History Springs to Life at Ursinus

Ursinus is one of a select number of colleges nationwide to receive the Reacting Endeavor Challenge Grant to bring Reacting to the Past to more classrooms.

At Ursinus College, history is springing to life.

Reacting to the Past, the innovative teaching pedagogy that allows college students to engage with historical debates and controversies through oral and written classroom work, will be further built into Ursinus curriculum thanks to the competitive Reacting Endeavor Challenge Grant.

“The core academic skills Reacting to the Past fosters are the same skills that are championed here at Ursinus — skills that are fundamentals of the liberal arts,” says Susanna Throop, an associate professor of history at Ursinus and co-director of its Teaching and Learning Institute. “This grant will help build a cadre of faculty across the disciplines who can incorporate this pedagogy in their courses.”

The Reacting Consortium, in collaboration with the Endeavor Foundation, which supports the liberal arts, is awarding 18 grants to help colleges and universities embed Reacting to the Past into curricula on a broader scale. The first six grants, each for $7,500, were awarded in October. Ursinus was one of six institutions selected from 45 initial grant applications.

Ursinus will join other grant recipients at the Reacting Winter Conference at the University of Georgia in January to plan a curriculum development project.

Pioneered by historian Mark C. Carnes at Barnard College, Reacting to the Past has been implemented at more than 300 colleges and universities in the U.S. and abroad. It consists of elaborate role-playing games — set in the past — in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts.

“Reacting to the Past throws students into an environment where they see the world through a different pair of eyes,” says Nathan Rein, an associate professor of religious studies at Ursinus and assistant dean for academic affairs.

Students in Rein’s “Religion and Science” course are using Reacting to the Past to engage with the trial of Galileo Galilei in the 17th century. Rein says, “It takes you out of yourself in a way that I think is very much in accord with what we are doing with the liberal arts. We are asking students to be empathetic and to realize that you can see the world from a lot of different perspectives. ‘Reacting’ flips a switch for a lot of these students.”

Throop and Rein say the grant is an opportunity to align Reacting to the Past with the development and implementation of the new core curriculum at Ursinus, which reflects a renewed commitment to student-centered pedagogy, inquiry-driven learning, and interdisciplinary innovation. It also seamlessly fits in with the unique Common Intellectual Experience at Ursinus, in which first-year students are encouraged to seek thoughtful answers to questions like, “How should we live our lives?”

“The game showed me how dynamic liberal arts education is,” says Sarah Gow ’18, an English major whose Ursinus Reacting to the Past experience staged a conflict between the suffragists and labor reformers in 1913 Greenwich Village in New York City. “When I was in the game I was making connections to the subject matter in my other classes and through my everyday life. This immersive quality of a Reacting to the Past game allows students to engage with history and texts through so many levels of discourse.”

History major Ella McGill ’17 was introduced to Reacting to the Past during her freshman year when she played the role of Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk, during Throop’s course, “The Tumultuous Reign of Henry VIII.”

I like to think of it as similar to an internship where I am putting what I have learned into practice,” McGill says. “Taking this course led me to change the way I thought about history and I eventually pursued this course of study. It was not just about memorizing facts or reading books; it was and is an active field that continues to challenge me every single day.”

A number of Ursinus faculty have already incorporated Reacting to the Past into their courses — Throop began using it in 2012 — and in February 2016, 30 faculty from four academic disciplines participated in a special workshop on the Ursinus campus. One faculty member, Meredith Goldsmith, a professor of English, has already embarked upon writing her own Reacting to the Past game, Greenwich Village, 1964.

Goldsmith and Rein are part of the institutional team that will attend the Reacting Winter Conference and work on developing new core courses utilizing Reacting to the Past for Ursinus. The other faculty members are: Akshaye Dhawan, an associate professor of computer science; Domenick Scudera, a professor of theater; Jennifer Fleeger, an assistant professor of media and communications studies; and Edward Onaci, an assistant professor of history, American studies, and African-American and Africana studies. 

“I think that Reacting to the Past is an incredible learning tool that needs to be implemented by more professors,” McGill says. “As a liberal arts college, we pride ourselves on skill-based learning and being able to adapt and change when encountered with situations beyond the college campus.” –by Ed Moorhouse