The academic sting, or gambling in the academy

I just starting watching The Sting. I’ve seen it many times, but not anytime lately. I recall loving it, as well as the soundtrack, and the clothes, the scenery, the horse-racing (that was really only a means to the con)–all of it. A dear uncle had a box at Hollywood Park, where I spent a lot of time learning to read a racing form, play to a hunch, and trust an odds-maker or two. I started betting when I was ten (some adult would place the bets, but I did all the work). Sometimes, Uncle Bob and I would share a bet if we both had a strong feeling about a horse. Once we bet a horse at 20-1 to win–and we ended up taking everyone out to dinner. I actually told the waiter to give me the bill, then my uncle slipped me half the cash for the bill. I’m not sure I ever felt so grown-up until I was actually grown-up.

The first thing I noticed about the movie was Paul Newman’s eyes and Robert Redford’s smile, of course–they were stunning. Who didn’t love them in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? It was a great movie–still is, so is The Sting.

The second thing I noticed was that the sting they perpetuate, a wire game, is quite elaborate with lots of people involved and precise timing mandatory for success. Would I be wrong in comparing their process with writing an academic paper? I don’t think so. Morally wrong, maybe just a little bit to make the comparison, but I don’t think I’m technically wrong.

Let’s be clear: academics are not trying to spread misinformation for monetary gain or revenge* as in the film, but the process involves a lot of time, oppressive (sometimes) research, extensive planning, understanding one’s audience, finding the right “media” for presentation, gathering resources from near and far, and so forth.

(*Paul Newman’s character does say, “Revenge is for suckers. I’ve been grifting thirty years and I never got any.” But this doesn’t mean revenge ain’t at the heart of what’s going on.)

Or is all of this strolling around in horse racing, the 1930s, and confidence men just another way my rose-colored glasses allow me to see everything in terms of my job(s) in the academy (the Victorians were no slouches when it came to con games in and out of literature)? Could be. I do tend to allow whatever I’m doing to shade my world, to funnel knowledge or information to me, based on a current focus. That’s what happens when one lives open.

When I taught a class on Dickens, everything came up Dickens. Every week, Dickens was in the news or in a magazine or online (newly found letters, a old ring discovered, a revival of a play based on a novel, etc.)  That semester, if I’d gone to Las Vegas and bet “Dickens” at roulette, I would have won. If I’d gone to the track and bet on a horse named “Dickens,” with 30-1 odds, he would have won by a nose, for sure. It will happen again, just as it does with every class I teach, writing about Star Trek, writing across the curriculum, educational writing… doesn’t matter, that’s what I see for the whole semester. Maybe if I started teaching the same classes over and over again, that would stop happening, but I doubt it. I think it’s more about me than the job I do. So. Thank goodness I’m a teacher and not a flim-flam artist. I think I wouldn’t be very good at the latter. (Or, as I told my students in spring term when we were studying mystery, maybe I’m so transparent and open because I’m the world’s greatest spy ever. Mystery solved.)

Flim-flamming is not an accepted academic endeavor (unless, of course, you are Thomas James Wise and think you can bamboozle the world), and that’s NOT what I’m saying. I am saying that academic work is a bit like gambling. You study and work hard and read constantly and deeply and teach and hunt and dig and research–you are betting, gambling, that the work you do matters and that someone cares what you have been doing. It’s a chance you have to take that the work you do has relevance. It can be as scary and risky as a con–or so I assume. (I have never engaged in that sort of work–so I can’t say for sure, though, truly, grad school felt a lot like that, or so I assume. I mean, I couldn’t have been the only one sitting in a class in a doctoral program waiting for the PhD goons to come knocking on the door to say, “Excuse us, the admissions folks made a mistake. Elizabeth, you’ll have to come with us. We’re going for a little ride.”)

The academic sting is all about the audience, the purpose, the guts of what we do as scholars–our sting isn’t a bad one, but it is a game of persuasion, a business partly based on our trying to find the right ethos to keep working, writing, creating and being part of a community. But we can’t get away from the persuasive part, can we? “I’m right, see all this work I did–proves it”–that’s what we do. We argue for our point of view, rightness, justice, teaching this rather than that, reduced class sizes, the process method of teaching writing, interactive teaching, collaborative endeavors (the commons), technology in the classroom, open education (which is totally right, by the by, like Writing Spaces), etc., and when we get our way, we can be as delighted as some grifter conning some mark (all the characters in on the sting in the movie are SO happy when they “win”). Only I hope we’re all doing it for ethical, good reasons and that our results do no harm (though, frankly, administrators know how hard it is to stay idealistic in hard economic times–shoot, in any times, good or not so good).

One of the petty criminals mentioned as a possibility for inclusion in the big sting operation is “The Big Alabama in from New Orleans”–okay, that doesn’t make sense, but I kind of like it as I’m from Alabama now, and New Orleans has terrific food and music. I never heard that before because I wasn’t IN Alabama before and hadn’t been to New Orleans before I saw the film for the first time. Lenses.

Like any gambler, then, I keep on doing the work for my academic sting, and baby, it’s a whole lotta work; it’s extensive and elaborate: I have to read all the time; write constantly; stay in touch with what’s happening in my field(s); do research; think; revise my writing; do more research; let my thinking out for a romp through this blog; and hope that what I’m doing will matter. I can’t help myself: “Hi, my name is Elizabeth, and I’m addicted to the academy.”


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Filed under Open Everything, Open All the Time, Surprising Information, Victorians Everywhere, Writing and Gambling

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