Reacting to the Past: Teaching for the Future

  Reacting To Past Class
    Students bring history to life in Reacting to the Past courses.

By Lisa Marie Basile ’10

Somewhere within Pace University, it’s 1796 and the Jacobins are making sneaky plans in the hallways, which have morphed into Parisian streets. Sound like your everyday acting class? It’s not. It’s a Reacting class, short for Reacting to the Past, a teaching method where students take on historical roles and with guidance from professors bring the past to life.

Pace’s Dyson College of Arts and Sciences began offering these innovative courses in 2002 after Professor of History and Faculty Advisor of the Pforzheimer Honors College Dr. William Offutt attended a conference at Barnard College to learn about the new teaching method from its creator, Professor Mark Carnes.

“The goal was to try to change basic introductory courses on a national scale, to have a more student intensive experience rather than lectures and surveys,” says Dr. Offutt, whose instructional book on one Reacting course, Patriots, Loyalists, and Revolution in New York City, 1775-76, was recently published.

Dr. Carnes himself even wrote a vignette for the manual. The book will take the class into 18th Century New York, where students will play the chaotic lifestyles of revolutionaries, either on the side of the Patriots or the Loyalists. The manual requires students to engage in the reading of works by Locke, Paine and others, while achieving social and personal goals common in daily life during 1775-76.

Whether it’s about India’s Independence, the Athenian notions of democracy and the trial of Socrates, or the French Revolution, the students fully engage with the past. Before the “game” even gets into the classroom, though, the course goes through a rigorous developmental process.

“From a faculty standpoint, [developing the game] is a tremendously interesting task. You have to think up 25 different characters, their names, backgrounds and objectives,” explained Dr. Offutt.

Though the course outlines reflect accurate historical events and timelines, each student and each class changes the course of history just a bit with their personalities and motivations. Students learn and comprehend history in more tangible ways.

Says alumna communications major Valeriya Ivanova, “It’s a historical playground where students actually recreate history through acting. It is a wonderful course that has something for everyone. I loved it.”

Dr. Nancy Reagin, Professor of History and Women’s & Gender Studies, has taught many Reacting courses at Pace.

“Reacting to the Past is an amazingly effective way of teaching history to undergraduates: they become more passionately engaged with the readings---which include some of the greatest works in Western culture, for the European simulations---than anyone would believe,” says Dr. Reagin, “And students have fun doing it, and retain so much of what they read and learn. I think it's one of the best ways to teach about important historical conflicts and debates.”

Rather than be bogged down by the work load, the students fully immerse themselves in the courses.

“They tend to do a lot more work. They have to think about their papers, roles, other players and the discussion boards. But they love it,” Dr. Offutt says. “Students see the impact of violence and that people can die, that they may end up in a battles and kill people off. The students get the sense that things could have turned out differently.”

Dr. Offutt says the courses promote a sense of liminality, a concept that allows students to think and behave as people truly would in the past, while losing their modern-day perspective. In Reacting students talk and think like someone from, say, 1776, rather than simply reading about the time period.

Since 2002, Reacting has been taught at Pace every year and is offered every semester. Judging by the students’ Reacting reactions, it really is changing education.