help. I just got a call that a supermodel broke her ankle and they need me to fill in for the swimsuit photo shoot in Maui. I’m sure you understand.
I've been teaching college students for more than ten years now. I really enjoy it - most of the time. But occasionally, like at the end of the semester when final exams are coming and term papers are due, I get frustrated because some of my students start lobbing pretty pathetic excuses my way.
That's how I ended up writing the humor essay "Excuses, Excuses..."
I'm a published author and I teach college-level political science courses. I have a Ph.D. in political science, and I've been teaching for more than a decade.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

:)) funny article.