Zeros and the Power of Junk on Time

Many years ago, when I worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, I remember complaining to a senior colleague that some of the massive project reports we received from consulting firms were little more than a brief introduction and a boiler-plate methods section duplicated from previous reports, very little in the way of conclusions, and pages upon pages of appendixes comprised of printed tables of raw data. My colleague informed me that these reports still satisfied contractual obligations. To be fair to the consultants, problems with permitting, weather or equipment troubles in the field, and delays in getting results back from the lab, often left the report writers facing a contractual deadline with no time for data analysis or reflection. Given the choice between providing “junk on time” or facing financial penalties for filing a late report, along with the potential loss of future contacts, they generated thick reports that provided few insights and no constructive recommendations. 

Decades later, now a professor, as I look at the records of struggling students, I’m struck by how often they fail, not because they received poor grades, but because they simply did not submit the assignments — they did not recognize the importance of submitting junk on time.

Yes, yes, it would be far better to read critically, to reflect thoroughly, and to start assignments early, leaving plenty of time for revision. I am by no means an advocate for skating by with substandard work. But when life happens, and you simply do not have the time to do it properly, all professionals know you either negotiate a new deadline (the best option), or you work with the time available. You do not blow off the assignment. In the working world, this will get you fired. As a student, zeros will destroy your chances of passing the course.

Let’s compare two hypothetical students; I’ll call them Joe and Moe. Joe is gifted academically, so when he does the work he scores well, but he often skips assignments. Moe, on the other hand, is not as gifted but never fails to turn in something. When pressed for time he turns in really poor work — junk that earns a crummy 50/100. The rest of the time we’ll assume he typically gets a B-.

Ten assignments:

Joe’s Scores:

95, 0, 91, 92, 0, 0, 100, 0, 90, 0

Moe’s Scores:

82, 50, 83, 81, 50, 82, 81, 83, 50, 84

Does it surprise you to learn that Joe, who receives an A every time he does the work, fails the class with a final average of 47, while Moe, who never scores better than a low B passes with a 73?  You might complain that it is unfair to assume Moe will score a 50 for “junk,” but I disagree. Most faculty are quite generous with partial credit, but even the most lenient will not give you points for work you do not submit.

The moral of this academic incarnation of the race between the tortoise and the hare is that “junk on time” beats flashes of brilliance. Whether you are a student or a professional, always meet deadlines, even when you are not proud of the result. Hold your nose, submit, and pledge to start earlier the next time.

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