Drake to host ‘Reacting to the Past’ regional conference

When students leave campus this month for Spring Break, Drake will transform into a faculty’s playground. And to the uninformed onlooker, things might seem a bit bizarre.

That’s because some 30 faculty members from around the region will convene at Drake for a weekend of elaborate role-playing. Led by College of Arts and Sciences Dean John Burney, this spring’s “Reacting to the Past” regional conference will be held March 23-25 on behalf of a consortium of 35 colleges and universities.

The conference will feature the innovative pedagogy known as “Reacting to the Past,” a curriculum that won the 2004 Theodore Hesburgh Award as the nation’s outstanding pedagogical innovation in higher education. Pioneered by Barnard College in New York, the curriculum features elaborate games in which students are introduced to major ideas and classic texts using a role-playing format. They reenact the historical context in which ideas acquired significance and seek to reach their own decisions on basic questions of political and social order.

To learn how to most effectively incorporate the pedagogy into classrooms, conference participants will interpret scenarios from Athens in 403 B.C., New York City in the American Revolution and apartheid-controlled South Africa in 1993. In addition to the game sessions, participants will discuss the general character of a liberal arts education, student motivation and the problems and possibilities of the pedagogy.

“Students can have emotional reactions to classical texts, and role-playing really builds those connections,” Burney said.

The “Reacting to the Past” pedagogy is used at Drake in a first-year seminar called Debating Democracy: The Struggle to Create Democratic Unity in France (1791) and India (1946).