Reacting to the Past Comes to CIE Curriculum

It’s unlikely that history would have ever seen Charles Dickens, John C. Calhoun and Sojourner Truth gathered in one room for a conversation, but at Ursinus, that’s just another Friday morning. From pilot program to core curriculum, Reacting to the Past—the inventive and innovative teaching pedagogy used in classrooms nationwide—adds a new interactive element to the Common Intellectual Experience during the spring 2020 semester.

Over the course of two weeks, CIE students will take on the roles of historical figures and “rewrite history” in an engaging and educational way using the game Frederick Douglass, Slavery, and the Constitution, 1845.

“This process produces an engagement with the material that is different from a traditional classroom,” said Jennifer Fleeger, an associate professor of media and communication studies. “What we hope to achieve by implementing it on a broad scale in CIE is to facilitate a discussion of the four core questions by embodying the disparate ways of mattering, living, understanding and doing that informed Douglass’s life and through which we can better understand his narrative.”

Ursinus began its connection with Reacting to the Past with the work of individual faculty as early as 2012. Its institutional engagement intensified with receipt of a competitive national grant in 2016. As one of the six recipients of grants from the Reacting Consortium in collaboration with the Endeavor Foundation, Ursinus dove headfirst into the program.

Now, an Ursinus-specific “micro-game” will be played in 21 sections of CIE, which is unprecedented for the game itself. In this two-week micro-game, students will be assigned roles—historical positions from which they give speeches, meet in factions, and seek to achieve goals and solve problems while learning about mid-19th century American society and ideologies.

“It’s not only the scale on which we’re doing this that sets us apart,” said Susanna Throop, chair of the History Department. “The micro-game in CIE 200 has been significantly tailored for the CIE program, and bringing Reacting to the Past to CIE has come out of years of collaborative work and insight collected from students, faculty and staff across campus. To a large degree this is the work of the college community and we’re now implementing it as a college community that works together to support student learning in a distinctly “Ursinus” way.

The structure of the interactive game includes written assignments but also offers plenty of space for in-person discussion and debate among the players. Students can pass private notes to one another, make deals, move around the room and work on completing secret objectives that their confidential role sheets detail. The game is run by the students with only minor input from the instructor, who for the duration of the game becomes the “gamemaster.”

“The process produces an engagement with the material that is different from a traditional classroom and will likely distinguish the college’s first-year curriculum from our peer institutions,” Fleeger said.

Several core documents can be found in the game book, including the Constitution of the United States as it was in 1845, which students are required to read in addition to The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. There is also context provided for why the year 1845 was selected as the setting for the game. This allows the players to draw on that knowledge while incorporating what was going on in the world around them at the time.

Over the semester break, instructors in CIE 200 attended a day-long workshop on the pedagogy led by Jennifer Worth (Barnard College), Administrative Director of the Reacting to the Past Consortium. As part of the workshop, these faculty participated in an abbreviated version of the game so that they could get an idea of what their students could expect from the program. It began with Charles Dickens welcoming everyone to a Literary Salon that he was hosting to discuss the merits of Frederick Douglass’s autobiographical work about his escape from slavery in the South.

Dickens, portrayed by English Professor Jon Volkmer, acted as a moderator for the ensuing arguments presented by the “status-quo” and abolitionist factions who had the goal of swaying the opinions of independent individuals whose minds had not yet been made up according to their game roles. Everyone was working towards proposing and voting on two resolutions by the end of the session.

The resolutions proposed and the votes gathered will vary every time the game is played, because players make individual decisions about how to play their role during the game. As a result, not every CIE class will experience the same game experience or outcomes. The guidelines are the same, but the gameplay can and will be vastly different across campus.

“I found the most interesting roles the ones I couldn’t figure out,” Volkmer shared of the experience. There were some roles that weren’t obvious in their intentions, making the process not so simple and two-sided.”

Reacting to the Past currently has over 20 published titles with many more in the works. From Charles Darwin, the Copley Medal, and the Rise of Naturalism, 1861-1864 to The Trial of Galileo: Aristotelianism, the “New Cosmology,” & the Catholic Church, 1616-1633, the program covers a wide variety of topics to get students engaging with big ideas—and each other—in a meaningful way. – By Mary Lobo ’15