Column | Feb. 27

What's in a name?

Despite the stereotype afforded to English majors, I am not terrible at math. I cannot say I enjoy the subject nor that its more complicated aspects come naturally, but I am certainly capable of basic understanding and usage. I am, though, afraid of math — at least as it is defined within the Princeton community. The fast-paced, competitive nature of math courses, many of which are requirements for engineers and others with quantitative leanings, paired with the tyrannical hand of grade deflation has deterred me from taking these courses. Nonetheless, this semester proved the best time to take my quantitative reasoning distribution requirement and thus explains my current enrollment in the poorly named Math Alive.

Taking the class should have been a fairly easy decision, seeing as it fit into my schedule and the course description seemed on par with my academic goals. The class focuses more on the application and explanation of mathematical functions within society rather than on complex equations, which is well-suited to humanities majors looking for an approachable engagement with Princeton mathematics. There was only one true deterrent — the course title. Math Alive sounds more like an educational children’s song about numbers than it does a legitimate Princeton lecture despite the fact that it truly is an interesting and insightful course taught by a fantastic professor. A potential employer looking at my transcript sees only that title — not the course description — and therein lies my concern. The legitimacy of the course, and furthermore the work involved, is undermined by its witty title. Math Alive could just as simply be called Practical Mathematics — an alternative noted by the professor himself — and, were this the case, I would feel my work was being more fairly and justly represented.

My desire is by no means to obscure the relative ease of this class when compared to others in this field. I understand that a class such as Math Alive cannot be, and should not be, named so as to be on par with MAT 330: Complex Analysis with Applications or anything of the like. But the course title should fairly and seriously reflect the subject, keeping in mind the larger context in which it is being offered. I would prefer it not appear I took the class because there was a catchy title when really it is the subject matter that is most interesting to me as a largely qualitative thinker.

Fortunately, I found myself with fewer examples of this issue when scouring past course offerings than I expected. But there are certainly a couple each semester that undermine their own legitimacy in the same fashion. I cannot help but point to fall 2012’s FRS 177: Bad A$$ Asians: Crime, Vice, and Morality in East Asia as a title I would prefer not to have on my own transcript, particularly if I were applying to formal jobs within Asia. And even I was skeptical of FRS 165: Work, as the name suggests a study hall more than as it does a literary exploration into the changing nature of the job market.

From a professor’s point of view, though, these titles do serve a purpose. Jeff Nunokawa, English professor and master of Rockefeller College, admits that choosing the title of a course is an “effort to be faithful to the content” but also “a little bit of public relations.” A casual reader is certainly more likely to read the description of a course titled “Bad A$$ Asians” than he is “Crime, Vice, and Morality in East Asia” on its own.

However, professors must recognize the implications of such titles as students continue to graduate into a saturated and limited job market, particularly for humanities majors. Each line of the transcript bears an unprecedented weight and those riddled with what appear to be, but truthfully are not, “joke” courses could very well be a detriment to success. Nonetheless, as students nationwide move away from the humanities, I do worry that there will be an increasing tendency towards these creative names — professors attempting to combat this shift by titling their courses with clever puns and pop culture references that unfairly suggest the “all fun” nature of classes targeted to humanities students. However, it should not be the mistakenly perceived ease of these courses that attracts students but rather the challenge of creative and analytical thinking. Thus, honest and informative course titles, without gimmicks or pandering, will continue to attract the type of dedicated students both professors and employers should want while ensuring that students who do explore other fields at introductory levels are not penalized for stepping outside their fields of expertise.

Chelsea Jones is an English major from Ridgefield, Conn. She can be reached at

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