“The study of history is in many ways an unnatural process,” says Laura Westhoff, Associate Professor of History and Education here at UMSL. That statement might sound odd coming from a history professor, but Westhoff says what makes the study of our past so unnatural is the same as what makes it so necessary to modern civic life.
“History asks us to step outside ourselves,” Westhoff says. “It asks us to understand people and societies on terms other than our own. The habits of mind that historians bring to their work translate really well into the kinds of habits we should keep in mind when considering how we live together today.”
With that in mind, three years ago Westhoff introduced a new class to UMSL, Reacting to the Past: HIST 1111. At its core, Reacting to the Past (RTTP) seeks to create in its students a deep sense of empathy for individuals who, several generations ago, lived lives that were radically different from our own and likely held opinions that we disagree with today. Reacting to the Past does this by covering periods of history in which important ideas were being fiercely debated. Students are assigned historical roles that require them to take on the persona of a historical figure who lived during the era. They then debate the issues and defend stances as one would have at the time. Because they are not given a script for these discussions, students have to carefully research their characters and represent their voices during debates.
Now in its third year, Reacting to the Past is more prevalent on campus than ever, with four sections in progress this fall semester. In addition to Westhoff, sections of the course are also taught by associate teaching professor of English professor Dr. Deborah Maltby and Dr. Birgit Noll, director of Language Programs and teaching professor of foreign languages and literature. Both Maltby and Noll, along with Westhoff, were integral in bringing the course to UMSL and adapting its content so that it could satisfy the First Year Writing proficiency as well as general education and history requirements.
This semester students in all sections of the class are playing through two games. First, a game called “Patterson: 1913,” concerning the silk strike that happened in New Jersey early in the twentieth century. The second game is called “Greenwich Village 1913: Suffrage, Labor, and the New Woman.” These very demanding and highly interactive simulations help students experience several key movements and understand how they are connected.
“Both the Labor and Suffrage movements were very important forces at the time,” said Noll. “Though their methods and goals may seem very different at first, they do in fact share key objectives. We want our students to understand the complexities of both movements and help them explore concrete strategies for working with members from the opposing faction.”
Freshmen Andrew Fountaine said he is finding the course to be great because it lets students get up in front of class and speak without worrying about their own personal opinions being judged.
“It’s kind of like riding a bike that’s not your bike,” he said. “I mean you don’t want to damage it, obviously, but a scratch here, a scratch there is no big deal. It’s a much better environment for public speaking because you’ve researched the ideas that are being judged, but they’re not necessarily your own.”
Hi classmate Jose Garcia agreed: “It’s a small classroom so everyone talks to everyone, and you end up making a few friends in the process.”
Maltby says that during the simulations, the instructor becomes a Gamemaster who sets up the games and allows the action to unfold. Typically the Gamemaster sits in the back of the room and watches as the students get into their roles and lead the class on their own. Maltby said that in this collaborative environment many students have gone above and beyond the requirements.
“The students voluntarily do a tremendous amount of reading in order to understand their roles and the issues in the game,” Maltby said. “That knowledge helps them speak and negotiate effectively in the game. When they write papers, they call upon the knowledge they’ve gained, and the papers end up deeper and richer. I’ve seen improvements in critical thinking, too.”
It was back in 2010 that Westhoff discovered Reacting to the Past while at a history conference hosted by Barnard College. She played the game with faculty from other schools and was impressed by the concept itself as well as the range of academics—mathematicians, scientists as well as humanities scholars—who swore by the pedagogy. Later, when she was running a RTTP pilot program here at UMSL, she found out that this chorus of supporters doesn’t merely get together for a conference once a year, but in fact all the RTTP classes support each other across the country in meaningful ways.
The class taking part in the pilot program played a game called “Athens, 403BC” and one of the students decided his character wanted to assassinate another character.
“This was wholly unpredicted in the instructor’s manual,” Westhoff says. “Assassination sounded Roman, not Greek to me.”
Westhoff raised this concern to the RTTP community online and what ensued was a very rich and in depth historical conversation covering Thucydides, Herodotus and the handling of political and personal disputes in Ancient Greece. After much discussion, a Greek History professor from Princeton found an example of an assassination by a Greek in the Peloponnesian War.
That level of immersion in the time period and culture being studied is exactly what RTTP is all about. Students conduct research on their roles, write several papers, and prepare formal speeches and presentations based on their research. They even, sometimes, dress the part.
“Sometimes you have to take very unpleasant roles,” says Westhoff. “But that’s part of the challenge. . . Certain students are drawn to that. I don’t think it will work for everyone but it is a pretty powerful way to get beyond our own experience and very limited view of the world and attempt to understand other people and times in their own context.”