Posts Tagged 'Mark C. Carnes'

The Jumonville Incident, 1754: An Experiment in Teaching History through Game-Based Learning

By Bryan Rindfleisch

On the 14th of June in 1754, George Washington – a newly promoted colonel in the Virginia militia – stood trial at Fort Necessity in a military court presided over by the local British commander, Captain James Mackay. Only two weeks previous, Washington led a detachment of colonial troops and allied Native Americans, escorted by the Mingo (Seneca) headman Tanaghrisson, into the Ohio River Valley where they encountered a French force commanded by Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville. Amid the fog of war, the two sides exchanged gunfire, a skirmish that resulted in an overwhelming British victory. However, during the battle, it was rumored that Jumonville had been killed under a flag of truce, a breach of military etiquette and one with consequences for the mounting tensions between France and Britain. To complicate matters, a series of conflicting reports emerged in the aftermath of the fighting, some of which accused Washington of ineffective leadership, of exceeding his orders by engaging the French force, and proving unable to stop his Native allies, particularly Tanaghrisson, from killing Jumonville for their own purposes. Therefore, Washington faced a military tribunal on June 14, forced to answer the summons of Mackay and other jurors like Lt. Col. George Muse, Captain Robert Stobo, and Captain William Polson. All the while, Washington’s testimony was cross-examined and weighed against other witness accounts, including fellow officers Jacob Van Braam and Thomas Waggoner, Native combatants like Tanaghrisson and Monacatoocha, civilians such as Christopher Gist and George Croghan, and even French prisoners-of-war. Therefore, in June 1754, Washington’s fate rested in the hands of a jury that had to sift through the testimonies of those on both sides of the conflict.

But things are not all what they seemed to be. In this case, the following scene did not unfold at Fort Necessity in June 1754, but instead in the Raynor Memorial Library at Marquette University in May 2017. In the place of Washington, Mackay, and Tanaghrisson were students in HIST 6110: Early American History, who assumed the roles of these historical actors and conducted this inquiry into the events surrounding the “Jumonville Incident,” a game designed by Nick Proctor, professor of history at Simpson College. Leading this demonstration was Dr. Jeff Fortney, assistant professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, a practitioner of a new movement in higher education rindfleischknown as “Reacting to the Past” (RTTP), a game-based initiative designed to transform how historians teach, and how students learn about, history. As a testament to the growing popularity of RTTP, it is estimated that instructors at over 350 colleges and institutions in the United States incorporate it into their curriculums. I thought it prudent, then, to give this model of teaching a shot, albeit using graduate students as proverbial guinea pigs for this experiment.

Beyond my rather innocuous description above, what is RTTP? Think history meets role-playing, where students are assigned roles and given character sheets complete with their own individualized “powers,” tasked with pursuing objectives specific to their individual, and obligated to interact with their peers to achieve their own goals. This all sounds rather familiar to anyone who has experienced role-playing games before. But where RTTP differs is that students must first research their character, thoroughly read and dissect the primary sources pertaining to their individual (so as to inform the actions they take during the game), and in reacting to other students, justify their decisions using primary sources. Every action and reaction requires an intimate familiarity with their role and a thorough grounding in the historical context. In the case of the “Jumonville Incident,” this means that the student playing Washington had to familiarize himself with the skirmish using secondary sources, consult primary sources to compose his own testimony in which he defended his actions to the jury, scrutinize the other accounts of those who testified at his trial so that he might counter their arguments, and react in other ways consistent with Washington’s persona. To add drama to the mix, Washington and other student actors were constantly plotting behind-the scenes, inside and outside of the classroom, to achieve their ends.

RTTP is the brainchild of Mark C. Carnes, professor of history at Barnard College, who developed this game-based learning model in response to students who found his courses “sorta boring.” What started as an experiment by Carnes has become a movement in academia today, with annual conferences and play-testing conventions around the United States (this year’s conference is in New York City and the convention is in Wichita). The scenarios that instructors are able to choose from range from events in U.S. history such as Cherokee Removal, Greenwich Village in 1913, and the American Revolution in New York City; European history with games related to Constantine and the Council of Nicaea, or Henry VIII’s conflict with the Reformation Parliament; Global history specific to the Mexican Revolution, the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, and the independence movement in India (1945); and even Ancient history with the debates over democracy in Athens in 403 B.C. These games all vary in the time that it takes to introduce and play in the classroom, anywhere from one class period to four weeks’ worth of classes. Most of these games are available free-of-charge to university instructors, and are open to customization, so long as one provides feedback to the game’s designer and unless a game has reached a certain point in its development (what the RTTP Consortium considers Level 5), which is then published by W.W. Norton & Company. There is also extensive resources for interested instructors, including the RTTP webpage, a facebook faculty network group, twitter handle, and H-Net listserv that troubleshoots, bounces ideas off of one another, and provides feedback in either designing or implementing these games in the classroom.

From the beginning, though, Carnes and other instructors like Fortney are cognizant of the pitfalls inherent to role-playing as well as resistance by faculty and students to this teaching model. Between the amount of time and preparation RTTP demands from instructors and bearing the stigma of “gaming” rather than “teaching,” to having to gain the trust of students to “buy-in” to the model and asking instructors to relinquish control of their classroom to students, there are several downsides to RTTP. However, despite such potential drawbacks, and myself heartened by most students’ enthusiasm during the “Jumonville Incident,” there is also much to gain from game-based learning. First and foremost, students learn to not only read primary and secondary sources, but understand what it is to analyze and scrutinize those sources carefully, and how history itself is an interpretive process rather than facts set in stone. History is constantly reshaped, reinterpreted, and refashioned for a multitude of purposes, and students see that in action during a game such as the “Jumonville Incident.” Similarly, students appreciate the messy realities and the contingency of history, in which the past – and our understandings of it – are contested and fluid, far from static or lifeless. History is also dramatic, in which human actors have shaped and influenced the course of events throughout the past, whether at Fort Necessity in June 1754 or in Ancient Greece. In other cases, RTTP challenges students lived experiences and worldviews. One need look no further than the “Jumonville Incident” to see how Native Americans like Tanaghrisson were central figures at the trial and critical to the outcome of the game, which serves as an effective way of illustrating the importance of Native Peoples to the American past. Finally, the game-based model prompts students to collaborate continuously with one another, whether conspiring with or against each other, which creates a unique community and fellowship in the classroom. And whether they know it or not, students also take ownership of their learning in the process. All of this is to say that my experiment in “Reacting to the Past” was rewarding, and even though I am unsure if I will take the leap in the future by integrating game-based learning into my classroom, I see the merits of this teaching model.

For further information about RTTP, see Mark C. Carnes’s book, Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), or Inside Higher Ed’s review and interview with Carnes: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/08/27/book-advocates-reacting-past-pedagogy

Bryan Rindfleisch is assistant professor of history at Marquette and the author of the book manuscript George Galphin’s Intimate Empire: Family, Trade, and Colonialism in Early America, which is currently being considered for publication.


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