Students complete at Reacting to the Past debate on the U.S. Constitution in Bridget Ford's U.S. history survey course at California State University at East Bay.
Bridget Ford

'Minds on Fire'

August 27, 2014

The student didn’t probably didn’t mean for her words to sting.

"[A]ll classes are sorta boring,” she said. “Yours was less boring than most.”

But sting they did – a searing capstone to what Mark C. Carnes already knew was a lost semester, both for him and for his students. They said they liked the class well enough, but their disengagement – the blank stares, the palpable ennui – said otherwise.

No one was necessarily to blame; after all, Carnes remembered, he, too, had found his own undergraduate coursework “sorta boring.” And the sentiment went way back in American higher education, he thought; Henry Adams wrote in 1918 that his Harvard professors had “taught little, and that little ill.”

But the notion of being boring ate away at Carnes in the winter break after he heard those words. Luckily, the professor of history at Barnard College didn’t stay down for long. He set about crafting a radical new way of teaching that, nearly two decades later, has a kind of cult following among professors in the U.S. and abroad.

Called “Reacting to the Past,” the program immerses students -- largely self-directed -- into historical events such as the drafting of the U.S. Constitution or the trial of the Renaissance astronomer Galileo Galilei. The program is rigorous, asking students to read healthy amounts of historical documents and then write about them over a series of weeks. That's all in preparation for an intense final debate about the topic at hand, with students assuming historical identities. Afterward, a "winning" side is declared.

Students report working harder in their Reacting courses than in other classes, but they say the game-like structure makes it fun and motivating. Many professors say Reacting is more engaging and in many ways more effective than lecture-style courses.

Carnes’s new book, Minds on Fire: How Role Immersion Games Transform College (Harvard University Press), traces the history of what he calls the Reacting “movement,” and makes a strong case for its adoption at more institutions and by more professors.

“Students and teachers deserve an academic world that is as exciting as intercollegiate football, as enchanting as World of Warcraft, as subversive as illegal boozing, and as absurd as fraternity initiations,” Carnes says in Minds on Fire.

He continues: “As faculty and administrators, we can help students glimpse the intellectual wonderland that attracted us to academia in the first place: the invigorating scholarly debates, the transformational power of new ideas, the exhilarating risk of looking at the world in a different way, and the thrill of challenging accepted beliefs and practices. We must encourage students to experience the revitalizing contests and churning passions that have always breathed life into the republic of knowledge for which the academy must stand.”

For Carnes, that invigorating breath is made up of two things: competition and “subversive play.” His book and his teaching philosophy frame those components not just as motivators but as fundamental human desires -- ones that don’t disappear in adulthood.

“Competition thrills […] because it contains the possibility of subverting existing social hierarchies and cultural assumptions,” he says. Competition “encourages any competitor to imagine herself as a different sort of person – and that is the deepest form of subversion. (‘I am not who I thought I was. I can be someone else.’)”

Carnes sees competitive, subversive play everywhere on college campuses except the classroom, where grades are largely kept secret and relations are “collegial”: sports, video games, social media, dorm-wide competitions of games such as “Assassins,” and the race to join Greek life. Reacting, he says, applies that kind of competition and play to the classroom. There, assuming various historical personae – Mahatma Gandhi, a Confucian “purist” during the Ming dynasty, Anne Hutchinson, George Washington – students can try on different identities in non-threatening ways.

The result is not only a better understanding of course material, but a better understanding of one’s self, he argues. A Barnard student who’d played Emma Goldman in a game about women’s suffrage, for example, once told Carnes she had thought of Goldman as a “crazy lady,” fighting the government “virtually alone.” (In an earlier game on Confucian thought, the same student – who is a member of a prominent political family – advocated adherence to tradition and order.)

But after the student, acting as Goldman, presented a strong defense of anarchism, Carnes asked her what she now felt was “right.”

“I am truly conflicted,” she replied in an online chat. “Both make sense, although they are seemingly opposite extremes.”

“So the net result of taking contradictory roles is that you’re confused?” Carnes asked.

“Not confused,” the student said. “Curious. I now have the knowledge to look at our society through the lens of other perspectives. Not just what I have been taught to believe, but to take a step back and see that I can think for myself.”

There are numerous such accounts in Carnes’s book, detailing how researching and defending a foreign position or identity has made students question deeply held spiritual or political beliefs. Sometimes their beliefs are confirmed. Other times, they’re changed entirely.

The book is full of other fascinating looks into students’ minds, as Carnes also reflects on being a professor generally – not just a teacher of Reacting to the Past. Many of his anecdotes and observations are serious, but some are tinged with humor, such as when a student admits that her biggest fear is living with her parents in New Jersey for the rest of her life, or when Carnes describes the occasional tough Reacting class -- students' "complicit pact" of indifference and all. In an interview, Carnes said that humor was intended – it would hardly be appropriate to write about a pedagogy based on subversive play without one’s tongue firmly in cheek, he said.

Of course, neither the book nor Reacting is all play. In preparation for extensive debates, students read challenging historical documents and write a variety of assignments for different audiences -- such as “newspaper articles” for a period reader -- over several weeks. Reacting units end with a debate in which a “winning” side is crowned.

With a “title” of sorts up for grabs, students do a good job of policing themselves and each other for participation. It’s not unheard-of for students to meet outside class on a regular basis to prepare.

But that doesn’t mean the instructor can sit out the class; Carnes describes coaching students through their debates with passed notes, for example. In email interview, Gretchen Galbraith, an associate dean of faculty and associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan, said that Reacting courses keep her "constantly on my toes as a teacher." She said it's hard but rewarding work getting students to suspend their 21st century "selves" enough to consider not just historical "possibilities" -- such as giving women the right to bear arms in 1791 Paris, or immediately abolishing slavery -- but "plausibilities."

Galbraith continued: "The complexity arising from honestly and fully addressing contingencies around what become 'historical' events is embedded in [Reacting]:  to be informed about facts and to grapple with the plausibilities is a challenging, rigorous and intellectually demanding exercise for the teachers as well as the students."

The Reacting pedagogy is now in use at 350 colleges and universities; last year, 40 institutions formed the Reacting Consortium, a nonprofit that runs Reacting. The consortium approves games, which professors across the country contribute. Reacting also offers annual conferences at Barnard for both experienced and newly interested professors.

David Henderson, a professor of chemistry at Trinity College, in Connecticut, is a Reacting veteran. He’s written several long and short games, both inside and outside the sciences. He’s also taught games written by other professors in his science and first-year seminar courses.

“It’s worked spectacularly for me,” Henderson said in an interview. “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had in a classroom. The students respond very well to it.”

Henderson, who’s been teaching for nearly 40 years, experimented with Reacting early on, in about 2001. He was looking for a way to engage his non-major students, he said, and found that Reacting threw “out the window” the traditional college pedagogy – what he said was “very cut and dry, and hasn’t changed in 200 years.”

While most professors still use Reacting in smaller courses – either upper-division or seminar – there’s evidence that it works in survey-size courses, as well. Bridget Ford, an associate professor of history at California State University at East Bay, recently experimented with it in her U.S. history survey course, through a grant from the California state legislature. The grant was intended for professors teaching required courses with high failure rates across the California State system to use technology to help more students succeed.

Ford did use her portion of the grant to increase the use of technology in her survey courses, closely monitoring students’ grades online and reaching out to them when they appeared to be slipping. But she also used course release time to plan and execute the "America's Founding: The Constitutional Convention" game for a section with more than 125 students.

She can’t say for sure why her failure rate dropped by more than half last semester, since she made many changes to the course. But she believes Reacting made a difference. Students were more engaged, attendance was full (she did award points for that), and she connected to students on a more “personal” level, she said. “I’m definitely going to be proselytizing this.”

Judith Shapiro, president of the Teagle Foundation, was president of Barnard when Carnes was developing Reacting (Carnes credits her in the book with encouraging him to take risks by promising that she would take responsibility if he failed). In an interview, Shapiro said administrators can help promote Reacting, too, by providing such cover for professors as they try to become more effective teachers. She endorsed Reacting specifically.

“There’s a lot of talk about ‘high-impact’ practices in higher education, and Reacting is a kind of ‘ground zero’ for high-impact practices,” she said.

Although the idea of using a Reacting in large courses can be daunting, Ford said, it’s possible – and not all that much more “exhausting” than lecturing for 90 minutes. (Similarly, Carnes said that Reacting isn’t about how the professor “performs,” as in a typical lecture, but rather how he or she “gets into the minds of the students.”) Ford said she believes that professors have a “moral obligation” to experiment with new pedagogies to meet students where they are – especially at institutions with high percentages of first-generation and other at-risk students.

Carnes said most professors who jump into Reacting either have been teaching for many years or are just starting out. It’s “really hard” to get a lot of mid-career professors with promotions and reputations at stake to leap into something so different from traditional lectures, he said (although many professors who are devoted to Reacting report lecturing both during and between multiweek games). But Carnes sees Reacting as a way to transform higher education, especially general education. He called such foundational courses the “sick man” at most colleges and universities.

“We think of this as courses that are supposed to cross disciplinary lines and build skills – especially critical thinking skills,” he said. “That’s exactly what Reacting is good at.” A game on Galileo, for example, gives students an appreciation for paradigm shifts in science – something they might not get in a typical lower-level science course.

Similarly, he said, education technology companies are clustering around Reacting because they believe in gaming as a better way to engage students than massive online courses – even those featuring superstar professors.

“These are money-makers at all colleges and universities and it’s only a matter of time until providers figure this out,” he said of incorporating more interactive games into online learning.

But, he said, online courses can’t capture the “community” and “theater” of Reacting courses. Student can’t resist the in-person experience, he said, evidenced by the many professors who report perfect attendance for the duration of their games.

“People want to come to Reacting classes,” Carnes said with a shrug. “They could be the salvation of the bricks-and-mortar college.”

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