Students in History Classes Participate in ‘Reacting to the Past’

Students in History Classes Participate in ‘Reacting to the Past’

Ashland University’s Department of History offers a unique way of teaching called “Reacting to the Past,” in which students learn by taking on roles, informed by classic texts, in elaborate games set in the past. The students practice important skills -- speaking, writing, critical thinking, problem solving, leadership and teamwork -- in order to prevail in difficult and complicated situations.

According to Dr. John Moser, professor of history, this instruction is unique because reacting roles, unlike those in a play, do not have a fixed script and outcome.

“While students are obliged to adhere to the philosophical and intellectual beliefs of the historical figures they have been assigned to play, they must devise their own means of expressing those ideas persuasively, in papers, speeches or other public presentations; and students must also pursue a course of action they think will help them win the game,” Moser said.

Reacting to the Past (RTTP) class sessions are run entirely by students, while instructors advise and guide students and grade their oral and written work.  “The goal is to draw students into key historical moments, encourage engagement with big ideas, and develop important critical thinking and communication skills,” Moser said.

While students often learn by receiving ideas and information from instructors and texts through traditional lectures, or they discuss materials in seminars, “Reacting to the Past” courses employ this different and unique pedagogy.

In his Honors Western Civilization class, Moser is using two games from the series. They include:

  • Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France, 1791, which plunges students into the intellectual, political, and ideological currents that surged through revolutionary Paris in the summer of 1791. Students are leaders of major factions within the National Assembly (and in the streets outside) as it struggles to create a constitution amidst internal chaos and threats of foreign invasion. Will the king retain power? Will the priests of the Catholic Church obey the “general will” of the National Assembly or the dictates of the pope in Rome? Do traditional institutions and values constitute restraints on freedom and individual dignity or are they its essential bulwarks? Are slaves, women, and Jews entitled to the “rights of man”? Is violence a legitimate means of changing society or of purging it of dangerous enemies? In wrestling with these issues, students consult Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract and Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, among other texts.
  • Rage Against the Machine, which is set in the midst of the period of wage crisis, class conflict, and rapid technological change in Manchester, England during the early years of the Industrial Revolution. The players are drawn from all classes of society, from lords to laborers and everything in between. This game provides a platform for deep discussion of the complexities of the Industrial Revolution by engaging the students in serious reading of key historical texts (Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Robert Owen) and prompting subsequent debates about industrialization, unemployment, labor exploitation and the impact of technology on traditional manufacturing.

For his Modern East Asia class, Moser is using three games from the series:

  • Confucianism and the Succession Crisis of the Wanli Emperor seeks to introduce undergraduate students to the suppleness and power of Confucian thought as applied to issues of governance during the Ming dynasty. The game is set in the Hanlin Academy. Most students are members of the Grand Secretariat of the Hanlin Academy, the body of top-ranking graduates of the civil service examination who serve as advisers to the Wanli emperor. Some Grand Secretaries are Confucian “purists,” who hold that tradition obliges the emperor to name his first-born son as successor; others, in support of the most senior of the Grand Secretaries, maintain that it is within the emperor’s right to choose his successor; and still others, as they decide this matter among many issues confronting the empire, continue to scrutinize the teachings of Confucianism for guidance. The game unfolds amidst the secrecy and intrigue within the walls of the Forbidden City, as scholars struggle to apply Confucian precepts to a dynasty in peril.
  • Korea at the Crossroads situates students in the great debates over reform that swept East Asia following the irruption of Western imperialism in the second half of the nineteenth century. The game is set in the Deliberative Council, a body established by the Korean court in the midst of the Sino-Japanese War to discuss and implement measures to restructure government, economy, society, and education. Members of the Deliberative Council represented a wide range of opinions. Those pushing for radical reforms included men who had studied in Japan under Fukuzawa Yukichi and men who had studied at schools in the United States. There was also a significant conservative Confucian group of the Eastern Way, Western Machines persuasion who, following the example of Qing China, sought to strengthen the traditional order by selectively adopting Western technology. The Council was presided over by the erstwhile isolationist, the Taewŏn’gun, who was also the father of King Kojong. The Council’s deliberations took place amid palace intrigue and foreign pressures. Students will have to consult a wide range of writings from Korea, including Yu Kilchun’s Observations from a Journey to the West, as well as key documents by Japanese and Chinese thinkers, in constructing their arguments for and against reform.
  • Japan, the West, and the Road to World War places students in Tokyo during the momentous period from summer 1940 through the end of 1941. Japan’s war in China is about to enter its fourth year, with no end in sight. While officially neutral, the United States and Great Britain have been assisting the Chinese, and are threatening economic sanctions against Tokyo. With few natural resources of its own, Japan’s industrial economy depends on imported raw materials—particularly oil. However, Germany’s recent conquests in Europe may have just presented Japan with a golden opportunity, as French, Dutch, and British possessions in Asia lay largely undefended. Taking on the roles of leading figures in Tokyo—army or navy officers, bureaucrats, business executives, politicians, and members of the Imperial Court—participants are thrust into the middle of Japan’s strategic dilemma. Influenced by the tradition of bushido, and armed with the works of the pro-Western Fukuzawa Yukichi, and the ultra-militarist Kita Ikki, they must advise the emperor on how to proceed. Will they call for a “strike south” to seize the natural resources of Southeast Asia—even at the risk of war with Britain and America? Or will they seek an understanding with England and America—even if it means giving up Japan’s conquests in China? Similarly momentous decisions must also be made on domestic policy. How will Japan’s increasingly scarce resources be allocated? Will the powerful privately-owned zaibatsu continue to dominate the economy, or will they be forced to subordinate their interests to the demands of the state? This game is one that Moser designed personally for the series.

In addition, visiting assistant professor of history Emily Hess is concluding her course, Nationhood and Sectional Conflict: The United States, 1820-1854, with the game Kentucky, 1861: Loyalty, State, and Nation. As one of the northernmost slaveholding states, Kentucky plays a pivotal role in the crisis unleashed by Lincoln’s election in 1860. Student roles include political leaders, newspaper editors, and militia leaders. Opening with a special session of the legislature, Kentucky, 1861 students to struggle with the complex and divided loyalties of their roles. They must determine how to reconcile varied motivations, interests, and ideologies with an unprecedented and intensely combustible situation. Informed by assorted speeches, debates, and political tracts, students debate the cultural, economic, and political concepts driving secession while reacting to a constantly shifting political and military situation. Through the use of rhetoric, the press, and paramilitary action, they struggle to alter the fate of the nation.

Ashland University, ranked in the top 200 colleges and universities in U.S. News and World Report’s National Universities category for 2013, is a mid-sized, private university conveniently located a short distance from Akron, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio. Ashland University ( values the individual student and offers a unique educational experience that combines the challenge of strong, applied academic programs with a faculty and staff who build nurturing relationships with their students.