Publication Date

October 1, 2013

Studying history is a creative and imaginative process; as we pour over our sources, we strive to enter the minds of the people we study and understand why the world looked so radically different through their eyes. As teachers, standing at the front of the classroom or sitting around the seminar table, we also encourage our students to take imaginative leaps. But what kinds of assignments best foster skills of historical empathy and understanding? We've found that one way to start exciting yet challenging conversations about our relationships with the past and the present is through student-created fictional historical characters.
A Pedagogical Experiment

In the spring of 2012, the 123 Stanford University freshmen enrolled in a class on 20th-century Europe participated in the Creating Lives project.1 Our objectives were to help students develop the cognitive flexibility to shift perspectives and understand how individuals shape and are shaped by their environments. To this end, we asked students to create two fictional characters: one had to be 18 years old in 1900 and would live until at least 1940; the second had to turn 18 in 1940 and survive until the present day. While students were free to choose their character’s gender, birthplace, ethnicity, religion, occupation, and personality traits, there were two stipulations: the characters could not die prematurely and they could not fundamentally alter the past.2

Students responded by creating a diverse set of characters that included a French soldier who fought in the trenches of World War I, an aristocratic British woman who questioned the gender norms of her time, a Jewish victim of Nazi persecution, and West Berliners who contemplated life beyond the wall.

To prevent students from getting carried away with their characters' personal storylines without grounding them in a historical context, our weekly assignments asked students not only to write a piece of historical fiction in their character's voice (often, but not always, in the form of a diary entry), but also to compose an analytical paragraph. Here, they could take a step back and explain their character's attitudes and actions by referencing readings and lectures. Each week, they posted their 400- to 600­word assignments on the course's blogging website-where they could also read one another's work-before the assignments were graded and returned with written feedback.

Student Assumptions Prior to the Class The Problem with Europe course presents history in a radically different manner than the approach found in many K-12 history books and so could be assumed to present a conceptual challenge for students. On a survey, we asked students to identify their degree of familiarly with various approaches to learning history before they took the class.
Student familiarity with different
conceptualizations of history
Not at all familiar Slightly familiar Somewhat Familiar Moderately familiar Extremely familiar Mean
History was presented as a chronology of events, highlighting cause and effect of previous events to following events. 1 1 5 20 36 4.41
History was presented largely as conflicts between nations or governments/societies. 1 3 12 23 24 4.05
History was presented as memorization of important events, people and dates. 4 5 12 26 16 3.71
History was presented from the perspective of people living through specific time periods, highlighting what everyday life was like. 11 23 12 9 8 2.68

Motivation and Imagination

After working with a character for several weeks, many students became personally invested in their creations. Indeed, almost three-quarters of the students who took part in an end-of-quarter survey said that they sought out additional resources for writing their posts, while more than half reported that they spoke to friends and family about their characters. Some students even posted images on the blog to illustrate their character's everyday experiences. Many reported that they listened more intently to lectures, read the class texts purposefully, and constantly thought about how the materials might inform their character's story.

The best student postings explored the ways in which an individual can be both a product and an agent of history. One week, for instance, we asked students to engage with Sigmund Freud's Dora-a case study of a girl suffering from "hysteria"-by creating a Freudian analysis of their character as well as their character's response to that analysis. Writing about the fictional Charles Weatherby, an English­born aristocrat at the turn of the 20th century, one student explored the reasons behind Charles's rejection of psychoanalysis. While Charles's willingness to discuss sex with Freud was indicative of the "freer attitudes about sex" that the student had learned about in lecture, Charles's denial of his homosexuality both reflected and reinforced the "strict gender roles of the time."

We were also struck by how some students took daring and potentially controversial imaginative leaps, particularly since, asRichard E. Bond pointed out in his article in Perspectives on History (January 2013), students are not always willing to adopt viewpoints that they consider to be fundamentally immoral. By creating the fictional character of Annemarie Schröder, a teenager who had been offered the chance to appear on the cover of a Nazi youth organization’s magazine in the 1930s, one student explored “the ethical dilemmas that women faced in Nazi Germany.” Since students’ attempts to understand how and why ordinary people participated in Nazism took us into dangerous waters, we encouraged students to use the analytical paragraph to distance their own voice from that of their character. Lively debates ensued: Was it really possible-or indeed desirable-to see the world from this viewpoint? As they reflected on their own weekly endeavors, students saw such well­worn questions in a new light.

On Personal Engagement
Survey responses indicated a high level of student involvement in the Creating Lives project.
Use of outside resources and personalization of character Strongly disagree Disagree Neither Agree nor Disagree Agree Strongly Agree Mean
I used additional resources to class lecture and readings to complete my weekly writing assignment. 4 6 5 18 22 3.87
I incorporated into my character some of my own personal interests, research interests, or family history 6 7 9 18 15 3.53
I talked about my character outside of the classroom (e.g. with friends, family) 6 8 7 24 10 3.44

Learning about Ourselves

Students' Responses to the Assignment "I felt that the weekly journal assignments gave me a way to synthesize the information we learned in class in a whole new way. My understanding of the material greatly benefited from the journal assignment."
“I feel like this project definitely helps people become more empathetic, since you are legitimately trying to see the world the way someone else would, even if it’s just a person you made up.””I found it interesting to develop ideas from a point of view that isn’t my own and to sympathize with views very different from my own. And I didn’t necessarily like them because I wanted to make them more human by giving them character flaws, where most of the time in real life those flaws are a little more invisible. However, in both cases I found that I could be empathetic to my character and why they made certain decisions, even if I think they made them poorly.”

The novel nature of the assignment created several challenges. Student responses to the end­of­quarter survey indicated that we needed to be even more explicit about the skills that we wanted students to develop, the wider applicability of those skills beyond this particular class, and the importance of destabilizing students' assumptions that studying history involved the memorization of important events, people, and dates. Notably, some students failed to gain a sufficiently deep understanding of the context, erroneously filling in the gaps with their own personal assumptions that had little grounding in historical reality. For instance, it was not unusual for students to create characters that displayed typically "American" grit, rising above poverty through hard work and determination. The dominance of these prevailing narratives may partly be challenged by exposing students to a greater variety of primary sources and thus providing them with a deeper grounding in how people at the time may have made sense of their lives. But it might also be seen as a useful jumping-­off point for a broader conversation about the ways in which we are all potentially susceptible to projecting our own assumptions and ideals onto people in the past-and how our rendering of history often tells us much about ourselves.

Rather than seeing these challenges as failures, we encouraged students to consider what they learned about themselves from the process by asking them to stage a fictional conversation with their character. This allowed students to identify explicitly the factors that they believed had shaped their worldviews, including the growth of social media, their family's origins, and a western ethos that, as one student put it, "privileges choice and free will." In one particularly striking post, a student debated the role of borders with his fictional character who, affected by her experiences of the Berlin Wall, believed that walls constituted "a prominent and disturbing division." In response, the student, who had grown up on the US­Mexico border, explained how writing his college application essay about the rich texture of borderland life had allowed him to use the border in a positive way. Recognizing that his perspective on the subject was as historically conditioned as that of his fictional character-and, implicitly perhaps, that not everyone growing up on the US-Mexico border had the same experience as him-the student realized how he himself was entangled in the complex processes of history.

As we collectively consider the future of the humanities in our schools, colleges, and universities, creating fictional historical lives can offer new perspectives on how we conceive of our relationships with history, with each other, and with ourselves. While the Creating Lives project is not without real challenges-some of which have been outlined above-we feel that it stimulates debates that stretch far beyond the classroom, reminding us that the study of history lies at the very core of humanistic education.

-Kathryn Ciancia is assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a former postdoctoral lecturer in Stanford University's Thinking Matters program for freshmen.

-Edith Sheffer is assistant professor of history at Stanford University and the author of Burned Bridge: How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).


1. The class was taught by Professor Edith Sheffer and three postdoctoral fellows: Kathryn Ciancia, Jeffrey Schwegman, and Kari Zimmerman.

2. The course further developed a class on modern Germany that Edith Sheffer developed in 2009. For more on the original version of the Creating Lives project, see Edith Sheffer, “Creating Lives in the Classroom,” Chronicle of Higher Education, November 22, 2009, .

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