Students Live and Learn History in a Role-Playing Seminar
Students Live and Learn History in a Role-Playing Seminar

by Jackie Hennessey
Communications and Public Affairs Writer/Editor

For one class, the student was an emperor’s assistant, and for another he was part of the rabble-rousing crowd. Other students were loyalist leaders and landless laborers, a farmer’s wife and a person holding great power.   

Students in “Reacting to the Past: Revolutionary Ideas,” a history course at UNH, spent class periods acting as a person who would have lived long ago in Ming, China, in a fledgling democracy in New York state in 1775 or in ancient Athens, Greece.

Students participate in a role-playing exercise as part of a history course.

Matt Wranovix, a lecturer in the history department and director of the Honors Program, said class participation is at the very heart of the course. The seminar re-imagines the classroom as an elaborate, historically rich, role-playing game.

In the syllabus, Wranovix writes to students: “You will not be ‘taking’ this class; you will be leading it, running it, driving it. You will be making speeches, vigorously debating legislation, taking votes and, perhaps, inciting mobs.”

The experiential nature of the course was so well received by the students when he taught the course last spring that Wranovix is using the same method this fall in the honors section of the history course “The Western World in Modern Times,” developing a game called “Rousseau, Burke and Revolution in France, 1791.”

As part of the “Revolutionary Ideas” course, students adopted roles and conducted research into each of the three historic time periods as well as into the lives their specific characters would have led. Each time, the students were given a character of a different social standing. Their texts included Plato’s Republic, The Analects by Confucius and John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government.

Mike Deangelo ’14 said he felt like he was “living the history. The class was so engaging,” he said. The course, he said, asked students to take an active role at all times and to grow adept at and comfortable with speaking in public, even as factions of the crowd try to refute their argument.

The students wrote and presented six papers, a lesson in research and persuasion but also in voice, Wranovix said. In discussions leading up to the role-playing days, students posed questions such as, “What is a just form of government?” “Who should qualify as a citizen in a just society?” “Are emperors bound by moral codes?” “How can one express resistance in a culture that emphasizes obedience?”

Exploring revolutionary ideas is very relevant in 2013, which Deangelo said drew him in even more. During each of the three role-playing cycles, the students debated one another vociferously to “better understand critical junctures in world history,” Wranovix said.

Students said they found the approach inspiring and highly motivating. “You are so motivated to understand what happened, to really know that time in history because you want to be a part of it,” said Robin Willick ’16. “The class was so refreshing.”

Sam Ferranti ’14 liked having the chance to stretch his thinking and to live out an entirely different point of view, if even for a class or two. “During the Athens/Greek game, I was an oligarch, extremely conservative and against equal rights,” he said. “You get put into a position that is the exact opposite of how you feel in real life, yet you have to make your points. You have to be passionate about the other side.”

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