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Letting Go: Reacting to the Past and the Student-Centered Classroom

Montgomery Wolf teaches U.S. History at the University of Georgia. She is completing a manuscript titled We Accept You, One of Us? Punk Rock, Community, and Individualism in an Uncertain Era, 1974 to 1985 for the University of North Carolina Press. 

This is the final post of a four-part roundtable about Reacting to the Past. Please also check out parts onetwo, and three.

I first encountered Reacting to the Past (RTTP) in 2009 when I attended a regional conference at the University of Georgia, where I played what continues to be my favorite Reacting game: Greenwich Village, 1913: Suffrage, Labor, and the New Woman. I played the radical anarchist Emma Goldman and through that experience was able to understand—for the first time—how someone could have the optimism and fundamental faith in human nature necessary to advocate the philosophy of anarchism. That sort of insight and empathy typifies the Reacting experience. For example, after playing Patriots, Loyalists, and Revolution in New York City, 1775–1776, one of my students noted, “I never thought I would side with the Loyalist perspective as a fairly liberal young American but the ideas presented by the other characters in the game enabled me to appreciate the logical argument presented by these players.”

That fall, I used Greenwich Village in the classroom for the first time. In fact, I built an entire course around it, following the game’s three threads—labor, women, and cultural rebels—from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1970s. Since then, I have taught at least one Reacting class a year, with almost universally positive feedback from students. Despite enthusiastic students, instructors certainly face challenges when using RTTP, many of which have to do with “letting go.” First of all, reacting prioritizes depth over breadth. It can be difficult to choose to spend four full weeks on two years of the American Revolution or five weeks (or more!) on the Constitutional Convention. While instructors have to let go of significant content, what students gain is worth it. They gain the perspectives of contingency and individual agency, for starters. They work intensely with primary sources, needing to marshal them in the interests of their character. After playing the American Revolution game, one student commented, “I had to think about it from the perspective of someone who lived in that time period, experienced what was going on then, and didn’t know how things would play out. I now see how radical the ideas of independence and republicanism were, and I can understand how certain pamphlets such as Paine’s Common Sense would have stirred up more patriotism in the colonists because it was written for the common man.”

Even more markedly, professors have to let go of being in control. For me, it is much easier—or at least less anxiety-ridden—to come into class with a well-prepared lecture and an entertaining PowerPoint than to have a student-run classroom. When I lecture or lead discussion, I generally feel confident that I am covering all the angles and have the chance to answer questions as needed. With RTTP, you have these opportunities during the “set-up,” the first week or two of each game, and during the “post-mortem,” after the game ends. But during the game, it is commonly accepted wisdom in Reacting circles, to let the game take its course with very little interference from the instructor. As the instructor, you may pass notes in class and meet with or email characters between classes thereby ensuring that important ideas get introduced or that players stay in character. The beauty of RTTP, however, is that whether things go as they are “supposed to” or not, the process can lead to deep, meaningful learning, partly because of the built-in mechanism of the “post-mortem,” a post-game debriefing in which students and instructor explore how what transpired in the game was similar to or different from what transpired historically and—most interestingly—why. During the post-mortem, students have the greatest opportunity to see and analyze historical contingency and individual agency. For example, a post-mortem might address the question of why the class ended up with a much more decentralized system of government during its Constitutional Convention game. Well, perhaps because two of the federalist characters were absent during a key debate. Without their leadership and votes, a key federalist motion failed.

Some skeptics believe that Reacting will work well only with highly gifted and skilled students. In my experience, that is not the case. Each student brings different possibilities to the game. High-achieving students may be better able to get at the nuances of some of the more difficult primary sources, but they may also be so concerned about getting it “right” that they are rigged. Less-skilled students may overcome their lacunae by being more flexible in their arguments or more flamboyant in style. In other words, RTTP can work well at community colleges, large comprehensive universities, and small liberal arts schools.