The section leaders of the Paris crowd lead the Grand Insurrection. Section leaders, from left: Citizen Andalle (Brittany Chue '21), Citizen Hérbert (John Callahan '22), Citizen Léon (Hunter Brockinton '22), Citizen Robespierre (Jackson Goodwin '22), and Citizen Danton (with a copy of Rousseau’s Social Contract in hand!) (Kourtney Lee '23). / Photo by Madeleine Castator '21
CONWAY, Ark. (November 19, 2019) — Angry mobs, cheering and jeering. Passionate pleas
for change. Tears.
No, it’s not college football. It’s Dr. Allison Shutt’s HIST201: Doing History course, where students learn as they play Reacting to the Past (RTTP) role-playing games — including Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France 1791 about the French Revolution and The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 BCE about the origins of Western democracy.
Though the contexts are
different, the big questions are similar.
“Students learn about politics in crisis as they face fundamental
issues about government and society,” said Shutt, who began
incorporating RTTP into her teaching about four years ago.
The games include all the elements of a rigorous Hendrix class — challenging
texts, big ideas, and ethical complexity — and also immerse students in novel situations that
compel them to test the ideas they’ve read about and discussed and apply them to changing (and often
Role-playing is a
useful way for people to learn other historical mentalities than their own, according
Johnson, a junior history major and religious studies minor from
In the games, students are assigned character roles with specific
goals and must communicate, collaborate, and compete effectively to advance
their objectives. In the process, students become intellectually and
emotionally animated. They debate, they compromise, and they scheme. They think
on their feet. They pull out their texts and read relevant passages to their
colleagues to explain their actions and bolster their legitimacy. They get
loud. They learn.
For senior Mary Nail, a history major with a lifelong passion for
theatre, a role-playing history course was a natural fit.
“It’s just such a different approach to learning history,” said Nail, who also took the
class last year and is a student mentor this fall. “Almost all
other history courses at Hendrix (and most other institutions) take form in
either a discussion- or lecture-based class structure, so learning
history through such a hands-on way that students really get to take ownership
of is so unique.
“I chose to
be a mentor because I enjoyed the course so much as a student,” Nail said.
“Now I’m able to
help guide students and give strategy advice, [but] it can sometimes be difficult to hold my tongue when
there are parts of the game that they need to figure out for themselves.”
“I want them
to develop their own problem-solving skills, but I also want to warn them of potential
consequences,” she said. “I enjoy encouraging them because I do not think they
realize their strengths and I want to bring that out of them.”
For the most part, beyond a
little advice and encouragement from mentors and the professor,
students are on their own.
“What is so magical is that the students are in control of the
class once the game begins,” Shutt said. “From my point of view as an instructor,
I am there to watch students work things out. The best thing I can do is stay
out of their way and let them figure it out … and they do! It’s a very
different learning experience for them, and it’s a very different teaching
experience for me.”
“It’s definitely something I’ve never really experienced in other
courses, but it happens so naturally in Doing History,” Nail said. “Most often,
students tend to forget that Dr. Shutt is even in the room. Students really
like to take ownership of the class.”
“It felt weird at first,” said Rader Francis, another of the student mentors. “But after the
first game session we didn’t hesitate on what to do to start the class each day,
or on where to take it.”
The course draws a different
kind of student — from quiet and thoughtful to more outgoing students, from
history majors to non-majors, from gamers to non-gamers. There is no
pre-requisite, so first-year students can take the course too.
difference from more lecture-intensive courses is the
amount one is expected to talk with other students.
“The whole experience is a
lot more participatory than the typical reading- or
lecture-style course,” said
Some students take the
class to improve their public speaking skills.
“It has been
rewarding to see people develop into more confident students,” she said. “I enjoy
encouraging them because I do not think they realize their strengths and I want
to bring that out of them.”
There is a high level of student engagement, emotionally
and intellectually, said Shutt, adding that she especially
enjoys seeing shy students come to life when they are put into a role.
“I wasn’t expecting
to be so invested in my character and the game, especially because the first
character I played was a Royalist in the French Revolution,” Nail said. “Students
definitely become very connected to their characters.”
were way more engaged with the material,” Francis said. “Everybody wanted to be knowledgeable so they wouldn’t lose the
Though fun, the games are
embedded in rigorous scholarship. Solid preparation is the key to winning the game.
“If students are playing
well, they’re reading outside of class,” Shutt said.
is a large amount of work outside of class and core-text reading — Rousseau and
Plato are some dense dudes — what I love about Doing History is that the
homework never feels like work,” Nail said. “Students spend multiple hours every week outside of
class meeting with their groups, but they are having so much fun scheming and
strategizing to get ahead in the game that they never really complain about the
games can require a greater investment in understanding the historical content and a
competitive nature, said student mentor Megan Bellfield.
“In order to
do well in each session, you must know the values of each faction and how that affects the
government,” she said. “I enjoy a little competition, and I
think that helped drive me to be more engaged.”
also allows students to
stumble and struggle in order to have a deeper understanding of
historical context, said Bellfield.
Hendrix alumnus Dr. Nick Proctor ’90, a history professor
at Simpson College, a liberal arts institution in Iowa, is also a proponent of using games in teaching.
Proctor will return to his alma mater in
March 2020 to work with Shutt and her students, running a simulation another
history game-in-development for a course Shutt is developing on game design.
The course is part of Shutt’s work under the College’s James and Emily Bost Odyssey
Professorship, a three-year award she received last year.
Lafayette (Kameron Molloy '21) reacts as King Louis XVI (Emma Sward '20) addresses the
people of Paris.
A private liberal arts
college in Conway, Arkansas, Hendrix College consistently earns recognition as
one of the country’s leading liberal arts institutions, and is featured in Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That
Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges. Its academic quality and
rigor, innovation, and value have established Hendrix as a fixture in numerous
college guides, lists, and rankings. Founded in 1876, Hendrix has been
affiliated with the United Methodist Church since 1884. To learn more, visit www.hendrix.edu.