Role-playing games where students take on the personas of historical figures have made Diana Solomon’s English literature course Major Authors for Non-Majors a huge hit since she began teaching it in 2017.

English, Faculty, Departments & programs

Diana Solomon gets students involved through historical role-play

August 01, 2019
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Role-playing games where students take on the personas of historical figures have made Diana Solomon’s English literature course Major Authors for Non-Majors a huge hit since she began teaching it in 2017. Solomon is the “Game Master,” and presents the issues and conflicts the students have to consider as they engage in political debates and activism while staying true to their characters.

Reacting roles, unlike those in a play, do not have a fixed script and outcome. So while students are obliged to stay true to the ideological positions of the historical figures they have been assigned to play, they must devise their own means of expressing those ideas persuasively in papers, speeches or other public presentations. Students must also pursue a course of action they think will help them win the game.

“I have never seen students so involved in class,” says Solomon. “There is a lot of work to prepare students for the games, but once the games begin the students are in charge and I come to class consistently surprised and impressed by what activities they have planned for class!”

The “Reacting to the Past” (RTTP) system that Solomon employs was designed by Mark Carnes at Barnard College in the early 1990s to increase student engagement in history classes.

Students earn points by participating in activities both inside and outside the classroom. For example, in the “Greenwich Village, 1913” game that explores the suffrage and labour movements during the First World War, a suffragette student can earn points by carrying a “Votes for Women” sign on public transit, or organizing a bake sale within the classroom to raise funds for their cause. Members of the labour faction could earn points by translating left-wing literature into non-English languages, or by writing a pro-labour marching song.

This year, Solomon has used the “Stages of Power” game to teach a unit on Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and the “Revolution in France” game to learn about philosophers Montesquieu, Burke, Rousseau and their milieu. The historical scenarios are described in the RTTP courseware, but the classes are run by the students, with instructor supervision.

“From debates to performances to speeches to literary salons, it's all exciting, energetic and reflective of deep engagement,” Solomon says.