I was having lunch with a friend today, and we got onto the topic of course development. We're both applying for jobs and fellowships, and have therefore had to craft several course proposals over the last few months. The most interesting courses we could come up with were, naturally, the ones with the sexiest subject matter. From what we've been able to gather--and this shouldn't come as a shock--sex, violence, and movies seem to be what draw students in the biggest droves. Since my friend works on topics including (but not limited to) queer theory and porn, and his period is the twentieth century, he's got at least two of those bases easily covered. The Middle Ages, however, can arguably span all three (if one includes some of the atrocious but endlessly entertaining King Arthur movies in one's syllabi).
But thinking about What Kinds Of Classes Will Undergraduates Like reminds me a little too much of the Student Affairs scholarship I had to read a few years ago for a former campus job. Many of the articles I read contained disconcertingly unapologetic references to students as "consumers," and noted an increasing trend in higher education towards thinking of students as potential customers. The standard line on this was, "We may not like it, but this is the way it is--so we need to start thinking of ways to attract and retain students, who have access to a wide variety of products [i.e. universities/colleges], and are free to abandon our products for more appealing ones." This line was used in defense of, for example, building newer and better student centers and athletic facilities, encouraging student input into major requirements, and grading. While improving student facilities is certainly a good thing, this kind of discourse is deeply disturbing--for obvious reasons, I think. Universities shouldn't be based on a consumer-product model. Students aren't "buying" degrees (at least, I hope not) (and even if, in some sense, they are, shouldn't we be a little less...obvious about it?).
I should note that this consumerist discourse was not uncontested. Some scholars argued against it, and even the defenses of it were presented in a "we all know this sucks, but what are you going to do" sort of way. Nonetheless, it's troubling, and while I'm all for coming up with courses that are academically rigorous AND sound interesting, I haven't quite worked out for myself the line between encouraging students and tailoring my proposals to match their pre-formed interests. Because one thing that can happen in a good class--which has happened to me, more than once, in the courses that I remember most fondly--is that you become interested in something that didn't excite you previously.
Now, I'm probably more concerned about this issue than I need to be, since a quick glance at just about any university department's course listing reveals plenty of classes that contain no mention of sex, violence, or movies. My friend and I are grad students with limited course proposal experience. When we've proposed courses, they've been for summer-studies programs and other elective venues, which means that we're competing with a large number of other exciting-sounding classes in all sorts of disciplines. In that kind of a situation, you need to do something to make your class stand out; and, well, there are some pretty cheap and obvious ways of doing that.
(They don't always work, though. I've had several classes cancelled due to under-enrollment, and, in at least one case, "film" was in the title. Still, I wonder what would have happened if I'd thrown in an off-hand reference to sexuality or sword-fighting? Couldn't have hurt....)