Campus Spotlight: Georgia State University

Our Reacting Consortium Member Campus Spotlight series highlights Reacting to the Past on Consortium Member campuses. Keep reading to see how Endeavor Grant recipient Georgia State University reshaped an introductory survey course to incorporate Reacting to the Past, how Professor Robert Baker uses Reacting to explore leadership as part of LEAD with Honors, an elite Leadership program of the GSU Honors College, and how Reacting played a role in the GSU History Department's recent award. 

 

Leadership: a skill companies look for in potential employees, a skill colleges and universities seek to instill in graduates. Of course, leadership can encompass everything from compelling communication to conflict resolution. And few are certain how to define leadership, much less how best to incorporate leadership development into curricula. Effective leadership, as an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education describes, “is essentially about being an adept and versatile performer,” so one can respond to diverse demands. This sort of adaptability and collaboration are precisely what students practice in Reacting games. Georgia State University capitalizes on Reacting games to build leadership initiatives into even an introductory survey course, and to enhance the exploration of leadership in Professor Baker’s seminar within the selective three-year program, LEAD with Honors. The leadership the GSU History department faculty demonstrated in adapting courses to incorporate the active learning of Reacting has been recognized with the 2018 University System of Georgia’s Regents Teaching Excellence Award.
 

 
IT STARTED WITH STEM & SKEPTICISM
IT LED TO A NEW SURVEY SYLLABUS & STATE AWARD

Professor Laura Carruth, the director of GSU’s Center for Excellence in Instruction and a biologist by training, was introduced to Reacting at a STEM conference. With Reacting Consortium and Endeavor grant backing, GSU was able to send a cohort of skeptical History professors to the 2017 Winter Conference at the University of Georgia, from which they emerged enthusiastic. In Fall of 2017, GSU’s History Department organized a Reacting Faculty workshop with professors from many disciplines to share the pedagogy and explore new applications for Reacting.

Since bringing Reacting to the Past back to the GSU campus after their attendance at the 2017 Winter Conference, Reacting has become central to many GSU classes and programs. One ambitious project was to incorporate Reacting into their one-semester US History survey course, which covers over 400 years of history. Professor Baker says that in order to integrate Reacting, the History department “designed an online textbook and video lectures, complete with assessments, that took care of the coverage of the vast materials to which the survey connects,” and then “integrated two different Reacting to the Past games—the Raising the Eleventh Pillar: The New York State Ratifying Convention of 1788 and Chicago, 1968.” The result is that about half of the US History survey class time is devoted to Reacting.

Using Reacting to transform more traditional syllabi was not always easy, but has proven worthwhile at every level: from a broad introductory survey, to specialized upper division courses, to departmental capstone classes. Professor Baker explains, “we use Reacting to the Past to teach research, to teach the historical method, to teach writing and speaking skills, and critical thinking. But the real impact of Reacting is not just in that it teaches all the traditional skills and content honed in a university education. It comes in unexpected ways.”

This work has not gone unnoticed; the History Department at GSU received the 2018 University System of Georgia’s Regents Teaching Excellence Award, an honor they credit in part to the department’s adoption of Reacting. The review panel for the award emphasized the department’s “three-pronged approach to student success—online initiatives, high impact practices and active learning strategies, and a career readiness program for both undergraduate and graduate history majors—resulting in growth and retention of majors, and in students’ evaluations of the courses and programs,” in their consideration.

 
STUDENTS RISE TO THE REACTING OCCASION

Well before the state-wide recognition, GSU faculty had quickly noticed an increase in student engagement with the material. Professor Baker witnessed firsthand how students developed soft skills like persuasive public speaking, team building, and working well under pressure . One of Professor Baker’s most memorable Reacting moments came when a previously hesitant student in his U.S. History survey overcame extreme nerves to give a powerful speech.

The class had over 60 students. With such a large class, Baker notes, it can often be easy for shyer students to avoid class discussion. And so it might have been for one of the quietest students, whom Baker had never heard speak in class before, had they not been using Reacting. The student was cast as Federalist Alexander Hamilton in Raising the Eleventh Pillar, and this shy student completely shattered expectations in an early debate. After she mysteriously left the room shortly before she was slated to speak, the student came back and delivered “a blistering speech” that “annihilated” the anti-federalist’s position. Then, for good measure, she delivered an intense line of questioning, and her outgoing opponent “withered under cross-examination.”

“It was only after class that I learned that our Alexander Hamilton had very nearly fainted before giving her speech,” Baker said. “She was terrified, and had fled to the bathroom, where her friends had found her. They convinced her to return.” This student was able to take on a leadership role for her faction, and learn more about her own abilities. Professor Davis had a similar experience in her Greenwich Village, 1913: Suffrage, Labor, and the New Woman, as she describes in the Q&A in the left column. 

 
USING REACTING TO  EXAMINE & EMBODY LEADERSHIP

Due to success with Reacting to the Past in other classrooms (including the one previously mentioned), Professor Baker decided to include Reacting games in his class on leadership, part of the LEAD with Honors program. Reacting is well-suited to the specific challenges of a class analyzing leadership:

“Leadership is a weird academic subject. Everyone agrees it is important. It is a quality that we are supposed to cultivate in college. But it is elusive. We have a difficult time even agreeing on what it means, let alone how to teach it. Many scholars of leadership assert that it cannot be taught, although thousands of leadership workshop gurus claim otherwise.
But Reacting to the Past provides a unique opportunity to combine student activity with real historical settings to teach leadership critically. First of all, Reacting puts the skills we develop as historians into the service of persuasion. One’s ability to read, to write, to argue, to speak—arguably the most important skills that we teach our students—will be honed in the context of advancing ideas and competing with other ideas.
It also puts students into the very real situation that leaders face. They must build coalitions, they must placate constituencies. They must also make decisions, sometimes weighing practical considerations against the principled position.
And Reacting drills home the reality that all leadership is dependent on context. Everything—from the goals that leaders set to the realm of the possible, to the obstacles they face, to the allies they have—depends upon context. This is entirely true for leadership in the academic, business, nonprofit, and political world. Sadly, however, much of what passes for leadership training focuses on process and theory to the detriment of context. Reacting flips this script.”

As seen in the video, and as professors at GSU are eager to share, Reacting gives students opportunities to discover their own versatility as leaders as they try on different styles of leadership suited to the demands of different game contexts. Moreover, the dual nature of Reacting gameplay in classrooms supports the goals of Baker’s classroom, where his students both examine and exemplify leadership. Students analyze when out of game mode, and embody different leadership practices as their characters in the game.

Bill Gates proposes that, “as we look ahead [...], leaders will be those who empower others.” Reacting games empower students to put different modes of empowering others into action by building coalitions, delegating within a faction, and making meaningful decisions--all in multiple contexts. We look forward to seeing GSU continue to empower students and faculty, inspire fellow educators, and lead the way in instigating curricular change.
 

NOTE OF THANKS

Thank you to Professors Rob Baker, Jared Poley, Jeffrey Young, and Marni Davis for sharing their experiences with us, and to all the faculty at Georgia State University. Thanks to Dr. Laura Carruth for her leadership of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and her support for Reacting to the Past at Georgia State. A huge thank you, especially, to Professor Baker for editing the videos from his class, and for his time! Congratulations to the History Department on the Regents Teaching Excellence Award.