Reacting to the Past at Belmont: Pedagogy and Play
By James Al-Shamma
On January 3, 2018, the Teaching Center hosted a workshop titled, “Reacting to the Past at Belmont: Pedagogy and Play.” Reacting to the Past (Reacting) is a role-playing pedagogy that places students at specific moments in history and asks them to debate the big ideas that influenced events at that time. It promotes deep learning through research, writing, speaking, and debate, in an environment that requires creative problem-solving, teamwork, and negotiation, all in the spirit of friendly competition. At this workshop, five Belmont faculty shared their experience with Reacting. The results of a survey administered to their students in Fall 2017 was presented as well. The panelists have used Reacting in diverse courses from across the Belmont curriculum: James Al-Shamma, Paul Gatrell, and Beverly Schneller in the First Year Seminar; Al-Shamma in a theatre history course; Mitch McCoy in an upper division Spanish course; and Andrew Miller in Honors Math Analytics and Mathematical Inquiry.
During the first hour of the workshop, following a brief explanation of Reacting, panelists shared their experience with the pedagogy, and the student survey results were presented. The panelists reported the practice to be a challenging and rewarding one, and all plan to continue incorporating it into their classes. The survey instrument was generously supplied by researchers at the University of Georgia. It addresses the learning environment promoted in the Reacting classroom, and its designers drew on social cohesion theory and the theory of relationship-driven teaching as they formulated their questions. At Belmont, 91 students participated in the survey, with a positive response across such categories as Reacting’s impact on learning and research, and on student behaviors and relation to faculty.
During the second hour of the workshop, attendees played the microgame, “Athens Besieged,” in order to experience Reacting firsthand. In this scenario, set in 405-404 BCE, members of the Athenian Assembly debate the best means of ensuring their survival as they face inevitable defeat at the hands of Sparta and its allies. Reacting allows for outcomes other than those dictated by history, and indeed the Spartan Kings at the workshop chose to utterly destroy Athens rather than spare its citizens and install the rule of the Thirty Tyrants, as actually occurred. A departure from the course of historical events, such as this, is not uncommon in Reacting; the pedagogy encourages students to conceive of history as not predetermined, as it may appear to be when read from a textbook, but rather as developing out of the complex interplay of numerous personalities, driven by various conflicting ideologies and motivations.