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Learning through Performance: Using Role-Playing Pedagogy to Structure the Introductory Classical Culture Class

Christine L. Albright

This paper presents the initial results of an ongoing study which focuses on using the Reacting to the Past pedagogy in introductory Greek culture classes.  The study was first conducted during spring semester, 2013.  It seeks to measure the effect on learning outcomes of not only playing a Reacting to the Past game but also of using the pedagogy to structure an entire course.  Unlike most scholarship about Reacting to the Past and other role-playing pedagogies, this study uses actual qualitative data collected from students to examine the effectiveness of the pedagogy. 

Reacting to the Past was developed at Barnard College by Mark C. Carnes during the mid-1990s; students assume the identities of historical figures and learn by role-playing and historical recreation. Classes are largely student-run:  the instructor acts as Gamemaster but does not direct the dynamics of the game (Anderson and Dix, 2008).

This study uses the Reacting to the Past game “The Threshold of Democracy:  Athens in 403 B.C.,” written by Mark C. Carnes and Josiah Ober, which is set in the period immediately following the expulsion of the Thirty Tyrants.   Each class constitutes a meeting of the ekklesia.  Students are divided into four political factions and debate issues ranging from whether or not to prepare for a military campaign to whether or not Athenian women should vote. 

In this study, the game is used as an anchor for the entire course, and the performance-oriented nature of the pedagogy is extended to the rest of the term.  Students spend four weeks of a fifteen week semester playing the game itself, but they approach the rest of the semester in character as well, assuming their roles early in the term.   Students are frequently asked to consider the literature they read in terms of their individual characters when writing papers and in class discussions.  Amy Richlin has used similar role-playing exercises with success in classes on Roman culture in order to help students understand the complex nature of Roman society (Richlin, 2013).  With this approach, students are encouraged to think about the overall significance of a text for Athenian society and, at the same time, to dissect texts for specific information which might be relevant to their historical characters, thus closely engaging with the material.

Students in this study also participate in four performance-oriented exercises which are designed to deepen their understanding of the texts they read in class.  First, when reading the Iliad, students compete as rhapsodes, delivering dramatic recitations to their fellow classmates. Next, when reading Pindar, students compose and deliver their own epinician odes celebrating current popular athletes.  When reading tragedies, students stage tragic scenes at a class Dionysia.  Finally, when reading Plato’s Symposium, students compose and deliver speeches about love at an actual symposium which features Greek food and entertainment.  In all of these exercises, students compete to win gold laurel crowns and extra points towards their final grade.  Therefore, the spirit of competition which drives the Reacting to the Past game carries over into the rest of the semester, and students develop a deeper appreciation for the overall concept of Greek agon

Initial reporting shows that an overwhelming majority of students feel that they learn a significant amount about Greek history, culture, and politics by playing the game.  In general, students report that the game helps them improve their skills in critical thinking, oral argument, and writing.  A large majority of students report that the four exercises in performance help to inspire a deeper understanding of Greek literature.  A majority of students report that they learn more from the game itself than from any other activity in class, and a small percentage of students report that they learn most from the exercises in performance.  Thus, initial results show that using the pedagogy to structure a classical culture course positively affects learning outcomes.

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