I received my packet of materials for the Reacting to the Past (RTTP) “conference” at the beginning of a busy week in October. Initially I was a bit daunted by the size of my pre-conference packet–it was a good 168 pages, not including the table of contents AND extra photocopied articles. A bit later my role came to me: I was assigned to take part in the “Defining a Nation: India on the Eve of Independence, 1945” as an Indian National Congress Brahman representative. At that time I was not sure what that all meant so my first stop was an online search for “Indian Brahman” and the “Indian National Congress.”
But the student with multiple irons in the fire came out in me, and the reading and researching of my role, well, it fell off my radar. You know, it was not all due for a few weeks….
My deadline wouldn’t come until November 8-9, when it was time for me to attend the two-day, UO-hosted regional RTTP conference, organized by College of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education and Professor of History Ian McNeely. The introduction breakfast, with mingling and opening remarks, felt like what I have come to expect from academic conferences, and as such, my lack of full preparation was not yet in play. We then split off into our groups and that was when things changed.
“The adherent to the honorable Gandhi has the floor.”
As this call from the British Governor General rang through the room, the buzz of back-and-forth exchange between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League slowly quieted, and the adherent began his defense of the unified Indian state.
It was Saturday, November 8, 2014, but for us it was June 1945; our Global Scholars Hall classroom had transformed into transitional India, as the British—aspirations for maintaining a 20th-century Empire fading—were handing over the keys to the proverbial kingdom. The main factions were from the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League, and adherents of Mohandas Gandhi, along with various Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, secular, and Communist parties; and everyone was trying to establish their (our) places in history. Or in our specific case “win the game!”
Songs of protest and strike occasionally were audible above the din of our Indian political and cultural struggle for independence; a couple of classrooms away, more than 20 of our colleagues played the “Greenwich Village 1913: Suffrage, Labor, and the New Woman” game, in which groups compete for political leverage during Progressive Era New York.
This was Reacting to the Past in action and I was almost instantly engaged. Indeed, as I was more and more pressed to be an active part of “history,” I began to learn more and more about Indian history. Sure we drew from our own current and cultural perspectives, but over only two days, my knowledge of actual Indian independence history increased more than I thought possible in such a short time. I read through more and more of my reading materials packet. Who was Jawaharlal Nehru and should I side with him to enhance my Brahman position? What was this Government of India Act passed in 1935, and how could I tap into it to leverage more Hindu control over the entire Indian political scene? Wow, Gandhi’s position was much more nuanced and complicated than popular history portrays!
I came in wanting to learn what RTTP was about, and how it might work in classes around campus. And I did learn much about RTTP as an educational practice, but by being immersed in the experience, I also learned much more about Indian history, Indian culture, and about my own cultural and historical biases. I went in interested, I became immersed, and I came away from the experience intellectually invigorated.
And I wasn’t alone. My fellow game-player Sue Peabody, professor of history at Washington State University, Vancouver wrote after the event:
The RTTP workshop was intense and inspiring. I soon realized that my role was a ‘winning hand,’ in that there was nothing that members of the India National Congress could offer the Muslim League (of which I was president), to make us divert from our goal of founding an independent Pakistan. As the game unfolded, I could feel both the power of that position and the building frustration of the other players whose goals were being thwarted by our intransigence.
I am definitely thinking about ways to incorporate historical role-playing into my classes at Washington State University Vancouver. I especially like the idea of being part of a team of teachers who share the passion of engaging students in history.
Reacting to the Past: A Background Sketch of RTTP’s History
“Reacting to the Past” was originally founded by Barnard College Professor of History Mark Carnes. Professor Carnes’ goal initially was to develop activities in class to immerse the students in the content as an alternative to a model of reading and recall testing. This became the basis for a teaching method that “consists of elaborate games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts in the history of ideas,” (https://reacting.barnard.edu/). UO’s Ian McNeely describes RTTP courses as perfectly fusing content and skills, and an example of how the liberal arts prepare students to be successful in professional, “real-life” contexts —“and in an incredibly engaging format to boot,” he says.
Carnes’ approach expanded into a rich slate of RTTP role-playing games that were developed with the help of other scholars from around the country. About 300 institutions in the United States and abroad teach with RTTP games; UO’s College Scholars Program offers about five RTTP courses a year.
The overarching “initiative is sustained by the Reacting Consortium, an alliance of colleges and universities that promotes imagination, inquiry, and engagement as foundational features of teaching and learning in higher education” (https://reacting.barnard.edu/).
RTTP at the UO
Reacting to the Past courses have been on the UO campus since 2009. The courses are largely found within the College Scholars program, and are a required course for all UO first-year students enrolled in the program. As the College Scholars Web site says:
It’s not just another requirement!
‘Reacting to the Past’ (RTTP) consists of elaborate games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts in the history of ideas. Class sessions are run entirely by students; instructors advise and guide students, and grade their oral and written work. The Curriculum seeks to draw students into the past, promote engagement with big ideas, and improve intellectual and academic skills. (College Scholars RTTP page)
College Scholars’ director, Professor of English Ben Saunders, says that he’s been “blown away” by student responses to the courses. And, he says, the prospect of serving as “game master” rather than “professor” offers a healthy dose of “pedagogic experimentation”: “even the most effective classroom techniques can be undermined if they start to seem rote,” he says. Moreover, “as a parent, one of the most important things I have learned is that I can encourage my child to participate in many activities by making them a game; and this principle holds equally true with young adults in the classroom,” Saunders explains. Or, as one UO undergraduate put it:
The only time I’ve really loved a history class was taking Reacting to the Past. It’s one thing to sit and memorize names, dates, and places, and nearly fall asleep every day, and completely another to become Alexander Hamilton at the Constitutional Convention and realize exactly why the country is constructed the way it is—and be able to change it—or to become a Cherokee representative pleading and bargaining with Andrew Jackson to stop the Trail of Tears. RTTP is a personal take on history and a unique experience unlike any classroom I’ve been in.
For Professor of English—and skeptic turned believer—William Rossi, RTTP “introduces new dimensions to the concept of the ‘student-centered’ classroom. The immediate incentive to develop writing, speaking, and collaboration skills is not grades but successfully performed creative argumentation, where ‘success’ is gauged by the student’s ability to write and pass effective resolutions, win over allies, respond to a variety of contingencies, and collectively strategize outcomes. These in turn all depend on the student’s command of primary documents,” Rossi says. “Contrary to my own initial skepticism, the content of these courses therefore becomes equally central because rather than in spite of their ‘gaminess.’”
In conclusion, Reacting to the Past offered me an invigorating personal experience that went beyond just learning about the history of RTTP and its practices within other people’s classrooms. There is a powerful pedagogy at work here. As a TEP consultant, playing a RTTP game left me with several questions for further exploration. For instance, the group raised the question of scale: how can one bring the same components of interactivity and student-driven interaction with the content into larger courses? For me, this is a key question at UO, especially as we consider best practices for teaching larger general education courses. In other words, what are ways RTTP experiences can expand beyond special enrichment programs and integrate into the larger curriculum on campus? Finally, are there ways to include the sciences and professionals schools in this exciting teaching and learning experiences?