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Students are Relishing Their Roles in History

By Trinity Peacock-Broyles

I am perplexed. I want to know why these Smith students, sitting with me around a table in a Seelye classroom, have placed themselves in a class where the professor is called “gamemaster” and he neither lectures nor participates in discussion. As I look around at the animated faces of the students and at the professor sitting quietly in the corner, I realize that while the professor holds the fancy title, it is the students who are in control.

Sarah Epstein ’05 walks to the podium and begins a sermon in her role as pastor of the church: “I speak to you this day in the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Brothers and sisters in Christ...” and the imaginative re-creation of a second trial of Anne Hutchinson in Colonial Massachusetts begins.

This is all part of a new course that Smith students say is both challenging and fun. Listening to the heated arguments going back and forth across the table, I would have to agree. Students cajole, raise their voices, plead and still find space for laughter. I learn that instead of using a traditional class format, Reenacting the Past: History as Hypothesis involves 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 games. He saw the “reenacting” games as a “new and refreshing way to teach theory to students.”

The game concept calls for students to be makers of their own destiny and controllers of history, Coby tells me. “Students write to persuade their peers, not the professor, so they write well and read carefully.” As I sit and observe, I enjoy students’ speeches, which are crafted to sway their fellow classmates and handed in to the gamemaster to be graded.

Although the gamemaster helps initiate the class and can step in when technical issues arise, the students determine the moves. I am mystified by the scraps of paper circulating between coalitions and to the gamemaster until I discover it is all part of the strategizing students must undertake.

As to how the Hutchinson game is played, computer science major Angela Murphy ’04 says, “The game concept is that you get the members of the church and/or the general court to vote in a way that your role would have wanted in Colonial Massachusetts. There are many ways to ‘win’; you want to read up on everything you can find in order to increase your possibility of winning.” Smith students have the opportunity to hold a fictional second trial set in 1638 to determine whether to overturn the prior actual decision to banish the pregnant Hutchinson from the colony.

I ask the students if they 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 Ariadne Nevin ’04, a cognitive science major. “Participants have to cultivate a certain strength of will, part of which includes controlling how much time you spend on the class.”

Still in its experimental stage, Reenacting the Past will most likely continue to be offered as a first-year seminar each semester. The 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 interdepartmental course (IDP 111) will be offered in the spring and will be open to all students, including those who took the fall semester course.

As for me, I would love the opportunity to be an active participant in the games, but having only one semester left of my college career, I don’t have the time. If only I were a first-year again! Well, not really.

Loras College, Pace University, Trinity College (Connecticut), Queens College and Queensborough Community College are either offering the games as part of their curriculum 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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