Academic Games

In 1947, the British writer Stephen Potter published a slim volume called The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship: Or the Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating, ushering the term gamesmanship into the English language. In later books, Potter extended his theories and recommendations beyond the formal world of sports to include every aspect of human life. Although much of Potter’s writing was tongue-in-cheek, he anticipated Erving Goffman and F.G. Bailey in finding elements of competition and strategy in politics, the workplace, and eventually the home. While there are good academic reasons to think about the game-like elements of careers in higher education, in practice most of us shy away from the subject and treat our work life as a completely serious project. We may even take a public stance that academic gamesmanship is immoral and beneath us. But as Potter tells us, this kind of attitude is actually one of the best ways to win the game.

Gamesmanship is a kind of secret knowledge, but in the interests of fairness and transparency, it is time to bring it out in the open.

Talk about gamesmanship in academia mostly happens informally and off the record in social situations. Some of us learned a lot about the behind the scenes business of being a successful anthropologist from our professors and peers. But those not party to the conversation have had to figure it out for themselves, and this is one of the many subtle but effective ways that women and minorities have been de-privileged in academia. Gamesmanship is a kind of secret knowledge, but in the interests of fairness and transparency, it is time to bring it out in the open for discussion.

I was very lucky in graduate school to have some good examples—teachers who were ambitious and successful, who played the game well but at the same time were motivated by deep and serious engagement with their anthropological research and writing. I learned from them that it is possible to have the integrity and honesty of a real scholar, and also be a sophisticated player of academic games. I also learned that the academic world is full of amazing, outstanding scholars who do groundbreaking and original research whose work is rarely read or cited, who never find a place in the disciplinary canon. Since their work is not widely known, others can pirate the ideas or re-invent them as their own. Others get elected to the National Academy of Sciences, get invited to prestigious conferences, and get their writing done during residential fellowships where they get to rub elbows with other elite intellectuals. To a large extent, skill and experience in gamesmanship is the difference.

I also learned that the academic world is full of amazing, outstanding scholars who do groundbreaking and original research whose work is rarely read or cited.

Let me be clear, I am not trying to detract from the reputation of my predecessors, teachers, and colleagues by claiming that they reached their position through some kind of “cheating.” We do work in a partial meritocracy: good work is sometimes well rewarded on its merits. But there are always people for whom winning the game is more important than the substance of their work. There is a subtle point of balance between integrity and ambition, and it is easy to lose your way as you inch along that scale. My suspicion is that people driven by the outward symbols of success and are willing to take shortcuts to get there are rarely satisfied with the simple rewards of tenure and promotion. They need and want a bigger stage, either by climbing the administrative ladder towards college presidency, by leaving academia for a wider field, or by getting the big grants and starting their own institutes, centers, workshops, and programs. Sooner or later you will meet one of these climbers, and they may step on your head or hands as they move up. They may also stoop down  and offer you a helping hand, but there will be a quid pro quo, an obligation to pay back your patron in the future.

To repeat, I am not implying that all anthropologists who get into administration, write popular books, and build institutions are just game-players with a lust for recognition. Far from it—most are working their brains out for the benefit of others, and any recognition or rewards they get are well deserved. But for most of us, hard work, great research and original ideas are not enough to get heard by a wider audience, rise in the esteem of peers, and have a lasting impact.

So what have I learned about the academic game that can fit in the limited space of an opinion column?

  • Find a community—join an academic society or group and pay your dues by putting time into running the group and its publications.
  • Publish strategically—tailor your publications to the audience, don’t write first and then try to find an audience.
  • Cultivate at least five senior colleagues who can review your proposals and journal submissions, and write letters of reference for jobs and promotions. Don’t be shy about suggesting reviewers to editors and grant managers.
  • Choose a topic that is neither way out ahead of the curve, nor doomed to be caught in the backwash after a wave breaks. Be a fashion leader, but not out on the cutting (and bleeding) edge. Develop a sense of timing and pace by listening to current buzzwords and following topics of interest outside your own specialty.
  • When opportunity knocks, answer quickly. No plan is worth sticking to if a better chance comes along.
  • Say some controversial things—nothing to put yourself beyond the pale, but argue about the right things with the right people.
  • Publish about teaching or write a textbook if you want to have an impact on students, but don’t expect any academic reward.
  • Define and own a territory—become the acknowledged expert in a single topic, no matter how small.
  • Read widely, cite strategically—keep citing people you disagree with as well as the ones who inspire you.
  • Recognize the work of others—praise costs nothing, and most of us labor without much of it, so a little goes a long way.
  • Invent a name, label, or phrase which passes into the lexicon—make it catchy and then publicize it and try to generate some opposition or controversy about it. Keep repeating your concept for different audiences.
  • When someone steals your work, accuses you unjustly of misconduct, blasts your publications unfairly, or passes malicious gossip behind your back, move on.

Richard Wilk is Distinguished Professor and Provost’s Professor Emeritus at Indiana University.

Featured Image: Andy Blackledge/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Cite as: Wilk, Richard. 2018. “Academic Games.” Anthropology News website, September 19, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.965

Comments

Alas, Richard, I also see from my current position as editor of one of our most prominent journals a darker side to the strategic game: say simplistic things in as convoluted a language as possible that no one will understand but many will parrot or quote reverently, but ensure that it’s full of clever catchy phrases.

You’ve cited useful single moves in isolation, but a strategic game is a process. Would be fun to organize this on timelines.

Absolutely correct. These are tactics and not strategy. It’s hard to think ahead when we are working harder and harder just to keep up! Please write the book on strategy!

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