Reacting to the Past Workshop, Part 1: The Frederick Douglass Reacting to the Past Game: A Participatory Pedagogy for College Classrooms on Slavery and Abolitionism

AHA Session 212
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Empire Ballroom (Omni Shoreham, Lower Level)
Mark D. Higbee, Eastern Michigan University

In this workshop, participants will play a condensed version of the Reacting to the Past game, Frederick Douglass, Slavery, and the Constitution: 1845. Participants will be assigned distinct, unique roles, like students in an actual class playing the game over several weeks, but this workshop is highly condensed. As in all reacting games, each person will seek to advance the victory objectives of their assigned character. Unlike in regular classes, no written work is required, but participants should make short speeches, in character, advocating the goals and beliefs of their assigned character.

After a short break, the workshop will be followed by a session discussing the limits and possibilities of embodied performance as a teaching tool for this particular subject and more generally as a method for delivering historical content and complexity in the undergraduate classroom.

No charge; because space is limited, free advance registration is required by December 15.

Game Leader
Clare Crowston, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Game Leader
Priscilla A. Dowden-White, University of Missouri–St. Louis
Game Leader
Sean Taylor, Minnesota State University Moorhead

Session Abstract

This session, like the full Frederick Douglass game, concentrates on the ideas used to justify American slavery, as well as the Abolitionist ideas used to advance the cause of immediate emancipation with no compensation for slaveholders. It is all participatory, in the form of a role-playing game, based on one of the most serious conflicts of American history – the challenge to slavery’s power in the United States, a challenge raised by the Abolitionist movement. In particular, participants/characters in the game will address the merits of Douglass’s Narrative and debate whether the Constitution is good or bad. Students in class are assigned both primary and secondary sources (in the game book), and participants can draw on these sources to support their arguments, just as college students do when playing a Reacting game in class.

Three types of characters are in the game: abolitionists; proslavery ideologues and politicians; and many other Americans with less than fixed views on slavery or abolition. The condensed game will have two or three venues: a literary forum on Douglass’s newly published Narrative; a dinner honoring John C. Calhoun; and a debate on whether the Constitution is “a pact with the Devil” or the source of American liberty. The game will include votes on Resolutions, introduced by each venue’s Chairman.

The first part of the workshop is a micro-Reacting to the Past game. Every attendee will land inside a game being played and experience the pedagogy from the student perspective. We will be playing Frederick Douglass, Slavery, and the Constitution, 1845, a game that can be played at many levels, from the history survey to the graduate seminar, from the RTTP neophyte to the experienced Reacting instructors.

Participants, speaking in the voices of their assigned character, will debate key ideas, articulate key beliefs, and denounce those they disagree with. Most importantly, participants, in character, will seek to convince, or convert, their “contemporary” Americans of 1845, to support similar goals. Some characters are more open to persuasion than others, of course. A few votes will largely determine the game’s outcome – or, who “wins” in this conflict of ideas in 1845.

In order that participants can prepare for the game and arrive ready to play, they will be sent a game book, an assigned role (a few pages, unique for each participant), and a copy of Frederick Douglass’s brand new Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, just recently published, in May 1845, prior to the day of the workshop.

RTTP games are powerful ways of engaging students with human conflicts from the past, but they do create unpredictability, and fun, in the classroom. They are games, so no predetermined result. Most Abolitionists in this era were pacifists (but not all were). Neither slaveholders nor Northern anti-abolitionist mobs were nonviolent. Of course, the game has no genuine violence.

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