2017 “Reacting to the Past” Winter Conference, Athens, GA

Over winter break I reflected on my teaching and research, and resolved to do several daring things in my classrooms this coming semester (Socrative! Facebook LIVE! Games!) To this end, on January 13 and 14 I attended the 2017 Winter Conference: Venturesome Pedagogy for the Twenty-First Century hosted by Reacting to the Past at the University of Georgia.

First things first — I played the role of Mary Cassatt, the American painter in Paris in 1889, and I failed to sell my art at the show. Sigh. However, I learned a ton about art, as well as about the internal debates of the art world in Paris as avant garde painters like Van Gogh and Gauguin shocked the traditionalist strong holds of the Salon who venerated technique, tradition, and historical subjects. Having never taken an art history course (!), I found myself completely engaged in a new subject material that I found fascinating. I was totally taken aback at how immersive and detailed your knowledge has to be to make progress! I can honestly say I think games offer a vibrant mechanism for students to engage with texts from all eras of history, and given the library’s resources for U.S. history, there is much to offer. (I swear this isn’t a paid advertisement…)

Yes, as you many have heard, Reacting to the Past are historical role-playing games for undergraduate classrooms. I had heard about it before, and had nursed the idea of developing a game about passing (and compromising on) the Civil Rights Act of 1957. But other obligations intervened and I let the idea lapse. I was looking for a way to engage my U.S. Economic History students this semester, and friend Charlotte Carrington-Farmer at Roger Williams University reminded me of Reacting, and told me about her fantastic success with the Anne Hutchinson game in her classroom last semester. Since I’m also the co-coordinator for my institution’s Center for Teaching and Learning, if felt this idea ticked a number of interesting boxes and signed up for the winter conference.

At the conference, faculty members, mostly from history programs, launched into a number of games led by the authors and co-authors of several games about to be published. We were able to thus experience the pedagogical tool from a student’s perspective. As Mark Carnes stated in his address to the gathered players, Reacting immerses students in a world of “subversive play,” which is a state more often associated with their social and leisure lives, not their academic pursuits. As such, it can be a vastly engaging and stimulating experience.

Being able to play the game offered several rewards: I was able to, for the first time in a while, feel like a student. And a bit of a shy, lost student, for that matter. (Incidentally, my mentor in the game, Degas, was also lost. The Impressionists didn’t fare well). For someone who preaches about historical empathy, this was an important reminder not only as I head into the game, but also as I launch a new semester, in general. It reminded me how missing one small piece of information can significantly alter a student’s ability to perform effectively, and how sometimes a student who doesn’t look engaged is simply trying to figure out what is going on.

For my own uses of the game, I plan to simulate the silk factory strike in Paterson, NJ in 1913 in my U.S. Economic History course. As my students assume their roles of strikers, townspeople, and mill owners, I hope to be able to guide them through the decisions they have to make, and to make effective use of historical documents so they can feel satisfied. But I will also keep in mind my own student experience, that some might need help fully embracing their roles, or my students in all my classes may need just a little push or help to see the course material with fresh eyes.

For more information, see the website at Barnard, and click through and peruse the long list of games in development. Many are available for free to try in your classroom. And if anyone else is doing the Paterson strike…let me know!

One thought on “2017 “Reacting to the Past” Winter Conference, Athens, GA

  1. Kate/Mary – I’m sorry you did not sell, but didn’t they make it hard to do so for women in nineteenth-century Paris? Seriously, I am so glad that you found my game so enriching and that you were able to come to the conference. Thanks for this post, too! Good luck with the semester!

    Gretchen McKay

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