At a meeting the word popular insinuates itself into the discussion with a sneer, carrying baggage traceable to junior high school: we unpopular types may have denigrated the pretensions of the popular kids, but only because we secretly coveted their social successes.
When it comes to getting butts into classroom seats, the word popular is fraught with competing concerns. We hear rumors of classes that attract students by giving them what they want--good grades for little work--and we roll our eyes and reject the model. We don't want the kind of popularity that arises from a sacrifice of rigor.
But make no mistake: we definitely want butts in seats, because in the current academic climate, classes with low enrollments are in danger of cancellation. We want to be popular without being pushovers. What can make a rigorous class attractive to picky students?
Versatility. Students look at our many course offerings and wonder, "What can this course do for me?" A course required for a major may be essential to students within that major, but what if it can also fulfill a General Education requirement without loss of rigor? Or what if it can fulfill two General Education requirements plus serve as an elective in a minor? Teaching GE courses requires a little extra work to align the course with the campus assessment program, but if it gets butts in seats, it's worth it.
Variety. A few years ago a gifted English major told me she was switching to another program for several reasons, but partly because it seemed as if she was doing the same kinds of things over and over in her literature classes. Ouch. We all have our particular strengths as teachers, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to stretch beyond those strengths by relying on a variety of pedagogical methods, challenging students with different types of assignments, and taking risks in the classroom even if they threaten our carefully imposed order.
Vigor. I know it seems counterintuitive, but comments on student evaluations suggest that students want to engage actively with interesting ideas and activities. They don't want to passively absorb material that seems moribund; instead, they want to get up and get their hands dirty, toss ideas around the room and see what they can make of it. Creating a lively and vigorous class is messy work that may require professors to get comfortable with chaos, but it helps learning happen.
No learning happens in a class that gets cancelled, so I'm not ashamed to say that I'm devoted to making my classes popular--without sacrificing rigor or becoming a pushover. It's a lot of work--but also a lot more fun than having classes cancelled.