A Yearlong General Education Course Using “Reacting to the Past” Pedagogy to Explore Democratic Practice

By Kathleen A. Kelly.

Published by The Learner Collection

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The “Reacting to the Past” pedagogy, developed by Barnard College historian Marc C. Carnes and a consortium of U.S. colleges and universities, consists of elaborate games set in particularly charged historical moments. Students are assigned roles and are given specific victory objectives that are bound by world views informed by classic texts in the history of ideas. During the games, students themselves run the class sessions. Courses employing the Reacting pedagogy typically deploy two or three games a semester, with very few, if any, classes spent doing traditional close reading of texts. This is consistent with Carnes’s assertion that Reacting courses do not replace conventional university courses that emphasize critical and analytical skills, but rather complement them by engaging students emotionally and imaginatively through the games. This paper, however, describes a yearlong course that succeeds in bringing both the emotional and imaginative and the critical and analytical to bear, in this case, on the issue of democracy. Entitled “Equality, Persuasion, and Ethics: The Practice of Democracy,” the course employs two Reacting games, one set in 403 B.C. Athens and the other in 1791 Paris. Besides reading the game texts and Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Burke, and Marx, the course simultaneously explores current democratic theory from Robert Dahl, David Held, and Anthony Giddens, which students then apply to themes they identify in current democratic practice. The success of the course is strong testimony that the Reacting pedagogy can be effective in the context of general education courses based primarily on more traditional pedagogies.

Keywords: Reacting to the Past Pedagogy, Democratic Practice, Student-Centered Learning, Democracy, Ethics, Citizenship, Civic Awareness

The International Journal of Learning, Volume 16, Issue 11, pp.147-156. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.222MB).

Prof. Kathleen A. Kelly

Professor of English, Division Chair, Arts and Humanities Division, Babson College, Babson Park, MA, USA

Dr. Kelly is Professor of English and Chair of the Arts and Humanities Division at Babson College. She recieved her Ph.D from The Ohio State University, and she teaches and publishes in both literary studies and the theory and pedagogy of writing. She has published articles on the poetry of John Donne and Andrew Marvel, Bakhtin’s theory of genres, and the novels of Julian Barnes. She is coauthor with Janis Forman of The Random House Guide to Business Writing. She is currently exploring ways Anthony Giddens’s theory of the democratization of pesonal life might inform a reading of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie.


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