It’s true... your humble gumshoe will be back in the classroom soon. Right now I am in the middle of finalizing my syllabus for a new course I’m teaching this spring, called “Poker in American Film and Culture.”
That’s right. I’ll be teaching a poker class. No shinola!
The college course (in American Studies) has been in the works for some time now, which means I’ve had the luxury of imagining an unending variety of texts, assignments, and other fun stuff to include. But the time to plan and prepare is running out. Gonna have to make some decisions and commit to them.
In other words, the action is on me.
I’ve actually already selected my primary texts for the course, the main purpose of which will be to examine the different ways the story of poker in the U.S. helps illustrate various facets of American culture and identity from the early 19th century to the present. We will be studying the history of the game as well as examining many cultural products (stories, films, etc.) in which poker is of special thematic importance.
James McManus’ 2009 history, Cowboys Full, recently made available in paperback, is going to serve as kind of a “core” text with which we’ll begin the class and then keep going back to throughout the semester. McManus has taught a similar course for a number of years, in fact. I have already spoken with him some about my class, and probably will do so again as things proceed.
Other required texts include The Biggest Game in Town by Al Alvarez (1983) and Big Deal by Anthony Holden (1990). Both cover some of the same ground (i.e., offering comprehensive sketches of the World Series of Poker), though both include a lot of great analysis of various “American” values and/or qualities that the game helps illustrate.
Like Alvarez and Holden, David Spanier (another Brit) also brings a non-American’s perspective to the game in his eclectic group of essays Total Poker (1977), another required text. I’m also having the class pick up Jessie May’s poker novel Shut Up and Deal (1998), as well as read a number of selections from the 2004 anthology Read ‘Em and Weep edited by John Stravinsky. Will additionally supplement things with a “course reader” that’ll include a few other articles and excerpts.
Still rearranging things, but right now the units are as follows: (1) Origins, Rules, and Variants; (2) The History of Poker; (3) The Culture of Poker; (4) Poker in Culture -- Literature; (5) Poker in Culture -- Film; (6) Poker in Culture -- Law and Morality.
Right now for the film unit I’m planning to require everyone to view The Cincinnati Kid (dir. Norman Jewison, 1965), California Split (dir. Robert Altman, 1974), and Rounders (dir. John Dahl, 1998). These are movies we’ll all watch and discuss as a class, but I am also thinking of having a writing assignment in which I invite students to watch another film in which poker figures prominently -- from a provided list -- and write about it using our class readings as secondary sources.
Like I say, I’m still at work finalizing the sucker. Wanted to pass along a rough outline right now, though, of what I’m planning to do. Looks like I will get to teach the class again in the fall, too, which means I’ll get to see what works well the first time and make changes for the next go-round.
If you want to hear more about the class, go check out the latest episode of the Gambling Tales Podcast (episode 20) where I discussed the class in greater detail with Falstaff and Special K. By the way, the guys are also sponsoring a freeroll tourney on Full Tilt Poker tomorrow night (at 9 p.m. Eastern time), the password for which comes up during the show -- so check it out.
Once I do finally settle the schedule, I’ll come back here and provide a final list of reading/watching assignments for your perusal. Have a feeling I’ll also be sharing things here from time to time about the class as it goes along, too. While I’m hopeful (and reasonably confident) the students will get something useful from the class, I fully expect to learn a lot myself along the way.
What school is for, ain’t it?