Reacting to the Past

I know many of you who read this blog know of my continued interest in and use of Reacting to the Past as a pedagogical tool. I use Reacting in many of my classes. Reacting asks students to debate issues in a historical moment as a character from that time. Their arguments are informed by primary text documents that they must read and respond to “in character.”

Right now my Roman Art and Architecture students are absorbed in the Reacting to the Past game, “Beware the Ides of March: Rome, 44 BCE.” The game is set the moment after Julius Caesar is assassinated. Indeed, the first item that came up for debate was what to do with Caesar’s body: throw it in the Tiber as you would a common criminal? Or order the most impressive and lavish funeral that Rome has ever seen? I am using this game because I want my students to understand more fully the Romans themselves – the people who made the art and architecture that we study for the majority of the semester. They have made references to the Republican values espoused in the art we have studied, noting the wisdom and age that they admired. They have had to research temples and venues in the city of Rome in which to hold their Senate meetings.

But most of all they have payed attention to the history and to the issues at hand. Rich debate went on for an hour about whether or not the mob that had gathered in the Forum had a right to be worshipping Caesar as a god. Though this “mob in the Forum” was fabricated by me to give them a sense that more was going on in Rome outside the Senate debates, they were moved to action (finally). And today’s debate on whether or not to return to the two-consul form of government was excellent. Nearly every speech has been filled with references to Plutarch, Suetonius, Cicero and others.

And one of the things I realized today was that Reacting can level the playing field: over half of this particular class are first year students, with less than half (about 7) upper-class students. I now can’t tell who is who. They are immeshed in their roles and relishing the debates. One student, as he was leaving class today, said aloud to his friend, “This is so much fun.” And he’s one of the ones that is best prepared each day. That comment made my week, but I could already tell how energized they were.

I urge any of you who have thought about Reacting but are still not sure about it to think about attending the Barnard annual Institute this summer (June 9-12) and to read more about the pedagogy on the website: And feel free to post comments/questions here.


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