Do your students sometimes settle for a superficial understanding of your course course content? Role-playing activities can provide an opportunity for students to become more fully immersed in the academic dialog of your discipline. In this episode, Jill Peterfeso joins us discuss a variety of role-playing activities that can be implemented into a single class session or over a more extended period of time. Jill is an Assistant Professor in and the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Guilford College.
- Reacting to the Past
- Center for Principled Problem Solving at Guilford College
- Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Religion and Theology
- Carnes, M. C. (2014). Minds on fire: How role-immersion games transform college. Harvard University Press.
John: Do your students sometimes settle for a superficial understanding of your course course content? Role-playing activities can provide an opportunity for students to become more fully immersed in the academic dialog of your discipline. In this episode, we’ll discuss a variety of role-playing activities that can be implemented into a single class session or over a more extended period of time.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.
Rebecca: Our guest today is Jill Peterfeso, assistant professor in and the chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Guilford College. Welcome, Jill.
John: Welcome, Jill.
Jill: Hi, nice to be here.
John: Our teas today are…
Jill: I am drinking candy cane tea; it’s a black tea. If you like peppermint tea, this takes it up a notch with even more sweetness. It’s really delicious.
John: What brand is that?
Rebecca: That sounds right up John’s alley, actually.
Jill: Oh really? For Christmas a couple years ago I asked for some and my parents are like, “Oh, what size?” And I was like, “You know what? I don’t know. A pound.” Well, you know how much a pound of tea is? [LAUGHTER] So I have enough to last me like a decade.
John: I had a mix of tea where it was peppermint, spearmint and tarragon and I got a pound of peppermint, a pound of spearmint and a pound of tarragon.
Jill: My gosh. [LAUGHTER] Yeah.
Rebecca: Speaking of lifetime supplies. I have English afternoon.
John: And I have blueberry green tea. We invited you here to talk a bit about how you’ve been using role-play in your classes. Could you give us some examples of what you’ve been doing with this and in what context?
Jill: Yeah, absolutely. This idea of working with role-play comes from my own interest as a theatre person in high school and college and even into my adult years and also just this memory I have of doing theatre where stepping into the role of another person opens up your mind in really different ways. I’ve devised a number of different things that I do in the class, sometimes borrowing from others, sometimes doing completely experimental assignments. So, I think that it’s sort of three different levels of immersion into role-play. A level one thing, for instance, might be I use dialog tests where I have students imagine dialogues. For instance, historical figures John Winthrop and Anne Hutchinson are having a conversation about conversion… what do they say to one another? And so instead of writing an essay on the thesis of conversion in Puritan New England, I have students imagine a conversation between these two historical actors. So, that would be an example of something that’s level one. Something that’s more level two… I often invite students to take on the voices and the ideas of authors, theologians and theorists that we’re studying. For instance, I teach an upper-level Holocaust class where we often read a lot of excerpts from very dense critical theory, for instance. I will assign students to different authors we’ve read… someone will get Habermas, someone will get Adorno, et cetera, et cetera, and then we come together in a colloquium setting and they need to speak in the discussion as that “author” or that character… and then sort of the deeper level of immersion would be something like reacting to the past, which is a very well established pedagogical role-play method in historical game that comes out of Barnard College and about 20 years old now—is developed by history professor named Mark Carnes—and in that students literally are assigned historical characters and then they play out some event from the past. Games that I have used in my classes include the Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, Anne Hutchinson (who I mentioned earlier), the Council of Nicaea; I’ve done those in my classes, but they have them for all sorts of disciplines in all different time periods. So, that one, it’s several days. Students give speeches and form teams and do some politicking behind the scenes to come together and play their characters in order to see, like, literally playing with history.
John: In that second level of role-play, when they’re in the role of characters do you have students discuss contemporary issues or issues of the historical period?
Jill: When they are speaking as theorists or authors then I have them sort of in the secondary source mode so that they are speaking as contemporaries, even if it’s an Adorno or Habermas —who weren’t so much contemporary for us anymore—they’re still able to speak about contemporary issues. If we’re talking about Holocaust Studies, for instance, they are able to bring some of that to bear on whatever is happening here and now. I do something similar in a feminist theologies class where we read various feminist theologians over the course of the semester and one student is assigned a theologian each semester, one student per one theologian, and when we discuss that theologian the student speaks not as a student but as the theologian. So, it’s this extra meta-level that they that one student wears in this one moment or I should say in this one class period and what that lets them do is have this dexterity where they are connecting the text that they have a certain intimacy with as the “author” but then they’re also able to connect with their classmates who might be bringing up some of these different issues, like how this reading in feminist theology might connect to some of the reproductive issues that are going on now in politics or issues around concern for the planet, et cetera, et cetera. Really to your question, John, the way I see it, especially in that second level, is a hinging where they’re able to sort of pivot between the creation of the text and the application of the text and that’s one of the nice things about it because it keeps them again hinged where they’re connected to both parts and they’re aware of the fact that they’re swiveling, if that makes some sense.
John: It does. It sounds like they’re making some really deep connections.
John: It’s a form in a sense of peer instruction.
Jill: Absolutely, yeah, thank you. That’s one of the things that I try to get them to do with role-play… with other activities I do in the class… but the role-play specifically… is to get students to realize that they can be instructors of their peers and just as successfully as I could be in some instances. It lets them feel that they are experts in what they are speaking on. That is ideally very empowering, but it also gives them—and I found this constantly with role-play, and this is something your audience might find interesting—is that when students are wearing a “mask” of someone else’s ideas or someone else’s character, they are much more willing to be directive with their peers and sort of challenge their peers if their peers are not thinking very critically or very clearly… and I’ve heard this from my students for the theologian activity in feminist theology… they get more annoyed if their classmates are not really stepping up and not really engaging “their ideas.” So, they’re able to say, “Well, wait a second, that’s not what I wrote. Look at the bottom of page 36…” and yet it works because no one really feels attacked by someone playing the persona of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. So, it works really nicely because that framing… that mask… however you want to think about it… creates the opportunity to step into a liminal space where it’s a little safer to push those boundaries, and students tend to do that and that allows them to do that peer instruction even more so than they would otherwise. I don’t think they think of it that way until after when I have them reflect, then they’re like, “Oh, yeah, I felt more defensive of these ideas and I also felt like I knew where they were coming from.” There was a material, historical context that gave rise to the need for me to write this theology or me to write this theory and they felt that attachment to it. To hear them say that I’m like, “Yes, that’s exactly what I would hope would happen.” As somebody who’s done acting and done theater, that’s the best part for me, immersing yourself empathetically in another experience and so it seems to work for students intellectually in a scholarly way.
Rebecca: …seems really powerful, but I can imagine that telling your students that they’re gonna role-play could be really intimidating. So, how do you prepare students for that experience?
Jill: Yeah, this is one of these things that I’m constantly trying to get better about. I tell them early and often. Whoever signs up for early on—so, again, right now I’m thinking about the feminist theology class where they have to step into and embody these ideas one at a time over the course of the semester—what I do is try to get some of my stronger students who might know me or have done this before in other classes to go first and I make sure to give them a special amount of direction and leeway and then after one or two students will go I will do a reflection like a stop, okay, what’s working. Students who are not doing this but were in the classroom discussion with the theologian, what are you noticing? And students who did this, what advice do you have for others? So, then again, the peers become the instructor. When it comes to other things, I mentioned earlier in my Holocaust class, and we do this sometimes in feminist theology, we do this in my Jesus in Film and Pop Culture class, where we really will be in a circle discussion and I mostly teach seminar. Disclaimer: most of my classes are 10 to 25 students, so this works really nicely. We’ll be in a circle and we’ll be looking at each other and channeling historians and scholars of the historical Jesus or Holocaust theory around memory studies. We might get into it and I’ll need to stop and say, “Okay, I want to pause. I noticed some of you are not speaking in the first person. Remember, I want you to be speaking as you’re scholar. Some of you are doing a really nice job with this, but I don’t hear you using quotes from the text, so remember the text is your foundation. The text is what gives you a platform. You don’t have to make up everything. You are using the text as a springboard to merge with your own ideas.” Constantly of doing that, modeling some of it for students as well and then affirming them. I think this all ultimately plays to where the majority of students get it at some point. But, Rebecca, I will tell you, I mean, you’re right. Some students never really get into this. They think it’s too strange or it’s too uncomfortable, or they’re really good students in the traditional way of doing things and they don’t think that this is something that they need or is helpful. That’s fine; not everything is going to work for everybody. What I love about some of these different liminal activities is that they will reach students who otherwise would feel that they can’t step into discussion in the traditional way because they don’t think they’re good at it, but giving them this additional costume of intellectual ideas to wear is liberating for some students, and that’s enough for me to do it once or twice a semester in some classes because it’s gonna invite in people who might not feel invited another way.
John: How long do these activities run? Is it a one day thing or multiple days?
Jill: It all depends again on which activities. When I do the symposia type models where we’re all together that’s usually at the lowest… it would be our 75 minute classes; sometimes I do it in our three hour classes, then it’s more about two and a half hours with a break in between. I’m getting ready to do one of these symposia in my Catholicism course and we’re gonna do it over two 75-minute classes, totaled about two and a half hours. What that does… and this ties to your question, John… what that does is it allows me to not be anxious that, “Oh my gosh, we have so much to cover and we’re not doing it,” and it really pushes me to the side, which is another key issue with this role-play is I as the professor in an ideal world create the settings, create the condition, give the instruction and then get the heck out of their way and let them stumble a little bit, let them struggle with some silence, let them look awkwardly at each other, let them look pleadingly at me but then turn to each other and realize, “okay, this has got to be us.” I encourage folks who want to try these sorts of things to give time because just investing in time means you’re gonna let the silence happen. Some things are much longer, so reacting to the past, for instance, which I’ve been playing with for the past year or more, that’s several weeks. We did the Anne Hutchinson game in my Religion in the U.S. class just last month and that was five 75-minute days and we’re gearing up for the Frederick Douglass game that starts next week. That’s gonna be six days. So, six days of game playing and then prep on the beginning and prep at the end. Doing that role-play meant completely redoing my syllabus for that course. There were reasons that that made sense given my teaching condition for that class, which I can get into if you’re interested, but that was a real total revamping. Everything from little bits to larger bits, depending on what you’re willing to invest in and what you’re looking to do with your students, what kinds of skills you’re trying to emphasize.
Rebecca: Jill, for someone who doesn’t have a background in theater, but…
Rebecca: …might find this to be a really interesting idea, what would you advise them to look at or how to start or an activity that they might do the first time out to just get their feet wet?
Jill: Reacting to the Past is a premade pedagogy. There are so many games I would recommend anyone who’s listening to this and thinking that sounds interesting to go to their website ‘cause those folks who run the Reacting Consortium will help you and there are so many games. I go to Reacting as a theater person who’s like, “Oh, won’t it be great if we all just sort of immerse ourselves in these characters of this historical moment and then give speeches as these characters,” this is like Jill in high school who did murder mystery weekends with her friend, like it’s getting these characters in and improving dialogue and a relationship and it’s just so fun, but that’s what gets me stuck on Reacting. A lot of folks who do Reacting are more gamers, they like that there are victory conditions and points for winning, or they’re historians who like this different way of doing history. That’s just my hook, but that’s not everybody’s hook. There are plenty of people I’ve met in the Reacting world who would never have thought of themselves as “a theater person.” So, I think that’s a safe one. Reacting has games as short as a day, as long as ten days. It’s good because it’s pre-made and you can go to conferences where you get to play some of the games, so that’s a good place to start. As far as some of the smaller ones, I think a safe and fun place to begin if you’re intrigued by this idea would be the dialogue assignments or the dialogue tests, sort of like I alluded to earlier, inviting students to put authors in conversation with each other… maybe across historical moments… maybe across religious traditions, in my case… maybe inserting themselves as a student into the conversation. And why is this valuable? Well, because when we want academic writing to happen, ideally students are putting different ideas “in conversation with one another”—juxtaposing different ideas—and so with these dialogue tests they were like literally doing that in a dialogue format as opposed to just writing a traditional paper where they may not be so aware that that’s what they’re doing. So… something very meta about all of this role-play stuff where they are with me—with the professor—the students are aware that they are trying on a different voice and that often for students makes something click. This is a different way of engaging. By the end of going through the process they’re like, “Oh, yeah, like I’ve made these discoveries that I didn’t think I would have permission to make otherwise.” Again, it gives them a permission to see and do something differently.
John: Could you tell us a little bit about the two reacting to the past scenarios that you’re running… in terms of what the main issues are that the students will be addressing?
Jill: The first one is the Anne Hutchinson game, which Anne Hutchinson was a Puritan woman… 1630s… Massachusetts Bay Colony… shows up… John Winthrop is the governor and they’re there to be the city on a hill to show the world this is what a true God-dedicated colony should look like; they’re gonna turn the eyes of the world to them and everything’s going to flow smoothly, and yet things start happening and people start getting religious ideas that aren’t quite in line with the orthodox and Anne Hutchinson is one of them… and she’s this woman… she’s a midwife… she starts having prayer meetings in her own home and, come to find out, that she’s having these visions and hearing these voices coming from the Bible and she believes God is speaking to her. And so doing she’s shifting the theology of the colony and people are starting to listen to her—that makes her dangerous. So this whole trial happened in the 1630s in Puritan, New England, and she is ultimately kicked out of the colony. The game scenario that we play in Reacting to the Past—again, I did not write this; I borrow it, I adapt it—much credit to the authors of the game. This game’s been running for many years. What happens is it’s this counterfactual where we imagine that there’s a second trial; she’s been banished but we’re gonna give her another try. What happens is you have the faction that is against Anne Hutchinson and then you have the faction that is Pro-Anne Hutchinson and then you have these indeterminate—this is a pretty standard format for reacting: you get one side, another side, and these indeterminates. The indeterminates are the ones you need to persuade; basically we have about three or four days of debate among these different groups trying to figure out what did she do wrong and do we want to let her back in, and the indeterminates are these immigrants who are arriving from England who want to get in the church. Before they can vote on Anne Hutchinson, they have to get into the church. So, they have their own objective of getting in but once they’re in both sides want these new immigrants to vote with them. It becomes this very fun game and what happens—this happened in my class just last month—a lot of students find themselves making arguments that they don’t agree with. They will step outside of class and say to me like, “I do not agree with what I’m saying; I can’t believe I’m arguing that Anne Hutchinson shouldn’t be speaking because she’s a woman. I believe that women have rights and should be able to have religious ideas and speak to men” and I’m like, “Yes, but you’re in a different historical context, so you need to be able to separate yourself from that.” I love—and I don’t say to students—I love that you’re trying to hold in tension what you think and feel with what you say and isn’t that how we sometimes have to act in the world? They did a really lovely job with that this semester. So, that’s the Anne Hutchinson game. The one we’re launching next week is the Frederick Douglass game which takes place in 1845. Abolitionism is really coming to its own as the political force. Slave owners are getting even more anxious and holding on to their power and the country is really in turmoil, specifically around the publication of the new autobiography by a man named Frederick Douglass. In this game there are even more historical characters—we have students who are about to be assigned the roles of John C. Calhoun and Senator Henry Clay and William Lloyd Garrison and Sojourner Truth and Angelina Grimké and they’re gonna go at it around issues of slavery, what the Constitution does and doesn’t allow about slavery and there will be indeterminates as well who can see the wisdom in both sides. They may not like slavery but is it politically advantageous to go against it at this point? This is a controversial game in some context, as you can imagine, because there will be students playing slave owners, there will be students playing former slaves, so you have to tread really carefully. That’s another thing with role-play, depending on your institutional context and who your students are, you do have to be careful as you ask students to step into roles that are not their own identities, but, again, that takes a lot of prep upfront. I think it can be done, you just have to be delicate with it. So with Frederick Douglass, for instance—I mean, who’s going to be John C. Calhoun? He was one of the biggest, baddest, most racist (by our terms) slave owners in the 19th century. Well, I’ve sold him this way to students. They’re gonna get input on the characters and I have an African American male in the class who said, “I want to play that part; that’s a part that I want,” and in fact when I did this last spring I had an African American male who wanted that part. I talked to them and I say, “are you sure? Why do you want this? And that’s awesome.” They say “I want to understand where they’re coming from, because that’s the worst thinking I can imagine and I want to know more about it.” So my student who did it last spring came to class in costume every single day as John C. Calhoun. I have pictures of the students wearing this wig and invariably he also wore some symbol of Africa on his person, like a shirt or a medallion around his neck. It was great what he was doing… how he was showing resistance to these messages that he was speaking in class—I mean, it was actually deeply profound. It also liberated other students to argue in the voices of pro-slavery advocates to have students of color in the class be willing to do that work too, and frequently at the end of classes—again, Frederick Douglass was about six days—like we would stop maybe five minutes early; I don’t know that the Reacting people would approve of us, but we’d stop and say, “Okay, this is getting heavy—how can we support one another around some of these really difficult conversations? How can we continue to support the pro-slavery students in the class…” because what would happen is the indeterminates in the Frederick Douglass game would just be like, “Oh, well slavery is bad; I know it’s bad ‘cause it’s 2018, slavery’s bad”—we just kept having to note that’s not where you are, but the water in which you swim as a mid-19th century fish is one in which slavery’s just accepted. You can’t don your 21st century hat and argue from that way. So, that’s also part of the learning objective. I think it’s probably clear that student collaboration is a big part of this… students having to work together in teams, having to come together around strategies and how to make an argument and who to target on the other team to try to turn their mind around.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the prep work before any of these role-playing instances? Clearly there needs to be some groundwork laid before you have a whole class period dedicated to any of these activities that you’re talking about.
Jill: Yeah, definitely. Letting them know in advance it’s coming is a big one. With Reacting it’s on the syllabus. I send out the syllabus about two or three weeks before the semester starts and I’m always like, “Hey, this is coming, so please look at this two-page document I’m sending you about what this entails; if this sounds great to you, wonderful; if it sounds miserable, let’s talk, because I don’t want you to be immersed in something that’s really unpleasant.” With the symposia that we do that’s a heads up in advance on the syllabus and then a constant reminder going into it—I tend to tell them within the days before to start making notes as you’re reading—read with the intent of thinking about how you would talk as this theorist. How would you channel these ideas? …and I also always for the symposia start class, ‘cause usually I can’t just have like one student as one person because they’re too many students, so I usually have two teams, like so there’s the Adorno team, whatever. What then happens is I give them about ten minutes to start, just to work together, to come, to brainstorm some ideas and maybe pull some quotes from the reading, also to prepare questions—that’s always the other thing, so it’s not just what are you going to say, but what are you going to ask of one another to keep the conversation going. Part of being in discussion is knowing how to ask questions and when to ask questions. Also encouraging them to draw connections between what different groups are saying—I never want the role-play to be an opportunity for every group to grandstand and then pass the torch to another group of grandstanders who aren’t really making connection. How does that work with role-play? That… either I’ve been modeling that all semester or I haven’t, but something I consciously do in class, I try to tell students, you know, when we’re building on each other’s comments let’s not change the subject without trying to bring in what has come before; if you’re going to change the subject, announce it and explain why you’re changing the subject. That’s part of the modeling that I try to do really consciously throughout the semester so that students get in the groove of how to have a conversation and then these other things just sort of kick it up several notches where then I’m more out of the way and they are hopefully building on tools they’ve been given and are ready to run with it.
Rebecca: You mentioned reflections earlier; can you talk about what that reflection process looks like in a little more detail?
Jill: Yeah, for the Reacting games, a whole day of debrief is built in; that’s one of the things that the Reacting people are pretty insistent on and I do not disagree with them. That tends to be a “Hey student, we just did this whole several days of this historical event. We changed history a little bit because in history this would not have happened and this would not have happened, so here’s what really happened and here’s why.” The debrief is very important for connecting back to larger class theme because, again, when you are sort of stepping outside of normal classroom behavior for a while it’s good to remind students as they gently re-enter why you’ve done what you’ve done and how it connects to these larger class themes, and that’s what the debrief is able to do. So, what you called reflection, Rebecca, I think of also as a debriefing. I also always have students write about these experiences. With Reacting they write a couple paragraphs reflection; I give them some very directed questions. After we did Anne Hutchinson, for instance, in my 101 class, I said, “What did you do well and what are you going to do better next time? Because we have Frederick Douglass coming up in a month.” …and then I share those with the students, like, “Okay, your classmates are really proud of how you all did this and here are the requests that people have for the class going forward. Many of you would like your classmates to prepare better; many of you would like your classmates to show up on time so you’re ready to give your speech; many of you would like your classmates to put more effort into writing your speeches and then delivering them with more confidence and poise.” In this way I don’t become that naggy teacher saying, “Okay, remember, we watched videos on public speaking before you delivered your speeches, but you are still not standing with much confidence and you are still reading from your paper.” Then it becomes the students doing it. Again, it goes back to John’s point before about peer instruction—the self or peer critique—and students don’t want to look foolish in front of their peers, so that sort of ups the ante there. With, for instance, the be the theologian assignment, and even the dialogue test, I always either give a journal assignment or even at the end of a dialogue test on a test say, “Okay, in three or four sentences what did you learn writing this as a dialogue that’s different from writing it as an essay? Or you’ve just performed the role in class of Mary Daly in feminist theology. What did you learn from being Mary Daly that’s different from you as Caitlyn talking about Mary Daly.” So, I think reflection is always such an important part of putting the lid on the assignment, really making it a full, complete thing so that it’s not that weird thing we did once in class but something that “Oh, like giving them the opportunity to make their own connections.” That’s why creating conditions for them to make discoveries for themselves and the reflection is sort of the last chance to do that and I don’t squander that opportunity. So, I think asking those questions and giving them space to reflect is really key.
John: There’s a lot of research that certainly supports that. Sounds like a great collection of activities. You mentioned of some concerns that students have. But, in general, how have students responded to these activities?
Jill: Yeah, a range of things. Some students, I will admit, seem confused. I’m thinking about the last time I did the be the theologian activity—I would say like the first month of class students were like, “What are we doing? Why are we doing this?” And I was trying to be patient and then I’m like, “What have I not been clear about?” And at some point it clicked and it seems to happen with role-play: at some point it clicked and it usually comes with one or two students and then like a lightbulb goes off and they get it and then everyone starts to get it. So I will say for anybody who’s thinking about these things or any creative pedagogy really from my experience: do it more than once, because the first time might not work, but that doesn’t mean that the pedagogy is not right; it might just mean that students are gonna need a little more time. Some students really thrive in it; they feel—I’ve talked about this earlier—they feel free to do college in a way that they haven’t felt free before and that’s really awesome to see because some of these are students who don’t speak. With Reacting, for instance, sometimes I’ve been in class with these students for a month or two months and suddenly we do this different thing and they just come to life and it’s really exciting. You get to see a different part of their personality. What is also exciting is how they then carry some of what they learned and some of the collaborative work that they did into future things like, “Oh, we really work together on this one game that we did, like maybe we can do our group project together at the end.” They respond really interestingly in that way. What I love is when I see then in their written work going forward how they make allusions to the role-play, even if it’s indirect. They start using some of the language and some of the teaching tools and some of the terms, it’s like they actually got it. So, it’s a real range. I’ve had some of my very best students not love it, but, yeah, I think those are the students who you pull aside and you talk to them about why because you can usually show them why you’re doing this pedagogy and why you’re doing something so different and they tend to have some really interesting ideas too, ultimately, and then they can sometimes help you reframe things. One of the things with this role-play stuff that I’ve been working on the past few years is I try to be creative but also humble. I’m not afraid—I try to not be afraid when students have critiques and suggestions ‘cause often they have some of the best ideas. They’re the ones who are doing it and so I invite them to do it; I think that goes to the reflection part that Rebecca had asked about earlier. Sometimes reflection means how would we do this differently? How can we do this better? …and sometimes that’s not just about students and their peers but also about me and the way the assignment is written.
Rebecca: How have your colleagues responded to what you’ve been doing?
Jill: Oh, good question. I’m fortunate because this year at Guilford we have a Center for Principled Problem Solving and they have faculty fellowships for a year and I was lucky to get one for the 2018-2019 school year focused on this performance and pedagogy stuff and specifically around trying to bring some of these ideas to my faculty colleagues. I should say again, I’m never an evangelist for these kinds of ideas because I think everybody should do them at all; I’m really an evangelist for teachers doing things that they think are cool and might work for their students and, while I’m not trying to force anything on anybody, but I am trying to help some of my colleagues just as they’re helping me to come up with new and creative ways to engage students and engage material and make what we do exciting to us. We’re going through a pretty significant curriculum and schedule revision at Guilford that’s gonna kick off next fall; we’ve got a lot of faculty who are rethinking their courses and course designs and activities and there’s not a small amount of anxiety about this change. So, one of the things I’m saying is, “Hey, this is a good opportunity to do some things that are more experimental and even experiential.” One of the things I did was, with the help of faculty development, brought in a Reacting to the Past Consortium board member who came and did a workshop for faculty development in September, and it was awesome. He was really engaging, gave us a lot to think about, and hopefully he’ll be back in January to do a small Reacting game. Reacting has some micro games that last an hour and a half. I believe some of Guilford faculty are going to go to a regional Reacting workshop in March. So, I’m trying to just invite people in—nobody’s being forced to do anything. I don’t have that kind of power, nor do I want it. I’m just trying to give people some ideas that have worked for me that I think are fun and that students seem to respond to and it helps our students. So, Guilford student population… we have traditional age students. we have very diverse, like ethnically… racially… in terms of class… we have a lot of diversity. We also have an adult population and then we have some high school students that take college students at Guilford in one of the best high schools in the state of North Carolina, so we have so much diversity, so how can we reach everybody? How can we invite everybody to the conversation? And this is one way that’s gotten people to sort of break down their walls. I think my colleagues are—some of them are suspicious and they should be—nobody should listen to this and be like, “Oh, this is brilliant, perfect, like, no, it’s not perfect.” Reacting to the Past is well-established, it’s not perfect. Some of my ideas aren’t perfect, but it’s a starting point and we can keep honing and keep working together to fix some of these ideas and that’s certainly what I’m doing. A lot of this work started with a fellowship I had a couple summers ago with the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Religion and Theology; I got to spend the summer researching performance and pedagogy and that’s where I started to develop a lot of these ideas and some of the folks that run the teaching journal in conjunction with the Wabash Center, it’s called Teaching Theology and Religion—TTR. They’re excited about this; they think it’s worth hearing about so I’m working on an article with them—I’ve already published a few things smaller with them and I’m gonna work on some bigger pieces. There seems to be enthusiasm because I think we’re at a place where we want students to be engaged. The population of students seems to be changing in terms of their preparation for college, what they find interesting, what they’re willing to sit through in class. So, this is just one of many ways to get students trying a new way of learning. I don’t think if everybody did it that it would be awesome; I think it’s fun because they’re gonna remember in five years, “oh, yeah, in Jill Peterfeso’s class we did that really weird thing. It was weird, but it was also really cool.” I’m alright with that, I’m totally okay with that. Yes, I just say also like “I’m not afraid to be a dork about these things” and I think that’s disarming and students respond to that, ‘cause I’m like, “You guys are gonna get to role-play and I don’t get to play, but I get to watch, and do you want invite your friends?” and there at first they’re like, “no” and then by the end of the class, like we did this in the spring with Anne Hutchinson, I said, “So you want to invite like your professors or some of your friends?” and they’re like, “no, no” and then with Frederick Douglass they’re like, “We could invite everybody, like let’s put a message in the college newsletter,” like they got so into it. So, that’s learning and that self confidence and that’s not being afraid of trying new things and that transition over the course of a semester… something’s going on. I haven’t measured it and assessed it yet—don’t tell the administration—but it’s doing something and they’re learning because I read their reflections and what they come up with is pretty profound.
Rebecca: Sounds pretty incredible.
John: It does. I know in my own class I went from having students write papers to have them do a poster session and I asked if they wanted to invite other people and they were thrilled to have people from the department come in and the Dean came over and visited them and they were so much more excited and engaged about it. Small changes can make a big difference.
Jill: Yeah, I think that’s my thing whether you’re doing my level one immersion, level two, level three—those are just my categories—those small changes can mean a lot ‘cause even a little bit of reframing get students’ brains working differently and gets their hearts engage in different ways, so I totally agree with you, John.
Rebecca: I’m just sitting here contemplating how I can add role-playing into my Three Little Pigs exercise.
Jill: Aren’t you already doing it? [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: A little bit, but I’m thinking about how maybe the students can do it more. I usually have someone come in and be the client and role-play the client role in my design class but the students are still acting as designers as humans but maybe they need to be characters in the Three Little Pigs or something for my assignment.
John: Actually, I was thinking of that—our second most popular episode has a title “The Three Little Pigs” and I can imagine all these parents playing it for their kids and finding out that it was really an exercise for a design class. [LAUGHTER]
John: Much of what you’re describing in terms of being in this third party role is exactly the same type of thing, where students are able to see things much more clearly and are able to address issues that they’d be really cautious to approach if they were doing it in their own persona and I can see that connection and the benefits of that.
Rebecca: Somehow it’s just okay to embody that…
Rebecca: …other that they don’t feel connected to and explore and develop empathy and those sorts of things which is pretty powerful but I think the actual acting it out or writing the dialogues would really strengthen some of the things that I was already doing.
Jill: For sure.
John: How did you prepare to introduce this activity?
Jill: When I had my summer fellowship about performance and pedagogy I spent a lot of time doing research, starting to see who’s doing this and where and I was frustrated by the lack of what I could find in humanities classes or in sort of your more traditional classes—you get a lot of great activities coming out of theater classes or some more of the arts classes, but like high school classes or elementary school, like most of the role-play books I was finding were not geared toward college students doing the material that I wanted to do. So, I think there is room still for exploration and creativity here, that’s what I like about this. Reacting to the Past is certainly a place—Mark Carnes who designed it has written this great book called Minds on Fire, which I would recommend to anybody interested in this. There are other books about reacting that really do some pedagogical analysis of student experience in what’s going on. But, I think then within our individual discipline there’s a lot we can still do and I’m trying to think about that for myself as a religious studies scholar. I think there’s got to be stuff with empathy there and belief—I mean it’s really hard for students to try to understand beliefs of religious groups that they don’t subscribe to. This seems to be a way where they can at least intellectually be trying on beliefs of others just as they would an idea and I think that also shifts the location of some of these ideas where students are I find, “okay, I can understand that someone else may have this idea but to think somebody else may have this belief is like not about the head but the heart.” They’re more uncomfortable with that. So, trying to push those ideas of the heart as they see it up into the head, I think, could be really rich and beneficial for them. I’m sort of just riffing as I’m discovering this year but when we were talking about Puritan Theology… this Anne Hutchinson game… I just kept reminding them Puritans were intellectuals. These are highly educated people, so their beliefs weren’t just of an experience of God—it was well researched and reasoned with their relationship with scripture. So, I think there’s got to be some of that too… to think that where our emotions and our motivations come from connects heart and head; there isn’t some bifurcation of the two. I think that might help us as a society moving forward as we think about where some of our ideas and inspirations come from. I hope that what they take from some of these role-plays they’re able to put in other parts of their lives, that’s really the idea, ‘cause it’s more authentic than a classroom environment, this kind of here, I have some ideas and now I’m gonna improv conversation and ask questions and try not to step on toes… that’s life.
Rebecca: Sounds like a lot of interesting research can come out of what you just said. Sounds like you’ve got lots of plans. [LAUGHTER]
Jill: That’s what I’m thinking through right now. I guess that’s hopefully the next paper for the TTR Journal.
John: We always close with the question, what are you going to do next?
Jill: Next… So, I’m currently designing a new class. I alluded earlier to the new schedule that we’re doing, so we’re going to have three-week classes—some three-week classes, some twelve—and one of my three-week classes is going to be a new class called Religion, Voice and Performance, where I’m gonna use one or two Reacting games… we’ll see… in the service of helping students think through some of the things I was just talking about with empathy, compassion, belief, reason, rationality and relief, discovering voice, whether it’s claiming your own voice while speaking for another through Reacting and role-play or whether it’s trying to figure out who you are. I think that’s another beautiful thing about theater and acting is it invites you to figure out who you are while you are dancing around in somebody else’s shoes—that’s one of the things I’m working on now, which hopefully I’ll get to teach next year. Working on this article for Teaching Theology and Religion and I’m getting ready to keep working on these assignments that I’ve designed from the past and keep making them better. There’s always room to improve them, so those are my three things right now… and helping my faculty colleagues, as they may or may not want to try some of this stuff, so four goals.
Rebecca: It’s really exciting work, I’m glad that you were able to share it with us today.
John: Yes, thank you.
Jill: Thank you; thank you for inviting me.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.
John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fischer, Brittany Jones, Gabriella Perez, Joseph Santarelli-Hansen and Dante Perez.