• October 25, 2014

Why August Is the Cruelest Month

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.

But such benefits, as we know, cannot be quantified. Thus they have no place in the financial ledgers of our corporatized universities. That certainly seems the case at my university, which now measures the value of all its courses with an actuary’s lidless stare. Though I have tried, I cannot discover why 10 students are considered the make or break point for classes. No doubt, there is a fiscal formula, a corporate E=mc2, that explains how 10 heads in a classroom, and not seven or nine, achieves critical mass.

But, then again, perhaps "ten" has the same incantatory power for our bureaucrats as it did for those in France during the Reign of Terror. Mesmerized by the logic of the decimal system, Robespierre and Co. introduced a new calendar based on the number 10. (Napoleon eventually canned the calendar, but kept the metric system—and the guillotine.) But Robespierre was also immunized to the human needs of the people. Of course, terror is no longer the order of the day, but we do seem prisoners of a kind of utilitarian error. Like Charles Dickens’s Mr. Gradgrind, our universities "proceed on the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over," and who are "not to be talked into allowing for anything over." Or anything under, of course: 10 is 10, and not nine.

Thanks to the marvels of computer technology, I spent this summer watching one of my classes struggle to reach 10. Like someone with a bad ticker taking his blood pressure several times a day, I logged onto my faculty folder in order to take my course’s pressure. The prognosis went from dismal to dire.

As the number of enrolled students crawled one day from five to six, then the next day caved to four, I realized more was at stake than a readjustment of my teaching load. My sense of professional, even personal self was on the line. If my course could not make, what did that make me? Did it, in fact, unmake me as a teacher or as a person?

Yes, of course, as a historian, I reminded myself of the context to my course’s fading pulse. Too many history courses offered, too few history majors to fill them; too little advertising done too late. In fact, I recalled, I never bothered with the paperwork to replace the course’s "special topics" designation with an actual course title (a pretty catchy "Living With the Enemy"). I simply thought if I built it, no matter how shoddily, they would come.

I was wrong—they didn’t—but I was not persuaded by the structural explanations for the absence of bodies. Instead, as I looked at the anemic enrollment figures, I saw my own wan reflection as a teacher. My student evaluations at sites like Rate My Professors have always been good—lots of greenish smiley faces, but a fair amount of livid frowns as well—but rarely have they been euphoric. (But when one unhappy student described me as the "spawn of Satan," I fittingly found reason for pride.) In a word, I’ll never be a red-hot chili pepper. And yet, in an age of declining enrollments and declining relevance of the liberal arts, perhaps the peppers alone will persist.

Peppers and decimals: Does it—not just our work schedule, but also our professional standing, our raison d’être—really come down to this? A sad prospect, but one that I could accept with the proviso that peppers be given the chance to make a class of five go atomic.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.