Reacting to the Past

Author: Malcolm McDowell Woods

Published Date: 1/25/2018

Categories: F1RST Magazine F1RST Spring 2018 History Students

Past Lives

Students Across Campus are Making History. Literally.


On this bright, fall afternoon, Main Hall 301 has been transformed into Polly’s, a noisy working-class diner in 1913 Greenwich Village. Polly Holladay, the restaurant’s owner and a noted anarchist, holds court. This is a lively, raucous salon, where labor organizers, anarchists, intellectuals, writers and suffragettes guzzle coffee, rub shoulders and jostle for support from neighborhood residents, socialites and other activists who regularly show up.

The walls of the diner are bedecked with a variety of posters boosting women’s right to vote and the labor movement. Over the course of several sessions, the place is visited by notables such as Max Eastman, the editor of The Masses, a radical publication; W.E.B. Du Bois, a Harvard-educated historian and African-American activist; “Big Bill” Haywood, labor leader and founder of the Industrial Workers of the World; Margaret Sanger, an early proponent of birth control; and Inez Milholland, a wealthy suffragette, among others.

The crowd at the diner has been hearing pleas seeking support from representatives of both the labor and women’s suffrage movement and on this day, they are to vote, throwing their lot in with one movement or the other.

A late edition of The Masses has been published and distributed. Last speeches are made. Finally, ballots are distributed and votes cast.

As is often the case in a classroom, students are gathered in small groups, chatting and reviewing notes. But the groups here reflect the common interests of the characters the students have been assigned to play. In speeches, writing assignments and other activities during the run of this game, the students have explored the ideas, events and personalities that fueled these pivotal moments and shaped American history.

The game they are playing is part of an innovative teaching methodology called Reacting to the Past. First developed by a history professor at Barnard College in 1995, the role-playing games have been embraced by more than 300 colleges and universities across the globe. In these complex games, students portray a mix of actual and fictional characters as they deal with a historic situation. 

“This isn’t re-enacting history,” according to Dr. Abigail Markwyn, an associate professor of history and advocate for the program—it’s her honors class in American history since 1877 that took on the Greenwich Village game. “The students here re-create history. History happens because people make choices. This teaches that lesson.”

It’s a lesson more and more students are receiving. In the 20-plus years since the first games were developed, universities across the country have embraced them, and this year a number of Carroll professors added them to the curriculum. 

This October, a regional Reacting to the Past conference was held at Carroll, attracting teachers from the region, and games were featured in several classes across the campus this fall. 

It’s immersive learning. The students spend the full class session (the game can continue over several weeks) in character. 

The games are also mostly student-run—the instructor hands out character assignments and then largely stays out of the way. “After the game gets rolling, the teacher really takes a back seat,” said Markwyn. A textbook that accompanies the game includes instructions for various characters and outlines activities for each class session.

In Markwyn’s class, the game is led by gamemaster Rachael Meyer, playing Polly, the restaurateur. Meyer, a history major, is in the class assisting Markwyn as part of an independent study project. She first participated in a role-playing game in a history class last year and was intrigued.

“I'd never have this many students participating in a typical classroom discussion of abolition.”

Dr. Allison Malcom
Adjunct Lecturer of History

“I love history because of the personal stories embedded within it,” she explained. “These games teach students that actual people lived this and were affected by it. When you take a traditional survey course you often don’t get those personal stories.”

In recreating pivotal events in history and portraying other people, students may be asked to adopt or confront positions and values that may be antithetical to their own.

“That’s one of the challenges,” said Markwyn. “The fact that students may be assigned a position contrary to their own values is valuable as well in what it teaches us. Being forced to defend or voice a value which differs from your own builds empathy.”

Meyer herself described that lesson as a powerful element of the game. “A lot of the roles are uncompromising and that can frustrate students,” she noted. Game instructions might prevent a character from changing their opinion or even compromising. “But at the end of the day, you see what would have been the value of compromise.”

Professors lead a full debriefing session following each game, giving students a chance to express their own experiences playing a character and to better understand how that particular piece of history happened. Even games that end up having gone in a very different direction than actual events can teach a lot. “Oh yes,” said Markwyn, “you learn that history is a series of decisions and not an inevitability.” 

Meyer, who is pursuing a minor in secondary education and hopes to teach social studies one day, sees value in the games beyond how they illuminate history. 

“For people skeptical about the game playing, or who have problems with the rigidness of the characters, I’d urge them to look beyond the game itself,” she said. “The pedagogy is very effective in teaching speaking, reading and writing skills. And it teaches better critical thinking skills. All those skills that are becoming increasingly relevant today.”

They were all on display a few weeks later, in another classroom, this one in Education Hall. Students in Dr. Allison Malcom’s History 105 class were engaged in a vigorous debate about slavery. The occasion was a dinner hosted by Samuel Morse in honor of John Calhoun. Morse, the noted inventor (yes, Morse code), was also politically active as a leader of the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant movements in the 1840s and a defender of slavery.

Calhoun, a South Carolina senator and former vice president, was in fine form at the dinner, sipping whiskey (apple juice) and slapping down speeches from abolitionists present at the party.

“The understanding is that they are as actors in a play, trying to understand the mindset of the roles they are playing, both for good and for bad,” said Malcom. And this class is raucous. There are numerous speeches, a song, tête-á-têtes, arguing and prodding. While some students are definitely more fully inhabiting their roles, all seem intent on the proceedings. 

“I’d never have this many students participating in a typical classroom discussion of abolition,” noted Malcom.

Before the hour has finished, there is a kidnapping, as a pro-slavery group hauls away Frederick Douglass, followed by an assassination attempt, during which an abolitionist is killed. Pivotal moments such as these are often met in the games with the roll of a dice. Though students’ actions are quite constrained by the beliefs of their character and the times in which they lived, the games do offer some leeway, and can venture away from actual history, as the kidnapping demonstrates.

And that’s okay. Again, the purpose here isn’t to accurately recreate history. Outcomes that differ drastically from actual events beg the question, why? What happened in the re-enactment that brought about a different outcome? Markwyn said the debriefings that the classes engage in following the conclusion can be great learning opportunities. As students consider how their actions altered events, they can’t help but acknowledge that it is often those sorts of actions that shaped history in the first place. 

Malcom pointed to an incident during a previous semester, when her students were participating in a game set during the American revolution. 

“There were some moments in my American Revolution game when it got very silly—specifically when the mob actions occurred. But at one point my student playing Isaac Sears was arrested for inciting riots. ‘When did I do that?’ he said, looking hurriedly through his role sheet. ’Friday, in this class,’ I said. We all laughed, but I think it stuck with the class that historical actions have consequences. And after that game was over I showed them the tar and feathering clip from the HBO miniseries John Adams to illustrate what a mob action actually looked like—which was terrible and violent and without remorse on the part of Sam Adams (who was a similar character to Sears). Had I showed them that clip outside of the context of the game, they would have gotten that it is serious and history can be violent and awful. But I’m not sure they would remember why or how mobs happened. In the game, despite the giggling, they realized that there was a huge disenfranchised group of people whose only power was spontaneous mobbing. They realized that leadership can be both fearful of and condescending toward that mass of people, and occasionally can use those mobs for their own ends.”

More than 100 years ago, the Spanish philosopher George Santayana wrote that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” 

Turns out that repeating it, at least in an educational setting, might have some value, too.

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