From Chaos to Compromise

First Year Seminar simulation challenges students to React to the Past

By Juliann Guiffre

Athens has been defeated by the powerful Sparta. The appointed 30 tyrants have been expelled and democracy restored. The Athenians are left to rebuild their society from the ground up. It’s 403 B.C., and the people of Athens are starting over.

No, wait; it’s not 403 B.C. It’s 2007, and the arguing Athenians are actually McDaniel freshmen, playing one of the most interactive games ever to grace a classroom. It’s Dr. Gretchen McKay’s new freshmen seminar, titled “From Chaos to Compromise: Important Moments in History,” and one Tuesday morning, the students gathered in their very first Athenian assembly.

McKay, of the art and art history departments, modeled her class off a national pedagogy (way of teaching) started by Mark Carnes, a history professor at Barnard College of New York. Twelve years ago Carnes was leading a first year seminar. They were discussing classic novels such as Plato’s Republic and the Analects of Confucius, yet he quickly realized something was wrong.

“The students were energetic and smart,” Carnes explained, “and these works were among the masterpieces of the human imagination. Yet I was bored; they were bored.”

He then conducted interviews with each of his students and learned that this was because they thought the books to be “abstract intellectual tasks- something they would be required to do before they did what they wanted to do.”

After this, Carnes decided to make some changes to decrease his role in teaching and put the texts in their respective historical contexts.

This led to the idea of interactive games as classes, forming a program called Reacting to the Past.

“The games became more complex…student involvement and enthusiasm increased…then word spread,” said Carnes. The game started to attract professors on different campuses, who took the game and put their own creative spin on it.

“McDaniel is such a group,” said Carnes, “and they have already devised interesting concepts that promise to push Reacting in more new directions.”

McKay explored the idea at a conference in 2006, where she played both the Athens and Darwin games. She said she “came away convinced that this was something [McDaniel] needed to try.”

In her new freshman seminar, the students are divided into four factions- Radical Democrats, Moderate Democrats, Oligarchs, and Socratics. Each faction has its own motivations and legislations it would like passed during the assembly.

However, curve balls are thrown in as well. Indeterminates are built into each game, who are not a member of any faction. They have their own secret objectives for wanting legislation to pass, and each faction must get these “swing votes” to side with them. The end of the class culminates in the trial of Socrates, and the faction with the most legislation passed wins.

The students will still read Plato’s Republic, but now they will be reading from an entirely different perspective–one of the doer, not the observer.

Freshman Andrew Rausch sees this class giving him more confidence in public speaking. “I’m a Socratic, and their ideals reflect many of my own which makes it easier to argue their points,” he said.

Factions write an essay each week for the assembly, which “gives me a chance to fine tune my writing before I get into the full swing of college,” said Rausch.

McKay was particularly struck by one undergrad at the conference, to whom the game had given a whole new perspective.

“He said that he learned that history did not have to happen the way it did. If someone would have made a certain speech or took action it could have changed everything. It made him realize he needed to get involved in politics, because anyone can make a difference,” McKay said.