MAXWELL:  Courses with come-hither names

7/5/1996 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Why are so many of our colleges and universities _ including the staid Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Wesleyan and Sarah Lawrence _ assigning course titles that are “intellectual lite”? Why are they trading in venerable titles such as “General Botany,” “General Chemistry,” “Introduction to History” and “College Geometry” for names such as “For Every Pharaoh There is a Moses,” “Sports as a Metaphor for Life” and “Queer Texts and Contexts”?

Like many other areas of American life that were once protected from the vagaries of free enterprise, higher education has gone commercial. And professors _ once worshiped for their knowledge alone _ now must market their courses as used car salesmen hawk autos.

Daniel S. Hammermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas and an authority on the teaching profession, understands this dilemma in academe: “The cutesy-fication of course titles is practiced most by departments afraid of losing students. If they lose too many students, their courses can be canceled.” Other professors argue that the exponential growth of knowledge and greater tolerance of postmodernist relativism _ not the need to market _ underlie today’s jazzy titles and droll course content.

In this light, consider the following excerpt from the description of “ENGL239 Girltalk,” a course at Wesleyan University that focuses on the works of Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde: “Early in his career, Oscar Wilde edited The Woman’s World, a women’s fashion magazine, thereby suggesting the centrality of the discourses of fashion, fandom, gossip, and shopping to modernist narrative and their complex relation to issues of gender and sexuality. . . .”

Of what value are this and other such courses to contemporary students? Absolutely none, says professor emeritus and neoconservative Gertrude Himmelfarb: “The use of irony and wordplay in these course titles is a postmodernist trick to suggest multiple meanings and complexity where in fact there is very little. All it does is confuse students as to what the content of the course may actually be. Many of these courses are completely vacuous. They’re a terrible, terrible waste of time in a young person’s life.”

Others disagree with Himmelfarb, contending that most professors, instead of preaching liberal dogma and bowing to commercialism, are borrowing from other genres to make their courses more attractive and relevant to their students. Few people doubt that some of today’s college courses are too cute and provocative to have much real value. Other courses, however, reflect our changing times, the profound growth of knowledge and the evolving interests of contemporary students.

The real danger, perhaps, is not that academia is changing too fast or too much, but that too many hidebound professors are not changing at all.

Still, one wonders about the value of offerings such as “Renaissance Sexualities,” an English course at Swarthmore that studies “the homoerotic, chastity and friendship, marriage, adultery and incest” in Renaissance culture. What’s wrong with plain old “Renaissance Literature and Society”? Is it not titillating enough?

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times.