Betting – just another form of public performance?

Yesterday’s WSJ featured an Onion-esque article and video about college students placing bets, via a newly formed company, about whether they will earn a high or low grade or GPA:
“Two New York entrepreneurs are offering college students the chance to put their money where their grades are.

Stephanie Banchero has details about a new web site that’s trying to build a business by laying out the odds of student performance, allowing students to bet on (or against) their future grades.

Their website lets college students place wagers on their own academic performance, betting they will earn, say, an A in biology or a B in calculus. Students with low grade point averages are considered long shots, so they have the opportunity to win more money for high grades than classmates with a better GPA.

The pair of recent college graduates who founded say they hope to turn a profit and inspire students to work harder. “It would be great if everyone was intrinsically motivated to get good grades, but that’s, like, not reality,” said Jeremy Gelbart, a 23-year-old co-founder of the site.”

Like some of the quoted horrified education officials, my reaction bordered on queasiness about the unintended consequences of students wanting to bet on their grades. For those who bet on poor outcomes, this could inadvertently foster a self-fulfilling prophecy or promote point shaving (or alternatively for those who bet on high grades, grade grubbing for higher, undeserved grades – the bane of many a professor). The financial payoffs noted in the article are relatively small; $156 from two wagers might buy one round of drinks for buddies in an expensive city.

Although the article notes that the company may soon run afoul of state laws, the phenomena of wagering on seemingly sacred matters is not limited to undergraduate majors in business. The world of finance thrives on constant betting, from friendly bets among co-workers about consuming large amounts of junk food in a specified time period* to larger ones involving your retirement portfolio.

On a more important note, wagering is a way of making a commitment “public,” something that privately-shared grades don’t do. However, we do have other ways of making our commitments and performance public and, even better, inviting constructive feedback and affirmation. In architecture and design, the end of semester culminates with projects presented before other exhausted students and guest critics. In research, people give oral presentations or disseminate their findings in peer-reviewed papers and books. At Burning Man, contributors witness firsthand how much fellow participants enjoy sharing their art, theme camps, and interactions.

*See anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s seminal “Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight” as a comparison.

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