Content is great, but a good course name never hurts

If you take a look at the Kansas University 2013-14 course catalog, what might jump out at you is that almost nothing jumps out.

Now, we’re not talking about the content of the courses, which could cover all sorts of fascinating things, ranging from storms to DNA to political movements. We’re talking about the titles.

For the most part, they keep things pretty simple, following a similar template. There’s Biology 100: “Principles of Biology.” Or Geography 332: “Glaciers and Landscape.” Or, over in architecture: “Visualizing Airflow In and Around Buildings.”

But every once in a while, you might stumble across a name that veers from these simple, though no doubt accurate and precise, descriptions.

For instance, History 397 is not just “Communism in China.” It’s “From Mao to Now: China’s Red Revolution.” And hey, look at French 401: “Paris, City of Lights and Legends.” Or African and African American Studies 316, which leaves the description for the subtitle — “Ministers and Magicians: Black Religions from Slavery to the Present.”

What inspires a few instructors or departments to break from the norm with a creative course name? Well, they have different reasons, but they have one thing in common: They want the 18- to 22-year-olds thumbing (or clicking) through the course catalog to take notice.

Getting away from ‘generic’

This was the case for Doug Ward, an associate professor of journalism, even though he knew the course he was creating would be required for journalism students.

“I wanted to give students the idea that this is not a dry, traditional sort of class that they feel like they have to take,” Ward said.

The class would teach students to gather, evaluate and analyze information. He didn’t want it to have the “generic” feel of so many college course titles, leaving students perhaps bored before they even came in the door.

So the course is called “Infomania.” Ward taught it for the first time in spring 2013.

Over in the geology department, the title of the Geology 101 introductory course prompted some recent brainstorming among faculty.

That course is taken by geology majors, but it also fills a requirement for other students, some of whom might not really know what geology is. So the faculty decided the course’s name, the traditional “Introduction to Geology,” wasn’t really drawing in a general audience as well as it could, according to associate professor Jennifer Roberts.

She said that name wasn’t effectively getting across the variety of things KU’s geologists study and teach about, including developments in energy, environment and climate that might interest many undergrads. Plus, some people unfamiliar with the fields sometimes confuse geology with geography.

So this year, the course has a new name: “The Way the Earth Works.” Suggested by another associate professor, Anthony Walton, it was borrowed from the title of a textbook written by a prominent geochemist.

A course’s content will always be most important, Roberts said. But a good name sure doesn’t hurt.

“If you can’t get people in there, you can’t teach them,” Roberts said.

Grabbing attention

One place you’ll find some creative names is among the new First-Year Seminars that KU began offering in 2012. Their purpose is to increase freshman retention by giving first-year students a meaningful, engaging experience in a course early on, said Jonathan Lamb, an assistant professor of English.

In the spirit of being engaging, he named his course “From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: The Rise and Fall of the Book.” It’s about the changes to the world of books caused by the introduction of the printing press and then by digital technologies.

Lamb, who said he’s a fan of creative titles for anything, guessed that the name of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg might draw in social-media fans and give students an idea of the topic’s relevance.

“Plus, it has the rhyme, you know?” Lamb said.

Jennifer Gleason, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, gave her seminar an eye-catching name, as well: “Why do the Birds and Bees Do It?”

She said she rarely gets an opportunity to come up with creative titles for the courses she teaches for biology majors, but her seminar was meant to have a broad appeal.

“Face it: First-year students are interested in sex,” Gleason said. “I can use that as a draw, and then teach them something about evolution.”

As Ward sees it, this isn’t a bad philosophy for any KU course. As the university tries to engage and retain its young students, would some snappy names really hurt?

“We need to be able to reach out to students and to give them a sense that learning is fun,” Ward said. “I mean, learning is interesting.”