What is Reacting to the Past?

Begun at Barnard in the late 1990s, Reacting To The Past (RTTP) consists of elaborate games, set in the past, where students take roles informed by seminal texts in the history of ideas. Since 2004, RTTP has spread to 380 institutions and counting. RTTP games consist of hundreds of pages of instructions, primary source readings, and roles, and take place over a month or more. They plunge students into complex worlds and oblige them to defend unfamiliar texts and ideas.

Although the structure of each RTTP game differs considerably, the general arc of class activities is consistent. During three set-up classes, the instructor introduces the principle texts and ideas on which the game is founded and distributes the roles. In the next class, the game commences, with students running the sessions as defined by their roles. They write research papers, essays, and speeches; they advance their “victory objectives” through persuasion, teamwork, and political activity. Instructors advise students, manage the game, and grade oral and written work. At the conclusion of the game, the instructor leads a series of post-mortem discussions to review what actually happened in history and to reflect on students’ experience in the game. 

Students may take on widely divergent roles depending upon the game: oligarchs in ancient Athens debating the merits of direct democracy in light of Plato’s powerful critique in the Republic; high-level bureaucrats in Ming China determining whether Confucianism promotes authoritarian or humanistic sensibilities; members of the First Church of Boston deciding whether Anne Hutchinson’s theology accords with God’s designs; members of the Royal Society in London arguing whether Darwin’s Origin of Species was inspired guesswork or true science; painters in late nineteenth-century Paris defending traditionalism or embracing modernism; and so on. In these and dozens more games, students plunge into the complexity of the past and seek to master difficult texts in order to accomplish their objectives, relying on independent research, teamwork, critical thinking, and strong writing and rhetorical skills.

Motivating Faculty and Students Alike

In addition to building the essential skills and foundational knowledge that college mission statements hold dear, RTTP fulfills the interdisciplinary mandate of general education. All of the games are set in the past, and thus might be regarded as history, but each game also explores multiple additional disciplines. The interdisciplinary character of RTTP explains why it has been embraced by scholars in fields ranging from history and political science to religion, communications, drama and theater, economics, art history, foreign languages, and the sciences. 

Martin Braun, Professor of Mathematics and Director of the Freshman Year Initiative at Queens College CUNY, also speaks to the kind of learning that Reacting stimulates: “I spent decades searching for something that would set students’ minds on fire… “Reacting to the Past” provided the answer: It drew students into powerful intellectual debates, knitted our diverse population of commuter students into a community, and taught essential academic and life skills, such as critical thinking, public speaking, leadership and teamwork.”

Yet what draws most faculty to RTTP is its power to motivate students. Virtually all instructors report that they have never had such strong attendance, nor have they observed students work so hard or so enthusiastically. 

Amanda Houle, Barnard College alumni, writes the following about Reacting’s influence on her education: “‘Reacting’ was completely unique in my college experience. In playing those games, the words of Gandhi, Socrates, and other historical figures became mine, transcending the academic distance I had grown accustomed to and tapping into a very personal, intimate realm.  Their thoughts, their histories, their biographies are real and alive in my mind.”

Many college professors wish to promote moral reasoning and empathy for others, yet often they fail to deliver on this transformative aspect of their missions. RTTP stimulates students’ capacity for empathy by demanding that they engage deeply with viewpoints dramatically different from their own. To see RTTP at work, watch a video about the Reacting class at the University of Melbourne.

 

A Story of Growth and Sustainability

The success of RTTP is confirmed by a wide variety of assessments, by its adoption by faculty at hundreds of colleges and universities, and by the positive reports of faculty and administrators themselves. 

The original concept behind RTTP was developed by Mark Carnes, Professor of History at Barnard College, in 1996. After six peer institutions inaugurated programs at their campuses in 2001-2002, RTTP began to spread, chiefly by word of mouth. Barnard College hired a part-time administrator to field the increasingly numerous questions and requests for information and game materials. In 2004, when RTTP won the Theodore Hesburgh award for Faculty Development to Enhance Undergraduate Teaching, and a flurry of media attention put a spotlight on the program, RTTP swiftly spread to scores and then hundreds of colleges. As RTTP spread, an informal consortium of some forty colleges and universities took an increasingly important role in guiding the project, promoting its dissemination, improving the existing games, and creating new ones.

In 2010-2011, leaders of this collaborative enterprise initiated a formal strategic planning process to provide for the future sustainability of RTTP. With support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Spencer Foundation, and the Teagle Foundation, a consultant devised a business plan to transform the informal network of colleges and universities into a self-sustaining Reacting Consortium through a combination of membership dues and royalties from published game books. In spring 2012, the Board approved the charter for the new Reacting Consortium to function as an independent organization in governance and programming. The Reacting Consortium was poised to be an effective, self-sustaining organization capable of mounting a pedagogical revolution.

While the progress at building the foundation of the Reacting Consortium was significant, the setbacks were also significant. Staff transitions, a serious worldwide hacking incident that necessitated the rebuilding of all of its websites, and the shifting landscape of the textbook industry were all hurdles in the quest for sustainability, but not insurmountable. 

The Reacting consortium is now on target to hit its goal of becoming self-sustaining while also expanding its reach and impact. The Consortium is able to draw on dues from member institutions, cost recovery from campus faculty training workshops and other events, and royalties from the sale of published game books to sustain the dissemination of RTTP among member institutions and beyond. All of these efforts are aimed at sustaining a Consortium that is advancing a creative pedagogical platform that motivates faculty and students alike.