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Carthage classes learn history by revising it

May 07, 2014

Nick Weir ’15, portraying one of the British governors general, discusses India's status during...Role-playing games bring historical periods alive
for a rising number of Carthage classes

Considering Indian nationalist leader Abul Kalam Azad lived until 1958, it was fair to wonder why a Carthage history class spent an entire period arguing about who assassinated him in 1945.

What good are history lessons that aren’t historically accurate? Plenty, according to a growing number of professors on campus.

The students in the fall 2013 Modern India course participated in a sort of role-playing game titled, “Defining a Nation: India on the Eve of Independence, 1945.”

Eric Pullin, an assistant professor of history and Asian studies, has used the simulation in this course since 2008. Each student chooses (or is assigned) a character and receives a dossier detailing his or her goals and criteria to win the game. Even when they stay true to their characters’ motives, the classes inevitably stray from history.

“Games almost never end up the way history ended,” Prof. Pullin said.

That’s fine with him; he calls it “getting it right by getting it wrong.” At the end of the semester, Prof. Pullin reviews what actually happened on India’s path from British colony to independent nation. He then challenges students to analyze how their actions in the game forged a different outcome.

“I’ve been very surprised how well they understand one of the most complicated events of the 20th century, precisely because they got it wrong,” he said.

Compared to the lecture format, students consistently rate this version of the course higher in their evaluations. Nick Weir ’15, a history major from Racine, Wis., raved about it.

“When we’re taking an active role in shaping India’s future, it really makes it come alive,” said Nick, who portrayed one of the British colonial leaders. “It feels like you’re experiencing history, instead of just learning about it.”

* * *

A sign hangs from a desk as a tribute to the fallen Azad. Gandhi strongly opposes retaliation for the killing and urges the various factions to protest using civil disobedience. He demands freedom from British control, prompting others to paint him as a hypocrite because he studied in London.

* * *

Materials for the game are taken from the Reacting To The Past series. Started in the 1990s by Barnard College history professor Mark Carnes, the initiative has grown to include nine published games and dozens more in development. Prof. Pullin contributes to a nationwide network of faculty members who edit the assigned readings.

Professor Eric Pullin has led the Modern India simulations since 2008.Professor Eric Pullin has led the Modern India simulations since 2008.Within the past year, his fellow Carthage history faculty members Stephen Udry, Stephanie Mitchell, and David Gartner also used simulations in their courses for the first time. The teaching tool even crossed disciplinary lines, now that classics professor Joseph McAlhany is employing it this spring in a course called The Greeks.

Many of the characters depict historical figures. In the Modern India class, for example, Marcus Harnett ’15, an exercise and sport science major from Chicago, and Allison Riley ’15, an accounting and finance major from Cudahy, Wis., both played Mohandas Gandhi. Each represented a different aspect of his personality.

Other characters are more generic, representing members of competing factions. Some students wear costumes to slip deeper into their roles.

Like Hollywood actors, the history students research their characters by digging through speeches, essays, and other original sources.

Marcus Harnett ’15, portraying Mohandas Gandhi, hangs an Indian national flag during a historic...Marcus Harnett ’15, portraying Mohandas Gandhi, hangs an Indian national flag during a historical simulation in Professor Eric Pullin's fall 2013 Modern India course“You get to know the people a little better, even if it’s not your character,” said Taylor Ridderbusch ’15, a political science major from Eagle River, Wis., who portrayed a member of the Indian National Congress. “You have to convince the others to think like you.”

Prof. Udry set aside about half of the fall semester in his Modern Japan course for a simulation of the events leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor. A few students never bought in, but he estimates 70 percent of them got more out of the class than they otherwise would have.

Of course, he figures they put in double the amount of work. It just didn’t seem like homework, because students were caught up in the competition. The scheming extended outside of class, with notes being passed secretly in the Caf.

* * *

To protest the bloodlust among his counterparts, Gandhi begins a hunger strike. As the game master, Prof. Pullin calls for a die roll to determine the effects of it. Checking the number against a chart, he reports somberly that Gandhi has died.

* * *

Rolling dice introduces an element of chance. Students grumble, but it fits because the events in their history books were not inevitable. Tweak something here or there, and those chapters might’ve read a lot differently.

Sure, everyone knows Gandhi died by bullet. Yet Prof. Pullin pointed out the leader was in danger of dying during multiple hunger strikes before that, so the demise of Marcus Harnett’s character wasn’t far-fetched at all.

To Prof. McAlhany, that’s one main goal of the game: It illustrates the “contingency of history.” He got a crash course in the use of Reacting To The Past in the classroom during a three-day, regional conference he recently attended.

Getting an “A” isn’t just about being on the winning side. It’s more about how well each student takes on the persona of the character and uses the research to shape fitting arguments.

“They’re not making their argument as a 20-year-old in 21st century Wisconsin,” Prof. McAlhany said. “They need to make their arguments as a 60-year-old shield maker in 403 BC Athens.”

* * *

British leaders, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and a lone communist find little common ground at a meeting to discuss the future of India. “‘You can’t please everyone’ is cold comfort to all the dead Sikhs,” Sikh Master Tara Singh says bitterly.

* * *

Often, it’s hard for students to accept there’s no “ingenious solution” in the game that will make everyone happy, Prof. Pullin said. Even in a polarized American political climate, he noted they’ve taken for granted that the competing parties ultimately share similar goals. That wasn’t the case in 1940s India.

Claire King ’15 rolls a die during the Modern India simulation. She portrayed Indian communist ...Claire King ’15 rolls a die during the Modern India simulation. She portrayed Indian communist leader B. T. Ranadive.“I have to remind them they are acting out of character when they behave like typical compromising Americans and just want to solve the problem and move on,” he said.

They also discover that history isn’t black-and-white. Prof. Udry divided the Modern Japan class into the emperor’s Imperial Court, the powerful bureaucracy, the army and navy, and large corporations. Each group had something different at stake as the prospect of war with the United States and England loomed.

“The game explains the complexity of going to war,” Prof. Udry said. “It crushes the stereotype that all of the Japanese agreed.”

The author of that game book, Professor John Moser of Ashland University, even sat in on one of the class sessions. With the first simulation under his belt, Prof. Udry said he may write one to cover Modern China.

For Prof. McAlhany, the Athens game provides a good balance. It lets students have fun without diminishing the seriousness of the material.

Carthage faculty members agree the role playing won’t work for all classes, especially with its focus on a narrow time period. But it has become a valued tool.

“A lot of people don’t relate to history because they can’t experience it,” said Claire King ’15, a history and classical archaeology major from Joliet, Ill., who played Indian Communist Party leader B. T. Ranadive. “This is a good way to change that.”