On my desk, right by the table clock, lies a black and white print of the Mona Lisa on an A4-sized sheet of copy paper. The banality of this print copy of a magnificent painting appears strangely incongruous with the rest of my desk, especially since I am neither an art nor history student. My interest in the painting derives from the simple fact that it took Leonardo da Vinci 15 years to complete. If you do a Google search on famous people who were known procrastinators, a myriad of dubious listicles display da Vinci’s name. That even the celebrated Renaissance polymath, da Vinci waited till the last minute provides solace when the clock beside my monochromatic Mona Lisa is ticking dangerously close to 11:59 p.m. — the submission deadline for most of my assignments. Knowing that I share my habit of pushing assignments to the last minute with da Vinci helps me breathe through the panic and deliver my assignment — although sometimes a minute late and with an ominous red mark on it. Often, as I hit the submit button and slump back onto my chair, exhaling hours of panic-driven work, I am tempted to reevaluate the chokehold that 11:59 p.m. has on my academic life — a life almost entirely organized around these submissions. The consequences of deadlines have been feverishly contested in academic circles, but if I were to summarize the opposing arguments, they boil down to praising deadlines for increasing productivity or  condemning them for the exclusionary practices they generate. 

The pro-deadline idea, in short, is that multiple short-term deadlines help breakdown coursework into bite-sized pieces and thus students assimilate them better than a long-term deadline at the end of the semester. Multiple 11:59 p.m. time stamps may help students work more efficiently on assignments and papers by spreading the pressure over a longer time frame, ensuring a productivity-boosting discipline. I find irony in the notions of productivity and discipline — a pair of words I associate with the factory line and a flash of frames from the “Modern Times.” My liberal arts classroom should, ideally, not harbor such an astonishing resemblance with Chaplin-esque comedy, but perhaps it’s impossible to escape the time discipline of a post-Industrial society. 

As historian E.P. Thompson theorized, the advent of the exacting mechanical clock in the industrialized society is when the economy began to value (and therefore pay) by the number of hours put in rather than the quality of the work produced. This theory supports a complicated Marxist analysis that could be translated into the more contemporary adage of “time is money.” Conversely, one could technically “steal” time, taking longer to produce the same quantity of work but with poorer quality. This is where the need to encourage a general culture of ever-increasing productivity arises. This is exactly what the Apple Watch promises it can do, arising half a century after Thompson. The Apple Watch seems to be able to guilt-trip people into using their time extremely productively by telling them exactly what they’ve been doing with their time — even calculating how much or how well people slept, so they are refreshed and recovered to take their place in the factory line (or cubicle or Zoom room) the following morning again! Sometimes I am tempted to take my own Apple Watch off and declare with the tenor of poetic melodrama, “I refuse to be handcuffed by time!” taking my place among the greatest creative and free minds in history. But most of the time, my Apple Watch is a good reminder that I am a common student, and my raison d’être lies in fulfilling the productivity expected from me.

It is natural for academic spaces to embrace this logic of productivity. After all, university is the education that helps prepare you for the “real” world outside and not really the education that helps you re-imagine it. In essence, you are a node in a long line of operations included in this mechanistic transfer of knowledge. A professor delivers a lecture; you grasp it and regurgitate it with a small tweak of perspectives. The professor proceeds to provide feedback, sometimes assigning the value of a letter or number, the cumulative of which is the transcript that helps the world of employers assess your value. In other words, my 11:59 p.m. deadline is a workstation on a large conveyor belt and must be treated accordingly — mechanically, but with dutiful attention.

Students have often shared a general irritation about the arbitrary nature of 11:59 p.m. No professor could want to begin grading assignments at midnight! Sometimes, these deadlines are for classes as early as 9 o’clock the following day, and the deadline seems to be set simply because that is the last clock minute for a particular day. With student procrastinating patterns as they are, the midnight deadline does little to change them. When a student has the opportunity to work into the wee hours of the night, it’s inevitable that they’ll end up working with a tired mind and produce an uninspired assignment, focused more on the act of submitting than engaging with the content of the course. This is a situation further aggravated by the fact that we live not only in an industrialized society, but also in a digitized one. Thirty years ago, the deadlines for handwritten papers perhaps would have been 5:00 p.m., at the close of professors’ workdays. But mine is 11:59 p.m., a late-night hour that manages to interfere with my leisure, dinner and sleep. Caffeine-powered and guilty of procrastination, I soldier on, in the darkness, to finish the assignment that was meant to break down the course work into digestible portions.

It is true that a high speed internet should allow me to access a wealth of information across the internet and an infinite capacity to complete high quality work. But, it is simultaneously true that I often end up only barely finishing the readings assigned in class for the assignment. In fact, the extreme dependence on the internet has only further complicated deadline matters for many. Environment and Sustainability graduate student Gupteswara Padhy recalls his plight as an international student living in Munger Graduate Residences during the 2023 University of Michigan internet outage

“I had no American sim card and no access to Wi-Fi, and my class had a deadline for a quiz on the first week of classes. It was a disaster as I ran pillar to post, trying to figure out internet access, reading material and how to answer the quiz for the class,” Padhy said.

What could have been a wide-eyed moment of wonder, the beginning of a journey of exploring new knowledge, was reduced to a panic-stricken scramble to finish an assignment. 

While the internet outage was a rare event, hurriedly finished assignments are, unfortunately, less ephemeral. Sometimes, I feel like the whole point of my week is reduced to chasing different deadlines for different classes, often with an utter disregard for the greater purpose of the course itself. The focus becomes less about what I am learning and more about the grade that the assignment is going to give me — after all, that is my valuation in the “real” world. I’m almost never left with a moment to breathe and rethink this reality. 

Rackham student Shmeelok Chakraborty had similar thoughts. 

“The assignment in the very first week of classes for this course I was taking was particularly challenging,” Chakraborty said. “Not only was I juggling multiple logistics of moving across continents, but I was also expected to understand and deliver according to the expectations of American academia. I came from the U.K. but still wanted to do my best.” 

Often, we end up playing to the pavilions. Instead of thinking for ourselves, assimilating the information and looking for newer meanings in them, we do what requires the least effort for the best grade. The grade then, like in Thompson’s industrial U.K., is more a reflection of the hours of work put in rather than the quality of the result. Of course, there are also many students who are simply not equipped to do what is projected as the “bare minimum”: nontraditional students, students with care-giver responsibilities or students facing ranging mental and physical obstacles, all have different needs and must navigate their college experiences based on varying circumstances. Deadlines are simply not suited to accommodate everyone’s needs. And the added pressure and guilt of “falling behind” does little to help. 

Keeping up with the burst of consciousness across universities to make academics more accommodating, the University of Michigan has established its own Services for Students with Disabilities. I was informed over a quick telephone call to their front desk that the accommodation for deadlines seems to be treated on a case-by-case basis. However, there was a blanket refusal to comment on anything specific. Tellingly, the website for the SSD provides a disclaimer, “Accommodations put in place to mitigate disability-related barriers in regards to attendance, participation, and deadlines are not designed to support a substantial number of missed classes, lengthy assignments extension, or lengthy delays in performing essential components of a course (i.e. course exams or projects).”

This is not to accuse the University of not trying hard enough. It is merely to suggest that within this structure of pedagogy, little can be done to accommodate those nontraditional needs. A larger structural problem exists, which leads to an exclusion of a vast majority of students from the corridors of higher education across the globe. 

Rackham student Fiona Wu, a first-year graduate student in the History Department, refuses to pander to her guilt. “Oh, that is a problem from my undergrad days!” She said. “I no longer worry about deadlines; it is not the smartest idea to let the looming deadline bother you or take away from the joys of the academic work.” 

Rackham student Rukmini Swaminathan, in the same history cohort, agreed: “I would really like to read a book, word for word, without worrying that it is a luxurious waste of my time. I have fallen into the habit of skimming and now it is almost the only thing that I do!” 

These students’ refusals to allow the 11:59 p.m. deadline to govern their lives feels simultaneously like a criminal offense and an act of rebellion. These girls defy their guilt to enjoy what is rightfully theirs. My mind stretches the metaphor of the worker on a factory line to its history of unionizing, dissenting and being repressed with criminal procedures. Except this time, the act of protest is quietly sitting under a tree and enjoying a book. The police is their own guilt. May their tribe grow and often an apple (different from the one strapped to my wrist handcuffing me to time) fall on someone else’s head and be the birth of a revolutionary idea. For ideas are born out of creative thinking. The wonder of the human mind lies in its ability to imagine, to be creative, to engage with the world and ask the questions that matter. I don’t think any of this can be accommodated by the 11:59 p.m. deadline. Neither can the possibility arise of connecting the small packets of information, picked up through this incessant cycle of weekly assignments, to see larger patterns.

Da Vinci was not an unproductive procrastinator — one can call to witness the numerous diaries in which he writes, sketches and struggles with complex scientific possibilities to exonerate him. He was engaged in the production of original work, the creative instincts for which may only be nurtured by actively thinking rather than continuously needing to demonstrate results. Ironically, the results of his work remain relevant and valuable to generations nearly four centuries later; mine do not seem relevant the following morning. Of course, this is not to claim that I share his genius or that his generation and its flourish of artistic and scientific progress was any less dependent on the more banal mechanism of production that is a core sustenance for all societies. It is simply to suggest that the pursuit of an education should be less geared toward output than a factory line in an automobile industry. Education is only of value if it teaches one to think critically and creatively, both of which are severely compromised in the sleep-deprived situation of an 11:59 p.m. deadline.

The linguist in me had to look up the etymology of “deadlines,” if only to procrastinate on another assignment. Apparently, it was once used to refer to the last fence on the prison compounds, which, upon crossing, a prisoner was shot dead. The word was used with this meaning until 1863, specifically with the prisoners of the American Civil War. While any notion of violence has since been abstracted from the word’s meaning, an “assignment,” to a certain degree, still polices or imprisons minds, discourages independent thought and ensures complete subservience to the dominant powers of society.  

Whether it’s da Vinci and the physical act of his imprisonment, the dissenting factory worker and the repressive apparatus of the mechanical clock or me and my little Apple Watch reminders for deadlines, we all suffer stiff resistance against curiosity and creativity. Liberating the pedagogic practice from the despotic clutches of deadlines would not only help in the constitution of a sense of genuine curiosity but also engender a sense of responsibility. Students will learn to actively seek knowledge if only they are free to do so. Of course, freedom also encompasses the freedom to fail, but without first allowing liberty, one simply cannot hope to stimulate the spontaneity required to succeed. My campaign is for a conscious attempt to break out of the prison of deadlines, or 11:59 p.m. ones at best. In the shadows of that grandiose crusade, I urge that you do not forget my more modest desire to go to bed at a reasonable hour.

Statement Correspondent Srimati Ghosal can be reached at sghosal@umich.edu.