Teaching Innovations

Representations of History: Role-Playing Debates in College History Courses

Eve Kornfeld, September 1990

Federalists and Antifederalists from around the nation debate the worth of the proposed United States Constitution and the meaning of the American Revolution in a Philadelphia tavern in 1787. An awakened Connecticut farmer discusses the nature of virtue and the shape of colonial society and culture with the urbane, enlightened Benjamin Franklin in the mid-eighteenth century—in an open field, of course. Frederick Douglass, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson convene at Walden Pond to consider the need for and proper shape of American reform in the 1840s. Sigmund Freud, V.I. Lenin, Virginia Woolf, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Frantz Fanon debate the causes of the peculiar course of Western civilization in the twentieth century from their sofas in Hell in 1989. These are some of the situations in which my students find themselves as we incorporate role-playing debates once or twice a semester into our weekly discussions of the American Revolution, colonial America, United States history, or Western civilization, for I have found that periodic exercises to promote reflection on the representational character of history add excitement and new levels of meaning to virtually all of my college history courses, whether for freshmen engineers or upper-division history majors and future teachers.

The structure of the exercise is fairly simple. The exercise seems to be most effective toward the end of a coherent section of a course (i.e., colonial political culture and the American Revolution in a U.S. history survey, or the twentieth century in Western civilization), after students have read and discussed a variety of primary sources and historical interpretations of the period, heard the central historical issues discussed in lectures, and achieved a certain level of comfort with the material and their discussion section. (I reserve one fifty- or seventy-five minute class period per week for small-group discussion sections of fifteen to twenty-five students each in all of my undergraduate courses. Since the students rarely know or trust each other initially in these sections of large survey courses, the exercise works best after a few weeks have passed.) The debate serves as both a review of familiar material and an opportunity to juxtapose a wide variety of readings and perspectives directly for the first time. For many students, who simply "get through the reading" from week to week and seldom make connections between readings and lectures, this will be the first realization that historical figures (and historians) are responding to shared situations and to each other. A direct juxtaposition of opposing interpretations of historical "reality" at this point in the learning process can thus bring many students a startling new consciousness of the complex nature of historical interpretation, and of the dynamic creation of meaning by diverse individuals and social groups.

A week before the debate, I present the students with a written study guide that sets the scene and suggests some central questions or issues for consideration. These will vary depending on the level and scope of the course, but will always be designed to draw together several weeks of material. For example, in a U.S. history survey, I might ask Federalists and Antifederalists of 1787 to ponder whether the proposed Constitution fulfills or repudiates the original principles of the American Revolution as they variously understood them; in an upper-level course on the American Revolution, I might also complicate this basic question with reference to distinct positions in 1765–66, 1776, and 1783, and in different regions, classes, or ethnic and religious groups. At this time, students choose sides or characters to represent. Once again the level of the course determines the number of characters and amount of precision; students in a survey would simply choose to take the Federalist or Antifederalist position, while upper-level students would adopt the particular stances of Madison, Hamilton, Mason, Gerry, Paterson, Dickinson, et al. Students sometimes need prompting, but more often make their choices independently and eagerly.

I also remind students at this point that this exercise, like all class participation, will be graded simply: informed participation will earn a check for the day, and the checks will be added at the end of the semester and translated into a letter grade, to count for 20 or 25 percent of the final course grade (depending on the level of the course). This simple grading scheme frees students to experiment with new or even contrary ideas in the debate—as long as they relate to the readings and issues under discussion—without fear of losing favor or points; it frees me to participate in and guide class discussions without needless concern over whether a particular student's comment is worth an A- or B+.

Over the course of the weeks before the debate, students prepare notes on their characters' concerns, positions, language, and personal styles. These can be drawn from the readings assigned for the course, since at least one primary source (book, essay, speech, letter, journal, or visual source) by each character is included in the syllabus. Some students will do research beyond the assigned reading, but this is not required or even recommended; the object of this exercise is not to teach research methods, but to promote critical and synthetic thinking. Some will consult with me during this week, others will meet in small groups or telephone each other to prepare for the debate.

On the day of the debate, I allow the various groups or sides about ten minutes to caucus and coordinate their presentations in order to promote confidence and prevent "split personalities." (This is especially important in larger sections, where as many as ten students may be sharing a role. While some disagreement among Federalists is authentic and productive, for example, too much incongruity during the debate can be confusing.) During this period of energetic cooperative learning, I circle the room, field questions, and suggest strategies, if necessary. We then begin with a short opening statement from each character (or each participant, in a small class), designed to outline his or her basic position on the central question that I posed in the written study guide. I encourage students to be forthright and contentious here, if it fits their characters. These brief opening statements are followed by a free, and often intense, debate among all of the participants.

I moderate the debate lightly. Always in my role as humble tavernkeeper, woodsman, or doorkeeper to Hell, I respectfully request clarification of differences of opinion, greater precision of expression, or information about neglected issues, from the learned Founding Fathers, American reformers, or European intellectuals gathered before me. At times I must also "direct traffic" and invite quieter students to participate in the debate. But more often, I can simply play my role and enjoy the transformation, as even the normally shy students develop the urge to speak, and the outspoken to listen. Over the years, I have witnessed truly magical moments, as a hushed group listened breathlessly to a quiet black man passionately describe Frederick Douglass' life in slavery, or a timid woman insist tearfully, in Virginia Woolf's voice, on a room of her own. Heated arguments over the nature of terrorists, the role of government in American society, or the relative importance of individual liberty and social justice also frequently occur.

After thirty to forty-five minutes of free debate, we resume our own personae and, for the final twenty minutes of the class period, discuss the issues raised in the debate in our own voices. During this period of reflection on the debate, I guide the discussion somewhat more actively, and urge students to compare the new perspectives they have briefly inhabited with their own deeply-held beliefs. This would seem to be particularly important for those students who have stretched the most during the debate, but this is not always predictable: while some students experience understandable cognitive dissonance after playing Antifederalists, Lenin, or Fanon, for example, others are startled and disturbed just to hear alternative views expressed and defended vigorously. Perhaps most interesting is the severe tension that men generally feel at representing women during these debates; the reverse does not usually hold. Beyond this exploration of the unusual double-consciousness that the representation and then distancing from a strange voice and position has created, I also use the period of reflection to help students to begin to think critically about the historical interpretations of the period that we have been reading or constructing, especially in light of our new insights into the period and the representational aspects of all historical interpretations. When the role-playing debates and subsequent discussions work well, students are reluctant to leave at the end of class period, and frequently continue the discussion outside of the classroom or over lunch.

Finally, the entire exercise is followed the next week by a writing assignment, either in a paper or an in-class essay, which invites fuller consideration of the issues raised in the debate—and the lectures and readings, of course. This writing assignment might also involve role-playing, with different roles and situations than in the debate itself. For example, those who have represented Federalist or Antifederalist Founders in the oral debate might be asked to write an evaluation of those arguments from the very different perspectives of a backcountry Revolutionary War veteran, a Southern plantation mistress, or a free black in Philadelphia. More often, however, I ask students to formulate and defend their own interpretations of the characters, issues, and period under study. Such essays are graded on relatively clear and simple criteria: how well students articulate their historical interpretations (whatever direction they may take), and how well they support those interpretations with evidence drawn from lectures and readings (particularly the primary sources). If the debate and the writing assignment are skillfully constructed to complement one another and involve multiple perspectives, they can elicit both critical analyses of primary sources and secondary authorities, and creative syntheses of a wide variety of material. They can also generate tremendous excitement about learning history, even in the dreaded Western civilization or U.S. history survey.

Historical role-playing debates can thus serve two distinct sets of purposes in college history courses. First, as a special form of active learning, the debates advance certain pedagogical goals which are hard to achieve through traditional lecture methods. Like most kinds of relatively free group discussion, role-playing debates allow students to develop their powers of oral expression and critical thinking, as they test their understandings of the material they are reading and compare it with what they've "always believed," formulate their own historical interpretations, and work toward linguistic precision and effective argumentation under the questioning of others. As cognitive theory and experience alike have proven, this active learning promotes retention of new material, sparks continued interest in the subject, and allows students to enjoy the learning experience.

Role-playing debates possess certain pedagogical advantages over other forms of group discussion. Assuming another role/voice often frees shy or timid students from their normal inhibitions, and allows them to join a group discussion for the first, but seldom the last, time. Further, the combination of cooperation (within a group/side) and competition (between groups/sides) often changes the group dynamics and stimulates vigorous questions, challenges, and defenses. Finally, the role reversal inherent in a situation where the students represent Founding Fathers and the professor a tavernkeeper, disrupts normal patterns of authority and creates unusual possibilities for free, democratic discussion. Experienced once or twice a semester, these unusual situations can foster group cooperation and active learning over a semester, a year, or even an academic career.

Second, role-playing debates help to awaken students to the complex nature of history and historical interpretation. Students accustomed to a single, linear conception of history (whether presented through an authoritative textbook or a single lecturing voice) are suddenly forced to see American culture or Western civilization as a series of contests or debates over values, ideas, and beliefs, held by a variety of social groups and individuals. Even the "sacred" texts of figures of history become problematic, and the "outsiders" more sympathetic, as some students question and others defend them. The more sophisticated students also become alert to the different forms of discourse and uses of language, through their active assumption of strange stances and languages. Moreover, when students return to their own personae toward the end of the class to consider the issues raised by the debate, they frequently experience a new awareness of the representational character of all historical interpretation: the double-consciousness formed through intimate involvement with an historical position and then deliberate withdrawal to a critical distance from that position, creates both a cognitive tension and an awareness that historical interpretations are constructed and can shift.

Thus, role-playing debates and the subsequent discussion of them can help students to see history in a new way, full of contests over values and ideas, problematic texts and partial resolutions, and forgotten voices and interpretations. Most important, students gain these insights by actively joining a historical debate, and there find their own voices and power to construct and contest meaning in history. In role-playing debates and discussions, students learn to consider and respect the views of others, to articulate and defend their own positions, and to tolerate—and sometimes even enjoy—the fundamental differences among us. Surely these are important lessons for citizens of a pluralistic democracy in a global community in the 1990s.

—Eve Kornfeld teaches history at San Diego State University. She was honored with the Timeos Award for excellence in teaching by the Phi Eta Sigma Society of San Diego State University in 1988.