TeachingRoundtable History as Hypothesis: Using “Reacting to the Past” to Teach the French Revolution

AHA Session 66
Friday, January 4, 2013: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Cornet Room (Sheraton New Orleans)
John Moser, Ashland University
Stephanie Jass, Adrian College
Abigail L. Perkiss, Kean University
Jeffrey N. Hyson, Saint Joseph's University

Session Abstract

Abstract: This teaching session, involving from 30 to 100 participants, will recreate a small component of the Reacting to the Past game, "Rousseau, Burke and Revolution in France, 1791."  The goal will be to introduce participants to the Reacting method, in which students play elaborate games, set at critical points in the past.  In each game, students portray key figures in these events, their roles informed by classic texts.  For this particular game, participants will debate a particular aspect of the proposed French Constitution of 1791, using brief excerpts from Rousseau’s Social Contract and Burke’s Reflections to frame their arguments.

Description: This micro-game is excerpted from one of the games of the “Reacting to the Past” (RTTP) program, an initiative of some 300 colleges and universities.  In RTTP, students play elaborate games, set in the past, their roles informed by classic texts.   (It has nothing to do with computers.)  Class sessions are run entirely by students; 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.

RTTP games customarily occupy from six to twelve class sessions.  For this session at the AHA, we will limit ourselves to a single debate, on the question of whether the Civil Constitution of the Clergy—which effectively nationalized the Catholic Church—should be included in the Constitution of 1791. On entering the room, participants will be randomly assigned to one of four factions within the National Assembly (Jacobins, Constitutional Monarchists [Feuillants], Royalists and indeterminates) or to a separate faction composed of section leaders of Paris.  Participants will receive color-coded "role descriptions" that will include short excerpts from Rousseau’s Social Contract and Burke’s Reflections.  While participants are reading their roles, the leaders of the session will spend ten minutes introducing the concept and the historical context in France in the summer of 1791.  Then each faction will spend twenty minutes preparing arguments and strategies for the ensuing debate in the National Assembly.  Each member of the panel will assist a different faction. 

Then the participants, as leaders in the National Assembly, will run the debates, subject to a handful of historically accurate complications.  After twenty-five minutes or so, the debate will be brought to a close with a vote on the issue.  The final fifteen minutes will consist of a debriefing indicating what happened in history, along with a question and answer session about the pedagogy and its impact on students and faculty alike.

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