Reacting to the Past

From the desk of Sace Elder:

This June I spent four days playing role-playing games with other professors in New York City. The event was the Reacting to the Past (RTTP) Annual Faculty Institute at Barnard College, where more than 200 faculty members from across the country and abroad gathered to play-test games, discuss pedagogy, and network with others who are using RTTP in their classrooms.


Reacting to the Past is a game-based, role-playing curriculum in which students adopt the personae of specific historical figures and work together to solve specific historical problems. The games ask students to put themselves in their characters’ shoes (sometimes literally, since dress codes are a part of many RTTP games) and engage the ideas that motivated their historical actors while confronting the interests and ideas of others. RTTP creates an entirely student-centered classroom, in which the instructor (or “gamemaster”) observes, quietly advises students, enforces the rules, evaluates student performance, and at times makes critical game-play decisions.

I went to New York having already run two RTTP games over the last couple of years: in my history of human rights class, a game that simulates the 1992 Rwandan crisis and the United Nation’s difficult decision regarding intervention; and a game for the intro to Women’s Studies about the 1993 University of Michigan Affirmative Action cases. Both games are currently in development, written by RTTP colleagues at other institutions. It is truly exciting to see students giving passionate speeches and arguing with each other about ideas they had never even considered before entering the course. The game also gives students the opportunity to use skills they may not have occasion to apply in more traditional classrooms, such as print design, newspaper editing, and extemporaneous public speaking. RTTP is more work for me, but it is well worth it. (For the record, when I prefer to call myself the “game manager,” for what I hope are obvious reasons.)

At the conference, I played the role of a delegate to the National Assembly during the French Revolution. Alas! In this revolution, the Conservatives gained the upper hand and put an end to the revolution before the first Constitution was even approved. In another game, the year was 1993 and I was the captain of the men’s wrestling team that was threatening to cut my and other men’s sports in the interest of complying with Title IX. (My coach and I managed to save wrestling, but not men’s volleyball or swimming. On the other hand, the Board of Trustees of our university was persuaded to increase the funds available for women’s sports.)

This Fall I will put my experience in New York to good use. I have adopted the French Revolution game (“Rousseau, Burke, and the Revolution in France”) in my honors section of HIS 1597G: Human Rights in History. I’m excited to see how the students enjoy the clash between the Jacobins and Feuillants, and am eager to see whom I might cast as Louis XVI and the Marquis de Lafayette!

My conference travel was supported with grants from EIU’s Interdisciplinary Center for Global Diversity and Faculty Development. Many thanks to both units for making the trip possible.

Eastern Undergraduate Awarded National Prize For Honors Thesis


It is nice to start the new academic year with an announcement that highlights the research efforts of an EIU History major. Last week the David Library of the American Revolution (“DLAR”) in Washington, PA, the pre-eminent academic research center on the American Revolution in the United States, announced that Michael Bradley was the second place winner of the DRLAR’s Omar Vázquez Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Research.  The Vázquez Prize recognizes academic excellence and the use of primary sources in undergraduate research on an Early American topic.  Michael’s honors thesis, “Incarcerated, Transported and Bound: Continued Resistance Among the Community of Transported Convicts from London to the Chesapeake, 1763-1775,” was completed under the supervision of Dr. Charles R. Foy. It connects criminal life and poverty in London, Britain’s criminal justice system, transatlantic migration of convicts and convicts’ lives in the Chesapeake, describes and analyzes how a community of convicts evolved and sustained itself across the Atlantic in face of a series of challenging and changing circumstances. In doing so, Michael has demonstrated the centrality of the experience being coercively transported to the development of community ties among London’s thieves and the Atlantic nature of that community. In recognition of the excellence of Michael’s scholarship DLAR will award Michael $250, have an abstract of his thesis read at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies seminar on September 11th and will catalogue Michael’s thesis in its world renowned collection. Kudos to Michael!