Reacting to the Past Wins 2004 Hesburgh Award for Barnard College
Barnard has won the 2004 Hesburgh Award for Reacting to the Past, its innovative first-year seminar program that has been adopted by 11 colleges nationwide. The program engages college students in great texts like Plato's Republicand places them in pivotal historic moments through role-playing. It was viewed as a national model for excellence in undergraduate teaching by nine judges with highly distinguished backgrounds in higher education who reviewed the entries and unanimously selected Reacting to the Past as the winner. Research now shows that Reacting, created by Professor Mark Carnes, produces strong speaking skills and builds empathy for other cultures and peoples.
Established in 1993 by the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equity Fund (TIAA-CREF) to recognize faculty development programs that enhance undergraduate teaching and learning, the Hesburgh Award is named in honor of Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame. It includes a $30,000 cash prize.
Barnard President Judith Shapiro accepted the award at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education in Miami, Florida, joined by Provost Elizabeth Boylan and Professor Carnes. "We are truly honored to accept the Hesburgh Award and proud to be recognized for this creative initiative to help our students more fully understand civilizations and peoples far different from their own," said Shapiro, a cultural anthropologist. "It is exactly this kind of breakthrough that can and should do so much to renew our fractured world." She added: "Through his brilliant and innovative work, Mark Carnes has blazed a new path to help college students engage with classic texts. And the results speak for themselves. Reacting to the Past makes students more sophisticated writers, speakers, and thinkers. Professor Carnes has succeeded beyond our imagining."
"We are proud to honor Barnard College for its innovation in undergraduate teaching and its long tradition of excellence in liberal arts and sciences education for women," said Herbert M. Allison, Jr., Chairman, President and CEO of TIAA-CREF. "Our company's service to higher education affords us the opportunity to recognize the truly innovative work being done on campuses and in classrooms."
The program has expanded from an initial experiment with Athens in the 5th century B.C. to include a broad range of important social-historical contexts from Ming China and colonial New England to the dawn of independence in India. Barnard breathed new life into its first-year seminar program and helped 11 other colleges and universities to do so in the last two years through Reacting by placing students "in the moment" of history and engaging them in enthusiastic debate on the ideas of great figures like Socrates, Rousseau, Gandhi and Galileo. The 12 colleges and universities that offer Reacting have formed a consortium to share ideas and results. The program has received substantial funding from the Fund For the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) of the U.S. Department of Education. A study supported by FIPSE found that students who took Reacting to the Past classes acquired stronger speaking skills and were more empathic with different cultures and peoples than those in control groups.
Discouraged that first-year students seemed bored and put-off by the conventional Socratic approach to teaching Plato's Republic, Carnes gathered students in 1996 to find out why. He determined that it wasn't the material itself that chafed but student anxiety over saying something foolish or inappropriate. "Students knew that my knowledge of Plato exceeded theirs and their disinterest was really masking a fear of revealing the insufficiency of their understanding," he said. Students were even more anxious, he said, about the reactions and responses of their peers. Reacting to the Past changed this by appealing to students' imagination, and at the same time, challenging them emotionally and intellectually.
"Instead of being callow novices who feel inferior to their Socratic inquisitor, namely the professor, students assume the roles of powerful adults: mighty emperors, influential scholars, religious zealots," Carnes said. "The classroom gains an astonishing intensity that spills into the dorms after class."
Although role-playing is not new to higher education, especially in political science and government classes (exercises such as the following are common: "It is 1962. You are the president and you have been told that the Soviet Union has sneaked nuclear missiles into Cuba"), Carnes pushed the concept in a new direction at Barnard, where he is Ann Whitney Olin Professor of History, alongside his position as General Editor of the American National Biography.
Carnes introduced the program with an elaborate role-playing "game" set in Athens in 403 B.C. following its defeat after the Peloponnesian War. Students are assigned months-long roles as democrats, oligarchs, and Socratics and support the classroom role-playing with readings from classic texts outside class. In the classroom, the professor intervenes only to clarify the rules.
Five more "games" have been added: Confucianism and the Succession of the Wanli Emperor, 1587 A.D.; The Trial of Anne Hutchinson, a Puritan spiritual leader in colonial Boston; Rousseau, Burke and Revolution in France, 1791; the Trial of Galileo, and Gandhi and the Indian Subcontinent on the Eve of Independence. The text and materials will be published by Longman this spring.
Additional programs are under development, including Patriots and Loyalists in New York City during the American Revolution, the crisis of Henry VIII: 1529-1536, and Evolution and the Kansas Board of Education, 1999. Professors and administrators from other colleges have learned about Reacting and played mini-versions of the games themselves at conferences run by Barnard students who are veterans of the program. The Reacting consortium includes Trinity College (Connecticut); Loras and Dordt Colleges and Drake University (Iowa); the University of Georgia; Smith College (Massachusetts); Queens College, Pace University, Queensborough and Westchester Community Colleges (New York), and the University of Texas at Austin.
The next conferences will be held at the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., from April 29-May 2, and then at Barnard from June 14-17.#