Woe unto the American university: hyper-specialized faculty, indifferent students, and “the inherent laziness of the human animal” have all conspired to create a “deathly indifference” that “hangs like a fog bank” over the once-hallowed lawns. Finally, in desperation, “the best thinkers in the educational world are spending their energies not in lengthening, but in shortening, the period of education; in cutting down waste, in increasing efficiency.” Or at least they were in 1915, when Henry Seidel Canby, an assistant professor at Yale, published these warnings. Without such reforms, he argued, America would soon graduate its dumbest, most shallow generation yet. One hundred years later, Mark C. Carnes finds himself issuing the same warning in Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College.
For a system careening toward disaster, very little seems to have changed since Canby’s time. “The undergraduate whose interests are confined to football, musical comedy, and the success of his fraternity,” Canby lamented in 1915, “is easily persuaded that the man who tries to teach him government or geology takes his subject too seriously.” Substitute “Facebook” or “internet porn” for “musical comedy,” and I’m sure I’ve heard the same thing a dozen times this year. According to Carnes, this long history of student disengagement and professorial frustration reaches back at least as far as Plato, who warned that frivolous play would corrupt children’s minds. But from Greek drama, to medieval carnival, to beer pong, students have always been ingenious at devising new ways to ignore Plato’s advice. Carnes calls this “subversive play”—a kind of initiation rite where young people prepare for the workaday world of order and authority by lampooning and parodying it. Rather than throwing up his hands, Carnes suggests that we make subversive play the cornerstone of the classroom experience.
This doesn’t mean breaking out the Jell-O shots for History 101, but rather introducing students to “Reacting to the Past,” a set of games and supplemental materials. Faced with his own listless classes at Barnard, where he has been a professor of history since 1982, Carnes pioneered the method, in which students reenact various moments of historic crisis and controversy. “Reacting” has since developed into a movement, with dozens of games implemented at over 300 universities across the country. Nearly 700 Reacting instructors maintain an active online discussion group, and 36 universities, from the colossal University of Texas Austin to the tiny Brevard College, signed on as official members of a consortium to develop and support the curriculum.
Reacting class are all about roleplaying. A student in “The Trial of Anne Hutchinson: Liberty, Law, and Intolerance in Puritan New England,” might become John Winthrop. In a game on the French Revolution, students lead factions in the National Assembly, studying up on their parts by reading Rousseau’s Social Contract and Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. The professor takes on the role of “Gamemaster,” occasionally rolling dice to determine the outcome of a spontaneous event (mob uprising!). Otherwise, professors turn their classes over to the students, moving to the back of the room to watch and take notes.
Carnes is the first to admit that such classes can seem a little crazy, but it is an ingenious pedagogy for engaging students reared on World of Warcraft, and he includes ample testimonials from students whose lives were changed by their roles. A conservative Muslim student assigned the role of Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion found it “a little bit scary” to feel such a strong “connection to the political personality” of a figure whose views she had initially rejected. Likewise, a committed Zionist who was assigned the role of Awni Abd al-Hadi, head of the Arab Independence Party, later reflected that Awni “stood by his principles in a moment of crisis.” Shy students became confident speakers, and isolated students became friends. At least one group was still holding an annual reunion dinner six years after their class ended.
Carnes also marshals quantitative evidence that roleplaying classes distinguish their outcomes from conventional lectures. Researchers at the University of Utah, for example, mapped friendship networks of students who took Reacting courses compared to students in conventional honors seminars; students in the Reacting classes formed a dense social network, while their peers in traditional seminars could often identify no friends in their classes at all. Combatting that kind of isolation has become a hot trend and a big business on university campuses. The new recreation center on my campus includes a lazy river and a 25-person Jacuzzi overlooking a 20-foot television, while freshmen live in and socialize with themed “Living Learning Communities” in 30 different interest groups, from photography, to pulp fiction, to business. We spare no expense, because with the government threatening to tie funding to retention and graduation rates, anything that helps keep students engaged translates into big money. If Carnes is correct, however, we should focus less on where students live and more on how we teach them.
Combatting isolation has become a hot trend and a big business on university campuses.
He also cites several studies showing that Reacting courses improve students’ performance in standard evaluations of moral judgment, empathy, altruism, and critical thinking. The educational buzzword of the moment is “grit,” and a 2009 study in the Journal of Educational Psychology showed that students in Reacting courses also showed “statistically significant” improvement in this regard because they formed more “malleable selves,” capable of adapting to forces over which they have no control and bouncing back after failure, ready for the next game.
But this is also where the book begins to falter, because while “Reacting” seems innovative and important, Carnes’s attempts to demonstrate its superiority to all other methods often lead him into pop-psychology and amateur neuroscience. “The likely explanation” that our concept of self is stable, for example, “is that from infancy onward, as more and more information is routed along our self-related neural paths, the neurons are primed to make instantaneous connections.” “More and more students” also “seem consumed” with anxiety about failure. I often tell my own students that “more and more” is a red flag that means “I have no data here, just a hunch.”
My own hunch is that while Reacting is a welcome part of the pedagogical toolbox, it isn’t quite the panacea that Carnes implies in his more evangelical moments. For one thing, roleplaying games of various kinds have been a significant part of education for a very long time. In early modern England, students performed dramatic, fictional roles in annual “saltings” (so called because the losers had to drink salted beer). John Milton played the part of “Ens,” or the Aristotelian principle of Absolute Being, at Cambridge, in 1628, and students in my own classes on Milton, following a well-worn path, dress up to debate as God versus Satan or Parliamentarians versus Royalists. Reacting courses make such activities more systematic, with a careful process of peer review before games are approved and published for general classroom use.
But therein also lies the rub. Carnes’s opening chapters do such a good job explaining the long history of mutual animosity between professors and students that he makes me doubt we can ever really solve this “problem.” How long will it be before professors begin comparing students in their current Reacting classes to the brilliant role-players of yore, or until students decide to find some new and innovative way to be bored? Maybe I’m just cynical, but I suspect that some students will always find sex, drugs, and alcohol a more compelling imperative than games where they pretend to be Puritans—unless they are allowed to take a shot every time someone is accused of antinomianism. Carnes’s book would be stronger if his claims about role-playing were more finely developed as a flexible educational philosophy and less tethered to a particular curriculum.
This isn’t to say that we should abandon all hope of overcoming the mutual incomprehension and contempt that so often defines the student-professor relationship. But considering its long history, might not the frisson between the two groups, in some strange and perverse way, be beneficial for everyone involved? One of my friends recalls his dissertation director summoning him for a meeting in which she dramatically dumped his entire dissertation into the trash. He later went for beers, and then he went back to the drawing board. To endure such ritual humiliations, and even to pay for them, is a little insane—but whoever said that academic life was anything else? Reacting is a welcome part of the madness. But as a method, it will have its limits too.
Blaine Greteman is a professor of English at the University of Iowa and the author of The Poetics and Politics of Youth in Milton’s England. Follow @blainegreteman.