February 07, 2018
The game allows college students to engage with historical debates and controversies through oral and written classroom work.
Described by game leader Ed Onaci, an assistant professor of history, the Reacting to the Past exercise is like a “choose your own adventure.” Students were assigned the roles of real participants in the historical trial of Virginia v. John Brown and were encouraged to delve into the history of the conflict and form their own insights into the event.
Participants were given character descriptions and were asked to prepare short speeches to declare their opinions of whether the anti-slavery abolitionist John Brown should be hanged for his involvement in a deadly raid of the United States federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Va.
In one class, it took some nudging and encouragement from Onaci for students to get up the courage to act according to their character descriptions which, in some cases, encouraged students to interrupt or even boo their counterparts on opposing sides of the issue. Participants were able to move around the room to discuss personal agreements and deals after opening statements were made, but the final decision ultimately fell to the student portraying Gov. Henry Wise.
The game factored in multiple endings, many of which differed from the real conclusion which resulted in the 1859 hanging death of John Brown.
Susanna Throop, professor of history at Ursinus and grant leader for the project, spoke of the positive impact it had on her classroom.
“In my pilot section, it was thrilling to watch students inhabit their roles and champion their respective causes,” Throop said. “The game led students to directly consider fundamental questions that are still relevant for us today. For example, is violence against the law justified if you believe the law is unjust?
“Students were reluctant to stop the discussion and debate that unfolded,” she said, adding, “In terms of the academic skills it develops, and the kinds of texts and questions it considers, Reacting to the Past complements CIE very naturally. It’s a great fit.”
Ursinus students took on this innovative pilot program thanks to the Reacting Consortium, which—in collaboration with the Endeavor Foundation, which supports the liberal arts—awarded 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 2016. Ursinus was one of six institutions selected from 45 initial grant applications. The title of the grant project is “Building Reacting to the Past into a new Core Curriculum.”
“This grant has empowered us to think more deeply and deliberately about how Reacting to the Past can help us achieve our educational goals here at Ursinus. It has also enabled us to be inclusive and transparent through the planning process, so that we can make a decision about Reacting to the Past that reflects the college community as a whole,” Throop said.
Ursinus joined other grant recipients at the Reacting Winter Conference at the University of Georgia in January 2017 to plan a curriculum development project.
Additional members of the grant implementation team include Jennifer Fleeger, a professor of media and communications studies; Meredith Goldsmith, a professor of English; Edward Onaci, a professor of history; Nathan Rein, a professor of philosophy and religious studies; Domenick Scudera, a professor of theater; and Diane Skorina, director of research, teaching and learning services, LIT and co-director of the Teaching and Learning Institute. —By Mary Lobo ’15