Students immerse themselves in history

BOWLING GREEN, O.—A small mob broke out in Prout Chapel recently, disrupting the procedures of New York’s Provincial Congress. The crowd agitated loudly while Judge Robert Livingston, a wealthy landowner, attempted to keep order as the assembly prepared to vote on whether to declare independence.

Later, James Jauncey, portrayed by senior Michael O’Connell, read a manifesto calling for secret written ballots, universal white male suffrage, and the end of imprisonment for debt, among other demands.

“Well done, sir,” praised one of the “Out of Doors” group of military men, slaves, farmers and other manual laborers. Supporters knocked approvingly on the benches and the opposing loyalist and moderate factions hissed their disapproval of the excluded group. Livingston, played by freshman Honors student Meg Carroll, pointed the gavel sternly at the noisemakers.

The mob was part of Reacting to the Past, a history/American culture studies (ACS) class taught by Dr. Andrew Schocket, history and director of the American Culture Studies Program. The interdisciplinary, role-immersive class is almost entirely student-run, with Schocket serving as the “game master.”

During the culminating game in Prout, other students, who ranged from freshmen to seniors, represented the moderates, who controlled the swing vote, and the loyalists, who were definitely not in favor of declaring independence from Britain, and by it, war.

“Patriots, Loyalists and Revolution in New York City: 1775-76” was the first of the elaborate “games” that make up the class. Later in the semester, the students will reenact the Cherokees’ decision process over whether to accept the government’s treaty offer in “Red Clay, 1835: Cherokee Removal and the Meaning of Sovereignty,” and last, “Greenwich Village 1913: Suffrage, Labor and the New Woman.” Faculty are invited to observe the latter, which will be held in the Center for Faculty Excellence in University Hall, Schocket said.

Students are given character papers and general instructions, along with a reading list which, for the Provincial Congress game, included Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and John Locke’s “Second Treatise on Government.”

For all the games, participants must argue their causes in character and in historically accurate terms, and be prepared to answer questions and challenges factually. Schocket assigns roles, and students often must portray a viewpoint antithetical to their own.

Playing these roles requires them to fully consider different sides of the complex questions faced by people in the past, Schocket said. “One of the best things that can happen, I think, is when a student comes to me and says, ‘I’m confused; I don’t know what to do.’ It brings home the difficulties the people they’re studying faced and gives them a sense of empathy and contingency they often don’t get in a normal class, when they play people who must choose between risky options, none of them perfect.”

Participants are noticeably attentive to the papers read by others for each session because, as Carroll said, “We’re always reacting to the past.”

“While they must continue to refer to what was written in the original documents, they must also counter the other students’ arguments,” Schocket said.

“Much more than traditional teaching, Reacting to the Past depends upon students to work,” he said. “Students are the stars of Reacting, and the students in my class really are stars, all of them. They're a wonderful group of students.”

Despite the heavy workload the class entails in reading to prepare for the games and in writing, the students embrace the format. In fact, O’Connell, a philosophy major and history minor, has taken it twice, as it is cross-listed in history and ACS.

“It’s very demanding,” he said, “especially if you draw one of the lead roles.” In his first time in the class he had to portray Governor John Winthrop, of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in “The Trial of Anne Hutchinson.”

“The game is an interpretation,” he said, “and we’re all Americans so of course we have a historical bias in this game, but this is the best way to really learn the issues.”

Carroll, one of only four freshmen in the class, agreed. “It is very demanding, and sometimes it’s difficult the control,” she concurred, but was equally enthusiastic.

The competitive nature of the games also appealed to her, she said, and she quickly learned to organize meetings so as to give her party, the Patriots, the advantage. She is already thinking of her strategy for the next game, she said.

 

“I feel that because they’re all really involved in the game and doing well, I can demand a little bit more from them and they’re willing to do it,” Schocket said. “The quality of the papers shows they understand the historical context better than they might in a regular class.

“Also, with the role playing where students can be thrust into leadership positions, I see students who normally don’t speak at all suddenly start to take charge and speak with intensity.  They soon embrace their roles.”

For others, such as Baxter Chambers, who played James Delancey, leader of the loyalist faction, the format was a natural and he clearly enjoyed his controversial role as the villain, often baiting and provoking the participants, even though he was eventually ejected by the mob. A sophomore majoring in theater, he said, “It allows us to dig into the character and really engage with the material in our speeches.”

While the format has limitations, Schocket said, such as being suitable only for classes of 30 or fewer and not for teaching disciplinary methods or theoretical history, the learning that happens is rich, and, as the students affirmed, “It’s so much fun.”