Joe Wyatt
Published August 19, 2016

A two-day dialogue focused on such transformative issues as women’s suffrage, labor strife, and urbanization in early 20th century America, fittingly heralds the arrival of a transformative method of instruction at Amarillo College.

Reacting to the Past

The name of the role-playing game is Reacting to the Past, and 25 members of the faculty attended a workshop Aug. 16-17 at AC’s Dutton Hall, where they played out part of a Reacting game titled Greenwich Village 1913: Suffrage, Labor, and the New Woman.

Reacting to the Past is indeed a game. But it is foremost a potentially game-changing pedagogical approach that was pioneered in the late 1990s at Barnard College and is about to take root at AC.

In utilizing it, all students in a class are assigned to play roles of persons relevant to the same pivotal moment in history, key figures as well as those peripheral. Course materials include game books and instructor’s manuals, but scripts are not provided; whatever students bring to the table is based on their own research of the individual whose persona they assume. They debate the issues of the day, seeking to sway the opposition much as their characters must have done.

The AC workshop was organized by Dr. Deborah Vess, vice president of academic affairs, who was eager for an opportunity to introduce the pedagogy to her faculty and encourage its use.

“It’s engaging. Students can’t be passive learners,” said Vess, a longtime proponent of the game. “It’s transformative, which is why we are bringing it to Amarillo College.”

Though most Reacting games are designed to span several weeks, they are easily condensed. Deep research and extensive oral and written reports are required. Yet despite the demands it makes of students, advocates say immersion comes easily to a generation of learners who, though they may appear to be disengaged in a traditional classroom, seem to embrace competitive gamesmanship wherever they can.

Teammates – students representing like factions in a game – often are seen engrossed in organized or impromptu group strategy sessions outside the classroom; Reacting’s roots may be curricular, but the activity seems to bear fruit because it really is a game – something students will invariably seek to win. 

AC Faculty who participated in the workshop, some sportingly dressed in period attire, tossed a few scholarly barbs as their well-researched debates heated up, all in the spirit of the game.

“The faculty have responded very favorably,” Vess said. “I was pleased by the turnout.”

“Reacting to the Past has really spread and is now used by some of most well-known institutions in the U.S.,” she said. “Although it seems to be aimed only at history classes, it can be played in almost any discipline.”

Before her 2014 arrival at AC, Vess spent nearly a decade attending Reacting to the Past conferences, including the national conference at Barnard College, an affiliate of Columbia University in New York. She has used the game in her teaching, has led many Reacting projects, and has trained groups of faculty elsewhere.

She recently dispatched a group of AC faculty to Barnard, so they too could experience the pedagogy firsthand.

Some, like Dr. Larry Adams, professor of social sciences, have already employed Reacting to the Past in an AC classroom. And he, for one, plans to do so again.

“It really gets students involved in the material,” said Adams, whose government students last spring tackled a Reacting game called Patriots, Loyalists and the Revolution in New York City, 1775-1776. “Being put into a time and a place, they really have to understand what’s going on. They have to write to persuade, and their objective is to win. That’s a huge motivating factor.

“This pedagogy brings in the students who don’t normally get involved, the ones in the back of the class who don’t often speak,” Adams said. “It’s structured so that everyone has to be involved. I would have loved this kind of pedagogy as a student.”

Some others who participated in the Reacting to the Past workshop said:

“It forces students to look at (history) from an individual point of view rather than a textbook point of view. It brings history to life.”
Emily Gilbert, director of information sciences and First Year Seminar instructor.

“It’s an opportunity for my students to break the paradigm that they think that math lives over here and history lives here and speech lives here. They begin to see that life is going to ask all these questions at the same time and they’re going to have to pull skills from here, here and here, and mix them all together to come up with an answer.”
—Courtney Milleson, assistant professor of speech communication

“While the issues that these games focus on are located in a particular historical context, the students have to write, communicate effectively and clearly, and present to the class. It’s an excellent opportunity for students in any discipline to stretch their minds and think critically.”
—Frank Sobey, associate professor of English