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Playing with History: Role-Playing, Reacting to the Past, and Teaching Content via Performance

Presentation for Pedagogy, Play, and the Undergraduate Theatre Classroom panel, ATHE 2013

Bethany Holmstrom

on 13 August 2013

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Transcript of Playing with History: Role-Playing, Reacting to the Past, and Teaching Content via Performance

ATHE 2013: Pedagogy, Play, and the Undergraduate Theatre Classroom
Bethany Holmstrom
PhD candidate in Theatre, CUNY Graduate Center
Adjunct, LaGuardia Community College
Background for the game
Common Core
Criticisms: too little educator input, too corporate-driven, too much focus on information rather than literature or art
adopted in 45 states and the District of Columbia thus far
Adjuncting and TT Faculty Positions
2009: debates in the CHRONICLE to William Pannapacker's "Just Don't Go" pieces

2013: debate is still raging, jobs are not forthcoming

Ph.D. Placement Project

How can we create intersections between theatre/performance and other disciplines to be used in humanities courses (FYS, capstone, etc.)?

Considering this conference's theme, how can PLAY factor into our teaching as multi-disciplinary performance/theatre teachers?
Correlations between instructional design/assessment and games
4 "defining traits of games," as posed by Jane McGonigal
feedback system
voluntary participation
Critical Thinking
"Role-playing unfamiliar or disorienting perspectives or imagining 'what if' situations makes an excellent critical thinking exercise. Piagetians have shown that a major block to critical thinking is egocentrism - that is, a person's inability to imagine alternative views...tasks requiring role-playing or 'what if' thinking encourage what Piaget calls decentering - getting students outside of the assumptions of their own worldview."
Collaboration can be assessed and is intrinsic to theatre - and classroom games.

Monica Stufft wrote about the importance of collaboration and assessing collaborative work in a recent THEATRE TOPICS: "It is imperative that we move beyond purely individual modes of assessment given the vital importance of collaboration to our field, as well as to the human experience more broadly."
Monica Stufft, "Putting Collaboration Front and Center: Assessment Strategies for Theatre Departments." THEATRE TOPICS 23, no. 1 (March 2013): 54.
Playing with History:
Role-Playing, Reacting to the Past, and Teaching Content via Performance

AAAS report on the Humanities

Response in the CHRONICLE: "The crucial issues, say Mr. Schmidt and other scholars, are the collapse of the academic job market in the humanities, also threatening the state of graduate education in the fields; the greater-than-average influx of contingent faculty members in those disciplines; and shrinking support for the humanities among some politicians and in university budgets."
State of the Humanities
Robin Wilson, "Humanitites Scholars see Declining Prestige, Not a Lack of Interest," THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION, July 15, 2013, accessed July 20, 2013, http://chronicle.com.ezproxy.gc.cuny.edu/article/Humanities-Scholars-See/140311/.
Rob Jenkins, "Common Ground on the Common Core," THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION, July 11, 2013, http://chronicle.com/blogs/onhiring/common-ground-on-the-common-core/39937.

Thomas H. Benton, "Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go," CHRONICLE, January 30, 2009, http://chronicle.com/article/Graduate-School-in-the/44846
Sidebar: Playing with Ideas
As in a Reacting to the Past game, you will be presented with a role sheet, objectives, and background for the game; however, any of the mimicry that follows pales in comparison to the real deal.
PLAY: Games in the College Classroom
Role "sheet"
You are a graduate student in theatre. You adjunct at a nearby community college. You've taught in a range of programs and have facilitated a spread of courses to match: theatre, speech, and English departments, teaching courses like composition, intro to drama, and public speaking.

You get by, but barely. You'd really like to get a dog, but your mother keeps telling you that would be cruel to the animal, because you really can't afford it.

You are graduating in a year, so you've started looking more closely at job postings and preparing job documents. You want to talk about how you use innovative, student-centered pedagogies - and that you can teach interdisciplinary courses, linking them to theatre.

But...can you?

VICTORY OBJECTIVE: FINISH YOUR DISSERTATION, PUBLISH TWO PIECES FROM IT (not too many more, or you won't get a book contract, and you'll be that cautionary tale one of your committee members references in the methods class), START TALKING TO PUBLISHERS, GET A TENURE TRACK JOB, TURN DISSERTATION INTO MONOGRAPH...

Too much?

SECONDARY VICTORY OBJECTIVE: become familiar with new pedagogies that will draw upon your teaching & theatre background, let you market yourself as a teacher of the "humanities" broadly construed, and allow you to claim that you use "active learning" and "student-centered" pedagogy in your statement of teaching philosophy.

The creativity, research skills, and performance-driven nature of theatre studies can be deployed in interdisciplinary courses via role-playing games.

One such role-playing pedagogy?

Reacting to the Past.
RTTP: Performance & Interdisciplinary Work
critical distance &
critical thinking
historical context
Interdisciplinary studies & integration of theatre texts
Advisory: Possible Obstacles
But what about all that content I have to get through?
What if they learn the wrong thing? I mean, could the student playing Henry Clay think slavery isn't "that bad" after playing the Douglass game?
WAIT- are you saying the STUDENTS run the class? Do you do any work at all?
My chair is never going to sign off on this...
That's an awful long time to spend on just one event!
My students barely do their work as is - why would they do all the research for this class? And those materials aren't exactly easy reading!
My students have to produce a lot of written work for this research/composition class - I don't see how I can teach basic research/writing with these games...
How can I tie this in with a theatre history class or seminar? There don't seem to be many theatre games...
Preliminary Survey Results
Of almost 330 responses at multiple campuses (all anonymous): 72% of students reported high levels of engagement (another 25% were "often engaged"), 78% enjoyed playing their role; 84% would take another RTTP course.
The 16.9% who would not take an RTTP course again selected these as the top three reasons to not play again: "it was too stressful," "I do not like public speaking," and "it was too much work."
Research findings
Every RTTP game has about 10-12 pages of written work, with flexibility on assignments - as outlined in the Instructor's Manual.

You could easily supplement many of the games with play-texts (typically as a concluding research project) and other readings outside the Student Gamebook.

If anything, RTTP requires more attention and set-up as a teacher than "traditional" courses: you have to respond to constant student questions, know the game, and pass notes/respond during the game sessions.

Writing skills are not harmed by RTTP - students get the same gains that they would in a traditional writing-intensive course. Public speaking skills improve.

Students report high levels of engagement and are able to distinguish between "playing a role" and their own position.

Students debate "big ideas," build arguments using evidence, and use extensive research skills with "major texts," rather than learn a series of facts.
"Students suggested that the game-playing method provoked a deep understanding of historical and philosophical issues."

...."debates in the classroom were complex because of the need to consider simultaneously the arguments and agendas of numerous parties."

..."reduction of self-consciousness...."

..."most students reported that they continued to hold their former beliefs but could better appreciate varying points of view..."

..."there was a consensus that debates tended to be intense and involving..."

Steven J. Stroessner, Laurie Susser Beckerman, and Alexis Whittaker, "All the World's a Stage? Consequences of a Role-Playing Pedagogy on Psychological Factors and Writing and Rhetorical Skill in College Undergraduates," JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY 101, no 3 (2009): 605-620.
Possible games for theatre teachers
Extant Games
RTTP-esque games, or role playing theatre activities
Amy Hughes: game on THE CID controversy, Restoration debate on neoclassical Shakespeare, Council of Carthage
Make New Games
Forthcoming (from Robert Davis & me): Astor Place Riot game

Supportive faculty group, with a Game Development Conference
Library of 35+ games, some with explicit theatre text tie-ins
Final Notes
RTTP is not a cure-all to the many issues in academia today.

It IS a powerful pedagogy that combines interdisciplinary content, research, the "big ideas" of history, writing, and performance in a course that could fit into multiple departments and curricula.

Want to learn more?
E-mail me: bethanyholmstrom [at] gmail [dot] com

COME PLAY a mini-Athens game:
Sunday, 8-9:30: Gardenia, Lobby Level
Playing with the Past: Energizing the Classroom through "Reacting to the Past" Games

Dan Berrett, "Mob Rule, Political Intrigue, Assassination: A Role-Playing Game Motivates History Students," CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION, July 9, 2012, http://chronicle.com/article/Mob-Rule-Political-Intrigue/132767/
Reacting to the Past (RTTP)
Role-playing pedagogy developed at Barnard College by Mark Carnes
Students take on roles in games, debating the "big ideas" of history
300 colleges
created by faculty for faculty
active development community & support network
35+ games ready for play, more in development

Examples of games:

Confucianism and the Succession Crisis of the Wanli Emperor, 1587
Defining a Nation: India on the Eve of Independence, 1945
Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France, 1791
The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 B.C.
Trial of Galileo: Aristotelianism, the "New Cosmology," and the Catholic Church, 1616-33
Greenwich Village, 1913: Suffrage, Labor, and the New Woman
Frederick Douglass, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Constitution: 1845
Marlowe and Shakespeare, 1592

For more, see http://reacting.barnard.edu/
Initial Responses
Full transcript