In reviewing applications, I look for a balance of academic ability and experience. The latter is usually illustrated in the applicant’s resume and essay. But I rely on standardized test scores and transcripts to assess academic ability. Generally, students applying to graduate school have strong grades and therefore it is imperative that I can assess their likely knowledge base.
The majority of course names are self-explanatory. If a transcript shows Organic Chemistry or Introduction to Calculus, I largely know what they were taught (and what they went through).
But if a student earned a B in Racism, what exactly did they study? And is getting a B in Racism a good or a bad thing? At least 20 percent of the transcripts I read have a course that leaves me scratching my head, and they tend to fall into one of these categories:
Vague one-word titles: Professors who label their classes with one mysterious word give me the most headaches. Try to decipher what students who took courses in Stupidity (Occidental College), Daylighting (MIT) or Self-Esteem (Cal State Fresno) might have studied.
Too clever to be useful: Some titles are often very clever and intriguing. See, for example, Those Sexy Victorians (Ole Miss), and the Amazing World of Bubbles (Caltech). While I would gladly sign up for any of these courses, they don’t exactly offer a reviewer much insight into what the student might have learned.
Would benefit from a colon: Some course titles just feel unfinished. Take, for example, Getting Dressed (Princeton), Street-Fighting Mathematics (MIT) or Elvis as Anthology (University of Iowa). Each of these would benefit from a colon, followed by a description. Courses such as God, Sex and Chocolate: Desire and the Spiritual Path (UC San Diego) and Muppet Magic: Jim Henson’s Art (UC Santa Cruz) tell me so much more. Just consider what this course might be without its colon: Gaga for Gaga: Sex, Gender and Identity” (University of Virginia).
Professors are increasingly judged by quantitative indicators: number of published papers, research grant dollars generated and teaching evaluations. With the pressure to fill classes, I understand nothing gets bums on seats like a vague, sexy, one-word class title. I teach a course called Issues in Sexual and Reproductive Health, and it is exactly what it says on the box. But if I had called it Global Sex or just Sex, would others have been able to assess its content? Is it an anthropology course examining cultural variations in sex, or a media course on how sex pervades advertising globally? In judging whether an applicant has the right knowledge to succeed in your degree program, the difference matters.
This frustrated reviewer has a plea: Professors, give your course a title indicative of its content. It can still be fun, but please spare me from guessing what the student who took Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang (Oberlin Experimental College) may be expected to know.
Rob Stephenson, a public voices fellow at the OpEd Project, is an associate professor at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Georgia.
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