When Mark Applebaum thought of teaching a music appreciation course at Stanford University in 2002, he looked to one of the greats for inspiration.
“Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was once asked, ‘What is rock music about?’ and he said, ‘Rock music is sex and rebellion,’” says Applebaum, an associate professor of music composition and theory.
Rather than giving the class a generic name, he devised the title, “Rock, Sex and Rebellion.”
“It is indeed a music course first and foremost, and I have to caution students on the first day of class that I’m not handing out extra credit for their own personal enterprise in sex or rebellion,” Applebaum says.
Like other professors of provocatively titled courses, Applebaum says students who take his class quickly learn that whatever the name on the syllabus, it’s still academia.
“Sex is approached on the course at two levels,” Applebaum says. “Primarily we’re looking at gender issues and we’re equally looking at sex as a topic as in an expressive topic of rock music.”
But the subject matter is still enough to draw nearly 200 students when he offers the course every two years.
All over the country, college students have the opportunity to take classes like, “Sex Wars: Porn,” “Cult Genres: Camp, Kitsch & Trash Cinema,” “Transnational Sexualities,” “Sex and Society” and “God, Sex, Chocolate: Desire and the Spiritual Path.”
Professors generally develop titles for their courses to reflect the subject matter they are teaching. Yet, when topics such as sex, pornography and chocolate are thrown into the mix, students flock to such courses.
Classes with provocative titles tend to fall under departments that lend themselves to such topics, such as sociology, women’s studies and film studies. After all, it’s kind of tough to fit Playboy magazine or candy cravings into a calculus discussion.
Some titles seem deliberately provocative, but others get their titles almost accidentally.
When students at New York’s Hunter College see “Sex Wars: Porn” on the online course catalogue, for example, they’re actually considering a course with the full title of, “Sex Wars: Feminist Perspectives on Pornography.”
Adrienne Milner, a graduate student at the University of Miami, teaches a class listed only as “Sexuality and Sports,” but that wasn’t what she meant to call the class.
“It couldn’t fit in the course catalog, but it’s actually called, ‘Sexuality and Sports: Intersections of Sexuality, Sex, Gender, Race and Class,’” Milner says.
Milner says class discussions focus on sexism in sports, such as a recent incident when British soccer announcer Andy Gray was fired after a series of sexist comments.
But some classes are as provocative as they sound. In “Cinema and the Sex Act” at the University of California, Berkeley, students watch clips of old “stag” films to put pornography in a historical context.
Students who take sexuality courses, however, are sometimes interested in the academic heart of the subject more than the lure of sexual provocation. Ronald Hunter, 21, a student at Coastal Carolina Community College in Jacksonville, N.C., said his class in gender and sexuality studies is more interesting than he might have expected, but not because it’s titillating.
“For this class I am writing a paper, imagining if I was a different person, and I am writing it on being a black, lesbian transwoman,” says Hunter, who is white. “I have to write about what kinds of prejudices and what kind of discrimination I would face as this new person.”
Courses don’t always need “sex” in the title to appeal. Sometimes modern or unconventional subject matter can draw a potential student’s eye.
“Russian literature, my scholarly specialty and what I have been teaching for decades, never attracted much public attention,” says George Gutsche, a professor of Russian and Slavic studies at the University of Arizona who teaches, “Slavic Folklore: Vampires and Werewolves.”
The name is “ accurate and not a gimmick,” Gutsche says. “Because so many universities are offering courses on vampires and werewolves now, I suspect the subject will soon become rather conventional.”
Enticing course titles can also draw attention that the professors would rather not have. Some courses have prompted complaints from university officials. A course called “Critical Pornography Studies” at the University of Iowa was cited in 2005 when Iowa House Speaker Christopher Rants argued against an increase in state funding for higher education, saying such a course was an inappropriate use of taxpayer money.
Yet, as Applebaum says, people can criticize courses even when those courses don’t have flashy titles. He says he has never received a complaint about his “Rock, Sex and Rebellion” course, but he did receive complaints about a generically titled music course at Mississippi State University. If a student isn’t comfortable with the subject matter, it doesn’t matter what the course is called.
“I chose to play some popular music that had obscenities” that at least one student complained about, Applebaum says. “I’ve never had any problems at Stanford with that kind of thing.”