by Geoff Larcom, Published May 18, 2012
YPSILANTI - Mark Higbee, a well-known history professor at Eastern Michigan University, will manage one of the historical reenactment games at the annual National Institute of the Reacting to the Past Consortium, to be held at Barnard College in New York on June 7-10.
"Reacting to the Past," a distinct and engaging method of teaching, involves elaborately designed role-playing games in which students assume historical roles from a famous moment in history, and then pursue the goals of their assigned character - in collaboration with some classmates and in opposition to others.
Higbee will run a game that he created at EMU, called "Frederick Douglass, Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Constitution: 1845." This will be the game's introduction to the national community of Reacting to the Past faculty. Helping him "run" the game at Barnard will be two of Higbee's EMU students, James Tatum and Jessica Howell. A former student, Vinnie Massimino, who graduated in 2011, is making a short film about the game and will be there, too.
Higbee, who has been teaching Reacting to the Past in most of his courses at Eastern since 2006, estimates about 1,000 students have experienced the method through his classes and those taught by other faculty members.
The method was initiated in 1995 by Mark Carnes, a professor of history at Barnard College. In 2010-11, Carnes served as the Thelma McAndless Distinguished Professor at EMU, delivering four special lectures and participating in various events. These McAndless lectures were each based on a draft chapter of a book Carnes is writing, entitled "Mind Games: Rethinking Higher Education."
The Reacting method teaches skills in research, writing, public speaking, and teamwork. Practitioners say it has a proven record of engaging undergraduates in ways that are not common for American university students.
"Students typically enjoy Reacting games very much - it puts them at the center of their classroom," says Higbee. "But Reacting games are academically very demanding - students report that they work harder and learn more in a Reacting class. Jessica and James and Vinnie were especially good students, and I am delighted they are helping to introduce the Douglass game to faculty from around the country."
Reacting is now used at more than 300 American colleges and universities. The games last from two to five weeks and transform students' classroom experience in ways most of them find exciting and worthwhile, yet very demanding.
The Reacting to the Past Consortium sponsors both a national meeting at Barnard, along with several regional faculty conferences throughout the academic year. EMU has held successful regional conferences, in 2009-10 and 2010-11.
The program at the national event will feature two concurrent cycles of game workshops that allow participants to experience two different Reacting to the Past games over the course of the institute. Higbee's Douglass game is one of the 12 games at the conference.
Higbee earned his bachelor's in history at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and then his master's and doctorate at Columbia University. He joined EMU's history faculty in 1994 and is an active member of the EMU and Ypsilanti communities.
He regularly teaches both halves of the American history survey course at EMU, as well as courses in African American history.