Re-enacting the past

January 29, 2008

You can’t help but feel bad for Thomas Dembeck ’11. His classmates just voted to kill him. Dembeck was playing the role of King Louis XVI in the Jan Term course “The French Revolution.”

“I had hoped to live to the end, but I was doomed and just trying to save my hide,” says Dembeck. “It was hard to get people on my side.”

The students are taking part in the role-playing exercise  “Reacting to the Past,” developed by Barnard College in 1995 to promote speaking, writing, critical thinking and reasoning skills. The game, in which students run the class as they re-imagine historical events, is used in 40 colleges and universities nationwide.

In the Jan Term course, each student plays an important role in the French Revolution: from National Assembly members who try to draft a constitution and stop the invading Austrian and Prussian armies, to members of a Parisian mob who disrupt the meetings.

“You study this in history class, but it helps make history stick when you actually do what the National Assembly was doing at the time,” says honor student Shea Beitler-Akman ’11, a rioter who blasts loud music, screams and jumps up and down to drown out the voices of the assembly.

“The game is set up to have a disruptive force,” says Gretchen McKay, associate dean of Academic Affairs, director of the Honors Program and associate professor of Art and Art History. “But the course is powerful, and students, when asked, say they’ve developed rhetoric, debating and interpersonal skills.”

English major and honor student Rachel Stecyk ’09, a member of the National Assembly, says that drafting legislation helps fine-tune her research and writing skills, while the public-speaking element is a confidence booster. The Jan Term course meets every day, which, according to Stecyk, puts the pressure on.

“It can be hard to leave it in the classroom,” she says. “Once you get into character, you begin to understand the process of how to achieve your objectives.”

“Forget friendships,” Dembeck adds. “When people get into character, they go at people’s throats.”

Honor student Sarah Dunne ’10, who plays French National Guard leader Lafayette, says she is constantly strategizing and deal making.

“I have a lot of responsibility to defend the country,” she says. “I have to be passionate about it.”

Part of the game’s result depends on what class members are able to accomplish, but part depends on chance, with the roll of the die deciding the ultimate outcome.

At the end of the Jan Term course, the class cheered when they found out the National Assembly was able to save France. This time. Each ‘Reacting to the Past’ game inevitably differs from history, so the class reviews the historical facts after the game.

With enthusiastic student and faculty support, the interdisciplinary ‘Reacting to the Past’ program has grown at McDaniel since it first began in fall 2006 with a recreation of ancient Athens and the trial of Socrates in a Philosophy course. This past summer, McKay and five other professors attended a conference on the subject and look forward to integrating the program into courses offered in the future.

To learn more about Reacting to the Past, click here: