The two most shameless course titles at Princeton are NES 362 “Blood, Sex, and Oil: The Caucasus,” and FRS 117 “Eye of the Tiger: Reading Buildings.” They blatantly, even desperately, ask for attention. The former flaunts the biggest buzzwords that can be dragged kicking from its topic. Reading its blurb, I get the feeling it does not live up to the tone of its title: “Topics include ethnic and religious coexistence and conflict, imperial rule, imagery and identity, literature, Sovietization, the formation of national identities, and pipeline politics.” Though it may not be a badass class, it doesn’t sound like a bad one. Its course reviews talk about what an interesting region the Caucasus is, how students were amazed at how much there was to learn about it; they did not mention blood, sex, or oil.
“Eye of the Tiger,” though, just invents a buzzword. FRS 117 is a Freshman Seminar about architecture. Where, you may ask, does Survivor’s 1981 smash hit come in? I don’t know either. My best guess is that the class’s slight emphasis on on-campus buildings is meant to imply that a student [read Tiger] will develop his or her eye. It is a blatant grab at freshman eyeballs, and a misleading one; any student that reads the description will see it has nothing to do with the theme song from Rocky, and will decide whether or not to take the course based on what it is actually about.
The impulse to attract students to at least read your course description is understandable. What’s unsavory here is the condescension. Course titles like this betray a conception of contemporary students as a herd of cattle who have narrow interests shaped by mass media. Sex, violence, pop culture references—these are the things to draw Princeton undergraduates.
Even without going to this extreme, there is a trend towards this kind of titling. Whether hoping to attract students to a course which isn’t as popular as it should be, or to communicate the exciting parts of the course that someone outside of the discipline would not know to expect, the titles, they are a changing. The university’s most popular courses—“American Cinema,” “Children’s Literature,” “Practical Ethics,” “Introduction to Macroeconomics”—are not called by anything beyond their subject. They have the draw of popular material, famous professors, or being required for further coursework. Attempts to add description into titles come when a course’s subject fails to tell potential students the whole story.
Where do titles come from? Most are inherited, I found out. When a department establishes a course with the registrar, it stays on the books and keeps its number and name regardless of who is teaching it. In English professor Jeff Dolven’s words, “There’s incentive to fit what you do under rubrics that already exist.” Dolven, whose specialties include Spenser and Shakespeare, teaches courses called “Spenser” and “Shakespeare.” But Dolven is interested in “the poetics of course titles” and said he would try to play around with his courses’ titles if it was easier. When a professor proposes a new course, he or she comes up with a name, which is almost always accepted. I heard two examples to the contrary. Ecology and Evolutionary Biology professor James L. Gould, when his popular “Animal Behavior” was being split into two courses, wanted to name one “Behavioral Ecology” and the other “Ethology,” the technical name of his field. The registrar at the time told him no one would know what ethology meant and he trusted her. The other story is apparently a legend in the English Department. A junior faculty member wanted to offer a class on constraint and form in the English language. He proposed it under the name “Bondage.” That one didn’t even make it to the registrar; an older member in the department “rose in denunciation” of it, apparently, and the professor came up with a new name.
The Writing Program has the biggest administrative hand in naming their courses and they have an interesting rule: No subtitles. Amanda Irwin Wilkins, director of the Writing Program, thinks subtitles are a MadLib which are useful to help students think about naming papers, but do not fit in with the Writing Center’s style. (Elsewhere in Princeton’s faculty, subtitling is called “academic colitis.”) Irwin Wilkins summarizes the subtitle formula as “catchy opener, colon, informative subtitle.” This formula is at its greatest expression if the opener is of the form “From Sophocles to Shelly”—even better if it rhymes—and bonus points if you can pack the subtitle with jargon.
Some subtitles are useful, “A Mathematical Approach,” or “1920-1974.” They clarify and narrow the scope of the class. Often, though, they are simply bad writing. “Economic Equality and Its Discontents” does not need to be also called “Divided We Stand.” All its additional title does is to throw out a cliché to stick in your memory.
If course titles are so big a concern for the Writing Program, what do they hope to get out of them? Their main goal with developing titles is to produce a balanced slate of courses. “We’re mindful of our responsibility to serve every freshman,” says Irwin Wilkins, “We want a group of titles that offer the most interest to the most people.”
Despite this careful effort, Irwin Wilkins sometimes hears complaints from freshmen who feel their Writing Seminar did not live up to their expectations—and I have too. The source of this is that the subject of a Writing Sem is not not in its title. The reason they don’t have subtitles is to keep them from all being called “Society and the Witch: Learning to Write at Princeton.” Though the Writing Program website tries to explain this, many miss it. Furthermore, due to how broad their titles are, what material does get covered cannot live up to every expectation every student will have for it.
Freshman seminars, by contrast, have no policy about subtitles, and are swimming in them. Home of “Bad A$$ Asians” and “Eye of the Tiger,” no department puts more color in its titles. If you believe a catchy title is about garnering enrollment, this makes sense. These classes are competing for only a quarter of the student body, and cannot offer advancement in any department.
Director of Freshman Seminars Dean Clayton Marsh, though, does nothing to shape his program’s titles. The only time he asks them to be changed is to differentiate any courses that sound similar. When I spoke to him about titling, Marsh was slightly wary about accusations that the titles of Freshman Seminars are in some way false advertising to enhance enrollment. He emphasized that the program’s titles had naturally evolved to be more colorful and exciting over the years, and that this trend was no one’s project. He believes this evolution is about better communicating the excitement within these courses. “I’m not some PT Barnum out there, whipping up sensationalist titles,” he said. Marsh believes that regardless of title, Freshman seminars are serious courses, meant to be rigorous in every way. No style of titling is better or more effective than any other in his eyes. (Though I did notice that “Responses of Freshwater Systems to Atmospheric Acid Deposition” did not run last year, perhaps due to lack of interest.)
Dean Marsh hopes that the seminars’ titles “show a broad mix of offerings that are accessible to a general audience.” In fact, the titles are becoming so tailored to a general audience that Dean Marsh is exploring the idea of giving Freshmen Seminars a second, more academic title. “I’m looking at using an abbreviated title on the transcript, so that the subject matter is clear. It’s also a matter of space: the full title can really take up a lot of room.” That way, to take Tilghman’s old seminar, you would sign up for “How the Tabby Cat Got Her `Stripes or The Silence of the Genes,” and then your transcript would show something like “Epigenetics.” Fairy tales and movie titles are for freshmen, names of disciplines for their employers. (To be fair, I received the full benefit of this in high school when “To Infinity and Beyond” appeared on my transcript as “Advanced Abstract Mathematics.”)
But is appealing to students a sin? Film Professor P. Adams Sitney thinks so. To Sitney, who has taught here since 1980, flashy course titles are just a symptom of a growing and upsetting trend to treat students like consumers. “It’s completely wrong,” says Sitney, “Courses should be called ‘Thucydides’ or ‘Early French Renaissance Painting.’ This is part of the mentality that’s destroying academia.” According to Sitney, titles are pretty much a problem unique to the humanities. “They would never get away with that in Molecular Biology,” he says. He thinks that the other departments still believe in what they teach, instead of pandering to students’ wishes to protect their enrollments. His admittedly cynical view is that students feel entitled to cool courses without a lot of work that are easy to do well in. Sitney would disagree with Clayton Marsh. To him, a deliberately exciting title communicates much about the tone of the course. A cool title will tell you the subject matter and promise that it isn’t a lot of work. I asked Sitney about the case of a student who did not know he would enjoy his class’s material until he took it, who could be drawn in by an accessible title. He reflected that occasionally he will get students who initially find the material boring and by the end tell him what a great class it was. These cases, though, seemed rare, and he had no interest in gearing his courses towards them.
When I talked to students about courses, their main concern seemed to be accuracy. No one wants to enroll in a course called “Graphic Design” only to find that it’s exclusively on typography. You-You Ma ’16 told me her Writing Seminar “Knowledge and Travel,” turned out to be pretty much entirely about ethnography and gender studies. “We only read about travel in the last few weeks,” she said. Students may accuse professors of false advertising and leave courses feeling more than a little cheated.
Sometimes this issue is far from deliberate. History lecturer Simon Grote taught a Junior Seminar called “Sentimental Education in Early Modern Europe.” The word “education” triggered thoughts of formal schooling in many of his students’ minds. So, when History majors with an interest in education enrolled and began to read about personal efforts to develop non-rational parts the mind, they complained they had been misled. I heard this sentiment echoed by Amanda Irwin Wilkins, who thought her course description for “Modern Memory” would prepare students for some of its heavy material. She was surprised, then, when students said they had no idea it would be so depressing.
The issue is that, when professors design their courses, they are immersed in their subject. Many of the words they will use have a well-developed meaning that can get misconstrued by a non-specialist audience.
Misleading titling can go the other way, though. Sometimes, courses are much more interesting than they sound. The Writing Center had a seminar called “Sounds of Subversion.” For years it got great course reviews, but low enrollment requests. The Writing Center worked with the professor to choose a new name: Music and Power. Since then it has been one of its most popular offerings. The Woody Woo class “Populations, Society and Public Policy” had a strange extra-credit question on its midterm, “Think of another title for this course.” Apparently, the professor had been hearing that students had loved her course, but had thought its title sounded boring. Crafting an exciting description isn’t always easy, though. Scott Wise ’15, who was given this extra-credit question, said, “It’s hard to think what else to call it, because that’s exactly what it was.” Next fall it is being offered again, with the same name.
Emily Lever ’15 was confused about SPA 346, “Modern Latin American Fiction in Translation.” The first sentence of the course description is “Latin ‘Camp,’” which was exactly what the course is about. This begs the question, why give a vague, wordy title when they know (and are willing to tell you) it’s narrowly about Latin Camp? This issue, I think, is bureaucratic. SPA 346 is “on the books” in the Spanish department. The department wants to be able to offer another course that fits broadly into Modern Latin American Fiction in Translation without each professor having to propose a new course to the administration. So, they lose a little clarity.
Titling courses is a challenge. How do you communicate the value of a semester’s worth of material in a few words? Often you don’t have to. Students already have ideas in their heads when they see “Urban Education Reform,” “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Lives,” or “Topology,” which will excite them or not. (The scariest thing about the Math department here is that “Algebra I” is a 300 level course about symmetry and group theory, and if you’re a math student, it makes sense to call that “Algebra I.”) But where does that leave classes that want to appeal to students that don’t know yet what they’re interested? That’s not easy either.
I think there is an unfortunate tendency to dress up course titles to get students in the door. Much of the incentive there is noble. I don’t think any professor wants to trick unwilling students into his or her class, at the very least because no one wants to teach to a pack of bored students. But I think the clearest way to name a course is by naming its subject matter. If its subject matter is too diffuse for a name, I would worry about what I would learn from it. Though clarity is the most dependable strategy for communication, sometimes there are more expressive ones. There are ways to have fun with titles, though, without relying on clichés of titling. It is hard to be mad at Joshua Katz’s “Wordplay: A Wry Plod from Babel to Scrabble” which is both concise and a sly example of its own subject. And “Bondage” would have been hilarious.
Sometimes a title can tell you lots about the class and sometimes it can give you a complete wrong impression. Heavy citation of Urban Dictionary in the description for “Chaucer” convinced me the class would be less academic, which apparently cost me a class with an incredibly serious medievalist. Fundamentally, naming your course is an act of writing. You are trying to take something in your head, which you have a lot of well-formed thoughts about, and communicate it to hundreds of strangers using twenty-six abstract letters and the occasional dollar-sign. Necessarily, you are going to fail somewhat. “That,” as Dean Marsh told me smartly, “is a challenge that runs throughout life.”