Teaching History With Reacting to the Past

Published on: 23 Sep 2019

By Martha Attridge Bufton, Interdisciplinary Studies Librarian, Carleton University & Pamela J. Walker, Professor of History, Carleton University

In the spring of 2017, I sat in my first-year seminar classroom, watching bored, bleary eyed students discuss primary source readings. I had taught first year seminars (FYSM) at Carleton University for many years. I had won a university teaching award and been selected by my students for another teaching award. The FYSM allowed me to teach particular historical questions while introducing students to history as a discipline, working closely with students on writing, developing their understanding of historiography and advising them on their academic choices. But over several years, something changed. My students were indifferent to the subject, rarely did the reading, and attendance was uneven. I talked too much because the students were not talking at all. I found myself bored and queasy in class and longing for the end of term.

ReactingAcross Canada and in the US and Britain, the number of history majors has fallen dramatically. The American Historical Association’s research shows history majors have declined more than any other discipline. I wondered if that decline was related to my students’ disinterest in my FYSM. I followed the published literature about falling enrolments and I puzzled over what I might do to improve my seminar. One American colleague suggested I consider using Reacting to the Past, an immersive role-playing pedagogy. I was dubious about my ability to teach this way and wondered if it was not a bit silly. But I could not face another year of miserable students. My colleague  assured me that this pedagogy is intellectually rigorous, academically rich and fun. I have now taught Reacting classes for two years and it has revitalized my teaching and immersed me in an extraordinary community of scholars who have introduced me to a new way of understanding history.

Reacting to the Past places students in the midst of conflicted moments in history.  Each student is assigned an historical character role and reads primary texts, conducts research, works in a team to prevail in complicated situations, crafts arguments, engages their classmates in debate, and creates plots and counter plots in order to understand complex historical problems and to win the game. These elaborate games take several weeks to play. Students are required to adhere to the historical context but there is no fixed outcome. They must persuade others to support their goals through speeches, papers, and negotiation in order to win the game.

The games encourage learning through play – students may use skullduggery and drama to influence others and costumes and props enliven the game. Central to this serious play is “liminality,” which requires students to engage with complex historical problems in a dramatic context and makes Reacting unique and effective. Unlike traditional classrooms, students run the game with the professor serving as guide and advisor. Reacting was first developed at Barnard College and it has been adopted at hundreds of post-secondary institutions in the US and has been used at a few Canadian universities.

I have used a game, Greenwich Village 1913, which asks students to support either the labor movement’s call to support striking workers or to attend a women’s suffrage parade. Greenwich Village Bohemians debate which movement will bring forward a more equitable world. Emma Goldman urges everyone to reject bourgeois conventions and the false hope of a reformed state. Margaret Sanger tries to advance the birth control movement without getting arrested. Max Eastman urges all players to contribute to his publication, The Masses, and players can produce poetry, short stories and visual art in the voice of their characters.

Speeches often erupt into furious exchanges about industrial sabotage and the failure of the suffrage movement to confront Southern segregationists. During one debate, a player asked the leader of the Industrial Workers of the World a leading question and his weak answer led that player to quote the IWW’s published writing to reveal a failure to support women workers. The students quickly understand research is an advantage that leads to victory in the game. In another debate, a student scornfully told a suffragist she had no need for the vote because her husband would vote. This student’s frustrated but eloquent response had a much deeper impact than any reading on anti-suffrage would ever have. My students were reading and gleefully using primary sources to argue for their faction. They were emailing me in the evening about their strategy sessions and forming strong social ties to other students as they fought to win the game. They revelled in the subterfuge and in the end, one small group managed to win the game, surprising everyone. The dramatic shift from my previous seminar to this one convinced me this pedagogy would revitalize my teaching.

In my second year of Reacting, I collaborated with Martha Attridge Bufton, Carleton’s Interdisciplinary Studies Librarian. Although the students were engaged with the course material, they did not understand the research process or how to work with primary and secondary sources. Martha has expertise in history, teaching and learning and game-based pedagogy and regularly teaches students about library-based research. I thought the solution was to have Martha work directly with my students to find the additional sources they need to be truly successful in the class. Martha did not, however, deliver a traditional library seminar in which she demonstrated how to find peer reviewed journal articles in a database. Instead, she drew on the life of New York city librarian, union organizer, and women’s suffragist, Maud Malone, to create a librarian character for the game. She appeared in full costume with a jaunty hat and sash with Votes for Women and Workers’ Rights across it. “Maud” also participated in debates and modelled historical inquiry for all the students. Martha and I were honoured to receive the “Brilliancy Award” from the Reacting to the Past Consortium in June 2019 for our pedagogical innovation. We continue to work together to create a fuller model to include librarians in the games and to enhance student research expertise.

Reacting to the Past has limits and it is unsuitable for many topics and historical questions. But it is an innovative pedagogy that has turned my FYSM into an engaged class where I frequently have to insist students stop playing and allow the next class to come into our classroom. Martha and I have attended Reacting conferences to improve our teaching skills and learn new games. I am at work on writing a women’s history game. We are hooked.

Further reading:
Mark Carnes, Minds on Fire: How Role Immersion Games Transform College. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2014



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