A decade ago, several professors at Barnard College created a pedagogy based in the History of Ideas called “Reacting to the Past.” I attended a session at the AHA discussing this pedagogy (the History News Network discusses the session here).
Their website explains:
Reacting to the Past” (RTTP) consists of elaborate games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts in the history of ideas. Class sessions are run entirely by students; instructors advise and guide students and grade their oral and written work. It seeks to draw students into the past, promote engagement with big ideas, and improve intellectual and academic skills. Pioneered by Barnard College in 1996, the project is supported by a consortium of colleges and universities.
Some of the games I heard discussed were based on Plato’s Republic, Confucius’s Proverbs, the division of India, Anne Hutchinson, and King Henry VIII. The games immerse the students in the ideas expressed. Students are divided into different factions and given certain goals they are trying to achieve. Some students are indeterminants that need to be persuaded to join one or another faction and often have the swing vote in classes. The games take up different amounts of time.
All the professors at the AHA session familiar with this pedagogy said that it transformed students. They arrived early and stayed late for class. The factions would chase down indeterminants in the hallways and unions trying to persuade them. Shy students felt nervous at first, but blossomed by the end. Freshman made lasting friendships.
The series started out as something more for a Freshman Year Experience course or a general education course, but historians are starting to adopt them. We have to be willing to give up a lot of content coverage in a lecture class, or they can be used in a seminar type class. There are several games already published, and more being worked on at the moment.
I was especially excited because I had plans for constructing something very much like this around the 1964 Democratic Convention. Delegates at that convention split into many different factions that expressed competing opinions among blacks and whites, northerners and southerners, politicians and activists. An EMU history prof at the AHA session, Mark Higbee, said he’s developing a game for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. One black student told him that she had never understood the Civil Rights Movement until she had to take on the role of a white segregationist and argue for further discrimination and segregation. She then realized what Civil Rights Activists had been challenging.
The pedagogy has been used at small liberal arts colleges and major research one institutions. Barnard College holds a training session every summer and there are other regional conferences around the country.
What do you think? Do you have any controversies or texts in American Intellectual History that you think would work for this?