Class starts with a pig sacrifice.
Not literally: pig and goat sacrifices were a ritual part of certain events in 403 BCE Athens, and thus they are one key part of MMC’s “Playing Politics” course. Particularly good sacrifices – pig pinatas, prayers in Greek – can earn students favor from the Gods. The extra boost from Athena can be pivotal for those enrolled in this class taught by Political Science professor Jessica Blatt.
The intricate “games” that make up the course come from Reacting to the Past, a teaching method developed by Dr. Mark Carnes at Barnard College in the late 1990’s. While many college classrooms put professors in control through lectures or as discussion leaders, the Reacting method wrests much of that control from faculty and places it in the laps of students.
Full disclosure: your friendly reporter is currently enrolled in the course. However, it can be difficult to understand just how different this course is until you’re enrolled. The MMC course catalog says the class “consists of elaborate games” taking place over several weeks and asking students to engage with classical social and political theory texts. While it does all of these things, the roughly 100 word description falls short of the reality of the class.
Reacting games exist for a broad swath of historical events like India’s independence and the French Revolution. This semester (and in some previous iterations of the course) the selected games explore burgeoning democratic governance, one in ancient Athens in 403 BCE and another in New York around 1776.
Dr. Blatt discovered the game method through an email, inviting her to help test one of the games. Before the game texts are published widely, they are play-tested to ensure full functionality, often by professors who have either taught the games or who are curious about the method. Factors like MMC’s small classes lend themselves towards the pedagogy.
“It never fails to engage the vast majority of students,” said Dr. Blatt. “Every now and then there’s one or two who just kind of hang back and don’t really get into it, but so much less than any other class I’ve ever taught.”
Jacqueline Manuel originally took the class during Spring 2014. The Political Science/Philosophy double major was intrigued by the course’s mixture of role-play with her academic interests. This semester, she’s serving as Dr. Blatt’s teaching assistant, helping organize and assist in running game sessions. Manuel said witnessing first hand the way the method engaged her fellow classmates made her curious to get involved on the other side.
For students, the course can provide some very new classroom experiences. Students are assigned a role to inhabit through the course of the game. While each person has their own goals and specific assignments to complete, some characters are also organized into faction groups. During class sessions, the students are in character: they propose laws and debate important issues. Outside of class, many students are looking beyond the game texts, studying relevant source materials and planning with other allies in hopes of convincing indeterminate players to vote with them.
The unique format has the power to reveal new sides of common texts. Senior Ariel Kline had encountered Plato’s Republic in the course of her Philosophy major, but discovered new things when using the text as a potential model of governance during the Athens section of Playing Politics.
“You end up being able to trace a line and see why Socrates may have wanted to construct the city the way he did,” said Kline.
“Instead of it being an abstract ideal, you start thinking of it tangibly. Some of this is crazy, but some of this is actually feasible and actually what we have going here today,” Manuel added.
There are also some practical benefits. Giving good, persuasive speeches can be hard, so students have to work on both their writing and public speaking skills. Dr. Blatt said she tends to see very high quality of written work in the class, something she tied to students knowing they would be using their written work as the basis for persuading their classmates.
Teaching the class is also very different for Dr. Blatt. It can be a lot of work: the pace is swift and student questions are often very time sensitive. “You’re not in control,” Blatt explained. “You can’t just play to your strengths.”
In addition, the method requires those teaching within it to balance their concerns. Should historical accuracy be a major concern? How much should students be pushed toward or away from any particular line of argument? Blatt says she thinks about all of these things.
The intense engagement that comes organically from students in class is what truly sets the course apart.
“The hardest thing for me as someone who teaches political philosophy and political thought is to convey to students that these aren’t just neutral exercise in rhetoric. Most political philosophy is meant as a weapon in a battle,” said Blatt. “It’s meant to achieve goals and defeat opponents, to get people to see your way and dissuade people from seeing otherwise. That really comes to life in these games. People are using ideas and not just absorbing them.”
Even amidst the class’s competitive elements students recognize a level of camaraderie to the process. Junior Deanna Beningo said, “Your classmates are going through this new process with you and everyone has been helpful in making the game the best it can be.”
Beningo also recognized the potential for the competitive elements to consume students. “Sometimes you need to step back and remember that it is just a game and the fate of Athens itself does not rest in your hands!”
Many students were already eager to throw themselves into the New York game as the last few sessions of Athens were wrapping up. For Blatt, just watching students embrace the Reacting method can be a powerful experience.
“The other day I was tearing up as [students] were speaking. It’s like I’ve made myself obsolete, and that’s kind of the goal.”