Unique Course Turns the Classroom into a Time Machine

Friday, May 10, 2019
Photo of Serafina Kernberger wearing Benjamin Franklin wig and glasses
Senior Serafina Kernberger reads a speech to her classmates dressed as Benjamin Franklin. Photo by Paul Asper.

Role-playing’s not just for Dungeons & Dragons fans anymore. Department of History Lecturer Steve Harris is using it to bring the past alive for students.

“During lectures I sometimes see a lot of students who sit in the back texting, and they may or may not do the reading. They’re passive,” Harris said. “I wasn’t happy with that as the only way of teaching.”

While at a conference a few years ago, Harris stumbled across a possible solution: the concept known as “Reacting to the Past” curriculum (“Reacting”). Pioneered in the late 1990s by a history professor at Barnard College and now used in around 400 colleges nationally, the method uses game-based course materials to draw students away from their phones and into the past. By role-playing historical events and acting out the philosophical and intellectual beliefs of their assigned historical figure, the students get up close and personal with their subjects in a fun yet substantive way. Harris tried out Reacting in his courses on global democracy and Western civilization, and currently he’s using it in his course on American constitutional history.

In Reacting, students are provided with supplemental readings that include primary sources and profiles of the key historical figures involved in the game. Students then form groups and, through speeches and discussions, attempt to sway their fellow role-playing classmates to agree with their stances. This semester, the topics have ranged from the debate over the presidency at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to the abolition of slavery in 1865. The students who are able to woo the majority of the class win the game.

“They have to talk to each other beforehand, outside of class, and make arguments that will engage the class, so they pay more attention to their ideas,” said Harris. “They have to think, ‘Do I bribe them with a vote swap? How can I rally their votes?’ — all the normal things in the world from a practical political perspective. Most classes don’t talk about that stuff or address those skills.”

All class sessions are run entirely by students, with no fixed scripts or outcomes. Harris sits in the back of the classroom observing, grading student performances and acting as the game master, guiding his students and answering any questions to make sure the role-play runs smoothly. While students are required to deliver a public presentation at least three times during the course of the semester, grades are also determined by quizzes, reports and other written arguments.

“It was a very interesting and informative process just researching and talking about slave owners back then and how their crops were dependent on the work of slaves,” said junior Raul Tovar, who played the role of a Southern congressman in favor of slavery. “I’m usually a big book guy, so this is an experience I never would have had. I’d definitely advocate for this type of class because you learn more by engaging with the other students.”

Senior Serafina Kernberger went above and beyond in the name of engagement: She brought a white wig, gold-plated eyeglasses and a Colonial-style hat, which she wore for an impassioned anti-slavery speech in character as Benjamin Franklin.

“You’re incentivized to find your own research and materials to support your argument [because the game is] based on the results as opposed to just fulfilling some requirements in the class,” Kernberger said. “So the material stays with you.”

According to Harris, it’s not uncommon for students to get so wrapped up in their parts they spend hours outside of class crafting strategies to persuade their classmates. As an educator, he sees that as a win.

“These are students who are engaging with the issues. They’re thinking and they’re working together as a democracy,” Harris said. “To think of ourselves in that body politic, to me, is something we need to do more of, rather than saying, ‘I believe this, and that’s all I care about.’ Learning the history hands-on helps us do that.”

— Ivan Natividad


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