What’s in a class name?

Jennifer Joyce Kissko saw the term “homeless chic” in People magazine a few years ago in reference to the fashionably shabby, urban garb of Mary Kate and Ashley Olson. She put the term to use when she used it to name a University Writing course about poverty, privilege and identity in American democracy.

It caught the attention of Breton Novelli, a freshman who took the class last semester.

“The name is what grabbed my attention, but it is the description that gets me to sign up for it,” Novelli said.

Ambiguity in course titles is a growing phenomenon at GW, where teachers label courses with provocative names they hope will catch students’ attention. But when it comes time to register, some are left in the dark with little more information than such a class name to make a decision.

Adam Leighton, a freshman, said he relies on ratemyprofessor.com for information on courses. The University Bulletin, he said, is “completely impersonal.”

“Unfortunately (class names) are all kids have to go off most of the time,” Leighton said.

New, sexy class titles are most prevalent in the UW program and are not common among all classes. This semester, one UW class is called “Academic literacy in an age of BS” and another is dubbed “Fight Club: writing about violence in American culture.”

Beyond special topics courses and the UW courses, many class names stay the same from year to year. Fewer than five new names for old classes are approved each semester, said Carol Sigelman, associate vice president for graduate studies and academic affairs.

Carol Hayes, director of the UW program, said professors discuss names with each other before a decision is made.

“A lot of time gets spent crafting the class names,” she said. They invest time into designing attractive class names because “students do better and tend to be happier if they are writing about something they are engaged in.”

Even if professors are not advertising their classes with revamped names, some are still worried about attracting students. Meeting minimum enrollment numbers for classes is “a pretty common concern” for specialized courses in small departments, Sigelman said.

While some departments offer class syllabi and detailed descriptions of their courses on their Web sites, others offer nothing beyond what is in the University Bulletin. The School of Public Health has no course information in a published bulletin, so professors must rely entirely on the Web to market classes.

David Grier, dean of academic programs in the Elliott School of International Affairs, called a class he is currently teaching “Obscure and difficult readings in international affairs” as a way to dissuade students from signing on.

“To keep numbers down, I scheduled it at the end of the day on Friday and gave it an unappealing name,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Even this didn’t do much good. I have 11 students in it.”

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