Innovative UAB Course Gives Students Roles of a Lifetime
By Tyler Greer
Andrew Keitt (right) encourages students to play active roles in history's great debates.
What thoughts raced through Galileo’s mind when he first trained his telescope skyward and saw the craters of the moon? How did he, a devout Catholic, feel when his insistence that the Earth revolves around the Sun brought him into direct conflict with the Church? And just what was it about that hypothesis that troubled church leaders so deeply?
UAB historian Andrew Keitt, Ph.D., knows the answers to these questions. And it would be easy for him to stand up in front of his classroom and share them in a standard lecture. But for the past several semesters, Keitt has been experimenting with a different way of teaching—a form of time travel called Reacting to the Past, in which students live ideas, rather than memorize them.
“I think anybody who has tried to teach important, difficult texts has run up against the problem of students who might be very bright, but really are afraid of looking foolish in front of their peers,” says Keitt. Getting an engaged discussion started in most classrooms is like “pulling teeth,” he adds. But “all of that dissipates when you give students a role to play. They’re willing to take chances and voice opinions they wouldn’t otherwise.”
Reacting to the Past games divide classes into factions, with each group of students assigned to argue one aspect of a historic controversy and the other half taking up the opposing view. Each student is assigned a specific role—a famous philosopher, scientist, or theologian perhaps. To make their cases, they must devour a lengthy reading list in search of compelling evidence that will sway their classmates, who sit in judgment.
Students typically run Reacting to the Past courses, with Keitt acting more as a “guide on the side” than the traditional “sage on the stage,” advising students and grading their oral and written work. Period touches help set the mood. In the Reacting to the Past game “Charles Darwin, the Copely Medal, and the Rise of Naturalism, 1862-1864,” Keitt’s students start each session with a class-wide rendition of “God Save the Queen.”
When the singing ends, the harmony tends to disappear. Reacting to the Past games extend over several weeks and are often punctuated by intense debates. In one recent session, the topic was Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and the nature of science. During Darwin’s time, controversy erupted about whether Britain’s Royal Society should have awarded him its Copley Medal—the Nobel Prize of its day—in November 1864, almost five years after The Origin of the Species was published. Some of Darwin’s peers were in favor; others, thinking that he had deserted the true method of inductive reasoning, were opposed. Mirroring the historical reality, the students in Keitt’s class were assigned positions on both sides of the debate.
“The great thing about this class is it thrusts you into taking a position,” says UAB senior David Palmore. “Even if it’s not necessarily a role or character you personally align yourself with in your own life, it gives you a chance to get involved in the material. You have to know the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses just as well as your own.”
Persuasion, Gentle and Not
Palmore, playing the role of a Royal Society member, was supposed to convince his peers that inductive reasoning is superior to deductive reasoning. Induction, he argued, gives the best, most reliable scientific results. There was more riding on Palmore’s argument than public opinion—the skill with which he made his case counted significantly toward his final grade.
Fellow classroom philosophers have the opportunity to challenge presenters to defend their positions. Several took the opportunity to dispute Palmore, but he was up to the task, maintaining a calm demeanor and answering questions concisely and with authority. Not every student gets off so easily, Keitt notes.
“When I ask questions I try to be nice, but students can be brutal to one another,” he says. “It’s nothing personal. It’s characters going up against each other. But if someone comes with an argument that’s not well supported, he or she gets slapped down really quick. It’s all in fun though, and once students revert to their real identities we all have a good laugh.”
Students enjoy the change from more traditional teaching methods, and so does Keitt. “The shift in the class structure changes the way you relate with students,” he says. “In this format, we tend to be more collaborative. I can coach them: ‘If they (the opposition) come at you from this angle, maybe you should read this and you can come back at them from this angle.’ As a faculty member, I’m benefiting, too. I’ve learned things about Darwin that I’m not sure I would have otherwise.”
A good indicator of successful teaching is seeing students carry on a discussion outside the classroom, says Keitt. And students playing the “Disenchantment of the World” game this past spring did just that, continuing the debates on their own time on online discussion boards. “A good portion of the game is based on persuasion and strategizing,” he says. “The students plotted strategies, and I would eavesdrop on those. You see the work they do and the thinking through the issues that takes place throughout the classroom.”
Although Reacting games are set in the past, Keitt notes that they are not restricted to history. Each involves multiple academic disciplines; for example, biology, anthropology, and history all converge in the Darwin game.
Last fall, Keitt also used the Reacting to the Past format in his course “From Reformation to Revolution,” one of UAB’s innovative new Freshman Learning Community offerings. Students explored the crucial turning points in the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution—two of the most influential events in the history of Western civilization.
In the future, Keitt hopes to recruit a group of professors from different disciplines to collaborate with him in offering multiple sections of the same game. Toward that end, the Department of History hosted a hands-on workshop this spring that attracted both UAB faculty and instructors from other colleges and universities across the country. Participants played an abbreviated version of a Reacting game, and a panel of experts helped to craft a new one with a local angle, “The Struggle for Civil Rights: From Birmingham to Memphis, 1963-66.”
“I think it’s great for general education applications,” says Keitt. “It gets students and faculty really involved.”