This week’s post comes from Carl Weinberg, Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of History
Things were not looking good for a student pretending to be King Louis XVI. The revolutionary forces had proclaimed that France was now a democratic republic, and the radical Jacobins were calling for the king’s head. Fearing for his life and anxious to douse the flames of revolution, “Louis” made a gamble. He appeared before the peasants and offered them (actually, threw at them) two loaves of white bread. And some candy. The crowd was both shocked and amused. Riotous laughter ensued. Louis then ordered the Catholic church to clothe the poor and take care of the sick. Soon after, when the deputies of the National Assembly voted on whether or not to convict Louis of treason (for scheming with Austria and Prussia to overthrow the revolution), the king reminded them of his kindly acts. Miraculously, the ploy worked. They let him live. The real King was not so lucky. The National Assembly executed Louis by guillotine on January 21, 1793.
The “king” in this historical simulation was junior Alessandro Tomich, who joined with fellow students to play an elaborate “Reacting to the Past” (RTTP) role-playing game in Professor Sandra Shapshay’s Leadership and Philosophy class in Spring 2018 at IUB. Launched by historian Mark Carnes at Barnard College in the late 1990s, RTTP games are now played in classes on hundreds of campuses across the U.S. and beyond. The games place students inside historical scenarios. Each student plays a character and, based on a common body of reading along with their individual role descriptions, speaks and writes from the character’s perspective. Games can be adapted to fit different time-frames and academic disciplines.
Tomich’s French bread gambit was not only a goofy stunt, but also reflected the creativity and resourcefulness that role-playing games elicit in students. And the experience was highly educational for him. “I learned that history is much more complicated and exciting than it appears in textbooks,” said Tomich. “It is marked by a number of actors, factions, and countries, each striving for power, control, and glory—when I realized this, I understood that the future is malleable and because nothing is inevitable, we all have the power to change things for the better.”
Professor Shapshay, who teaches in the Philosophy Department and the Political and Civic Engagement (PACE) program, which she also directs, shares Tomich’s enthusiasm. “The RTTP French Revolution game revolutionized my teaching,” she said. “Students were on fire with political philosophies ranging from Lockean classical liberalism, and Burkean conservatism, to Rousseauean proto-Socialism. I have never seen students so personally engaged with ideas, and so challenged to apply and defend those ideas in a concrete historical situation.” Professor Rasul Mowatt (IU School of Public Health) who has made cameo guest appearances in a number of colleagues’ RTTP games, offers a similar appraisal. RTTP “requires the student to no longer see history as facts and static occurrences but as moments that are as full of depth as their own lived experiences,” comments Mowatt. “To consider this method is to be serious about teaching, and more importantly the learning of your students.”
A growing body of scholarship backs up Mowatt’s claim that RTTP boosts student learning. Encouraged by this trend, a group of IUB faculty members are spearheading an effort to spread the RTTP pedagogy around the campus. Last year, they received a grant from the Endeavor Foundation and the Reacting to the Past Consortium to facilitate this project. PACE and the IU College of Arts and Sciences are now funding the PACE Institute for Role-Immersive Teaching and Learning (PIRTL) directed by Professor Carl R. Weinberg. Visit the PIRTL website to find out more.
IUB faculty members who have used RTTP in their teaching hail from English, History, Philosophy, PACE, French and Italian, and Psychological and Brian Sciences. On March 29, a number of them will attend a free faculty training workshop on incorporating RTTP games into their teaching. The workshop includes a free lunch and continental breakfast. Registration is now open, and space is limited.
For more information on PIRTL, RTTP, or the March 29 workshop, please contact Professor Carl Weinberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 812-856-5111.