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Game of Theories

February 22, 2013

Earlier this month, Inside Higher Ed reported on Peter Fröhlich, a Johns Hopkins University professor whose policy of scaling final exams according to the highest score led to three entire classes sitting out the final -- and getting As, since the highest score was a 0. The Hopkins students' response to his policy has attracted considerable interest from sources like The New York Times, Freakonomics and Boing Boing. As it turns out, another class did the same thing as Fröhlich’s -- and beat them to it by nearly 25 years.

Starting in 1981, Dan Chambliss, a professor of sociology at Hamilton College, issued a challenge to students in his introductory sociology courses: if no one in either section of the course showed up for the final exam, all of them would receive an A on it. But, he cautioned, if even one student took it, anyone who didn’t would receive a zero. Chambliss said that multiple classes attempted to organize to sit out the exam, but according to Chambliss, "it never got past one week of discussion." That is, until 1988, when a first-year student, John Werner, heard the pitch. Werner, who has since gone on to found the nonprofit Citizen Schools and become executive curator of TEDx, said the challenge had a profound effect on him. “I immediately sat there thinking ‘I’m gonna pull this off,' " he said.

“I thought [any class meeting the challenge] was incredibly unlikely,” Chambliss said. “And I think the only reason that it happened was that [Werner] was totally committed to making it happen.”

After briefly considering strategies like “hir[ing] a bouncer,” Werner eventually decided to take a different tack. He went on to successfully organize a boycott across both sections, unaided by the modern conveniences like e-mail that were used extensively by Hopkins students.

Without that kind of instantaneous communication at his disposal, Werner said he had to get creative in organizing and publicizing the plan. “In the ‘80s, there were these tenement documents to make sure homes would go co-operative in New York City, and people would sign [them] saying they wouldn’t back out of a deal,” Werner explained. “I tracked down one of those, I found the only laser printer on the campus, and I printed a legal document [agreeing to the boycott].” Werner then distributed the document to everyone outside the classroom.

Despite the technology gap between 1988 and 2012, Chambliss said he thought the real challenge stemmed not from the logistics of organizing a boycott, but from trusting one’s classmates enough to sit out the exam. “Unless a group has real solid trust within its own ranks, they can’t pull it off,” he said.

Werner said he thought it was appropriate that all of this transpired in the last leg of the Cold War. “The U.S. and Soviets had all these nuclear weapons, and it was in our vested interest as a species to collaborate… and here I was getting people to trust on this initiative.” Looking back on the experience and what lessons it offered on sociology, Werner specifically invoked the “prisoner’s dilemma,” a famous thought experiment found in game theory relating to the conflict between cooperative and selfish instincts. “There were some classic elements [of the dilemma] here,” Werner said. “While it was in everyone’s vested interest not to take the exam, the fear [that someone would take it] was overwhelming.”

Chambliss compared the logistics of the plan to trying to “topple an unpopular dictator.” “You can have a situation where everybody hates the dictator, but in order to overthrow him, you’ve got to believe that nobody’s going to stop you.” Whereas during the Hopkins final, students waited in the hallway in case a defector compelled them to take the exam, according to Chambliss, his students had no such backup plan, and thus had to place far more trust in one another. “There was a girl who left town on something like December 7,” Chambliss said, “and then everybody found out she had left, and then, if any of them had shown up for the exam, they would be basically giving her an F in the course.”

Chambliss retired the challenge after his students successfully met it in 1988. “The hard thing is believing that it’s possible at all,” Chambliss explained. He has since turned down students who have requested the opportunity, “because now you know that it can be done, and the premise of the whole thing was that it basically can’t be done.” Asked what students like Werner could potentially have done with modern social media technology, Chambliss said that although those resources are “a big advantage” when it comes to organizational strategies, “one of the things I learned is … a lot of this stuff is unpredictable.”

 

 

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