In June this year, I found myself screaming at the Ming dynasty Emperor Wanli for wanting to anoint his third born son in place of the first born. For all my remonstrations, I was executed as a Confucian martyr on the next morning. The following day, I entered a chaotic meeting between illustrious American citizens desperate to uphold slavery and a team of Abolitionists. All in all, in the last week I travelled between five centuries in a matter of four days.
I was not in a time machine. I was at the Reacting to the Past Institute at Barnard College, one of the most exhilarating new methods of revolutionizing higher education that I have experienced. Reacting to the Past (RTTP) is a series of elaborate games, set in the past, where students take on the roles of historical characters, and through arguments and gameplay, have the potential to reshape history. In order for students to “win” the game, they have to thoroughly master literary and historical texts for their games’ time period, and to be able to fight against their in-game opponents through a series of oral presentations and written work. In other words, students in Reacting to the Past have to basically do everything their professors want them to do in a college class—read and analyze texts, learn about historical contexts, learn how to construct forceful and convincing arguments—but in the guise of a game. I played two characters in two games—a follower of the Ming Confucian extremist Hai Rui in Confucianism and the Crisis of the Wanli Emperor, set in 1587, and an undiscovered, young Walt Whitman in 1845 in Frederick Douglass and Abolition.
I was astounded by how participating in the games completely changed the way both my fellow gameplayers and I learned. Like many of our students, most of us had come to the workshops less prepared than we should have. But the intensity of the gameplay drove us to comb The Analects the night after the first game to find evidence to thwart our foes; and to thumb through Douglass’s autobiography to make claims against the scientific racism of the nineteenth century. I can only imagine what Reacting to the Past does for the undergraduate classroom.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Reacting, join us at Duke for an open Reacting workshop January 19-20. The registration fee is $75 for faculty and administrators and $25 for graduate students. The fee includes tuition, materials, and most meals. The costs are so low because the workshop is being generously supported by the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke and by the Teaching and Learning Center at Wake Forest University. At the Duke workshop, participants will learn about RTTP by experiencing the games as would their students. The program will consist of two game tracks, along with a series of plenary sessions: one will feature Defining a Nation: India on the Eve of Independence, 1945; and the other, Frederick Douglass, Abolitionism, Slavery, and the Constitution, 1845. Both Mark Carnes, the brainchild of Reacting pedagogy at Columbia, and Mark Higbee, game designer of the Douglass game from Eastern Michigan University, will be joining us.
We hope to see many of you there! Sign up today here!
More information about Reacting:
1. Another review of Reacting pedagogy in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
2. Descriptions of all the games, links to peer-reviewed studies and publications, and other instructor resources are available on the main Reacting web site.
3. For a 60-second introduction to RTTP, check out the exchange between Alex Trebek and professor Stephanie Jass.
4. For additional testimonials by veteran RTTP instructors from around the nation, visit here.
**Parts of this post were originally posted on my own blog.