The Concept

In traditional classes, students learn by receiving ideas and information from instructors and texts, or they discuss such materials in seminars. “Reacting to the Past” courses employ a different pedagogy. Students learn by taking on roles, informed by classic texts, in elaborate games set in the past; they learn skills—speaking, writing, critical thinking, problem solving, leadership, and teamwork—in order to prevail in difficult and complicated situations. 

Reacting to the Past (RTTP) consists of elaborate games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts in the history of ideas. Class sessions are run entirely by students; instructors advise and guide students and grade their oral and written work. It seeks to draw students into the past, promote engagement with big ideas, and improve intellectual and academic skills. Reacting roles, unlike those in a play, do not have a fixed script and outcome, so while students will be obliged to adhere to the philosophical and intellectual beliefs 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; and students must also pursue a course of action they think will help them win the game. 

Pioneered in the late 1990s by Mark C. Carnes, Professor of History at Barnard College, the RTTP curriculum has been implemented by faculty at hundreds colleges and universities in the U.S. and abroad since dissemination began in 2001.

RTTP was honored with the 2004 Theodore Hesburgh Award for pedagogical innovation. The project has received developmental support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation, Spencer Foundation,National Science Foundation, Teagle Foundation, and FIPSE, U.S. Department of Education. RTTP has also been featured in Change magazine, the Chronicle Review, the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Christian Science Monitor; and elsewhere.



Reacting to the Past

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 "Reacting was completely unique in my college experience.... The words of Gandhi, Socrates, and other historical figures became mine, transcending the academic distance to which I had grown accustomed... Their thoughts, their histories, their biographies are real and alive in my mind."
—Amanda Houle, Barnard College alumna

“Reacting to the Past will revitalize your classroom, change you and your students—whatever you teach."  
José  Bowen, Professor of Music and President of Goucher College

"I have never seen students this engaged. They write more than the assignments require; everyone, shy or not, participates vigorously in the debates. They read important texts with real understanding, making complex arguments and ideas their own." 
—Larry Carver, Director of the Liberal Arts Honors Programs, University of Texas at Austin

"Once I overcame some initial anxiety and reluctance to step into my assigned role, I was swept into it by the energy of my fellow participants, by the fascinating nature of the problem we were trying to solve, and by the learning I had begun to experience long before the game started."
—James Lang, professor of English and the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College