Andrew Keitt’s “Galileo, Darwin and the Disenchantment of the World” class starts on this day just as it does every other that it meets. The Executive Meeting of the Royal Society is called to order; the students sing “God Save the Queen.”
Students in history professor Andrew Keitt’s “Galileo, Darwin, and the Disenchantment of the World” class are “Reacting to the Past” this spring. This pedagogy consists of complex games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles with victory objectives.
Interesting? Definitely. Unique? Absolutely.
This history course doesn’t follow the traditional lecture-test, lecture-test format. Keitt, Ph.D., is experimenting with a method where students are reacting to the past by engaging in elaborate role-playing games.
“I’m always looking for interesting pedagogies and techniques,” Keitt says. “I think anybody who has tried to teach important, difficult texts has run up against the problem of students who might be very bright, but really are afraid of looking foolish in front of their peers.
“It’s often like pulling teeth to get really engaged discussion of texts going,” he says. “All of that dissipates when you give them a role. They’re willing to take chances and voice opinions they wouldn’t otherwise.”
“Reacting to the Past,” as this pedagogy is formally titled, consists of complex games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles with victory objectives informed by classic texts in the history of ideas.
Students typically run class sessions; instructors act more as a guide on the side, advising students and grading their oral and written work. The game seeks to draw students into the past, promote engagement with big ideas and improve intellectual and academic skills.
One of the debates this semester is on Darwin’s theory and the nature of science. There was some controversy about whether the Royal Society should have awarded Charles Darwin the Copley Medal — the Nobel Prize of its day — in November 1864, almost five years after The Origin of the Species was published. The belief among some in that time period was that Darwin deserted the true method of induction.
During a recent class, David Palmore, playing the role of a philosopher of science, is touting inductive reasoning’s superiority to deductive reasoning. He argues that induction gives the best, most reliable results. Palmore, a junior, is presenting his class argument — an exercise that will count significantly toward his final grade, along with his class paper.
The great thing about this class is it thrusts you into taking a position,” Palmore says. “Even if it’s not necessarily a role or character you personally align yourself with in your own life, it gives you a chance to get involved in the material. You have to know the opposition, its strengths and weaknesses, just as well as your own.”
Fellow classroom philosophers have the opportunity to challenge the presenter to defend their position. Several take the opportunity to challenge Palmore, and he seems up to the task, remaining calm and answering questions. He seems to survive today’s experience.
It’s a feat not every student can claim.
“When I ask questions I try to be nice about it, but they can be brutal to one another,” Keitt says. “It’s nothing personal. It’s characters going up against each other. But if someone comes with an argument that’s not well supported, they get slapped down really quick. It’s all in fun though, and once students revert to their real identities we all have a good laugh.”
Change of pace
Mark Barnes of Barnard College in New York first developed the “Reacting to the Past” pedagogy; it first was offered informally at Barnard in 1996, and only recently have the games been published for general use. The technique is becoming popular, however – the Reacting to the Past Consortium has grown to include 40 colleges and universities and the Chronicle of Higher Education has written several pieces about it.
Keitt began using this method this past fall in his class “Reacting to Darwin: Evolution and Creationism in Historical Perspective.” Not only do the students enjoy the change from the traditional classroom, Keitt says he, too, is energized.
“The class structure changes the way you relate with students,” he says. “In this format, we tend to be more collaborative. I can coach them. ‘If they come at you from this angle, maybe you should read this and you can come back at them from this angle.’
“As a faculty member, I’m getting a lot out of this, too. I’ve learned things about Darwin that I’m not sure I would have otherwise.”
The students from the fall class took their debate to online discussion boards outside regular class hours, too. This gave Keitt some insight into how much thought the students were putting into the subject matter.
“A good portion of the game is based on persuasion and strategizing,” he says. “They would plot strategies, and I eavesdrop on those. You see the work they do and the thinking through the issues that takes place throughout the classroom.”
While all of the games are set in the past, each one explores multiple disciplines. Part of the intellectual appeal of the “Reacting to the Past” games is they transcend disciplinary structures. Biology, anthropology and history all are aspects that come out in the Darwin game.
Keitt intends to use this format this fall in a freshman learning community (FLC). He believes that setting is a perfect fit for engaging and empowering students and faculty. Keitt hopes eventually to recruit a group of faculty from different disciplines to collaborate with him offering multiple sections of the same game.
“I think it’s great for those general education applications,” he says. “It gets students and faculty really involved. Faculty don’t get many opportunities to collaborate in a fun and engaging way like this.”