Exercise no. 5: the second seminar game piece

Phil Ford

Two things. First of all, friend of the blog David Brent Johnson has done a new show for Night Lights on the 1957 film The Sweet Smell of Success. David interviewed me and James Naremore, whose book on film noir is a favorite of mine. Go check out of the show. You’ll learn a lot about a great film and you’ll also be impressed by David’s editing skills, which were considerably taxed by my, uh, elliptical manner of speaking.

Second, more about exercises. Are you getting tired of them? I’m not. Last week I devised a new one for my seminar. It was rather more complex than the first one, whose rules were designed to keep the conversational ball in play through time-keeping. For this one, I wanted to assign each student a role based on a characteristic style of personal interaction, so that the conversation would be kept in motion by the dynamic tension between the assumed characters of the seminar participants. So here it is:

Game piece no. 2 for seminar

All the students (or “players”) participating in this game are assigned roles several days before the seminar. The professor assigns roles through some random operation, like throwing dice or using a random number generator. (This time I have used dice.) The players will receive emails describing their assigned roles and will keep them secret until the game is concluded. To prepare for the game, the players will read assigned texts with a view to understanding and discussing them from the perspective of their assumed persona. Because this game piece is designed primarily to govern the modes of interaction among players rather than the intellectual content of their discussion, the players may find it helpful to try out their personae for several days in advance of the game. They may even go so far as to invent names for their personae or consider how they might dress, eat, and so on, though they certainly don’t have to. It is entirely up the players how and to what degree they psyche themselves into their role.

Once in the seminar room, though, the players must inhabit their role wholeheartedly and without irony. They will not break character until the professor announces the end of the game. Even break-time must be taken in character. It will be generally understood that nothing anyone says is necessarily “for real” and earnestly meant; consequently, the players are free to act in ways they ordinarily wouldn’t. In the last few minutes of the seminar, the professor will call time and the masks will come off. At this point the players may wish to discuss their roles and how they affected their experience of the readings and the discussion.

The players must understand that the roles in this game piece — especially the particular roles assigned to them — are in no way based on them personally. Any resemblance to any persons living or dead is purely archetypal. The personae collected in this game piece reflect perennially-recurring personality types and modes of interaction that everyone has encountered in his or her coursework. Graduate students will likely find themselves inhabiting all of these roles at one time or another during their academic career.

The professor is the referee and does not assume any persona other than his habitual one. If a player does something especially awesome, or else is breaking character, camping it up (being a little too in character), or phoning it in (being too understated), the professor will hand him/her a playing card. The player must look at the card without showing it to anyone else and hand it back to the professor as unobtrusively as possible.

Referee cards:

Ace: awesome

King: breaking character

Queen: camping it up

Jack: phoning it in

Keep in mind that while you might do things you normally wouldn’t, you shouldn’t do anything that no reasonable person ever would, at least in the social context of a graduate seminar. Responding to a question by screaming, kicking over a chair, and flouncing out of the room, for example, is just not cool, whether or not you’re acting. In play, just as in real life, we strive to be respectful of one another even in the heat of battle.

The roles:

1. You are “that student” (aka “the Hermione Granger”). You cannot stand to miss an opportunity to participate. If you know something useful or relevant (and you define “useful” and “relevant” very broadly) you just have to share it. If you have an idea, even if loosely related to the subject at hand, you will try it out. When other players ask a question, you will try to answer, even if you’re not totally sure you know what you’re talking about. When challenged, you’re friendly but always hold your ground—you like to be right.

2. You are quiet but kind of a drama queen about it. You are always on the verge of saying something but allow others to ride roughshod over you. You’re a little passive-aggressive, though, and make a show of having been silenced. Over time you become increasingly frustrated and finally get upset that no-one is listening to you, at which point your ideas come out in a torrent.

3. You have a hidden agenda. Even the professor doesn’t know what it is. It can be something you honestly believe or something you don’t. Either way, you will (a) seek constantly to push it, and (b) try to keep the other players from knowing exactly what it is. As a result, you might not always be consistent in your objections to/support of the positions being argued in the readings. Consistency is not important; advancing your agenda is.

4. You ask a lot of questions. You feel a little insecure and don’t want to let anything go by that you feel you have not yet properly understood. You are also stubborn and won’t let the others b.s. you or brush off your questions. You have a no-nonsense attitude and act unintimidated, partly because you are secretly are intimidated.

5. You are the bull in the china shop. You get annoyed when other players are too assertive (talking too much, asking questions too insistently, being drama queens). You tend to get assertive about this and don’t recognize the irony. You will contradict people just because why not? You don’t ask for permission to interrupt the other players and you don’t back down from an argument. When other players provoke you, you delight in finding the weaknesses in their arguments. (This includes the professor.) You can be sarcastic and blunt, but you’re a kind person and always apologize if you feel you’ve gone too far.

6. You are the nay-sayer. You have a basic, gut-level opposition to the intellectual project represented by the day’s readings. You can come up with your own rationale for opposing them, but oppose them you must. Your opposition may be sincere or put on, but either way, be consistent and true to your chosen principle.

7. You are the watcher. You value consensus and harmony and are disturbed by conflict. You therefore keep a sharp eye out for patterns of conflict among the other players and do your best to mediate between dissonant positions and points of view. You always try to find the principle by which two divergent ideas might be made to converge; your habit of mind is dialectical. To this end you are always trying to figure out what everyone’s agenda and typical style of interaction is.

So, did it work? You bet it did. Actually, it exceeded my most optimistic expectations.

I find my students in general (not just this group) are often a little too nice for their own good — they are kind and deferential to one another and are therefore a bit unwilling to disagree or mix it up for the pure intellectual fun and challenge of taking ideas apart. I think there’s sometimes a notion that (a) one should argue only those positions one actually holds, but (b) one shouldn’t really argue those positions, because you wouldn’t want to be rude. But seminars thrive on a certain heuristic, as-if quality of argumentation, and a sense of trying on contrary positions and attitudes just to see how they work. This in turn entails a willingness to take risks. Assigning roles to students worked well because it simply formalized this dynamic. And since everyone was playing a “role” and knew everyone else was as well (even if they didn’t know what those roles were) there was a sense that whatever was said was not really “for real,” so it took the pressure off the students who might worry that arguments would be taken personally. Not that anyone was ever going to say anything personally offensive. I knew that my students’ natural good natures would prevent them from being as uncivilized as I was when I was a grad student. What happened was simply that they opened up and got inventive with the material (some difficult readings on Adorno) in ways that probably surprised even them.

Afterwards, when the students disclosed their roles, the person who did no. 3 told me that she had practiced having a secret agenda by going onto a singles website and talking to various guys, one of whom guessed that she had some kind of . . . secret agenda. (“You’re not really single, are you?” he asked.) Another student (no. 5) practiced being a bit of a bad-ass on her partner and got highly caffeinated before class.

As it happened, I never needed to use my “referee cards,” which I suspect would end up being useless with all but the most apathetic students. I think this is because whatever belief we’ve adopted for the purposes of a game or play (like this one) becomes temporarily true or real for us simply by virtue of our acting on them. If you say beforehand “for the purposes of this play I’m going to be the kind of person who contradicts everything everyone says,” that’s just an abstraction; you know in the abstract the difference between what you really think and what you’re supposed to think for the purposes of the exercise. But when you *act* like that imaginary person, the dissonance between “who I am” and “who I’m supposed to be” vanishes, because who you’re acting like is the same as who you are at that particular moment. Your reality shifts, albeit temporarily. Another way of putting it is to say that what you think doesn’t matter; how you act does. Experience is prior to knowledge. Perhaps this gives us a partial answer to what these exercise/game/composition/ritual things are, which is to say, what they’re for, regardless of whatever medium we decide they represent (whether we think they’re compositions or religious rituals or games or whatnot)What I am calling”exercises” are devices for experiencing our experience.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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9 Responses to Exercise no. 5: the second seminar game piece

  1. Katie says:

    I’m curious. Did the students know what each others’ roles were, or even what the possible roles were? Or was it a surprise when all was said and done? Do you think this knowledge (or withholding of it) affected the game?

  2. PMG says:

    I’m imagining the possibilities of adapting this for faculty meetings…

  3. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Phil, can I visit your class? This is genius.

  4. 0re0 says:

    I have been meaning to comment:
    The first game COMPLETELY transformed my class. I was really upset that things weren’t coming together in my grad seminar like I wanted them to (and, of course, I blame myself when that happens.)
    When I introduced the “rules” after reading your post, the class dynamic changed immediately. I don’t want to jinx it, but it feels GOOD.
    This exercise *feels* like it might be a little to “out” for my grad students (a mix of performance masters students “forced” into a grad history seminar), but I will try it solely based on the success of the first game!

  5. Phil Ford says:

    Hello 0re0 —
    I’m delighted that the first set of game rules helped! They have the advantage of simplicity, and the timekeeping function works well to unstick things. The second game is, as you say, a bit more out there, and you’d have to consider whether it would work with your particular group. It’s always possible to keep the general outlines (assigning roles) while tweaking the roles themselves or the rules. One could choose to have roles based on some intellectual proclivity (the Marxist, the post-colonialist, the feminist, etc.), or one could have the students choose roles for themselves, or just ask everybody to be argumentative as hell, etc. To some extent these games have grown out of my experience with a particular group of students. (I felt pretty sure they could handle the more elaborate set-up of the second game, for one thing.) So in other words, be free to play around with different rule structures and let them grow out of the situation you’re in. It’s a fun intellectual challenge to invent these things.

  6. Jonathan says:

    By the time I graduated high school, I had been through at least three exercises–simplified, non-academic versions–of the kind you’re chronicling here. One had to do with noticing details about your immediate environment, and another with seeking details on a familiar journey (as to and from work, e.g.), and another with taking a different route and noticing new aspects of that. Those were all offered to us in the sixth grade, which I finished in 1969. The one resonated with your seminar exercise was called “Cocktail Party,” and it was given to us in AP English (1974–75, senior year in high school). The difference was that it was reactive–*everyone else* knew what you were supposed to be like but you did not–the clue was a sign on your back. This one got brutal: a shy friend got “I’m a bit boring; you don’t really want to talk to me,” and a neurotic, insecure friend got “I’m so lonely; don’t let me drift away!!” I lucked out with “I have beautiful eyes; you just want to stare into them,” which meant I could exaggerate my responses to all my unfortunate friends without worrying why they were staring raptly in my face. As I recall, character broke down fairly quickly in this one.
    Playing your seminar game could be either fun or terrifying, depending on the stakes!

  7. Phil Ford says:

    Hey Jonathan —
    The “Cocktail Party” game you mention crosses the line into Jonestown territory; it cultivates cruelty as a “learning experience” and subtly (or not-so subtly) reinforces the dominance of the leader. I hate that shit. It reminds me of the infamous Synanon “game” which was aimed at breaking down the addict’s ego and putting them in a doglike abject state that, I suppose, would make them more amenable to recovery. There’s some interesting stuff about it in Art Pepper’s autobiography and a thinly fictionalized takeoff on it in Philip K. Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly.” Your reminiscences serve to remind us that (a) this stuff was big in the 1960s and 1970s, and (b) it’s fairly well forgotten now, partly because these kinds of intervention can be powerful and therefore powerfully abused. And they were abused. Robert Anton’s Wilson’s analysis of the Symbionese Liberation Army’s brainwashing of Patty Hearst is a brilliant account of how reality-manipulating rituals can be used for truly villainous ends. It’s the old 1960s story, isn’t it: great new possibilities for human action and imagination and proportionally great new abuses of same.
    I think it’s important to check your intention when you do one of these things. That is, have a fairly specific result you’re after, and an appropriate motivation for trying to get it. Wanting to speed up the rate of verbal exchange in a Q&A session for the purposes of firing up a seminar is a a specific result and an appropriate motivation. But to want students to confront their own conformity and selfishness by assigning them social roles calculated to get them treating one another badly is to pursue a badly-defined result for dubious reasons. I suspect such things arise out of contempt for people and a desire to control them. And given the power of such games to shape reality (or so I’ve argued), twisted people who hate and fear other people and want to control them will use them to massively destructive ends. See Manson, Charles.

  8. squashed says:

    Hey, should record this exercise and post the sound file on the net.
    Somebody is going to remix, put it on music blender and make weird fun tunes out of it.
    Forget the meta underlying thinking, I want my head bop and wiggle my toes with it … haa haa

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