Douglas A. Bernstein

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Published Talks

Excuses, Excuses1

Douglas A. Bernstein
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Anyone who has taught undergraduates for more than twenty minutes knows that they can come up with all kinds of excuses for missing exams, term paper deadlines, and any other assignments faculty have the nerve to give them. "My grandmother died", "The dog ate my paper", "I was abducted by aliens"; You've heard 'em all, right? After 25 years of teaching, I thought so, too, but at last fall's Eastern Conference on the Teaching of Psychology (where I gave the keynote address entitled "Student Evaluations: Threat or Menace?"), I heard about student excuses so novel and creative that I decided to start collecting them.

Having recently subscribed to an electronic mail network for faculty interested in the teaching of psychology, I had no trouble asking hundreds of faculty around the world for the most unusual, bizarre, and amazing student excuses they had ever encountered. (The network is called TIPS; you can join by sending SUBSCRIBE TIPS Yourfirstname Yourlastname to LISTSERV@FRE.FSU.UMD.EDU on Internet or to LISTSERV%FRE.FSU.UMD.EDU@CUNYVM.CUNY.EDU on bitnet). However, not even my background prepared me for the response: dozens of excuses that insult faculty intelligence and stretch the limits of credulity. So, as a public service (and a pathetic attempt to turn the results of a whim into a publication), I will share just a sample of the gems I intend to nominate for induction into the Student Excuse Hall of Fame. Some of them are hilarious, but as you read, keep in mind that many of these excuses (and most of the others that weren't funny enough to include) actually turn out to be true! As one contributor put it: "It is easy to forget that our students have lives outside of class, and their lives are as chaotic as ours."

The following list2 is organized in accordance with the student excuse category system established in 1986 by Martin Schwartz in his groundbreaking article entitled "An experimental investigation of bad karma and its relationship to the grades of college students" (Journal of Polymorphous Perversity, 3, 9-12. This is a real reference, folks; grade-point average was inversely related to frequency of excuses). Here we go:

Grandparental Death. This old favorite needs no description, but one professor's class established what must be a world's record when 14 out of 250 students reported their grandmothers dead just before the final exam.

Friend/Relative Accident/Illness. "I missed the exam because of my uncle's funeral, and I can't take the make-up test tomorrow because I just found out my aunt has a brain tumor." "I can't take the test on Friday because my mother is having a vasectomy."

Automobile Problems. "I'm late for the test because I hit a toilet in the middle of the road." "I had an accident, the police impounded my car, and my paper is in the glove compartment."

Animal Trauma. "I can't be at the exam because my cat is having kittens and I'm her coach." "I don't have my paper done because my guide dog has a bladder infection and I've been taking her to the vet." "My paper is late because my sister's dog had to have her puppies delivered by Caeserian section." "I couldn't be at the exam because I had to attend the funeral of my girlfriend's dog." "My paper is late because my parrot crapped into my computer."

Crime Victimization. "I need to take the final early because the husband of the woman I am seeing is threatening to kill me." "I can't take the test because some guys upstairs chinned themselves on the sprinkler pipes, which broke and soaked my apartment. And cross-list this one with automobile problems: "I missed the exam because someone stole all my tires."

Other. "I want to reschedule the final because my grandmother is a nun." "I'm too happy to give my presentation tomorrow." (The contributor noted: "This was easily fixed.") "I can't finish my paper because I just found out my girlfriend is a nymphomaniac." "I'm too depressed to take the exam; I just found my girlfriend in bed with another man." Note slipped under lab door before an experiment: "I am unable to come to lab because I don't have time." "I can't take the exam on Monday because my mom is getting married on Sunday and I'll be too drunk to drive back to school." Finally, there is the excuse given by two students who, after sitting next to each other during an exam, were asked why their answer sheets contained identical responses to different forms of the test: "We studied together."

OK, I've done my part. Now it's your turn. If you've heard better ones than these, send them to me at the Psychology Department, University of Illinois, 603 East Daniel, Champaign, Illinois 61820 (FAX: 217-244-5876; email: Who knows, someday there might be a compendium of excuses (complete with empirically derived veracity estimates) in every academic library. With a broad enough data base and proper AI software, maybe automatic teller machines nationwide will allow students to type in codes for their campus, course, instructor, and assignment, then enter the serial number of their excuse and wait for the result ("Excuse accepted, have a nice day. Or "Yeah, right. And, by the way, you're overdrawn.").

If enough new entries arrive, I'll try to con the editor into letting me write another column. It may take me a while, though, because my dog has psoriasis, my computer has a virus, and I think I'm getting a cold sore.


1Bernstein, D.A. (1993). Excuses, excuses. APS Observer, 6 , 4.

2The entries are paraphrases of email messages; I did not bother to get permission to reprint any of them, so I hope I don't get sued. However, I did test the humor potential of these excuses by reading them to a luncheon audience at the APS co-sponsored 15th Annual National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology last January. I was gratified to see at least one person laugh until coffee came out of his nose.

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