What exactly is Street-Fighting Mathematics?

From January to March, the academic calendar is dominated by the admissions process. You can find me poring over hundreds of grad school applications. In my 10 years of reading such applications, I have borne witness to an alarming trend: the increasingly bizarre course names listed on transcripts. And it is getting harder to establish the content of these magnificently monikered courses. What, exactly, does someone learn in a course called Finding Myself (and should I worry that the student got an “F”?).

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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