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Show Don't Tell: Introducing Reacting to the Past through Faculty Learning Communities

October 13, 2021 5:26 PM | Anonymous

By: Dr. John Giebfried
Assistant Professor of History
East Georgia State College

A sociology professor with a fascination for LARPing, a young history professor with a decade of experience as a high school debate coach in inner-city Chicago, an English professor desperately looking for a way to make Freshman Composition more interesting, and a former Southern Baptist preacher who left the pulpit to become a history professor all log onto a Zoom meeting. Is this a joke? Maybe if they had walked into a bar. But this last semester it was a Faculty Learning Community.

What drew all these people together? Well, pestering emails from me, but also the promise of learning about Reacting to the Past (RTTP) as a way to improve their teaching toolboxes.

I teach at East Georgia State College, a liberal arts transfer college in rural south Georgia that is part of the University of Georgia system. Most of our students come from disadvantaged rural backgrounds. Some are seeking associate degrees; most, especially on my home campus in Statesboro, are looking to prove themselves here before transferring to Georgia Southern University, the large state university up the street from us.

In the fall of 2020, I was selected as one of the Chancellor’s Learning Scholars for East Georgia State College. The Chancellor’s Learning Scholars program began in 2018, when the University System of Georgia created it as a system-wide investment in student success. The system selects two to four instructors from each state college or university to facilitate Faculty Learning Communities on their campuses. These Faculty Learning Communities “explore specific teaching topics in sustained, meaningful conversations about teaching and learning with supportive colleagues and peers.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly - considering I am writing this for a blog on the Reacting Consortium’s website - I chose to run my Faculty Learning Community about Reacting to the Past.

Now, I know not every institution has a program exactly like the Faculty Learning Communities we have in Georgia, but faculty seminars and peer learning groups are common enough that I believe my experience over this last year can serve as a model for other faculty members. At the very least, I hope I can provide suggestions for what to do, or, perhaps, what not to do.

Suggestion #1: Find a Common Reading

Most Faculty Learning Communities are based around a shared book. Ours was no exception. When it came to picking a book, however, we had an easy choice: Mark Carnes’ Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College. 

For those unfamiliar with it, the book is not exactly a history of the Reacting to the Past pedagogy. Instead, it is Carnes’ diagnosis of the problems in higher education and his passionate case for Reacting as the solution to that problem. A central argument of the book is that “subversive play” is one of the strongest human motivators and that the Reacting pedagogy can tap into that concept to open up students’ minds in manifold and distinctive ways.

The best part of the book is that it follows the classic dictum of “show – don’t tell.” The book is full of compelling stories from students that make it effortlessly relatable. For example, the story of the young Muslim woman assigned the role of David Ben-Gurion in a Reacting game about pre-WWII mandatory Palestine especially resonated with me, having lived in Israel several years ago. Other members of my Faculty Learning Community locked onto different stories, but everyone found two or three that really stuck with them long after they put the book down.

It was also surprising to realize that the challenges we face with student distraction, disinterest, and lack of preparation, were just as prevalent in an era before smartphones and at an elite school like Barnard College. We all related viscerally to Carnes’ struggle to get students to discuss Plato’s Republic.

In terms of organization, the book is divided into two parts. The first three chapters lay out Carnes’ diagnosis and proposed solution for the problems of higher education. The rest of the book looks at some of the benefits that Reacting can bring to the classroom, from improving critical thinking, to teaching leadership, to inculcating empathy. While reading the first three chapters is crucial for everyone, with our time at the end of the semester was running low - there were five of us, with five chapters to go and a lot of finals to grade, I found that I could assign one of the latter chapters to each of the faculty members in the group, and then have them report back to the group about the chapter.

I will note that while I strongly recommend Minds on Fire, if you are leading a group that has experience with Reacting to the Past, or has more of a desire to create and explore, I have heard of such groups reading Nicolas Proctor’s Reacting to the Past Game Designer's Handbook. That might be another option to consider.

Suggestion #2: Have a Memorable First Session

In many ways, “show – don’t tell” was the motto of my Faculty Learning Community. I wanted to make sure I hooked everyone early, so rather than assign part of Minds on Fire for the first week I decided that they should experience Reacting (or something close to it) on the first day.

There were many options to consider - I know many have been introduced to Reacting through Athens Besieged or the shortened version of French Revolution. However, I felt that Mary Beth Looney’s Bomb the Church (now Monumental Consequence) game was ideal because I had such a mixed group of specialties in my group. The fact that the game is set in an indistinct time and place with stock character archetypes, like “The Priest” or “The Widowed Mother”, can make it more relatable and accessible to those without any background in the history of, for example, the Peloponnesian War or the French Revolution.

As I do with students at the start of the semester, I gave my group members no warning that this was coming. I simply opened the group with the game prompt, gave them a character sheet and two minutes to read and think - then we went for it. Because we were a small group, I decided it was best to “play” myself, but I deliberately chose the closest thing the game has to a “neutral” role, so as not to affect the outcome too much. I also made the decision to give the faculty members characters that they could relate to – hence my former Baptist preacher became the town priest, and I assigned the role of the widowed mother to the English professor who was the only mom in our group (afterward, all agreed that assigning them a relatable role helped them get into the game). The game was close, and in the end, the town priest dramatically changed his vote to agree to bomb the church he had spent his life in service of, in order to save the lives of the townspeople he was also bound to serve.

Afterward we had a great discussion about how much we agreed or disagreed with the choices of our characters and talked about the game’s most famous real-life analogy, the bombing of Monte Cassino during World War II. Overall, it proved a very effective introduction and let them get a taste of role-playing games before diving into Minds on Fire, which we began at our second meeting.

Suggestion #3: Give Experiential Opportunities

While that one initial opportunity to play Bomb the Church served as a good introduction, I felt that I should try to give my fellow faculty members the full classroom experience of Reacting during the semester, if possible.

Cover of The Remaking of the Medieval World, 1204. Blue with some medieval text and drawingOne thing I did was to invite faculty to sit in on my classes not just as observers, but as participants. One professor, the abovementioned sociologist, joined my online Western Civilization class as we played The Remaking of the Medieval World, 1204: The Fourth Crusade, a game that I co-wrote with Dr. Kyle Lincoln. The game’s form helped logistically - we played the bulk of the game in a three-hour chunk over Zoom, but played the final part, the aftermath of the siege and sack of Constantinople, over Discord asynchronously. This meant that it was not as large of a commitment for the professor, as he didn’t have to sit in on two and a half weeks of classes.

I assigned this professor an indeterminate role, Brother Barozzi of the Knights Templar, so that he wouldn’t unbalance any of the factions. As the professor played him, Barozzi tried in vain to get the crusade to Jerusalem and to accept the papally-mandated teachings on spiritual matters; despite his military prowess, he also failed to make it over the walls of the most fortified city in Christendom. In fact, the only student to make it over the walls with an armed contingent was playing not a knight, but a monk – the Cistercian abbot Martin of Parisis. This student later pushed his luck, put aside his monastic habit, and became the most powerful secular lord in the new crusader empire under Empress Anna. In turn, Empress Anna got the crusaders to recognize her, the twice-widowed former empress of Byzantium and daughter of the former King of France, as ruler of the empire in her own right.

Speaking with the professor after the fact, he praised the students and the effect that the game had on them; now, we are working on plans to incorporate Reacting into his coursework going forward. I strongly recommend having faculty members in a group like this sit in or participate in actual classes, though I do suggest making them indeterminates. We noticed (not unsurprisingly) that in this case, students deferred to the professor, at least in not wanting to argue too vociferously – although the fact that he lost almost all the major votes suggests he did not tilt the game too much in his character’s favor.

I also helped another professor, the Chicagoan debate coach who specializes in slavery and abolition in the 18th century, to add a game to his class for the Spring semester. During the first session of our Faculty Learning Community, I showed the contents of the Reacting Consortium’s digital library to the faculty members and pointed out games I thought would be of particular interest to them. Since the semester was already underway, this professor decided to add a game near the end of the semester. He chose to play The Fate of John Brown, 1859 by Bill Offutt, both because it was a shorter game (this necessitated the smallest number of changes to a syllabus already underway) and because John Brown was a character he found particularly historically compelling.

I helped talk him through the game, how it worked, and what to expect. While I could not be there for the running of the game, since we teach at different campuses, the professor recapped the experience for the whole community at our next meeting. He spoke about how well it all went and expressed his hope to do this again next semester.

Final Thoughts

Overall, while I wish we could have met together in person, and not on Zoom (alas, pandemic regulations), the Faculty Learning Community was a great success. If you are an instructor looking to lead a learning community, reading group, or similar peer group, my advice is simply this: go for it! It’s a great experience and an opportunity to expand the footprint of Reacting on your campus. You can follow the ideas I described above or try your own thing. If you have ideas, try them out and write up the results for this blog! And keep one principle in mind: “show, don’t tell.” That’s the key to success.

About the Author
John Giebfried is a historian specializing in the Crusades and the Mongol Empire. He completed his PhD at Saint Louis University in 2015 examining the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade and Latin rule in Constantinople. He has served as a postdoctoral fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's "Mobility, Empire and Cross Cultural Contacts in Mongol Eurasia" prosopography project and has taught at Saint Louis University, Webster University, and Georgia Southern University. John currently serves as an Assistant Professor of History at East Georgia State College. He is a co-author of The Remaking of the Medieval World, 1204: The Fourth Crusade

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