Recently, ads have been cropping up around campus offering thousands of dollars in prizes for students to think things up. What those things are, I have no idea; maybe because they have not been thought up yet. Clearly, based on the themes listed in the ads, they will have something to do with innovation, interdisciplinarity, sustainability, the greater social good, teamwork, ideas, innovative solutions to real-world issues and #$%&@-loads and #$%&@-loads and #$%&@-loads of money. Apparently, what you will do to win the competition will be exciting, fun, socially constructive and financially lucrative. You’ll make friends, solve social problems, build a resume and become incredibly, unspeakably rich. There’s no down side: no drudge work, no stupid boss making your life miserable on your pathway to receiving that big check.
The ads say nothing about assignments, problem sets, lab reports, research papers, lectures and other annoying entanglements of college life. They feature, in an enormous font, dollar signs and numbers with lots of zeroes. In one ad, the headline blares out: “$10,000 GRAND PRIZE.” The actual content of the competition is presented in a much smaller font, white letters on a black background, and is hard to grasp, even after you have made out the words. Astoundingly, it turns out, whatever you have to do to get the money seems to have something to do with the humanities. We in the business know that the humanities generally appear only rarely in the same sentence with numbers of any kind, much less numbers with dollar signs, zeroes and commas (unless the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is involved). I get all STEAMy just thinking about it. Students, including my precious Tolstoy fans, who want to get their hands on the $10,000 are encouraged to attend an information session in one of our showpiece technology labs, where they will learn the rules of the game. Can it really be that studying literature can earn them thousands of dollars? I hope they come back and tell me. I have to admit, though, I’m a little concerned that the efforts required may distract them from such trivialities as attending class. And, OMG, we’re reading “Anna Karenina.” I hope they get to it. For some people, it’s the greatest novel of all time, food for the soul, a life-changing experience. Though reading it does take time.
$10,000 is a lot of money, and if they let faculty get involved, I’m in. But frankly, if I were in my students’ position, I’d drop everything and go for the big bucks. “WIN $50,000!” shrieks another ad. All you have to do is:
“Find a problem to solve. Come up with a solution. Write it up.”
Seems pretty easy. Let’s try! Here’s a problem: Let’s say, through merit, intrinsic talent and hard work you get into a prestigious university. But when you arrive, you realize that what you are expected to do during your time in college is not immerse yourself in the life of the mind, but rather to start a business, save the world, accumulate credentials, grades and useful contacts, then use them to hightail it on down the road. So the problem is: Why did you pay all that money to come to college, when the real point is not to be there? You can make so much more money by starting your own business! Why are you in college?
Let’s take a stab at a solution: Whenever I buy gas, I go into the convenience store and spring for a Powerball ticket. I stand by my car and gaze at the magic row of numbers. The jackpot this time is $203 million. While I wait for the tank to fill, I dream, as Dostoevsky did while waiting for the roulette wheel to stop spinning, each time. Guess what? My number comes up! I’m a mega-gazillionaire!! I’ll pay off the mortgage, I’ll eat better, fix the bike, have mocha lattes every day, buy a pony. I’ll get season tickets, maybe take some trips. I’ll set up my kids for life. I’ll treat the neighbors. I’ll give money to my friends. I’ll be famous! I’ll indulge in innovation, interdisciplinarity, sustainability, the greater social good, teamwork, ideas and innovative solutions to real-world issues. I’ll cure cancer! I’ll help the poor! I’ll have #$%&@-loads and #$%&@-loads and #$%&@-loads of money. I’ll be happy.
The numbers flip round and round. The nozzle clicks loudly. The tank is full. Chances are, I will not win the lottery. Again. It’s back to Perkins, fourth floor, PG 3466. My friends are there, along with my teachers, waiting.
Carol Apollonio is a professor of the practice in Slavic and Eurasian studies. Her column runs every other Tuesday. Send Professor Apollonio a message on Twitter @flath3.