Look at What You Haven't Done: A Game Played by at Least One College Professor


After diving back into some of my favorite transactional analysis literature (like Berne's Games People Play  and Ernst's Games Students Play), I realized that my college classrooms (and possibly my committees) have been playing fields for games that I play.

Transactional analysis is a branch of psychiatry that begins with the understanding that humans, provided they are older than about 10 years old, have three complete and cohesive ego states--Parent, Adult, and Child. In healthy individuals, these three ego states are integrated, which means they each play an integral role in the person's life. In troubled or ill individuals, the Adult function is impaired. I have a complete book on the subject here: Life is Easier Than it Seems.

For the purposes of this post, I will briefly describe each Ego state.

  1. Parent: Treats others like children. Know-it-all. Blameless. Likes to wag admonishing fingers (Critical Parent) or say "Good job" (Nurturing Parent.)
  2. Adult: Objective. Makes empirical observations as to matters of fact. Tries something to see if it works.
  3. Child: Enjoys having fun and making a mess (Free Child), or is worried about getting into trouble (Adapted Child).

In a college classroom, the ideal relationship between professor and student is Adult - Adult, where students are invited to examine psychology, for instance, by learning the skills of a psychologist.

When I begin a class, it seems as though my Adult is in control, and it seems like I am invited students' Adult to participate. I realized that I was playing a game in my classrooms, however, because what happens when I engage with students in something other than an Adult - Adult relationship. This means I am playing a game.

I play a game in which I invite students into an ill-defined learning relationship. They practice autonomy in helping to design the course, but I keep them from specifying any clear rules. For example:

1.     We have a schedule to keep, but it isn’t clear what we will be doing on days that we meet.

2.     We have learning objectives, but it isn’t clear how we will know when we have satisfied them.

3.     We have an attendance policy, but it is indistinguishable from no attendance policy whatsoever.

The payoff, it seems, is when I get to tell my students, “Look at what you haven't done."

Structure of the Game

            A game is Con + Gimmick = Response then Switch then Cross-up then Payoff. 


Game Step


Role Played


Me: “Let’s design a course together”

Me: Adult, facilitator


Me: “I’ll help you do it right.”

Me, ulterior: Nurturing Parent


Class: designs the course they want

Class: Adult


Me: Get in their way, impede them, play "Why don't you... Yes, but..."

Me: Persecutor


Class: Follows course design, but it’s an impossible course to follow.

Class: Victim


Me: “Look what you haven’t done.”

Me: I get to tell students they are lazy or unmotivated. I get to play “I was only trying to help” or “Shame on you”


Game: “Look at What You Haven’t Done.”

In this game, which is played with my students, I orchestrate a course in which it is impossible to learn. I have defended this style of course with case studies, review articles, and carefully researched scholarly monographs. Now thoroughly defended by Critical Parent (“I know better than you”), I lead students through a range of activities with the goal of designing a worthwhile course of learning. In practice, however, I prevent them from implementing any structure or designing anything that can be practiced. 

When we begin working on the course, the real games begin: students are unclear about what to do, whether they need to attend, and what the purpose of our meeting is. Students have two choices: be self-directed or become frustrated and give up. I goad them with encouragement, which is like lacing the mouse trap with premium aged Wisconsin Cheddar.

When they do lead themselves (“Mommy, look at what I’ve done!”), I smile and nod encouragingly like their father. If they ask for more direction (their Adult), then I’m nearby to criticize them for introjecting authority figures (“sounds like you’re doing this more out of a belief that you need to be a good student”). 


Analysis: Under the guise of an Adult – Adult learning relationship, I am inviting students to take a Nurturing Parent – Free Child relationship with me. If they try to make this an Adult – Adult relationship (“I think it would be helpful to have clearer learning objectives”), then I make it a Critical Parent – Adapted Child relationship (“Look what you haven’t done.”)


Antithesis: Begin the course on the right foot with a genuine invitation to design the course. Insist on a complete learning contract, with clear outcomes, clear course guidelines, and clear rules for accountability from student and professor. Adhere to the course contract throughout the semester. Renegotiate if necessary.