Class Reacts to the Past Through Role Playing

Posted on January 30th, 2013 by

Alisa Rosenthal J-Term Class

First-year student Morgan Timm ’16 and senior Eric Halvorson ’13 wait their turn to speak in class (Photo by Matt Thomas ’00).

There are professors on every college campus that develop a positive reputation from students due to unique, creative, and unconventional teaching styles. At Gustavus Adolphus College, Associate Professor of Political Science and the 2012 recipient of the Edgar M. Carlson Award, Alisa Rosenthal, is one of those professors.

Rosenthal’s January Interim Experience course is titled “Reacting to the Past: The Intersection of Theory and Politics.” It sounds ordinary enough, but the dynamics of the class are anything but ordinary.

Reacting to the Past (RTTP) is a national program that consists of elaborate games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts in the history of ideas. Class sessions are run entirely by students, while instructors advise and guide students and grade their oral and written work. It seeks to draw students into the past, promote engagement with big ideas, and improve intellectual and academic skills. Rosenthal was introduced to the RTTP series at a conference she attended several years ago in New York.

“I had already heard about it, but I had never done anything with it in any of my classes,” Rosenthal said. “We played a mini-version of the Athens game at the conference and I became a believer. The games are from a wide range of disciplines including history, art, English, technology and others, and what they share in common is a commitment to a central core of historical texts from which the students jump off.”

Students in Rosenthal’s January course are playing out two RTTP games. The first game was set in Greenwich Village in 1913 when urbanization, industrialization, and massive waves of immigration were transforming the U.S. way of life. Suffragists take to the streets demanding a constitutional amendment for the vote, labor has turned to the strike to demand living wages and better working conditions, and African-Americans protest racial oppression.

Alisa Rosenthal J-Term Class Student and Her

Morgan Timm ’16 gives a speech, while professor Alisa Rosenthal takes notes (Photo by Matt Thomas ’00).

Students were assigned roles to represent these groups and then they spent a majority of class time engaged in lively conversation and debate. In the Greenwich Village game, students developed a deeper understanding of 19th century thinkers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Karl Marx, and W.E.B. Du Bois, and were also forced to ask themselves what social changes are/were most important and how can or should one go about realizing those goals.

The nature of the RTTP games creates a much more engaged classroom and also forces students to commit to the work outside of class on a deeper level.

“I think the work involved outside of class is more fun for them, but there’s no question there is a substantial amount of reading,” Rosenthal said. “There’s a different kind of buy-in from the students and there’s a recognition that the game only works if they come in prepared.”

The class is currently playing out a second game set in 1945 as India is on the verge of claiming independence from British rule. As British authority wanes, smoldering tensions among Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs increasingly flare into violent riots and threaten to ignite all of India, while the formidable figure of Mahatma Gandhi tries to gain acceptance for his policy of nonviolence and civil resistance. Throughout the game, students struggle to reconcile religious identity with nation building – perhaps the most intractable and important issue of the modern world.

Alisa Rosenthal J-Term Class Andrei Hahn

Senior Andrei Hahn ’13 facilitating the debate about the future of India as the Governor General.

“I have never really been in a class like this before,” first-year student Lily Whitney-Eliason said. “You really have to know your character and the history involved so it makes you take the work outside of class more seriously. You become emotionally involved in the game which helps you learn more than a typical class.”

Rosenthal has also used RTTP games during her full-semester Political and Legal Thinking course and is planning on proposing an FTS course for the fall that would use the role-playing games as well.

Senior Andrei Hahn is another student taking Rosenthal’s January class and said he would encourage other Gustavus students to experience an RTTP-based class.

“I would definitely advocate for these kinds of classes, Hahn said. “I think this is one of the most arduous J-Term classes on campus, but it helps you learn and understand so much more.”


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin


One Comment

  1. Kathy Lund Dean, in Econ & Management says:

    Kudos to Alisa for integrating this type of experience into coursework. This is exactly the value of a liberal education and is the type of learning experience that will keep the MOOCs at bay for a while longer.