Photo by Mariah Wilson

Philosophy class tasks students with role-playing as historical figures

By Jason Herring, March 27 2018 —

For many students, learning about history and philosophy can be an impersonal experience made difficult to study because of the distance between them and the events and ideas they’re discussing.

That’s the idea behind ‘Reacting to the Past,’ a historical role-playing game philosophy professor Nicole Wyatt implements into many of her classes. In some games, students take on the roles of figures during conflicts like the French Revolution or the debate on naturalism and evolution. In Wyatt’s Winter 2018 PHIL 499: Philosophy of Race and Gender class, students focus on figures and events from the pre-Civil War movement for the abolition of slavery.

“The basic motivating idea is that all classes are sort of boring and that it’s often quite difficult to get students to engage in issues that seem remote,” Wyatt said. “It’s inspired by live-action role-playing. For each game, there’s a defined set of roles and each student gets assigned a role.”

Every students’ role has a defined set of ‘win conditions’ that they set out to accomplish throughout the game. Over the course of about a dozen classes, the students interact in meetings and react to historical events, as well as written work published by other students playing their roles.

In Wyatt’s current class, students play roles like Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became a national figure in the abolitionist movement, and John C. Calhoun, a former United States vice-president steadfast in his defense of slavery. Hamish Tregarthen, a third-year anthropology and women’s studies student currently enrolled in PHIL 499, plays the role of famous poet Edgar Allan Poe. Tregarthen says that the class’s game is effective at encouraging in-depth learning.

“One really interesting thing about it is, as cheesy as it sounds, it brings history alive. Why would I, even if I was learning about literature at the time, care what Edgar Allan Poe wrote about Washington Irving in a 1842 letter, unless I, of course, am Edgar Allan Poe?” they asked. “And that character is really fun because he’s an independent [character in the game] and he’s a drunk.”

Wyatt, who is also the head of the University of Calgary’s philosophy department, admitted that she is often nervous about whether students will commit to playing the game. But she said that students have always bought into the game in her experience — in many cases, largely because students get caught up in a desire to win.

“And I don’t tell students this up-front, but in my experience, they do far more work than they would normally do if I was just lecturing or having class discussions on this material,” Wyatt laughed. 

Students often bring a small dramatic flair to their roles as well. This ranges from adopted accents or styles of speaking, such as a generic New York City merchant who only speaks in a Donald Trumpian accent. For Tregarthen, the character of Edgar Allan Poe, as well as other members of Poe’s writers’ guild, is represented by wearing corsages in class during role-playing.

Many historical characters featured in the game exhibit racist views, as the game focuses on both sides of the historical argument surrounding slavery.

“This is in some ways one of the more challenging games to play because it forces some people to adopt people who express views that all the people in my class would find morally repugnant,” Wyatt said. “But on the other hand, if we want to understand a lot of our contemporary views about race, they have their origins in these 19th-century debates and discussions.”

Aside from the game, which originated at New York City’s Barnard College in the late 1990s, PHIL 499 has another unique aspect. Wyatt uses ‘scaffolded grading’ to assess her students. Scaffolded grading gives students the opportunity to choose what grade to pursue and only requires students to complete work relevant to the grade being sought. This work is then graded on a pass/fail basis.

“This way, you don’t have to produce a term paper you don’t want to write and the professor doesn’t have to read a term paper you don’t want to write,” Tregarthen said.

Wyatt says that in her experience, scaffolded grading produces a similar distribution of grades to traditional grading schemes. 

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