Why August Is the Cruelest Month

August 29, 2014 / Phil Lesch

The Chronicle of Higher Education
August 28th, 2014

If T.S. Eliot had become a tenured professor, he would never have insisted April was the cruelest month. As those of us in the liberal arts know, it is August. Not only must we stir ourselves to bolt together syllabi and prepare lectures—acts that ping-pong between the drearily practical and ludicrously utopian—but we often do so not knowing if our classes will "make." Poor Eliot, who would have shown us fear in a handful of dust. Try showing us just a handful of names on an enrollment sheet—there’s real fear.

Ten had long been the magic number at my university: the minimum necessary for a class to make. But as befitted a magic number, it contained a certain amount of swerve. Department chairs had swerve in deciding whether to give a green light to a class that fell shy of this minimum. Perhaps a new course required cultivation; perhaps majors required an old course for graduation. Or perhaps, just perhaps, it was a matter of education: The chair knew that the five or six students who signed up for a particular class would benefit enormously from the consequent attention and intensity.

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