Infinite Play in the Composition Classroom

By Robert Piluso

Robert Piluso, who hold MA degrees in English and Screenwriting, teaches composition at Chaffey College and Crafton Hills College. He is an active writer of essays, fiction, and screenplays, and a recipient of the CS Expo 2011 Best Comedy Script Award.  Piluso’s illuminated novel and a non-fiction collection are forthcoming in 2014.  He would like to thank Chaffey  College’s Dr. Neil Watkins and Michael Dinielli for their generosity and support as he brings the spirit of infinite play to the composition classroom

I recently suffered a major personal defeat in my vocation as an English professor. I had to buy a rolling briefcase. My back insisted—repeatedly and prolongedly. Jokes were made, by students and colleagues alike. “You’re getting old, Mr. Piluso.” Well, when you put it that way.

We grow attachments to things.  My prior briefcase had accompanied me to each and every class I had taught, each and every semester, since I began professing. But, you know, sometimes something new can spark something new inside you. That spark can either culminate into a controlled fire—making way and space for new growth—or a raging blaze that makes you hose down your roof and cough on the ashes of your own self-esteem. “How did this class get away from me?” you may ask yourself from time to time.

I recently read Douglas Rushkoff’s 2013 book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, and something sparked in me. Rushkoff applied religious historian James P. Carse’s finite and infinite game theory to pop culture, its products, its existential and psychological impacts.  I found myself invigorated by these new terms—this new way of viewing and analyzing the world, all its dimensions and expressions—and while Rushkoff brought infinite game theory to Facebook, movies, and smart-phones, he did not bring it to the classroom. That’s where I come in.

In the same way we are continually called to re-evaluate our teaching practices, our syllabi, our textbooks, I found myself re-evaluating the way in which I view myself as a professor of English, and the way in which I engage my students in the classroom.

I think we’re faced with a unique challenge to cultivate deep learning in our students in a time and culture that privileges mercenary immediacy, instant gratification, and competition over love of learning for its own sake. Through turning Carse’s infinite game theory to my Freshman Composition classroom, I find myself newly emphasizing adaptation and collaboration over completion and competition.

Allow me to define some key aspects of Carse’s Finite and Infinite Game Theory, as taken from his book.

I. FINITE AND INFINITE GAME THEORY DEFINED AND EXPLAINED

In Finite and Infinite Games, Carse begins, “There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing play” (loc 35). It is no far stretch to apply this mentality to higher education, and in particular to the Composition classroom. Many of us tend to dissuade our students from being simply focused on grades. Rather, we work to foster a spirit of literacy—and through that spirit, critical consciousness brings forth a fluidity of creativity and self-awareness. While we have a variety of methods to foster such spirit in our courses, how do we get our students excited to keep reading and keep writing once they leave our classrooms?

The more power we give our students over the English language, and in turn, over their own minds, the better equipped our students shall be to meet those writing tasks assigned to them by the rest of the world for the rest of their lives. As Carse puts it, “An infinite game [is played] for the purpose of continuing play” (Loc 35).  As English professors, we all well know that with increased power over language comes increased respect for the world, increased respect for ourselves, and increased respect for others’ perspectives. The play continues, the ball picked up after us by the Globe. We’re lucky that way.

Carse continues, “There is no finite game unless the players freely choose to play it. No one can play who is forced to play” (Loc 43). As much as we would like to do so, sometimes, for some students, we cannot force our students to take their Composition class seriously; nor can we force our students to take their college educations seriously. But something magical can happen—and I see it happen every semester. The more seriously I take myself, the more seriously students take themselves. The more unguarded I am in my own physical and mental life, through regular sharing of personal anecdotes or past teaching experiences, the higher the quality of self-analysis exhibited in the students’ essays. It’s a game I’m playing with them, every minute of every class. They don’t know it. What they know, at least initially, is that this guy is “funny,” has “swag,” o is “passionate about his subject,” or “seems like he really cares.”  It’s a big mirror game, really—especially when we consider the power of what neuroscientists have come to label “mirror-neurons” contained in the human brain.  If you see someone hurting, you hurt; if you see someone—like, say, your Composition instructor—really enjoying this English thing, you just can’t help yourself but enjoy it, too.

Carse writes, “Just as it is essential for a finite game to have a definite ending, it must also have a precise beginning. Therefore, we can speak of finite games as having temporal boundaries—to which, of course, all players must agree” (Loc 43).  This definitive beginning and necessary consensus by players to play according to specified parameters finds a classroom equivalent in the distribution of the course syllabus on the first day of instruction—gauntlet thrown down. It’s an important document. This past semester, I decided to edit out my own words for class rules of conduct, and instead left five numbered blank lines and a space for the student’s signature. Now, on the first day of class, I have the students create, by way of discussion, their own classroom rules of etiquette. I take dictation of their own words on the board, and when everyone agrees, we’ve got our rules for in-class conduct.

Now let’s talk about who’s the Bad Guy in the Game of the Composition Classroom.  “It is the case,” Carse offers, “that we cannot play [a finite game] if we must play, but it is also the case that we cannot play alone. Thus, in every case, we must find an opponent, and in most cases, teammates, who are willing to join in play with us” (Loc 51).  I am no opponent to my students—I am a shepherd, a professor, a confidante. I am not the “Bad Guy” unless the rules of the game are violated (say, by way of plagiarism); then, of course, I must be that Bad Guy. I hate it. You probably hate it, too. Even once a semester is once too many times, for me. If there has to be an opponent in the finite game of the Composition Classroom, I try to make it the author of a reading.  But is the Composition Classroom really a finite game…or an infinite game?

In an infinite game, Carse explains, there is no one “Bad Guy”—there’s just play, encountering obstacles, and overcoming them. This seems to align much more sharply with the spirit of the Composition Classroom. One class I found I had a class-clown—a true, blue-ribbon class-clown, who was very disruptive to the lecture, the other students trying to focus, and pretty much everything. I would have to steel myself before each class: “I can do this. I can keep my cool. I will not embarrass him. I will not lose control. I will keep my class.”

I kept my cool, and I kept my class, I’m happy to report. Believe it or not, after the first few weeks, this clown….calmed.  No longer disruptive, he was more focused, offering comments that pertained to the topic of discussion.  It was worth it, to me, to roll and adapt to whatever he threw at me those first few weeks—and I think it showed something to the other students in the class, too: that I was everyone’s professor, and that my respect for them, all of them, and for our game, was steady, even, and fair. In a perfect world, a problem student is never a “Bad Guy”—yes, even that one you’re thinking of, right now. Sometimes, a problem caused by a student may even require advanced support (your Department Coordinator, your Dean, even Campus Security), but even then, I maintain: yes, they are adults, but no, I will not break my Code of equilateral respect and communal play.

Carse emphasizes the mutual exclusivity of finite games and infinite games, and that “in one respect, but only one” do they have anything in common: the free will of the players to play.  A college classroom, I’m trying to say, is unique in that we find ourselves simultaneously playing both a finite game (one clearly defined Game of the Class, Freshman Composition, with 100 points possible to be earned by the student’s own self, a start-date and end-date) and an infinite game (the Game of the College, life-long learning, collaboration—in short, the Game of Education).

Carse offers, “While finite games are externally defines, infinite games are internally defined” (Loc 74).  We can understand that the course outline of record, accreditation, the college’s Board of Directors, can all fall into the category of j”external defining agents” for a composition class, whereas the 30-odd students and the professor, working together, can be counted as “internal definers.”  Part of the professor’s job, in this sense, is to act as intermediary between those external and internal forces.  The magic happens in the middle, between structured and unstructured play.  Carse specifies, “Finite games can be played within an infinite game, but an infinite game cannot be played within a finite game. Infinite players regard their wins and losses in whatever finite games they play as but moments in continuing play” (Loc 81). In this way, perhaps  our individual Composition Classes are finite games occurring within the infinite games of our students’ intellectual lives? Or can we conceive of each session as a finite game within the infinite games of our careers? Or each class session as a finite game within the infinite game of Education, which has been going on 3,000 years or even longer? What does it even matter, who started this fire, whether Prometheus or Billy Joel—just that it burns now, burned yesterday, and shall burn forever, if only we block the winds of apathy from our students’ thinking hearts.

II. CLASS DISCUSSION – SOCRATIC METHOD AS INFINITE GAME

A pedagogy at least partially informed by infinite game theory is nothing new—in fact, one of the oldest teaching methods is still considered one of the best. The Socratic Method, also called method of elenchus, is the practice wherein a teacher keeps turning his or her student’s words and ideas back on the student by calling the student to continually redefine his or her terms.

The Socratic Method draws special mention from Ken Bain throughout his book, What The Best College Teachers Do: “‘It’s sort of Socratic…You begin with a puzzle—you get [a student] puzzled and tied in knots, and mixed up.’ Those puzzles and knots generate questions for students….and then you [as the professor] begin to help them untie the knots” (40).  A careful distinction must be made between rhetorical questioning (which, for my money, is much like wasabi—a little bit or none at all goes a long way) and Socratic questioning. In rhetorical questioning, the professor asks the class a question with a narrowly defined answer to which the professor already knows his or her desired response. (It seems like these really stress out most students.)

In Socratic inquiry, the professor must really, truly want to know how the student thinks or feels about a topic—how the student defines his or her terms.  Sure, we grease the rails a bit—we can’t help it—but the students can sure feel the difference between being put “on-the-spot” and being in a real, honest-to-goodness conversation where the professor isn’t just waiting to talk. In fact, Bain suggests, “An intriguing question or problem is the first of five essential elements that make up the natural critical learning environment. The second crucial element is guidance in helping the students understand the significance of the question” (100). In an infinite game-structured discussion, the professor is an equal participant—albeit guide—in the discussion, not some tyrant meting out encomium or opprobrium.  In such a learning environment of cooperation, the best/fastest memorizers will not necessarily be the ones to contribute the most tantalizing perspectives. When there is no single “right answer”, and we let our students know as much upfront, then we alleviate much of the pressure to perform, to “win, win, win”—as one would be inclined to do in a finite game classroom.

In a finite game classroom, the game ends at the end of the semester.  However, in my experience with other educators and administrators, I have found that we, on the other side of the desks, tend to think of college education as just the opposite. We would like to show our students that “education” is a life-long process, and that the road is rewarding in and of itself, and entirely set apart from transcripts.

Unfortunately, it’s tempting for our students to think of “life-long learning” as simply adding everyone cool from their classes on Facebook. You know: for “networking”.  And no, “networking” does not constitute an infinite game, but rather, networking exists as some spurious redheaded stepchild of a finite game, for the desired end of “networking”—when we cut the caca—is all too often just wanting the possibility for money (i.e. a job) later. Such is not the stuff of friendship, or life-long learning.

Bain observes, “Many teachers never raise questions; they simply give students answers. If they do tackle intellectual problems, they often focus only on their subject and the issues that animate the most sophisticated scholarship in the field. In contrast, the best teachers tend to embed the discipline’s issues in broader concerns, often taking an interdisciplinary approach to problems” (101). What is “interdisciplinary” if not a seven-syllable word for “playful”?  This is when it becomes particularly important to know our students’ jobs and/or majors.  That’s one of the best things about teaching Freshman Composition, let alone one of the best things about teaching at a community college—the diversity of students we get through our doors. We already have an interdisciplinary team—why not make the most of it by highlighting the various and particular areas of expertise our students bring with them?

III. INFINITE PLAY

I started my group-project assignment entitled “Infinite Play” about a year ago. I wanted to see what students, working in collaboration and self-directing, could accomplish in terms of demonstrating deep-learning and actualizing their civic consciousnesses. The assignment in the syllabus is purposely vague:

“INFINITE PLAY…. 10 POINTS…. Based on our discussion and analysis of the infinite game model, you and a group of your classmates shall choose a concept from the semester that you have encountered in class and which your group would like to explore more.  Your group will create a game or some sort of interactive play that involves your classmates to dramatize this concept in order to convey your group’s stance on the topic. You are free to think creatively, free to implement mixed media, free to be free. (Your points earned shall reflect effort expended, as ever in life.)”

I keep parameters general. Students must take a social issue that we have discussed in class and convey their stance on the topic to the world in a meaningful way.

First, I teach them game theory, and how, per infinite game, there’s no leader in Anonymous, or Facebook; how the rules can change; how all that matters is the continued participation by “players”and that everyone can benefit or win.  I tell them the assignment is worth 10 points—10 percent of their total class grades. They throw themselves into it. They present to the class.

Some groups decide to have leaders; others don’t. They present their projects as a group to the class and to me, and I assign the group a group-grade out of 5 points. When the presentations are done, I pull the flying carpet out from under them: “In the spirit of an infinite game, I am changing our rules. You will give yourself an individual grade, out of 5 points, while I will assign you the other 5 points I believe your group has earned.”  Each student’s final score then represents a synthesis of the solo efforts and the group product. The students write a one-page analysis of their experience with the project and what points they hope to earn. What’s shocking is that 9 out of 10 times I agree with the students’ self-assigned grades. I don’t alter those grades—I just input them. (In the development of this group-project, it was my colleague, Chaffey College English Professor Robert Nazar, who suggested the students grade half and I grade the other half. So perfect! Talk about collaboration for the purpose of infinite play.)

These projects range from social protests, to custom T-shirts, to Facebook Groups, to YouTube videos, to Instagram hashtags. The first semester I taught this project, about 90% of the class decided they wanted to work together on one project. (The other 10% created a YouTube video against bullying that received over 300 views in about 2 days, much to their and my pride.) The mega-group decided to stage a civil protest at a local shopping mall. They called it, “All Walks Of Life: Walking Together”. Their acronym was AWOL. Each student had a cause about which to raise awareness. Each student wrote a slogan on a poster, but all students had the #AWOL and All Walks Of Life affiliation prominently displayed. They explained, “The same things may not be important to all of us, but we support that they’re important to our peers, and we support them in their causes, as they support us in ours.” This was why they chose the slogan “All Walks of Life Walking Together.” It was collaborative learning in radical action, a moving example of how democracy could work. These students signify our country’s future. They staged this protest, and remained gentlemen and ladies throughout the proceedings. A student told me afterward, “It’s like, this is what college is all about. Finding out what you stand for and standing for it.” Not a bad student learning outcome.

A fortunate by-product of this group-project is the light of realization in my students’ eyes as they come to feel their own power.  One group of students proudly reported 300 views within 48 hours of an anti-bullying video they made and posted to YouTube. Another group of students, all being servers in the restaurant industry, used Instagram and Facebook to draw awareness to how tipping works—and the ghastly consequences if one does not tip his or her server.  (Short story: one is basically stealing from that server’s minimum-wage paycheck.)  Another group started an anti-bullying group on Facebook, and received over 1,300 views in two days. I would like to thank Chaffey College Department Coordinator Dr. Neil Watkins and Chaffey College School of Language Arts Dean Michael Dinielli for their constant generosity and limitless support in this experimental endeavor as I continue to grow as a Professor of English, and player in my own career.

IV. CONCLUSION:

Ever since I got my new rolling briefcase, my back and neck have been fine, thanks for asking. My old briefcase, the leather all grayed, that same briefcase that was with me the first day of my first class teaching college English—it’s tucked safe away in a closet somewhere in my home. Oh, so what, right? In Frank Miller’s graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again, in the finale, to defeat his foe, Batman destroys his own Batcave, unleashing dormant magma from deep within it. When Batman’s sidekick laments, “All your stuff,” the aged, beaten, Batman replies, through a swollen grin, one bat-ear all bent, “I was sentimental. Back when I was old.”

Works Cited

Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004. Print.

Carse, James P. Finite and Infinite Games. New York: Ballantine Books, 1987. Ebook.