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Mind games

Classics faculty discuss new pedagogical approach

Classics faculty members Nancy Felson and Keith Dix are involved in a new pedagogical technique called “Reacting to the Past” and recently hosted a conference at UGA to demonstrate how “Reacting” works. They talked with Columns about the goals and successes of the approach.

Columns: I’ve heard about Reacting to the Past classes, but don’t really know how it works.

Felson: A professor of history, Mark Carnes, developed this idea about eight years ago at Barnard College. The idea is game playing at critical moments in history. The students in a class are assigned roles. First they learn about the period, and they spend several days reading a major text of that period. In the Athens 403 B.C. game they read Plato’s Republic. Then they are assigned roles, in factions. They have those roles for five to six weeks.

Columns: I didn’t realize it lasted that long.

Felson: Yes. They do research and talk to their faction members outside of class. They’re guided by the game master, who is the instructor, a kind of invisible hand over the game. Mark developed several games in collaboration with experts in the field.

The idea of Reacting is that students have an interactive, vivid, energized experience of participating in history during a past moment. They do not reconstruct and relive what did happen, but are put in a situation that is historically accurate and their task is to work their way out of that situation and see how events play out.

Columns: So the students don’t necessarily recreate history.

Dix: No. The hope is, in some sense, that students who represent the factions that lost in history have the opportunity to make history turn out in a different way-and perhaps in a better way. In the Athens 403 B.C. game, for example, the students in assembly have to put Socrates on trial. Just as in the real situation, there are certain people who want to see Socrates convicted of impiety and killed, but one faction supports Socrates, and their goal is to try to prevent the execution of Socrates or, if they can’t prevent it, to at least benefit the Socratic cause by turning him into a martyr.

Felson: It’s a dramatic opportunity for students to exercise a kind of agency. They do it by preparing arguments that they deliver-in the case of Socrates at the court that was trying him, and in the Athens game at the assembly where Athenian male citizens over 30 met and devised a constitution. The students are faced with fundamental political theory questions-who gets power, who’s included in the citizen body, even the question of whether women should get the right to vote.

Columns: How are students graded?

Felson: There’s a lot of skill asked of the students in making public speeches. Their work is evaluated in terms of how much they participate and how well they participate at the table, in the assembly or in the courtroom. And written work-each game has intense writing demands.

Dix: There’s a real point to the students knowing the texts well, because that’s where they get the arguments they make in the meetings and the assemblies. They have to go to the text. In the case of the Athens game, the arguments for and against democracy and various institutions are right there in the text.

Columns: Have you taught this?

Felson: Yes, last semester, using two games. Reacting will be part of the Honors Program here. Elizabeth Kraft, in English, and I team-taught the Athens game and the French Revolution to 15 Honors students. We’re trying to offer four courses next year.

Columns: Where is it being used besides Barnard and UGA?

Felson: Smith, the University of Texas-it’s spreading. It won a big award in 2004, the Theodore Hesburgh Award for creative pedagogy. At Trinity College an introductory science course is going to use Reacting games that pertain to science. A lot of people are learning about it and thinking about how to implement it at their own institutions, and they come to conferences to see and to play. Faculty play assigned roles, just as the students do. At this conference we did the French Revolution and the Chinese succession.

The games are designed to take care of a lot of contingencies but they all have built into them an element of chance, determined by a roll of the dice. There are probability tables which determine whether an action that a faction has proposed is going to succeed.

Dix: And these instances of chance are all based on real historical contingencies, things that did happen or could have happened in the situation.

Columns: How much after-the-fact discussion is done with students?

Felson: In a six-week stretch, a teacher who is game master can allot two or three days to discussion. There’s a post-mortem built into the game.
Each of the players has goals, and a number of them are secret from the other students. The students have a student book, and there’s an instructor’s book. It contains all the rules. Each student gets the full detail of one role.

Columns: It would be exciting to see students do this.

Felson: A study by a psychologist at Barnard found that students who take Reacting develop more empathy with other people’s positions, and it also has an effect on their perception of control-that they don’t have as much control of events as they thought they had. And there were no absentees last semester-they said they couldn’t bear to miss it.