An article in InsideHigherEd about a Johns Hopkins University professor whose policy of scaling final exams according to the highest score led to three entire classes sitting out the final and getting As led to a follow-up story in the same publication about a successful Hamilton College exam boycott 25 years ago. “Game of Theories” reported the story of Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology Dan Chambliss’ challenge to students in his introductory sociology courses: if no one in either section of the course showed up for the final exam, all of them would receive an A on it. He cautioned, if even one student took it, anyone who didn’t would receive a zero.
No one seriously attempted to organize a boycott in the first seven years that the challenge was extended. In 1988, John Werner ’92, in his first-year, accomplished the feat that no one else had even dared try. The InsideHigherEd story explained his process of organizing his classmates without the aid of email or Facebook or any other kind of social media.
In explaining the success Werner achieved, Chambliss explained in the article “that the real challenge stemmed not from the logistics of organizing a boycott, but from trusting one’s classmates enough to sit out the exam. ‘Unless a group has real solid trust within its own ranks, they can’t pull it off,’” he said. “Chambliss compared the logistics of the plan to trying to ‘topple an unpopular dictator.’ ‘You can have a situation where everybody hates the dictator, but in order to overthrow him, you’ve got to believe that nobody’s going to stop you.’”
Werner, who is the Managing Director and Chief Mobilizing Officer of Citizen Schools in Boston, explained that, looking back on what lessons it offered on sociology, he had “specifically invoked the ‘prisoner’s dilemma,’ a famous thought experiment found in game theory relating to the conflict between cooperative and selfish instincts. ‘There were some classic elements [of the dilemma] here,’ Werner said. ‘While it was in everyone’s vested interest not to take the exam, the fear [that someone would take it] was overwhelming.’”