What’s in a name?

When I was a postdoc, my university had a biology reading course for undergraduates. It was structured as a small seminar, and any postdoc or faculty member could choose a topic and lead a discussion group, provided enough students showed up. Excited, I wrote up a proposal on one of my favourite topics and handed it in. Time passed. Zero undergraduates signed up. Zero. I talked to the professor overseeing the course about possible reasons. “Maybe,” she said, “you should have chosen a sexier title.” I was astonished. How is “Computational Models in Biology and Biochemistry” not sexy enough?

In the end, I ran the course with a few enthusiastic grad students and postdocs, and it turned out to be quite interesting. But I still wonder whether choosing a better name would have made a difference.

It is true that names of university classes send an important signal to students, and they say something about how the faculty see themselves and their class.

When I was an undergraduate, our programme of study left us with a lot of choice, but there were a few modules that we all had to take. This included things like zoology, botany, and chemistry. The thinking was that any future biologist, no matter whether they were going to work in a molecular genetics lab or in a wild elephant reserve, should be exposed to the same sort of experiences in their early years of study. And those experiences included disecting a rat, drawing parts of plants under the microscope, setting something on fire in the chemistry lab.

Of course, it did not matter to us what those modules were named, because everybody had to do all of them anyway. It mattered to the faculty though. This became apparent when a curricular change allowed them to re-name some of the courses. The content, as far as I can see, remained much the same, but the course organisers had an opportunity to change the names of classes so as to reflect the breadth and depth of the material and how they thought about it. Something interesting happened. “Botany” was renamed to “Functional Plant Anatomy and Morphology”. This no doubt reflected the view held by course faculty that the field had moved on from its historical roots, both in research and in teaching. The new name accounted for an increased appreciation of complex systems and mechanisms, and a greater focus on how structure and function interact to shape all aspects of a plant’s life. Fair enough. As to “Zoology”, it was renamed to “Animals”.

For us students, names of classes were most important where we had a choice. At the beginning of each semester, we would get hold of the list of all the classes offered in our (and other) departments. We would then start to plan what classes we wanted to take, depending on our interests, our timetables, our degree requirements, and what classes our friends were doing. (“I’ll come along to Medical Ethics,” I remember my friend Flo saying, “if you come along to Tap Dancing.”)

Names of classes were an important part of this choice. I particularly remember one class that I signed up to for its cool name alone. It turned out to be an incredibly interesting class, talking about our nervous system, our hormones, and our immune system and about the intricate ways in which the interact. Unfortunately, as often happened, my carefully constructed timetable broke down a few weeks into the semester and I had to drop the class due to a scheduling conflict. To this day, though, I wish I had completed it. If ever there is a MOOC on this, I will be the first to take it. First, because the subject matter is fascinating. But also, because I would like to own some sort of certificate that confirms I have successfully completed a course in Psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology.


2 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Well here’s a quote from the Simpsons, quoting Shakespeare, tha pretty much sums it up:

    Lisa: A Rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
    Bart: Not if you called ’em Stenchblossoms.
    Homer: Or Crapweeds.
    Marge: I’d sure hate to get a dozen Crapweeds for Valentine’s Day. I’d rather have candy.
    Homer: Not if they were called Scumdrops.

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