This article offers reflections on our experiences with Reacting to the Past (RTTP), an engaging role-playing pedagogy developed by Mark Carnes, Professor of History at Barnard College. RTTP games ask students to immerse themselves in the past as they learn about Ming Dynasty China or Indian Independence, about Athenian democracy or the trial of Galileo. Dennis has been using the China (Confucianism and the Succession Crisis of the Wanli Emperor, 1587) and India (Defining a Nation: India on the Eve of Independence, 1945) games in his World Religions and other courses since 2008, while Williams started using the Athens game ( .) after attending a 2013 Koehler Center workshop led by Dennis and Larry Carver (UT-Austin, English).
Dennis used abbreviated versions of the China and India games in the spring 2016 semester of his Honors section of World Religions, ending with an extended discussion of Indian independence on August 15, 1947. And just as Williams uses RTTP to help his students look deeply into the time of Socrates, Dennis uses the study of Indian independence to help students understand its aftermath, considering the November 2008 Mumbai attacks and the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India, among other topical issues.
For a fuller discussion of Dennis’s experience with RTTP, see “Reflections on ‘Reacting to the Past’ in the Classroom,” in the Koehler Center’s Insights into Teaching and Learning (Spring 2013). For his treatment of the legacy of Indian independence, see his “Integrative Pedagogy: A Case Study of the Lasting Legacy of India’s Partition,” in Education About Asia.
Williams used the Athens game in an Honors Cultural Visions course titled “The Afterlife of the Classical Greek Tradition after 1945.” In the course, students compare how English and German language cultures rewrite the same shared tradition. The premise of the RTTP game is as follows: Athens had lost the war with Sparta. Sparta abolished the democracy and sponsored a brutal regime of Athenian oligarchs called the “Thirty Tyrants.” A civil uprising ensued; democracy was restored. Each student drew the name of an Athenian and played that role for the duration of the game. In the assembly, students determined what to do with the overthrown “tyrants” and their sympathizers, how extensive to make the democracy, and so on.
In its full form, the Athens game could take the whole semester. In this course, it took seven Tuesday/Thursday classes. Williams supplemented the RTTP course book with his own materials, while eliminating several readings from the previous semester’s syllabus; he also replaced a term paper with the Athens game written assignments. Those assignments included students discussing the difficulties of playing the role of an ancient Greek and considering how their own worldview affected that process. Students also wrote a response paper to an article that compared ancient and modern democracy.
Student responses have been overwhelmingly positive. In a follow-up discussion, one student wrote, “The Reacting Game was my favorite part of the class and I think it would be great to integrate it into other courses as well.” Another wrote: “I really enjoyed that part of the course and I hope as many students as possible have the opportunity to participate in it!” Even after the course was over, they were still enthusiastic about it.
Students found the role playing instrumental. One student wrote: “My character’s perspective became something I understood as fact, not something I made up. I learned about the different perspectives on Athenian democracy, both from faction members of the time as well as from my classmates’ modern ideas.” Another student wrote: “Over the course of the game I have found that it is hard to keep my modern day opinions and the opinions of the character separate.” Students also contemplated ancient and modern concepts of democracy. One student wrote: “After completing this exercise, I have a new appreciation for how a government works and how complicated it is to have a group of individuals agree on one topic. I really enjoyed the whole process of it and gained deeper understanding for the inner workings of Athenian Democracy.” Students had to determine how far to take the idea of democracy and the Athenian ideas of equality and liberty. The assembly discussions were civil but also sometimes raucous. One student addressed the difficulty of social movement:
If I’ve learned one thing throughout this game, I’ve learned that it is extremely difficult to establish a government. It seems that each day, we struggle to make any progress because everyone is so stuck in their beliefs and does not allow for compromise. I can only imagine how the founding fathers of America felt when they sat down and tried to make the first constitution of America. This game was also really interesting because even though we were debating about Athenian democracy, I could draw parallels to America as well.
Throughout the course, students constantly grappled with how the Classical tradition influences modern cultures as well as how modern cultures shape and rewrite that tradition in their own image.
In playing the roles of others, whether from ancient Athens or China, or from modern India, students journey back into the past to learn about the present, including reflecting on their own deeply held beliefs.