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Historical Reaction

HNRS Seminar Shows Students How History is Human

Traditional history teaching focuses so much attention on “what happened and when” that students often lose sight of the flesh-and-blood human beings whose decisions shape the world we live in.

In History Professor Leslie Tuttle’s HNRS 2033 class, however, students themselves experience the decision-making process by playing the role of historical actors in simulations of key moments in the past. They are challenged to bring history to life, right in their classroom in the French House.

Professor Tuttle’s class is based on a pedagogical curriculum called Reacting to the Past, pioneered by Dr. Mark Carnes at Barnard College in the late 1990s. Since 2001, faculty have implemented Carnes’ simulation-based teaching into history and communications courses across the United States and abroad.

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“It’s a way to engage students more deeply into thinking about history, asking them to role play key historical turning points in which people made decisions that shaped the world as we know it,” Tuttle said.

Senior psychology major Anna Beth Madden says that she loves the higher level of engagement of honors classes in general, but that this class is particularly special.

"It gives students a new angle on history that is not just about what happened in the past, but why it happened," she said. "Playing characters, we were able to explore the personal motivations of the people who shaped France at this remarkable time in history."

After several weeks of immersive reading, students are assigned specific characters in history. They then adopt the viewpoints of that character by preparing speeches and plans to help enact their characters’ objectives. The simulation curriculums are designed like games; certain outcomes (such as whether a riot is successful) are decided by the roll of the dice. Students then must react to events as they occur, while maintaining the integrity of their characters.

“The class is about really trying to understand the motivations of historical actors and also how contingency – unforeseen events – changed expected outcomes,” Tuttle explained.

The class recently finished its first simulation: Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France, 1791.

“The simulation takes place at the specific moment when members of the Constituent Assembly were debating the Constitution of 1791 that would have turned France from an absolutist monarchical state to a constitutional monarchy,” Tuttle said. 

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However, as history would have it, contingencies including King Louis XVI’s attempted flight from France, threats from foreign invaders, and riots in the streets threatened to derail the moderate Revolution.

Students, assuming roles as conservatives, Jacobins, moderates and members of the Paris public, participate in lively debates, stage riots and efforts to create a suitable constitution for France among the chaos, all the while championing their individual causes and values.

“The intention and the reason why the simulations exist is to introduce people to the complexity of the situation that real historical actors found themselves in, and to give them a sense of the differing points of views,” Tuttle said. “[As well as] where all those different points of view are coming from.”

“I have to say, I’m having more fun with it this semester than I ever have before because my students are so enthusiastic,” she added.

Senior History major Caitlyn Bender said that the class is challenging, but has given her a sense of ownership of the history she is learning.

“I have learned about the French Revolution many times in previous history classes, but I’ve never really thought about the stress people were under during this time period,” she said.  “I enjoy the class because it really brings history alive.”  

Now that they have completed their simulation of the French Revolution, the class will begin to prepare for its next dive into historical simulation, a game called Defining a Nation: India on the Eve of Independence, 1945. The program consists of 11 additional published games focused on historical moments from everywhere in the world at countless time periods, with more in the works.

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Tuttle is eager to teach more of the Reacting to the Past curriculum and to engage with the rest of the simulations. By reimagining historical actors, the class is urged to acknowledge the humanity of these figures and examine how their individual viewpoints, motivations, and reactions shaped past events. Even as this week’s lesson ends, students are left with the impact of their place in history, and the anticipation of what role they will play.

Story by Jordan LaHaye.