Publication Date

September 1, 2017

Perspectives Section


Red paper crosses taped to their jackets, student “crusaders” swore oaths before a construction-­paper-crowned pope. With the other students in April Morris’s small, advanced class, also playing roles, they set off on an adventure: a walking timeline of the First Crusade that matched campus sites to historical events. The collective of prop-bearing students, each name-tagged to represent European, Byzantine, and Muslim characters—from saints and bishops to princesses and warlords—clopped along, Monty Python style, to each site on the physical timeline Morris had laid out for the brisk afternoon. With Morris providing narration, students enacted moments from each of their assigned characters’ roles, drawn from the historical chronicles. At each location, students took to their roles, relishing the chance to challenge the crusading hordes or march in circles before the walls of Jerusalem (here played by the college chapel) on the way to the crusaders’ 1099 conquest of the city.

Hood College's outdoor classroom served as Caribbean islands in Jay Harrison's Latin American history class. Courtesy Hood College

While skills-centered learning is influential in discussions of pedagogy, this doesn’t mean discarding so-called traditional goals relating to content mastery, such as understanding historical timelines. As newly installed professors of medieval art history (Morris) and Latin American history (Harrison), we have experimented with revising pedagogy rooted in the timeline, hoping to increase or alter student engagement with the events depicted. We wanted to gauge whether walking timelines would increase content retention by drawing students into specific events and phenomena. Our timeline exercises do, in fact, seem successful. Moreover, our exercises fit within the mission of the liberal arts education our institution offers. Although at first glance, they may not seem to fit any specific assessment rubric, as educators we may consider how such experiences can truly support student learning outcomes (SLOs).

The adventure remained in students’ minds and reinforced their comprehension of cross-cultural interactions, like pilgrimage and trade.

The re-enactment of the 11th-century events included no formal assessment, but the SLOs were striking. The class’s recall of the basic events of the First Crusade was higher than in previous courses that hadn’t used the re-enactment, but there was more. The campus adventure remained in students’ minds and soon reinforced their comprehension of related social movements and cross-cultural interactions, like pilgrimage and trade. Students returned repeatedly to their realization that of the few crusaders who stayed in the Holy Land after the conquest of Jerusalem, many married into the local Orthodox or Byzantine nobility; this religious and cultural diversity was new to students. They began questioning the common presupposition (encouraged by Samuel Huntington and others) that the Crusades represented ongoing “clashes of civilizations” only between European Christians and Near Eastern Muslims. Seizing upon the relative silence in crusading and pilgrimage narratives about the return journey, they began critiquing primary and scholarly sources anew. Students rethought material they had previously examined, which in turn shaped their approach to subsequent weeks’ readings that broadened their perspective on the sources. In short, then, SLOs for the experience would include increased retention, the ability to navigate complex historical social landscapes, a deeper understanding of a prominent religious ritual (e.g., pilgrimage), and better critical thinking and reading skills.

Utilizing timelines can also enhance advanced skills, such as questioning periodization and static conceptions of events. One warm spring morning, the 20 students in Harrison’s upper-division history topics course, Latin American Slavery, convened in the classroom to review the traditional timeline for emancipation in the Caribbean and the rest of Latin America. Later, they headed outside for a role-­playing game involving concepts of transcolonial migration, the movement of ideas among islands, and the barriers to the spread of antislavery movements. The students had read Matt D. Child’s The 1812 Aponte Rebellion in Cuba and the Struggle against Atlantic Slavery and Laurent Dubois’s “The Promise of Revolution: Saint-Domingue and the Struggle for Autonomy in Guadeloupe, 1797–1802,” so they arrived with background on the varying experiences of slavery and freedom in Caribbean colonies. Out in the open air, they enacted what historians know about interaction among the region’s islands: the trade of foodstuffs and consumer products, illicit or clandestine movements of enslaved and free persons, and the spread of ideas from one island to another and on to the mainland.

This game also used inexpensive props (sticks and papers) to designate students as oarsmen, slaves, freed artisans and militiamen, and colonial authorities. The college’s outdoor classroom, a collection of benches secured to a brick surface, served as Cuba, largest of the Caribbean islands. Nearby trees were islands of the Antilles, and the sidewalk represented the South American mainland shoreline. With a short list of rules and assigned roles, students moved from island to island to mainland as the opportunity arose. Each student brought one unique idea about rebellion on his or her island—whether achieving it or preventing it—with the goal of assessing whether and how ideas of insurrection could be shared. As with other, published game series for history classrooms—notably Mark C. Carnes’s Reacting to the Past—this simple exercise set the timeline in motion.1

Simple though it may seem, exploring historical concepts and social movements by imaginatively re-enacting them can act as an experiential pedagogical method. Just as learning about architecture takes on new dimensions the moment students actually step into and experience spaces, engaging all their senses to examine what surrounds them, students who learn aspects of crusade or migration by diving into roles gain a new understanding of the sensory experience and inherent logic of the historical actors they are studying. The next step in incorporating such experiments into more courses will be developing more precise learning objectives.

Rubric or not, these re-enactments had a noticeable impact on students in both courses. Their engagement increased, especially their desire to explore different regions and historical periods. They often demonstrated allegiance to the places associated with their assigned characters or dived even further into their characters’ narratives. One generally shy student, who had played a Norman baronial leader in Morris’s class, would sit up any time the Normans came up from then on. She began to comment actively during sections about Norman history, her remarks revealing that she had done additional work outside of class assignments. The student who playacted Anna Comnena went on to read Comnena’s Alexiad in its entirety and at least one scholarly biography on the famed historian. Though harder to track, predict, or assess, this independent engagement indicates that the experiment helped spark students’ curiosity about historical figures and events in unpredictable but meaningful ways. Students became more involved in their courses and curious about how the histories of the Near East, Europe, Africa, and the Americas tangled together in the Middle Ages and the early modern era.

Students who dive into roles gain an understanding of the sensory experience and inherent logic of the historical actors they are studying.

Such approaches may be adapted to student needs and/or the constraints of the class environment. For reasons of accessibility, for example, teachers should think about where and when to engage in walking timelines to accommodate students with disabilities. If one cannot safely head out of doors, perhaps meet in a larger room with a customized table arrangement to simulate sites in the historical landscape. In a word, students should influence instructors’ design of walking timelines in physical spaces, and instructors should encourage creativity in placing and naming otherwise mundane parts of the campus physical plant. This will enhance the experience of joy that comes with reliving historical events and processes together.

The physical experience of a historical timeline can help us connect the current generation of students to course objectives—student learning outcomes that our assessment committees might call genuine. While rubrics and assessment guidelines now seem to grip pedagogical discourse, powerful intangibles encourage us to remember that learning is always the central objective for our classrooms. As with any journey, learning may take us and our students to unexpected places. The value of this process may never match tidily against a rubric, yet the serendipity that can arise from tapping into our students’ joy and excitement can remind us why we began taking the trip in the first place.

Jay T. Harrison is an assistant professor of history and the coordinator for the program in public history at Hood College. April Jehan Morris is an assistant professor of art history at Hood College and co-editor of The Crusades and Visual Culture (Ashgate, 2015).


1. Reacting to the Past (RTTP) is a more elaborate approach to the methods we engaged. See the RTTP website and the W. W. Norton series of published RTTP games. Approaches championed by the Institute for Simulations and Games at Central Michigan University, directed by historian Jonathan Truitt, provide simpler but extensive options for student- or instructor-led classroom re-enactments of historical events and timelines.

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