Role playing in the classoom

A message I received via the H-Canada listserve piqued my interest the other day. It invited anyone attending the upcoming Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Kitchener/Waterloo later this month to participate in a session demonstrating the Reacting to the Past model of game-based teaching. Having never heard of game-based teaching, I did some searching and came across Bernard College’s Reacting to the Past website, which describes the approach. In addition to including videos demonstrating game-based teaching in the history classroom, the site contains various documents that explain the pedagogical approach in detail, such as this PDF.

Here’s how the website explains the approach:

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.

As the above quote suggests, the goal of the games is to have each student defend a position consistent with the historical person they have been assigned to play. Each student must therefore learn to express his or her ideas persuasively not only in oral presentations to the class, but also in written assignments that are shared with the class (e.g. via discussion boards or hard copy) in an effort to sway the opinions of other students. While the official RTTP program involves teaching with published games books that focus on specific historical people and periods (e.g. Henry VIII and the Reformation Parliament, Athens in 403 BCE), the general approach could be adapted for other contexts, including an undergraduate translation studies course. I can think of many translation-related situations that could be taught via the game model. For instance, instructors using books like Introducing Translation Studies or The Translation Studies Reader as part of the curriculum probably spend at least one class discussing translation theories prevalent prior to the twentieth century. A game focusing, for instance, on Martin Luther’s or William Tyndale’s translations of the bible would allow students to explore the source-oriented vs. target-oriented arguments from the point of view of the translators, the religious institutions and the public at a specific point in history. As the game rules stipulate, students would be required to study texts from that period to help them formulate opinions and arguments. During the game, students are permitted to cite only sources published prior to the historical period they are enacting; however, during the “post-mortem” phase after the game is over, students are expected to reflect on the game and its results from their own, more modern perspective.

The pre-twentieth-century cases are not the only ones that could be adapted to the games model. One could also, for instance, select a controversy that has been discussed in the news, such as the lawsuit launched over a Galician translator’s “sexist” translation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and create a game that revolves around the historical and cultural context in which that controversy arose. Students would then have to play the roles of the people involved in these events, defending their views based on the first- and second-hand sources the students have consulted. The goal is not to reconstruct the exact chain of events: Reacting to the Past games “may depart from the actual events and outcomes of the past”, as the Pedagogical introduction explains. To win the game, each student is attempting to achieve specific objectives associated with the person they are pretending to be–objectives that are assigned by the instructor at the start of the game and which are known only by the instructor and that specific student. The players must win debates and sway characters whose opinions have not been pre-defined by the instructor but who are instead representing a “typical” person of that historical period. In a case like that of the Galician translator, one way to incorporate a game into the classroom would be to have the translator and the publisher plead their case to a judge. Students would then be able to take on various roles: that of the translator, the publisher, the author, the lawyer(s), the judge, the representatives from professional translator associations, etc. Players would be trying to persuade the judge of their position, and he or she would render a verdict at the end of the game. Consistent with the guidelines for Reacting to the Past games, students would be marked on their oral presentations and their written work, with a focus on the suitability of references that were consulted, whether these texts were interpreted in a way that is consistent with the role the student is playing, and whether the student’s arguments are strong.

The entire course needn’t rest on the game, which could, depending on the number of students involved, require six or seven hours of classroom time, spread over several weeks. One option is for the game to replace traditional student presentations–since a large component of the game involves oral debates–and help make the classes more dynamic. One advantage of the games approach is that students should be able to develop their argumentation skills because their work is shared with their classmates, allowing each student to build their own arguments on the basis of the work their classmates have submitted (either on the course website or in oral debates). I hope to attend the session at Congress to see how the game approach works in practice, but I am considering integrating at least one game into the undergraduate translation theory course I’ll likely be teaching next year. If I do, I’ll prepare another post to discuss how the games worked in a translation studies–instead of a history–course.

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