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The Games Are On at Smith

By Trinity Peacock-Broyles

What kind of strange class is this where the professor neither lectures nor participates in discussion and is called the “gamemaster”? One afternoon, in a Seelye classroom last fall, the “herald,” a Smith College student, held up a picture of a pig and declared, “I stand here with this pig and invoke the gods!” In a symbolic gesture of slaughter, she proceeded to crumple up the depiction. Once the “sacrifice” was complete, the “president,” another Smith student, took her position before the group and began her speech: “Fellow assemblymen..., ” and the game was on.

This is all part of a new course that Smith students say is both challenging and fun. Instead of using a traditional class format, Reenacting the Past: History as Hypothesis involves its students in three complicated games where they assume the roles of important characters in notable periods of history. The brainchild of Mark Carnes, a Barnard College history professor, the games have taken on a new dimension at Smith, which is the first participating school to offer the course to upper-division students. The games began in the fall with two interdepartmental courses as well as two sections of a first-year seminar. Government professor Patrick Coby attended a conference last summer at Barnard to learn how to run the game. While he was “skeptical at first, thinking that college-age students would feel embarrassed by role-playing,” he also saw the “Reenacting” games as a “new refreshing way to teach theory to students. ”

The game concept of Reenacting the Past transforms students from passive listeners to active participants, posing them as makers of their own destiny and controllers of history, Coby notes. “The class is very exciting because students get to move history in ways that didn’t occur. It is mesmerizing how [the games] capture your attention and make you want to perform at the height of your ability.” Coby adds, “Students write to persuade their peers, not the professor, so they write well and become very careful readers.”

Although the gamemaster helps get the class started and can step in when technical issues arise, the students ultimately run the game. Because students are graded on the persuasiveness of their arguments, they must sharpen both their speaking and writing skills. As to how the game is played, computer science major Angela Murphy ’04 says, “The game concept is that you get the assembly (the class) to vote and pass laws that your role would have wanted to pass in ancient Athens. There are many ways to 'win' including to get people to vote for your cause, such as trading votes or knowing more about the subject. It is this latter method where the research part of the class comes in. You want to read up on everything you can find in order to increase your possibility of winning.”

Do students enjoy this new approach? “I love the game!” says Sarah Epstein ’05. Medieval studies major Cate Hirschbiel ’05 agrees but adds, “It is certainly my most challenging class.” The game has helped Dayna Hardtman ’06 discover that history is not just “about dates and historical events, but most importantly, about the people, the ideas, the explorations, the quandaries, the downfalls and tragedies [all of which I am now] able to relate to the present.... and isn't that what history is all about?”

The course can be demanding of a student’s time. Because it is exciting and the research possibilities endless, students find that the “class is fun but a little stressful,” says Adriadne Nevin ’04, a cognitive science major“I like having an argument to yell at people about; I find that very liberating.” Nevin suggests that participants “cultivate a certain strength of willYou have to make your arguments well, listen to scathing comments against your statements, try to refute them and, most importantly, control how much time you spend on the class.”

In the first game of the semester, Athens After the Peloponnesian War, students learn to play such roles as oligarchs, indeterminates, radical democrats and moderate democrats. Nevin is a radical democrat with set objectives; in addition she is “Thrasybulus, a navy general who was instrumental in beating the Thirty Tyrants,” she explains. “Being a specific person is harder, I think.” She has to know how her character would react as well as what a radical democrat would do. Hard as that may seem, it doesn’t stop Nevin from loving the game. “I think it's a wonderful pedagogy. I've never been terribly interested in democracy as an idea, but now I find myself looking for ways to improve its flaws, or make its ideals more practical.”

Still in its experimental stage, Reenacting the Past will most likely continue to be offered as a first-year seminar, available each semester. Coby notes, “One interdepartmental section may be converted to a first-year seminar with the other one still open to upper-class students.” Each class consists of three competitive games that last a month each: Athens After the Peloponnesian War (403–399 B.C.); Succession Struggles in the Ming Dynasty (China in the 16th century); and the Trial of Anne Hutchinson (Colonial Massachusetts).

The second-semester offering is a separate course with a different set of games, featuring the French Revolution (1791); Freud, Jung, and the Rise of the Unconscious (Vienna at the turn of the century); and Indian Independence (1945). Two sections of this course (FYS 144) will be offered in the spring and will be open to all first-year students, including those who took the fall semester course.

Loras College, Pace University, Trinity College (Connecticut), Queens College and Queensborough Community College have also implemented the game or are planning their own versions. The Smith version was retitled “Reenacting the Past,” instead of the original “Reacting to the Past,” because Professor Coby wanted “to capture the theatrical dimension of the course, which ‘Reenacting’ suggests.” The pedagogy behind the course was supported by a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education from the U.S. Department of Education. Mark Carnes is the author of all games; Pearson Publishing Company holds the 2003 copyright for the game format.

 
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