Mark Carnes was convinced that his students were as bored as he was. His philosophy course on great books had all the right ingredients for a fascinating discussion, but something just wasn't clicking.
His remedy? He threw his class into a mock trial of Socrates, to show how the philosopher's writings emerged from important, heartfelt debates. Eventually, a student suggested adding rules about who could talk, sit, or stand according to the traditions of the time.
It worked. Students took the class seriously and started to research their roles. Mr. Carnes, then a graduate student at Columbia University in New York, even added a competitive element by giving the "winners" a boost in their grade.
Now Carnes is a history professor at Barnard, a women's college affiliated with Columbia and the site of a recent workshop for about 40 professors and students from other schools who are interested in replicating the "Reacting to the Past" seminars.
"This game gets kids engaged in an extreme, intense way," says Frank Kirkpatrick, a religion professor and a dean at Trinity College who recruited a few colleagues to come with him to the training.
In Reacting classes, designed for first-year students, the professor is a gamemaster who sits out of the main arena and lets students run the proceedings. They make speeches and carry on debates in character. Gamemasters can intervene to keep the group on track, but most of their involvement is outside class, where they help students develop strategy and do research. Grading is based on the inevitable class participation and written work speeches, memorials, sermons, and other prose.
The games center on periods in history when there was an upheaval of the existing order. Students are assigned readings both broadly and for their specific roles. They base their actions on facts, but rather than merely reenact history, they redirect it according to their will and interaction.
Carnes's students have come a long way from those first giggling mock trials. Now they burrow into texts with a vengeance, rake the library for extra ammunition, hold secret strategy sessions at all hours, and fret over how to stay in power or protect their interests.
Professors from Barnard and elsewhere helped Carnes develop games in various historical settings, and funding for the project came partly from the US Department of Education. Students, too, make contributions to the curriculum. The game "Democracy at the Threshold: Athens in 403 BC" started with 10 pages of material and now has about 120.
"I've never encountered another class where almost every student wants to speak, wants to be there, and is excited," says Violet Durollari, a former student and later a teaching assistant for the class. She remembers a time when she and her classmates found a note on the door that class was cancelled because the professor couldn't make it. "We looked around and said, 'Everyone is here, we may as well hammer out some of these issues.' And we sat there without a professor."
But the method is not for everybody. Some students crack under the pressure created by the intellectual warring that goes on in class. And not every professor is ready to surrender a position at the lectern, especially when it can mean learning the subject along with the students when games are based on periods outside the teacher's specialty.
"You're used to seeing students listening and taking notes; you'll squirm a little bit as a faculty member to see students passionately involved," Carnes says.
In some instances, that means students reduced to tears in or out of class. "There's tremendous tension and considerable stress over the outcome of the games," Carnes says. The pressure of public presentation is intimidating for some, but what really gets them is the attacking and back-stabbing that goes on as they mimic real politics.
"I'm into interactive learning, but I was not prepared for how into it people got," says Shira Silberg, a Barnard junior who took the course as a first-year student.
Indeed, the class experience is unusual enough that its students have been evaluated as part of a multiple-year study by a psychology professor at Barnard.
Professor Kirkpatrick of Trinity got a feeling for what the students go through when he came to the training conference in July. Acting as an Athenian, he made deals on Monday, then on Tuesday an ally turned on him and accused him of treason.
"I could feel what it's like to be ambushed or denounced," he says. "I'm an adult and have a way of distancing myself from the role I'm playing, but that might be more difficult for an 18-year-old. They come to college and within two weeks are being attacked in class by a fellow student. How do they not feel that as a personal attack?"
That potential for animosity is one reason Carnes feels strongly that a course should include three games and not just one, so students will end up allied with a former enemy.
Barnard will soon publish a series of "Reacting to the Past" textbooks, and efforts continue to share the method. Last month, three Barnard students traveled to Iowa to teach the games to professors at Loras College.
The approach can be adapted to other subjects, such as science and math, Carnes believes. To reenact the trial of Galileo, for example, students would need to draw on knowledge of subjects as diverse as optics, math, and theology.
Democracy at the Threshold: Athens in 403 BC
Confucianism and the Succession Crisis of the Wan-Li Emperor: The Forbidden City in 1587
The Trial of Anne Hutchinson: The Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637
Rousseau, Burke, and the Revolution in France, 1791
Freud, Jung, and the Nature of the Unconscious
Defining a Nation: Gandhi and the Fate of the Indian Subcontinent, 1945