By James M. Lang
"April is the cruellest month," wrote T.S. Eliot in the opening line of "The Waste Land," and I feel the truth of that statement each spring as the final month of the semester swings into view. Eliot did not have the cycle of the academic year in mind when he wrote his poetic masterpiece, but it captures beautifully what I experience every year as we careen toward May commencement.
I can’t completely blame the month’s miseries on academe: Three of my five children are still in high school, and every April in New England they come out of winter hibernation to play spring sports. That requires negotiating endless drop-offs and pick-ups and occasionally watching games, huddled in the stands and wishing that we lived in a place where April actually meant warm temperatures.
The crush of new obligations and time pressures occurs also in my courses. I feel this increasing urgency, as the semester’s end draws near, to ensure that we have accomplished all of the course goals. No matter how well I have planned and executed a course, I always get to April and think to myself: But wait, we have completely neglected to talk about X! If I send students out into the world without an understanding of X, democracy might collapse!
I maintain a pretty strict turnaround time for grading and handing back major papers, projects, and tests in my courses. But I sometimes fall behind on the small things like quizzes or in-class worksheets, especially when they are turned in near spring break. Every April I rummage through my course folder to see whether I’ve neglected to return anything to students, and almost always find that I have.
A similar mania for cleaning up unfinished business seems to grip the souls of committee chairs this month, as they perceive the window of opportunity closing to conclude any necessary work for the year. At least once a day throughout April, I get an email asking me to fill in some campus Doodle poll, attend an unexpected meeting, or remind me about one I am expected at shortly. Sometimes the emails inform me about meetings I have inadvertently missed.
During one particularly packed week this month, I had to attend four campus meetings — for the committees on tenure-and-promotion, on building-advisory decisions, on book selection for our first-year common read, and on the college’s next strategic plan.
I have lovely colleagues and those are all important committees — but at this point of the semester? I can’t even.
Toss in for good measure some hiring we are doing for administrative positions, which means there are no less than 10 open forums I could have attended this April in order to provide input on candidates for various jobs. For all the those meetings I couldn’t make: Dear Candidates: I can’t make it to your forums, but based on my brief reading of your CV, you seem great. Perhaps I’ll see you next year. Or perhaps not.
All of those meetings and forums come in service to the institution. There’s another set of events that crowd the calendar every April in service to our students. Yet it is in those student-related gatherings that I almost always find the spirit and energy I need to survive the maelstrom of April madness and the final push to graduation weekend.
I have on my calendar no less than five end-of-year events for students that I should attend in April, if I can manage the time. The first one took place at the beginning of the month, when we inducted our outstanding junior and senior English majors into the campus chapter of the national English honor society, Sigma Tau Delta.
The wise colleagues who planned this ceremony invited a stellar student who had graduated last year to give a short talk to the new inductees. That student, now a teacher herself, stood at the podium and delivered one of the most inspirational speeches I have ever heard about the power of literature to connect us to one another. I jumped up at the end of that ceremony and looked around for somebody to teach — l want to analyze some poetry right now! Who’s with me?
We don’t have professional advisers at my college, so in April I also have to meet with a dozen or more students to help them plan their fall courses. How to squeeze these appointments into overcrowded April is an exercise in schedule contortionism that I never seem to master.
I also often find that students come unprepared to these advising meetings, which can be a little frustrating. They are supposed to review possible fall classes before our meeting, and then we narrow down or confirm their choices. But many of them don’t get that far, and show up empty-handed. Together we end up building their schedules from scratch.
While I can find that irritating — and occasionally these meetings make me question the wisdom of the faculty advising model — I also have moments in which I see the power of these encounters with students. One student this semester sat down with nothing prepared, and I groaned inwardly and then we got to work. A first-year student, she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, so was just angling toward preprofessional classes in areas in which she had only the vaguest of interests.
"What’s your favorite class?" I said.
"Art," she said, with a sheepish smile, almost as if she were embarrassed about it. "Time drags in some of my classes, but in that class I completely lose track of myself and by the time I look up at the clock, it’s almost over. I just really like to make art. I was thinking about taking another art course, but I’m not sure if I should."
What a pleasure it was to affirm for her that her love of art not only was something to value, but that, no matter what major she chose, pursuing that passion could lead her in many different academic and professional directions. She could combine a business major with an art minor or vice versa; she could put her artistic talents to work in a graphic-design career; she could nurture that talent and direct it in a thousand different ways.
Most important, I reminded her, she chose to pursue her education at a liberal-arts college, and the mission of such colleges was to encourage students to explore the wide landscape of our culture — even while they prepared themselves for professional careers.
She left my office with a smile and an art course on her schedule. I greeted the next advisee with a renewed sense of enthusiasm for the work, April be damned.
Perhaps the most time-consuming of my April tasks is writing letters of recommendation for graduating seniors, many of whom are English majors searching for teaching positions. Letters from my own undergraduate professors paved my way to graduate school, to my faculty position, and to my promotions (as is probably true for most readers here). As a result I take my letter-writing duties very seriously and put in as much time on them as I can, even though the temptation to whip them off and get back to my more pressing deadlines can be overwhelming.
I ask students who request a letter of recommendation to complete a form in which they (a) outline their major academic and extracurricular achievements and (b) connect those achievements to the opportunity for which they are applying. Once I receive their forms, I get a striking new view of students whom I have come to know in a more conventional academic setting.
I discover the extraordinary talents they have put to use on campus clubs or teams, the hours of volunteer work they have completed at local charities, and the admirable careers they hope to build. This expanded view of my students reminds me, each April, why we are here: to equip young people with the knowledge and skills they need to pursue their chosen pathway, and then to set their feet on the road.
Cruel though I might find April at its outset when I am staring in open-mouthed horror at my online calendar, once the month comes to a close, I generally find myself not only relieved but grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to make a concrete difference in students’ lives. I shake my fist at the world on April 1st like a crotchety old drunk; on April 30th I’m hugging it like a new friend I met and bonded with at the hotel bar: You’re the best, man.
Oh, April. I’m sorry I said that mean stuff at the beginning. You’re great. Let’s do it again next year.
James M. Lang is a professor of English and director of the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. He is the author of Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning. Follow him on Twitter at @LangOnCourse.