Reacting to the Past (RTTP) is an active, complex, role-playing simulation that transforms the college classroom into a space for the lively debate of ideas across historical time and geographical place. Students argue, negotiate, scheme, speak, write, and research their way to game success, whether their aim is to re-establish Athenian democracy in 403 BCE, to convince members of the labor movement to align their interests with suffragists in America in 1913, or undermine efforts for a truth and reconciliation commission in Argentina in 1985.
In a Reacting game, students are assigned specific roles in a particular historical context. Each student has unique game objectives, which are often tied to ‘factional’ game objectives. Role playing takes students completely out of themselves, both in terms of the positions they must adopt and in terms of the character traits they must embody. Often, students find themselves advocating for things they would never advocate for in “real life.” By playing a role, students come to understand how individual decisions, institutional arrangements, or mere fate motivate outcomes and change over time.
Reacting is a well-tested and proven pedagogy that fosters student development of transferable skills. Students use primary and historical texts to explore culture, art, politics, scientific developments, and many other ideas; they are also encouraged to pursue research beyond the core materials of the game to deepen their own understanding, and to outsmart their competitors. Students develop rhetorical skills, and are frequently called upon to give speeches or to debate one another. Beyond the classroom, students collaborate and negotiate with one another to alter the outcome of in-class sessions. You can see Reacting in action here.
Reacting games not only provide students with the tools to better understand historical narratives, contexts, and their consequences, but they strengthen their skills outside of the classroom as well. Reacting to the Past fits right in to the liberal arts education and experience, where students are taught to become thoughtful members of our society. In a study conducted from 1999-2006, a team at Barnard College found that reacting had these positive outcomes:
Reacting is a form of engaged learning that does not require leaving the classroom. All games share a similar approach: students read and work with philosophical, historical or anthropological primary sources that are appropriate to the game they are about to start. After students are assigned roles and factions, the professor takes the back seat for approximately 4 weeks of class. Students elect leaders, make speeches, negotiate, scheme, write newspaper articles, research and convince their classmates of the validity of their character’s point of view as they wrestle with the political problem presented by the game. Each student has specific victory objectives that may or may not require that their faction prevail in the game. It is not uncommon that students spend much more time researching and working on the class sessions because of their desire to win. Professors in the Reacting classroom spend much time coaching, meeting with factions, reading speeches, grading and giving feedback, but all of this occurs outside of class sessions.
Reacting pedagogy enables students to “apply classroom knowledge in ways that challenge them and [integrate] their academic experiences,” and, as such, provides an exciting experiential learning opportunity. Reacting games also include reflection activities as part of the wind-down, or “post-mortem,” section of the game. RTTP fits under the methodology and goals of Experiential Learning, where direct experience and focused reflection encourage a greater understanding of self and others. For more information on the value of reflection and experiential learning, please read through our page on reflection development, or check out further reading.
Alisa Kessel (Politics and Government)
PG 340: Democracy and the Ancient Greeks
This course in political theory explores the concepts of democracy and political education among the Athenians of the 5th century BCE. By reading and exploring the literature of the “golden age” of Athens, students will consider the problems of democracy and the institutions and ideas that have arisen in contemporary democracies to respond to those problems. A portion of the class will be devoted to considering whether the Athenians did a better job of undertaking democracy than Americans do, whether the problems of democracy are surmountable, and whether democracy is actually a desirable form of government. This course will also include a simulation that enables students participate in an Athenian assembly, replete with speeches, votes, acts of the gods, and backroom deals.
Brett Rogers (Classics)
SSI1 131: Athens, Freedom, & the Liberal Arts
In this course students explore the first development of the idea of "freedom" in classical Greece, with a particular focus on Athens and its radical democracy in the late fifth-century BCE. Students test their newly acquired skills through close reading and analysis of texts from the Greek tragedy, comedy, history, rhetoric, and philosophy. Students put new skills into action through daily discussions, weekly debates, and performances of Greek drama. Students also participate in a four-week role-playing simulation of the Athenian assembly in which students have to decide on the best form of government, putting their notions of freedom into practice.
SSI2 -: Democratic Labors in Athens and America:
This course examines two critical moments in the history of Western democracy, the restitution of the Athenian democracy in 403 BCE and the Woman’s Suffrage and labor movements in Greenwich Village in 1913. In each of these moments, well-established democratic societies faced difficult questions about the very meaning and constitution of a democracy...We will address these questions by examining both the classical Athenian and early-twentieth-century U.S. democracies in great detail, playing simulations (from the Reacting to the Past series) of these two critical moments. Each of you will be asked to play two roles (one in the Athens game, one in the Greenwich Village game), based on historical individuals and/or principles, exploring the complexities, challenges, and limits of democratic practice. For each role, you will have a series of specific political, social, and/or economic objectives to accomplish within a three-week time period.
Diane Kelley (French Studies)
SSI2 180: Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France, 1791
The tumult of the French Revolution animates this SSI2 seminar and provides students with ample material for developing writing and research skills. Several writing projects allow students to hone their abilities to construct a convincing argument as they learn about both the historical and philosophical underpinnings of the fall of the French monarchy. The course begins by addressing the social structure of pre-revolutionary France and the events and ideas that led to its upheaval. Significant time is spent analyzing the details of the revolutionary years and the formation of a new government. The course closes with a study of the period from the Terror to the rise of Napoleon. Students must be willing to actively participate in a role-playing academic game which makes up a significant portion of the class sessions.
Eric Orlin (Classics)
CLSC 212: Ancient Rome
Who were the Romans? And why should someone living in the 21st century care about them? On the one hand the elements from Roman society - legal systems, political structures, engineering abilities that have been incorporated into the modern Western tradition - make them seem very familiar, but on the other hand we are separated from them by two thousand years of history and infinite technological change. Despite these changes, the issues that the Romans encountered are indeed similar to those that we ourselves still encounter today: Who are we? How did we get to where we are? And where do we go from here?
LAT 201: Intermediate Latin: Caesar and the End of the Republic
The primary function of this course is for students to begin to read ancient Latin texts in their natural habitat, applying the grammar learned in the first-year course to a connected piece of text. The goal is therefore for students to improve their reading proficiency by increasing their understanding of Latin grammar and syntax as well as their Latin vocabulary.
In general, the course will be divided into three sections. In the second part of the semester, we will play a game from the Reacting to the Past series, “Beware the Ides of March: Rome in 44 B.C.” This is a role-playing game set right after the assassination of Julius Caesar; more details are below. As part of the game students will not only continue to translate Latin, but they will also compose and deliver speeches in Latin and also write political graffiti and propaganda. Roles will be established early in the semester so students can prepare for the game and have plenty of time to work on their compositions.
SSI2 131: Agon(ies) of Athens
This course explores the many complex forms of agonism and agony that characterized life in fifth-century Athens, including Athenian contests of war, contests in the assembly and law courts, even contests on the dramatic stage and in intellectual life. Students put these contests of ideas into practice in a number of ways: through daily discussions, weekly debates, performances of Greek drama, and a four-week role-playing simulation of the Athenian assembly.
Registration for the Reacting to the Past Workshop is now closed and the workshop is over.
You can revisit information from the workshop at the RTTP Faculty Workshop page.