Another religion class embroiled Swarthmore College in controversy again. Last year, the class “Is God a White Supremacist?” received attention by many right-wing websites, particularly the cottage industry that reports sensational campus news. This year, about two dozen people from the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) came outside the Ben West parking lot to protest a Fall 2018 class titled “Queering the Bible”.
It was one of those rare occasions where non-students filled The Daily Gazette’s Facebook page with comments, which in this case were critical of the Religion Department’s course offering.
One commenter wrote, “Will the college be examining this type of diversity in the teachings of the Koran? Or is this exclusive to the Bible?”
A Swarthmore student quickly replied, saying that the college indeed offers similar courses in Islam, namely “Gender, Sexuality, and the Body in Islamic Discourses.”
While our student seemed to be able to refute accusations of double standards, the initial Facebook commenter did raise an interesting question. Why wasn’t a more conventionally sounding title used, such as “Gender and Sexuality in the Bible,” analogous to the “Gender, Sexuality, and the Body in Islamic Discourses” class? There would be little change in the content or syllabus should a blander title be chosen. If I were to hazard a guess, professors use clickbait titles because students respond positively to them.
I know, because I was one of them.
Last spring, I enrolled in “Radical Jesus,” my first religion class at Swarthmore. Sure enough, when the twenty-odd students were introducing themselves and their motivations for enrolling, about half referenced the eye-catching title. It was a fun and engaging class, which essentially focused on early Christianity and the New Testament. We interpreted texts from critical race, gender or post-colonial perspectives. But would I have taken the class if it was titled “Introduction to the New Testament” or “Critical Perspectives of the Gospels?” As someone who is not a major or minor in the department, I’m not so sure. Even if the professor and syllabus remained unchanged, it is undeniable that catchy titles can instantly raise the fame, if not notoriety, of a class.
With declining numbers in humanities majors, it’s not a big surprise that the Religion Department has been at the center of these controversies. The year 2017 saw zero religion majors awarded at Swarthmore. Back in 2000, twenty-six religion majors were awarded, exceeding physics, mathematics and computer science combined. At that time, religion was the fifth most popular major after biology, economics, English and political science.
Likely due to economic uncertainty, an increasing number of Swarthmore students after the 2008 financial crisis chose to major in the natural sciences over humanities. In 2008, the proportions of natural science and humanities majors were about equal at 30%. Fast forward to 2017, approximately triple the number of natural science majors were awarded compared to humanities majors (though social science majors still remained on top).
Professors are using millennials’ notoriously short attention spans to try and supplant millennial economic insecurity. While short-term fixes may encourage students to enroll in classes, it may not be enough to encourage us to major in them. This is critical, as the number of majors is a factor to the distribution of new tenure-track lines. Students need a good sense of what a major can do for them before deciding what to put on their $65k-a-year diploma.
Humanities departments may just need to be a bit more patient. As the economy recovers and reach the booming levels we saw in 2000, future students could be more willing to major in the humanities. Demographic shifts also provide some hope to our beleaguered Religion Department. Generation Z, generally defined as those born after 1995, have a 41% church attendance rate, compared to 18% of millenials at the same age. 78% of Generation Z report they are either religious or spiritual, according to authors Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace, who wrote the book Generation Z Goes to College.
Swarthmore can seize on these trends with our Religion Department that offers a very wide range of courses. But should these Gen Z students be more traditionally-minded like the protesters from the TFP, provocative titles such as “Queering the Bible” or “Is God a White Supremacist?” may be a turn-off instead of an invitation to engage in interesting and critical issues surrounding Christianity.
Clickbait course titles draw the attention of students, but also the ire of others nationwide. They feed the right-wing cottage industry of exposing “crazy” campuses and further the narrative of a liberal elite insulated from the rest of the population. The reality is different: Swarthmore college courses, especially the aforementioned ones, offer nuanced, sober, and deeply intellectual experiences which tackle issues that affect the rest of society on a daily basis. Let our course titles reflect that. We’re better than clickbait.
Chart data courtesy of Swarthmore Office of Institutional Research.
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia.