Students test McDaniel professor’s Reacting to the Past game

May 26, 2009

Tempers flared as artist, dealer and critic alike defended their artistic preferences while offering passionate sales pitches to patrons milling about the room. Close your eyes to the jeans and T-shirts and let your ears take you back to 1889, to the World Exposition in Paris, where the Modernist painters clashed with the Traditionalists.

“It is an insult that the Impressionists finish a painting in an afternoon – they slop some paint on a canvas and call it art.”

“The first time I saw Seurat’s work I had an epiphany. I love the division of color and light. Yes, this is a great work.”

“We are THE Academy.”

“Where is the SOUL? Art is dying! It is not changing, and I mourn the death of art!”

There’s no shortage of drama, of course. But it’s fueled by knowledge. The 21st-century students playing this classroom game have studied not only their own character but others as well. That’s the only way they can convincingly debate and verbally out maneuver the opposition or even make an impassioned plea. They need to know everything possible about the art and artists – and contemporary opinions of both.

Chase Wolf '09 and Eric Welkos ’10

The students are playing the most recent Reacting to the Past game – and the first written by a McDaniel professor. “Modernism vs. Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-89” is the brainstorm of Gretchen McKay, associate professor of Art History and assistant to the president for special projects, with help from collaborators at Simpson and Colby colleges.

The Reacting to the Past series is a program in use at McDaniel and many other colleges that immerses students in historical events through role-playing. McDaniel is part of the Reacting Consortium, a group of colleges and universities that support Reacting to the Past as a teaching method. The pseudo-1889 World Exposition was the culmination of the game’s classroom activities.

“I’ve used four different (Reacting) games in my teaching here – and felt ready to tackle this new challenge,” said McKay. “It’s the most fun I have ever had doing research and writing, and it is for the students, to have them learn about the period in a real way.”

And learn they do.

“I have to know what I am talking about because I have to be in character, and it was a lot of fun,” said senior Chase Wolf, adding that he learned many interesting details about the artists that he may not have known without the Reacting game.

Samantha Schneeman ’09 said the game is a style of teaching – and learning – that will stay with her and be invaluable as she pursues a career at a museum.

“I am sure I’ll be able to recognize any of these artists long after I graduate,” she said.

McKay’s students have embraced their roles. Van Gogh showed up for class with a bandaged ear. Another student told McKay that "this is the best classroom experience I have had in a long, long time. Maybe ever."

That, McKay said, makes all the work more than worth it.