The Rules of the Game – Tips for Success in American College

The Rules of the Game – Tips for Success in American College

November 8, 2019 3 By Stanley Isaacs


The Rules of the Game. The most important key to your academic success is not going to be your English language skill. It’s not going to be how smart you are. It’s not even going to be how hard you work. The key to your academic success is going to be how well you adapt to the social codes that people in American academia live by. I said “adapt” rather than “obey” because that’s part of the key. We’re not asking for absolute obedience. We are asking you to understand the rules, the ideas behind the rules, and sort of live them, even sometimes as you break them. But if you want to break them without getting into trouble you have to have some fundamental understanding of the “why” of how we live together and work together. The smartest man in America did not successfully finished college. He tried twice. But he ran afoul of the system both times, and although he is agreed by all to be the smartest man in America, he does not even have a bachelor’s degree. For him, and possibly for you, it is a question of adapting to the rules. The rules are like the rules of the game. The rules are how we know what game we’re playing. The word “football” means different things in most of the world and the United States, but if you look at the rules it’s very clear which game is which. The same can be said of college. You know what college is in your country, but that doesn’t make it the same as college in my country. You have to learn the rules of the game in order to play it. If you assume.. ..if you assume that you know the rules because you have college in your country, you make an ASS of U and ME. It’s a little game with words. We have to look at those social codes and you have to learn. There are some rules – and you only know this by being here and observing other people and trying to play the game – There are some rules we don’t allow even little bit what we call “wiggle room.” There’s no movement or space for breaking this rule. You must follow it or you get in trouble. An example of that would be plagiarism. You cannot copy text and put it in your paper without putting it in quotes or you will get big trouble and could actually be thrown out of school and sent home. But there are other rules that are more flexible, and these are rules where, if you honor the spirit or the idea behind the rule even as you break the rule, we actually like that. Americans have a kind of schizophrenic relationship with authority. And so we value creative bending in some areas. An example would be an undergraduate student I knew who came to me because his computer science class assigned a paper that he just didn’t want to do. It was too boring. It was too simple. It was on pattern recognition. He was willing to take a failing grade in the class rather than write that paper, he told me. But as we talked, he revealed that he was kind of interested in dance and he had some ideas about how dance and pattern recognition fit together. I said, “Just write the paper on that.” It wasn’t the assignment, but the teacher wanted something to demonstrate their understanding of how to manipulate pattern and find it, so he wrote the paper on dance instead of computer programming for his computer class. And he got an A, because they honored the spirit of the assignment even as he broke the rules a little bit. So that was ok. The only way you are going to be able to know this is to be in the game to play it. Something that will help you understand is, um, to look at games in two ways. There’s a man named James Carse who wrote a book called “Finite and Infinite Games.” He talks about two kinds of games. Some Games are played for the purposes of winning and they come to a specific end, and the rules are how you know who wins. Some games are played for the purpose of continuing play with each other. So a finite game is like a sport, a match – who won the football game. Whereas an infinite game is something like language
or culture. Your culture changes if the people start behaving in a way that doesn’t match the old rules of the culture. Think about the role of women a hundred years ago and now. Games like culture, which are infinite, are designed not to come to an end and they change in order to accommodate the reality of the situation. Academia is one such game. We have rules. You have to be able to see which rules are rigid and really mustn’t changed so that we can understand rankings and who fits where. And there are other roles which you are not as rigid, which are about the play we engage in together. The only way to learn this is to be here and to be open to that possibility, so you won’t be someone who always follows the rules and you won’t be someone who always breaks the rules. You’re somebody who plays with the rules themselves. You start seeing the rules, start noticing them. You play on the boundaries of the rules, nice and joyfully. And so your experience is not one of just trying to fit tightly in quietly in the middle, not knowing where all the boundaries are. You can play more freely, and if you step on a rule that can’t be broken, you step back and you learn. Just be flexible and learn. The more you begin to understand how we play together, the more quality you’re experience will be and the better player you will be. Like any sport. Like any game. You know how to play. I’m inviting you to come and play of college. I’m not suggesting you break the rules carelessly, flout authority. The idea is not to disrupt classes, uh… not to get angry at professors who fail to live up to the ideal of the game of “college professor.” You must find the right balance for yourself between being a member within the community and person responsible for the continuation of the game into the future.