Making a syllabus sexy This fall, colleges across the country have become hotbeds of sex, leisure and gambling -- at least in the classroom.

November 08, 1998|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

In a world where college costs continue to rise faster than inflation and student loan payments can linger into middle age, the trend on many college campuses has been toward a nuts and bolts education that gives graduates immediately useful, salable skills.

But meander through university course guides and Web sites this fall and you can still find some deliciously odd, entertaining and debatably useful courses being offered.

Consider a graduate seminar in Stanford University's philosophy department: "Is Morality Too Demanding?" The course syllabus says, "Critics have argued that prominent moral theories require people] ... to act in ways that are either impossible or, if possible, undesirable."

It is, of course, mere coincidence that this is being offered at the university attended by the daughters of both President Clinton and Kenneth Starr. The same goes for another Stanford offering, this one in the political science department. Its title, simply, is "Punishment."

Stanford also offers "The American Dream." For some students, just getting accepted at the pricey private university - and being able to pay the tuition - should be enough to ace that course. ("The American Dream" should not be confused with "The American Suburb," which is listed at Yale.)

At Southwest Texas State University, Humanities 5301 is tucked into the long, computerized list of more routinely titled courses. The name of this graduate seminar is "Quest for Order & Happiness."

The emphasis, says Kenneth Grasso, who teaches it, is on the "quest." He says students can earn an A without ever actually achieving either order or happiness in their own lives.

"It's sort of a Great Books thing," Grasso says. "Most people come through college with an education that is spotty. Somebody can get a B.A. and think that Plato is a Disney character. This course gives them a chance to get caught up and read some of the Great Books," including, he says, Dante, Machiavelli, Plato and the Bible.

So why the cute course name?

"You try to come up with an interesting title to get people to take [the courses]. ... The sexy title is a way of drawing in students."

University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger knows a little something about that ploy. Years back, she taught a course on the Kama Sutra. "Which had a lab," she points out. "It was highly subscribed. I taught it without a lab and it wasn't nearly as successful."

Despite the come-on, though, her Kama Sutra course actually covered South Asian texts in the school's department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations.

This fall, Doniger is trying something different. In the master of liberal arts program, she's teaching "The Mythology of the Bedtrick."

This too, though, is rooted in solid literary ground. "The bedtrick," Doniger explains, is a time-honored device in literature, as in Shakespeare's "All's Well that Ends Well," that refers to "having sex with someone under the impression" of having sex with someone else.

Along with sex, leisure seems to be a topic much in demand on campus this fall. The University of Missouri, for example, has an "Introduction to Leisure Studies." According to the course summary, Mizzou students will be examining "the history of recreation and the leisure movement" and "the theories and philosophies of play."

At Southwest Texas State, meanwhile, students can get not only a bachelor's degree but also a master's in leisure, apparently a growth field as baby boomers move into retirement.

Scottsdale Community College in Arizona - home of the Fighting Artichokes - takes leisure seriously. Its "Hospitality/Gaming Management" school offers courses and a full associate's degree in gambling.

Promising "Hands-on practice with casino equipment," there is GAM 210, "Techniques of Dealing - Advanced Poker." According to the course description, "training includes ... Seven-Card Stud ... Hi-Lo Split and tournament dealing."

There are no prerequisites for what has to be a dream course: "International Casinos & Race Tracks." Enrollees get actual college credit for taking "guided field trips" to gambling centers around the world.

At the American Council on Education, which studies college curricula, spokeswoman Barbara Gleason cautions that "sometimes you hear the name of [a course] that sounds really bizarre and then, when you look at the curriculum, it's really not that strange."

tTC Gleason cites a course on "snow" at George Washington University in Washington. It's really a course on environmental conditions, she says.

Similarly, Patti Wenk, a spokeswoman at Southwest Texas State, says, "We have a geography professor who teaches the interglobal connection on why people ordering frog legs in Louisiana are affected by monsoons in India."

The course, she says, is a serious look at the global economy. But perhaps she's not ready to take the final. Asked about the link between frogs and monsoons and why it's important, Wenk says: "I used to know the connection. But I forgot."

Pub Date: 11/08/98

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