First, an admission: I love a good title. In my opinion, a catchy title can go a long way in getting someone’s attention and hopefully securing it for long enough that s/he continues to read the content. And, in an age in which skimming is the norm in terms of online reading practices, a good title can also give a person a moment of pause.
Thus, when I was putting together an online summer course for this past summer, I racked my brain trying to come up with something that might stand out in a sea of other interesting courses. My class focused on the ways in which both modern and imagined technologies impact humans’ relationships with one another and with these various forms of technology. I eventually settled on the title “Love in the Time of Tinder: Relationships, Identity, and Technology.” Of course, the part of the title that falls after the colon gives readers a clearer idea of what to expect from the class (along with a painstakingly written course description, both in my flyers and in the syllabus, lest there be any confusion). But, I work at a college and my students are not ones to mince words; as such, I became “the professor who taught that Tinder class.” This description is not wrong of course, but it’s also not exactly how I’d phrase it in my CV.
When students asked me about the class, I ensured that they had a clear conception of what to expect in terms of coursework and the class’s goals: after all, we weren’t just discussing Tinder, as it represented only one of many kinds of technologies that we use to communicate and form relationships with others. I used online dating services as an introductory unit because it was a familiar form of technology that we could use as a springboard to discuss how race, sex, and gender are deployed and many times commodified in a digital space as well as person-to-person interactions. In some cases, they knew a lot more about these different dating services than I did, and although there were moments of discomfort and surprise as they read through the material, they always brought fresh, thoughtful, and often funny perspectives to the course. One student even said that writing his introductory paragraph reminded him of constructing an online dating profile, which was actually a light-hearted way to enter into a really interesting conversation about how we construct our identities online when we can only use text to communicate.
So in short, despite my initial worries that students might misinterpret the aim of the course, it soon became clear to me that students were willing and eager to engage with literature, films, and even speculative fiction outside of their comfort zones, which extended far beyond Tinder, though they still made connections with the earlier course content about online dating. As such, I ceased worrying about being “the professor who taught that Tinder class,” at least to my students.
However, my self-consciousness still loomed large when sharing my course title with my colleagues. Would they think I was pandering with students just to ensure enrollment? Would they misread my playfulness as a contemptuous form of “edutainment”–a term that seems to mean anything from using entertainment media (such as videos, video games, etc.) for educational purposes, to essentially shortchanging students on the academic rigor typically expected of college courses. I think I can best summarize this anxiety as the desire to be both serious and fun, which is what I think educational opportunities ought to provide to students.
To be clear, this blog post is not a defense of my teaching pedagogies, but it is a half-serious/half-funny exploration of the pressures that teachers feel when designing courses (and by extension, titles) that are authentic to our best teaching practices, appropriately positioned within academic frameworks, and dare I say it, also alluring to students. Typically, the easiest way to make a title “sexy” is literally to include sex somewhere in the title (ex: “John Donne and the SEXteenth Century” or “Blood, (No) Sex, and Tears: Martyrs and the Nuns Who Loved Them). I could go on, but you get the idea.
However, the risk of these sexy titles is that, in the process of ‘selling’ our classes, we may also feel like we are essentially selling out on our disciplines, as well. Moreover, how much of a hypocrite am I, if I resist the commodification of the university elsewhere, even as I actively engage in marketing my offered courses? Beyond feelings of personal complicity in the commodification of education, I might wonder: why should I need to include a vague reference to sex or a catchy pun in my title? Isn’t my field already exciting in and of itself? If students care about the class, won’t they take it whether or not it has an eye-catching title? Well, maybe.
In an time of increasingly diverse academic opportunities, limited department funding, and about 1,000 articles foretelling the death of the humanities, we know that as much as we care about remaining true to our specializations and scholarly pursuits, we also need to get butts in seats so that we can share that knowledge. And that is where the so-called “sexy” title can be one possible tool to help us highlight the fact that our disciplines are relevant to students’ interests and everyday lives, while also demonstrating that we, too, can be both serious about our classes, while remaining good-humored in the way in which we present those classes to our potential students. A colleague also suggested to be that well-curated title demonstrates a level of care to our students.
That being said, I think one of the best way to combat these concerns is to be transparent about both our own reasons for naming/describing our courses in a particular way, and students’ interests in taking those courses. Performing a meta-analysis of my Tinder class was actually a very helpful and I think humanizing moment to share with my students, as I explained both my anxiety and excitement to teach a class “outside of the norm” and my hopes that they would use their experiences as springboards to discuss increasingly complex and difficult texts, which ultimately brought us to a point where we questioned what humanity even means in the digital and technical age. It was an exciting summer session class for me (and I believe, for my students, too), but it would not have been possible if enough students did not sign up for the course to run–and that is where titles sometimes do make a difference. However, I think it is important that we remain as thoughtful and critical of our own practices while constructing courses as we are in any other area of our academic work, as we continue to balance both our desire to remain true to the integrity of our subjects, while also being mindful of the socio-economic realities that fuel enrollment.