My life ate my homework

Six years after that tremulous phone call, a guilt-ridden, longtime student confesses to his academic sins.


Eric Umansky
August 13, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

I really shouldn't be writing this.

I'm 26 years old, four years out of college and a freelance writer. So although writing is the way I foot my bills, there is one piece of elementary writing I can't seem to tackle: my last college paper.

You see, I'm part of a secret little cabal, the "incompletes." We went to college and did our four years (or more). We took all the classes necessary to graduate, but we never really finished them, or at least one of the papers for one of them. My incomplete is in -- OK, technically I have two -- urban studies.

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In my second year at the University of Pennsylvania, I couldn't get into the class I wanted and I found myself considering a course for all the wrong reasons: no homework, no tests, just one big paper. Perfect. But as a first-semester sophomore, I was busy dealing with sharing an apartment with my ex-girlfriend and her then-occasional boyfriend. I had no time for big papers.

So I called my professor and asked him for for an incomplete -- the boon and bane of every collegiate procrastinator. He agreed. I went off to study in Mexico, figuring I'd finish the paper when I got back.

That was six years ago.

Recently I've begun reminding myself of all the things people have accomplished while I was trying to forget about my paper: Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, President Clinton survived impeachment, and yes, I have friends finishing law school.

I wondered how many people were faux-alumni like me. So I called Penn and they put me through to Dr. Hocine Fetni, the very "graduation officer" I've been avoiding for years. He immediately asked me if I had graduated.

"No. But I'm doing an essay about incompletes," I explained. "Uh ... how common is the problem?"

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He said Penn doesn't keep stats, but he estimates that about 30 seniors (out of a class of 1,500) per year don't graduate because of incompletes. He quickly added, and I sensed slight mocking here, "Many of those folks will graduate weeks, not years, late."

Could he have invented this 2 percent estimate just to humiliate me?

The way many universities deal with incompletes guarantees that they won't have hard stats. The power to grant incompletes is a professorial perk. As a result, none of the universities I contacted (Penn, University of California at Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford, University of San Francisco, San Francisco State, Sarah Lawrence and New College) keep track of incompletes in their central offices -- presumably on the theory that it's not their responsibility.

"Incompletes are granted at the discretion of the professor," an officer at USF explained to me. "But we do try and discourage professors from giving them."

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"Incompletes aren't a problem here," asserted a Stanford graduation administrator. But this may reflect a lenient school policy more than a low incidence rate. Stanford students are allowed to graduate with incompletes, so long as they've fulfilled all their requirements.

Then there's New College, an alternative university in San Francisco and a veritable hot zone for the incomplete disease. Michael Price, program coordinator of the humanities program at the New College, admitted that "about 25 percent of our students take incompletes in any given class." Price says that the problem has grown so bad that the government is threatening to cut off financial aid to the university. "We're on probation now," says Price. "It's really a pain in the ass."

Sarah Lawrence College, known for its affluent, angst-ridden student body, isn't far behind. According to Elizabeth Freeman, until recently a Sarah Lawrence literature professor, the school "is notorious for incompletes. In fact, many students don't even ask for incompletes; they just don't hand in their papers." (Bob Cameron, associate dean of studies at Sarah Lawrence, disputes Freeman's view that incompletes are a problem at the school, maintaining that "Generally, students use the policy responsibly.")

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Freeman says she hands out fewer incompletes than she used to, but still gives them on a case-by-case basis. Why does she hand them out at all? "Sometimes it's just a form of laziness. I don't want to be a kid's parent. And I find myself saying, "Ughhh! Here's your incomplete. Just leave me alone."

Political scientist Jackie Stevens has a strict policy against incompletes, but from her conversations with colleagues, she says she knows why professors can't stop giving them. Her term for it is "intergenerational reciprocity." Professors feel guilty because they were allowed to have incompletes and now they feel like they're obligated to pass the "perk" along to the next generation of neurotic over-thinkers.

"I really don't care whether students take them or not," says Lee Siegel, professor of Indian religions at the University of Hawaii. "I suspect most professors feel the same way. But you can't tell your students (or your colleagues) that you don't care."

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Still, he concedes that incompletes can be "really annoying." But he also cites the bonuses of incompletes, namely, "the shear entertainment value of the excuses." He described how one student recently came into his office crying about a "family tragedy." Asked what happened, she mumbled that her duck had died. Siegel burst out laughing ... and then gave her an incomplete.

Regardless of professors' myriad motivations, nothing consoles me so much as my fellow incompletes' tales of dejection and deception.

Rich, pushing 31, told me back in the spring of '95, "Do the paper now or you're never going to do it." (I ignored such clichid advice.) When I saw Rich last month, he still hadn't written his paper, now nearly 10 years overdue.

Brad used to watch cable all day during college; now he's a high-powered TV executive. Yes, he lied on his résumé.

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Me, I only massaged mine, -- OK, I lied once -- but I didn't get the job. Until recently, I hadn't told most people. I've confessed to some of my newer friends but not my old friends as if only they realize how much time has passed.

Like any self-respecting American, I'm trying to reinvent myself and forget my past. For the past three years, I've made my living as an editor, a job in which I've learned to deal with deadlines. But I still avoid my paper, and fear anybody who might mention it.

Unfortunately, this contingent includes my family. For the first few years after college I would break into a nervous sweat whenever I spoke to my parents. I thought they were going to bring up "the paper." I remember a few years ago, my mom asked me half-jokingly, "Why can't ya just get somebody to do it for you?" We both laughed. It was creepy -- my poor mother begging me to cheat. Then, in a low voice, she confessed to having nightmares about me never writing it. Oy.

Gradually, we developed an unspoken truce: Neither of us mentioned the dreaded paper. Years passed.

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Given all the trouble it has caused me, why don't I just do it? Perhaps I need a better therapist, but I think the reasons are fairly basic. I am, probably like you, a procrastinator. And to me, the paper represents the past: failure. To confront the paper, in a sense, would be regressing. I wouldn't be an aspiring freelance writer, but an angst-ridden student who didn't turn in a paper on time for two years. Finally, it's a daunting 50 pages about a topic I can barely recall, much less wax enthusiastic about.

There's also a very practical reason I haven't done my paper: I've been getting away with it. If I don't do a story I've been assigned, I lose money and burn bridges. But if I don't do my paper ... well, that's just another story idea. No doubt, it'll probably hurt me in the long run, but I'm still waiting for the ivory hatchet to drop.

That's why I'm writing this essay. Let's face it, denial isn't any fun. By letting everybody in on my little secret, I'm forcing myself to confront the facts: The paper is not going to write itself or disappear from my conscience.

So far my 12-step methodology -- "Hi, I'm Eric and I'm an incomplete" -- seems to be working. Since I began this little confessional, I have called my professors, finished and turned in one paper and literally dusted off my files on the other.

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The best part was talking with my parents. I finally told them the truth: two papers, not one. Their response was almost disappointingly nonchalant. They were just happy I was confronting my own little demon, which, clearly, I had built up larger than life.

But this is no fairy-tale ending. Next week I'm leaving the country for at least two months. I told myself I'd do the paper before I left but I'm running out of time, busying myself with other stories like this one. I'm off to Indonesia, a place where no one is going to bother me about skipping out on my degree. And despite all this hand-wringing, there's no doubt that I'm looking forward to it.


Eric Umansky

Eric Umansky is a contributing editor to Mother Jones.

MORE FROM Eric Umansky

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