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So I'm taking an architecture class and there was a word limit for the essay of 500 words. I was wondering if I could go over the 500 word limit and in the email tagline/heading I wrote:

"How strict are [assignment] guidelines?"

And then in the email I asked if I could go over the 500 word limit. He said "yes, it's fine". All is well and good, I thought that was the end.

But then he sent a follow up email after that saying "Oh to answer your email tagline question, as a former architecture and project manager, I am an especially harsh grader." I didn't intend to ask him if he was a harsh grader with my headline, just if the assignment guidelines are strict, but I see the implication now.

I can't tell if he's joking to scare me or if he's being serious. What do you think? Is this something you've done before/joked about? Personally, I'd never ask a professor if they were a harsh grader or not so it's a really new response to me.

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  • 38
    Maybe he built some ambitious buildings on really harshly graded plots. :) Sep 29, 2021 at 10:45
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    Please don't write answers in the comments. In this case, a (now deleted) answer-in-comments led to some extended discussion, which led to an argument; this has all been purged.
    – cag51
    Sep 30, 2021 at 5:25
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    So you didn't actually ask "will i be marked down for using more than 500 words."
    – Jasen
    Oct 1, 2021 at 12:39
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    What is in your email tagline that might have prompted that response?
    – Barmar
    Oct 1, 2021 at 13:58
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    Then it seems like he may have been misinterpreting, since his response doesn't really address it. "harsh grading" sounds like it requires you to give precisely the correct answers.
    – Barmar
    Oct 1, 2021 at 23:31

7 Answers 7

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I stand in agreement with Anonymous M's answer. As someone who has worked in architecture offices in the past, I interpret the professor's statements as meaning:

"Yes, in this particular instance it is OK to go beyond the 500-word limit, but do not assume you can ignore or circumvent any other guideline without good reason, and without checking with me in advance. Also, even if you are allowed to go beyond the 500-word limit, this is not an authorization for you to go overboard, rather it means for you to stick to the limit as much as possible, but you will not be penalized if you go slightly above the limit. However, if you go significantly beyond the word limit simply because you are incapable of masterfully summarizing your arguments, and you are just adding words without stating anything of significant value, or even keeping a good level of quality, you will almost certainly be penalized for it."

Since you mention that you are in an architecture "class" (rather than a course) and that you are doing an "essay" (rather than a full-blown architectural design project), this suggests to me that you might just be taking an architecture class as part of another course, or that perhaps you are not particularly familiar with the way things go in architecture as a business practice or in academia.

Without exaggeration, architecture is certainly in the top 10 list of the most cutthroat and merciless environments you can find yourself in. Clients are often ruthless, stingy and nasty, profit margins are razor-thin unless you work for a particularly large office, there is little tolerance for incompetence and laziness, everybody adopts an attitude of no-frills, no-nonsense, and are brutally honest in their criticism of your work (say, "Steve Jobs-style" level of honesty).

Even though this particular professor may (or may not) be more gentle than the average architecture instructor (hard to tell without more information), I would advise you to quickly develop a thick skin for criticism (if you have not done so already), do not take it too personally (even if it may seem personal) and be careful to not deviate from the guidelines without good reason, or without making sure that your final work is actually really better because you were allowed to go beyond the word limit.

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    I for one am glad architecture has such a reputation for hash critiques - I'd sort of prefer a building didn't fall down because "well, Kevin is a nice guy, but he always screws up the L-beam calculations. Still, let's see if he can do better on this one"
    – lupe
    Sep 29, 2021 at 10:36
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    I don't know where you and the OP are, but in the US "class" and "course" are often used synonymously, and I can't read anything into choosing one of the other in the context of the OP's question.
    – Kimball
    Sep 29, 2021 at 11:31
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    @lupe isn't that more the structural engineers' job?
    – Tiercelet
    Sep 29, 2021 at 13:47
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    @OwenReynolds I've seen things go in the opposite direction in STEM topics. Professor says "I don't grade on a curve. You don't get an A because everybody else's building collapsed within 10 seconds and yours lasted a whole minute." These days many students regard not grading to a curve as harsh, or complain that the grade doesn't reflect how many hours they spent rather than hearing the message that a failed design is unacceptable, period.
    – pjs
    Sep 29, 2021 at 15:22
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    @OwenReynolds No argument on your two points, but I think there's a third point - how the grading is perceived by students. Many years ago I taught a course with a prerequisite that was taught by two other faculty in alternating semesters. One of those professors regularly won teaching awards based on his popularity with the students. The other one was viewed as a "harsh grader" and had significantly lower course evaluations, but handed me students who were far better prepared for my course. (That's when I became cynical about course evaluations.)
    – pjs
    Sep 29, 2021 at 16:54
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You should stick to the 500 word limit and not waste brain cycles speculating on the somewhat unclear communication you've described.

There's a more general lesson here: You were given an assignment apparently with very clear requirements. Following the requirements is going to be faster and pedagogically superior to trying to circumvent them.

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    Yes, answering in less than 500 words is a more important skill than being able to BS up to 500 words Sep 29, 2021 at 4:17
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    @AzorAhai-him- Ah, a variant on the old quote “I apologize for such a long letter - I didn't have time to write a short one.”
    – pjs
    Sep 29, 2021 at 16:13
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    The communication is only unclear in not qualifying how rubbery "fine" is. 5000 words is literally over 500 words; is that still fine? I wouldn't go past 519 words.
    – Kaz
    Sep 29, 2021 at 21:47
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Here's how I could -- fairly easily -- see myself writing the same thing.

It's the start of the semester, I've very busy, with lots of department issues and students asking questions as they have difficulty on-boarding to my several classes. One student writes to me about parameters for the first assignment. It seems fairly minor and I quickly write a couple-word response to get it off my plate and get to a dozen other emails:

Yes, it's fine.

Within the hour I start regretting that. I recall from the start of other semesters that when I let students break rules on the first assignment, they inevitably start assuming all the other rules are optional, and I wind up with a firehose of problems and/or students challenging me on more, and more important issues. Dangit, I say to myself, I told myself I wouldn't let that happen again and I'd stick to the rules firmly at the start of the term as an object lesson. I've literally written that down on a post-it note and still forgotten it half a year after I wrote it. Also, the primary complaints the department gets about me, and also what it shows on RateMyProfessor, is that students perceive me to be a "hard grader" (per RMP tag language) relative to other instructors. On the other hand, I certainly can't go back on the allowance I just gave; that wouldn't be fair. But I feel like I need to warn against extending that expectation in the future. So I write a follow-up after this further thought:

Oh to answer your email tagline question, as a former architecture and project manager, I am an especially harsh grader.

(I'm not a former architecture and project manager; but rather a former senior software engineer, and the same principles about hyper-awareness of how certain fine details interrupt the workflow in the actual business world apply.)

I'd say it's a point in the professor's favor that they were reflective enough to think about you later, and write again with more nuanced information/advice. Many wouldn't bother to do that.

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You asked whether you could go over the 500 word limit in the guidelines. Your professor considered it, thought it wasn't a problem, and said yes.

However, when rereading the emails your professor realised that your subject heading was 'How strict are guidelines?' They realised that you might get the impression that you can push your luck with the guidelines, or that they weren't important on this course. You can just imagine the potential problems the professor foresaw with that! They realised they had better quash any such mistaken impression forthwith and nip this problem in the bud.

If it were me, I would reply as soon as possible with a short email along the lines of:

Yes, of course. I understand completely.

Thank you.

And I wouldn't worry about it any further.

There is no problem with going over the 500 words if within reason, and for good reason. Your professor has specifically given you permission to do so. However, I certainly wouldn't ask for any other dispensations . I'd also be wary of using any subject headings that could be interpreted as asking Is this a serious course?

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I think he's trying to give you a hint, you can turn in whatever you want, but realize that it should conform to the instructions or it will be marked down.

If the assignment was to make an office space utilizing only 500 square feet, then would you ask if you could go over 500 square feet?

Instructions were pretty clear, and he may actually be trying to get you to actually explain your answer without all the fluff or waste his time with a 1500 word essay that could have been 400 words.

Also, harsh grading often means that little things matter and if minor things like a spelling error or formatting occur, you can definitely expect to get marked down.

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I think this would be easier to answer knowing what the other guidelines were. Assuming they are things like "make sure you use good grammar" and "your analysis should be correct," I suspect this person is saying some version of, they expect you to be careful in your work and pay close attention to the details. As a former project manager, they are probably used to reviewing work, spotting errors, asking hard questions and expecting good answers. If this is a relatively new person to teaching, it is also possible they are trying to avoid a reputation for being a softie.

I wouldn't worry about it. Of course, don't slack off in their class, but also don't expect them to be unreasonable based just on that comment. Just be a good student and focus on learning and adapting to the feedback you get on your work. Don't sweat a very generic, off-the-cuff remark.

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You have 500 words: use them to clearly express the required theme.

If you spend more than 500 words, you are only increasing the chances of being less clear and of introducing errors in your essay.

Since the professor said he/she is an harsh grader, unless it is a joke about building on steep slopes, you have more to loose from introducing errors in the additional words, rather than gaining from it. And if you can express yourself perfectly in 550 words, you can strive to show perfect synthesis skills contracting your essay down to 500 words.

I would seriously focus on condensing well-written thoughts in 500 words, instead of showing off all my knowledge in 550 words.

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