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CHAIN REACTIONS 
A Reacting Blog

  • July 26, 2021 8:34 AM | Anonymous


    By: Dr. Kasee Clifton Laster
    Lecturer in English
    University of North Georgia 

    The quote which forms part of my title comes from a student paper, but it applies equally well to myself as an instructor. In the fall of 2019, I made my first tentative foray into Reacting to the Past in the first-year writing classroom, and in the spring of 2020, I went “all in,” offering three sections of English 1102 all focused around Patriots, Loyalists, and Revolution in New York City, 1775-1776.

    To offer a bit of spoiler: Reacting to the Past turned out to be an even better fit with composition instruction than I expected going in.

    First, the institutional context: I teach at the University of North Georgia. Each of our five campuses has a slightly different mission, and although I have since moved to the Oconee campus, during the semester described, I taught at the Gainesville campus. The Gainesville campus has open admissions (99%), a large number of first-generation college students and first-generation Americans, and an average incoming ACT of 17 to 23.

    My initial interest in offering Reacting in composition had less to do with writing pedagogy itself than with some of the many other responsibilities that composition classes are often expected – explicitly or implicitly – to shoulder. Because composition comes early in the college career, I was looking to Reacting to encourage engagement, active learning, and agency; because my students range widely from undocumented individuals to immigration hardliners, and from seasoned veterans to 15-year-old homeschooled dual enrollees, I was also looking for a way to improve empathy and communication.

    Of course, I knew that the Reacting to the Past pedagogy requires the kind of close reading of dense texts and intentional and careful selection and use of sources that students should practice in first-year writing. However, to my surprise, I found that where Reacting particularly excels in the first-year writing classroom is in building audience awareness.

    Composition teachers are constantly looking for ways to move student writers past what is often termed “writerly” prose, essentially, talking to oneself on paper: self-conscious, self-absorbed, and at the very most, acknowledging an audience of one – the instructor. As students revise, ideally they are working towards “readerly” prose, which considers what readers want and need to know about a topic and seeks primarily to serve the reader rather than oneself.

    Reacting to the Past turns out to be the best method for encouraging readerly prose that I have yet encountered in nearly three decades of teaching. Feedback from classmates is neither forced (“how many people do we have to peer review?”) nor delayed (“I still haven’t heard back from anyone”) but rather instant and high-impact: quite simply, a proposal passes or it doesn’t, usually with some noise. Students’ own accounts indicate that this kind of feedback makes a big impression.

    During spring of 2020, I offered one game (the same for each section), and with extensive scaffolding and faction meetings, used nearly half the term to play it. I added additional writing to the two speeches/papers required by the game, including a role request; students were not given any more information about the roles than can be found in the gamebook, but based on that limited information and their interests, life experiences, etc., constructed an argument for their top three choices. I also added a post-game personal learning reflection and a post-game “faction-interaction” reflection.

    The second half of the course turned to a more traditional “how-to”/process model, in which students wrote a researched argument on a contemporary topic that paralleled issues in the game. Students chose topics one might expect considering the Patriots and Loyalists game, such as gun control, but also ranged further afield to student loan forgiveness, civil forfeiture, and the War Powers Act (given the turn of events spring semester 2020, I also opened up the option for students to write about the pandemic, but the great majority stuck to issues directly suggested by the game).

    By sheer luck, every class completed the game the week before we went entirely online.

    As I’m sure is the case with anyone who has taught using Reacting, I could go on for pages listing positive student feedback, but I will restrict myself here to comments specifically related to writing and rhetoric:

    • “The Reacting to the Past game. . . makes it easier to write. . . I was more diligent about it because I knew if I didn’t write good papers, it would affect both my faction and me.”

    • “I. . . learned how to write better in a formal fashion. I do not remember having much experience in high school with writing specifically for a crowd and a target audience to read the paper to them. The excitement that the game brought made it easier to write and express myself.”

    • “I was really pleased about the petition that I wrote, [because] I was fighting for the rights of slaves during the game. I loved my petition since it got straight to the point, showed how much of a hard worker I was, and got in a few jokes during my petition to make them laugh a little.”

    • “On many occasions during the game I was compelled to argue a point with another character and often called them out on certain topics when I felt as though they had contradicted themselves or their own faction.”

    • “Since I was a moderate, I had to ask several questions, meaning I had to analyze and break down the arguments. Questioning the durability of my classmate’s arguments helped me see what I want to include when I argue, and what I want to avoid.”

    • “I feel that this game has . . . . taught me to how to extract more information from government writings and historical writings. It has guided me to look beyond just what is written and to see the underlying factors, the effect it has on a populous, the influence it has on people’s thoughts, and how ideas can impact and shape the world.”

    • “The game has taught me to delve further and inspect historical documents with more accuracy.”

    Some comments that were particularly gratifying to me – as I ultimately see the mission in first-year writing courses as preparing students to function as citizens in a democracy and to rise above the current state of public discourse – are these:

    • “I. . . developed active listening because before I really did not pay attention to what people had to say, but after this game I listen to what people actually have to say.”

    • “Today, lots of people tend to just argue without listening and with this game it had to put everyone in a mindset of ‘oh I must argue my side but I don’t have to be yelling my opinion over what they are saying.’ Everyone was able to get their word in and argue their side civilly and we were even able to talk more after class about the game.”

    I’ll give the last word to my excellent 11:00 section Robert Murray, who picked up (long before I did) that a proposal to free slaves if they joined the British Army left him no choice but to abstain; as a Quaker, he could vote in favor of neither slavery nor militarism.

    For all his depth of understanding, however, he does seem to have confused Quaker Oats and Cap’n Crunch.

    A poster with a cartoon character (that looks like the Captain Crunch mascot) on it, and the words "We want YOU to join the Quaker Alliance"
    Actual game artifact

    About the Author
    Dr. Kasee Clifton Laster is a Lecturer in English at the University of North Georgia, Oconee Campus. Dr. Laster has previously served as the chair of the Humanities Department at Shorter College as well as the Director of Education Abroad at the University of Georgia. She teaches a variety of courses but especially enjoys all periods of British literature. Her dissertation concerned Clara Reeve, an eighteenth-century novelist, critic, and antiquarian, and examined Reeve's use of Arthurian materials and insular romances to forge tales of British national identity during the first Gothic novel craze.

    Blog Author Questionnaire
    One word to describe faculty: Caring
    Two words to describe your school: Public, Complicated
    Three words to describe students: Hard-working, First-generation, Stretched
    Four words to describe favorite games: Fast twists and turns
    Five words to describe Reacting: Most fun teaching experience ever

  • June 21, 2021 1:15 PM | Anonymous


    By: Emily Fisher Gray
    Professor of History
    Norwich University, The Military College of Vermont  

    I like to wear my Athena costume on the first day of my Freshman Seminar class and jump right into Athens Besieged. It’s a memorable first day of college for the students and a better introduction to what will happen in a Reacting to the Past based class than the typical syllabus day. The only downside for me is the heat: it’s late August in Vermont, classrooms do not have air conditioning, and I am wearing a second costume underneath the first.Blog Author Emily Gray dressed in her Athena costume, with a white draped tunic and red draped himation, both with gold detailing. Norwich University was founded 200 years ago to train military officers and nods to that tradition by having faculty and most students wear military-style uniforms. So under my Athena robes or other Reacting-inspired regalia I wear the uniform of a Colonel in the Vermont State Militia, styled after the “Army Greens” Class A uniform of the US Military. Students in my classroom wear the prescribed uniform of the day: usually a white shirt with gray trousers or camouflage field service uniform. Thus, on the first day of Freshman Seminar, a slightly-overheated Athena looks out over a sea of first-year students in identical clothing with identical haircuts and tells them that they are not freshmen, not recruits (“Rooks”) in the Corps of Cadets, but Greeks who must figure out how to respond to the Spartan siege of Athens. It is a testament to the power of Reacting that these students, who have recently made the challenging transition from high school graduate to Rook in the Norwich Corps of Cadets, transform again so quickly into Athenian citizens and immediately jump in to solve a whole new set of problems.

    Many faculty who use Reacting to the Past pedagogy find that costumes help create the liminal space that turns a college classroom into an ancient city under siege, or a medieval city council chamber, or a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. At a military university where most students are in uniform, however, costumes pose a unique set of challenges. My students at Norwich University have a very limited wardrobe. They are each allowed one footlocker which contains only the clothing items they are issued: various formal military-style uniforms; a plain t-shirt, shorts, and reflective belt for physical training; and a fluffy maroon bathrobe. There is not much variety, or many options for obtaining other items in rural central Vermont, even after the Rooks are “recognized” as full members of the Corps and given permission to go off campus. Further complicating the issue of costumes in uniform, many of my students are under contract with various branches of the military. They are not wearing the Norwich student Corps of Cadets uniform, but one issued to them by the Navy, Marines, Army, or Air Force. Sometimes, students in “real” military uniforms hesitate to mix uniform pieces or wear hats or other items that are not within military regulations, even for a class activity. As a faculty member I have always enjoyed strong support from the ROTC Colonels and the Commandant of Cadets, who have always given permission for students to be out of the standard uniform for academic purposes, but I make costumes optional for students out of respect for those who feel uncomfortable wearing their uniform in a way they view as improper.

    Given the challenge of costumes for uniformed students on a military campus, I am continually amazed by their creativity. Students frequently mix and match uniform pieces to create fashions that are historically plausible and serve to help visually mark the classroom space as different. Young white cadet weating red waist tie from bathrobe as cravat while still in military uniform. He also holds a character nametag worn on a lanyard.Of all the contents of their footlockers, the bathrobe has proven to be the most versatile item. It works effectively to transform a student into a Roman Senator and equally well to distinguish members of the Crowd in the French Revolution. One enterprising student turned the waist tie of the bathrobe into a passable cravat, and since then many students have followed his example, stuffing it into the neckline of their shirts to become aristocrats during games set in early modern Europe. The reflective PT belt can be worn across the body as a sash and though it lacks a certain gravitas, it can serve effectively as a marker of faction identity. Cardboard Bishop’s Miters, helmets, crosses, and other items are easy for students to make and wear during an RTTP game, and the end of a game is frequently marked by a recycling bin overflowing with interesting handmade objects.

    Young Black cadet wearing military uniform, with nametag/namebadge changed to read Lafayette.Sometimes it takes very little to transform a student’s uniform into the perfect Reacting to the Past costume. Military uniforms are covered with patches, badges, ribbons, and epaulets that communicate everything someone would need to know about that person’s military rank and previous experience, like a wearable resume. People who have served in the military are attuned to these visual cues and can instantly “read” a uniform. I never served in the military, so when one of my students came up to me the day we started French Revolution and asked me how I liked his costume, I was confused. It looked like his standard Norwich-issued Corps of Cadets field uniform to me, until I looked closer. He had replaced his cadet rank with three stars and his name tape with “Lafayette.” Naturally, his fellow students noticed it right away. The change was small, but extremely effective. There is nothing this student could have done to more effectively signal his leadership status to a room full of students attuned to the visual cues on a military uniform.

    With such a limited wardrobe to work with during their college years, some students find the option to wear a costume for class to be a liberating experience. Another of my Lafayettes, a chemistry major on the verge of graduating and commissioning as a Navy 2nd Lieutenant, ordered a complete 18th century French officer’s uniform online. Our class met at 8:00am, so the student had simply no choice but to dress as the Marquis de Lafayette for the daily Corps of Cadets formation at 7:45 before coming to class. When the semester ended, I offered to find a home for this wonderful outfit in my costume closet, but the student demurred: he was pretty sure he would need to use it at some point during his career as a naval officer. Students connected with Pegasus Players, our on-campus drama society, also come up with some great costumes. One semester, a male student assigned to the French Revolution role of Marguerite Andalle proudly wore a bonnet and fancy dress to class each day. For these students, the option to dress in costume for a Reacting to the Past game gave them the perfect opportunity to be transgressive and safely push back against the limitations of a military campus that otherwise offers little opportunity for self-expression through clothing. Mikhail Bakhtin would be proud.

    Costumes are not the only way to signal that students have entered a liminal space in a Reacting to the Past classroom. I hang banners and flags, play music, and sometimes move the class to a different location for the duration of a game. Students have debated responses to the Black Plague in our campus chapel and led the French Revolution from an indoor tennis court, for example. But even on a military campus with limited access to historical attire, allowing students the option to dress in costume for Reacting to the Past games gives them opportunities to exercise creativity and have some fun while getting into character.

    About the Author
    Emily Fisher Gray is a Professor of History at Norwich University, where she also serves as the Vice Chair of the Faculty Senate. Gray has written on the early causes and progress of the Protestant Reformation, the phenomenon of Lutheran-Catholic co-existence, and the unique aesthetics of Lutheran architecture. Her ongoing research takes place in churches, libraries and archives in the former Free Imperial Cities of southern Germany, especially Augsburg, where she lived for a year as a Fulbright Fellow. She has written a Reacting game "Wrestling with the Reformation: Augsburg, 1531."

    Blog Author Questionnaire
    One word to describe faculty: Curious
    Two words to describe your school: Liberal-arts, military
    Three words to describe students: Enthusiastic, Open-minded, Game-breakers
    Four words to describe favorite games: Armies, Duels, Sausages, Votes
    Five words to describe Reacting: Transformational, Challenging, Brilliant, Engaging, Essential

  • May 26, 2021 12:23 PM | Anonymous


    By: Traci Levy
    Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Gender Studies
    Adelphi University 


    Even though I have been running role-playing games in my classes for more than five years and studying the Reacting pedagogy 
    for longer than that, I felt daunted about designing my game. Sure, I had written a mini game that my students played in one class period. But, the new game will run for weeks and eventually, I hope, be used by other instructors. Motivated by the anxieties around this new project, I created a writing accountability group for game designers.

    Writing accountability groups (or WAGs) are a well-known mechanism for helping scholars develop regular and effective writing habits. Making and sharing writing goals with other writers, can help people develop good writing habits and be more productive. People who are designing games can benefit from the same incentives and support structures as people writing chapters, articles, or books. At least this has been my experience after organizing two WAGs for game designers and participating in one. 

    The positive aspects of writing accountability groups for game designers are important and manifold. A supportive group of people struggling with similar issues can offer valuable perspective, feedback, and encouragement.

    Sharing relevant knowledge about games is another benefit. Forming a WAG with other Reactors who are designing games, for example, allows members to pool the knowledge of all the games we have played at Reacting conferences and run in our classes. That can be incredibly helpful when trying to figure out different game devices and mechanisms for your own game. Which games have mobs or crowds? How have games handled accumulating resources? Which games rely less on voting? Chances are others in your group will know.

    Helpful support can even spill outside of assigned WAG meeting times. WAG members become aware of each other’s challenges and interests. We sometimes email each other ideas. One of my WAG members has written a game that uses artefacts. After hearing a podcast talking about teaching through sensory experiences and objects, I made sure to send her a link. Another time, a WAG member emailed me after group time. After talking about ways to help students in my game feel like they were working in the same company, a group member emailed me satirical corporate promotional videos that made me chuckle and helped me think through this game design challenge.

    Besides the shared knowledge and support, the pressure of participating in a WAG can be helpful, too. Harnessing the discomfort that goes along with missing publicly-shared deadlines can increase productivity. We don’t like to break our word, so we are more motivated to stay on track. 

    Here’s a quick guide on creating a writing accountability group for game designers:

    1. Find a group of people that you enjoy interacting with who are working on designing a game. 

    Are you part of a listserv, professional organization, conference, Facebook group, etc., where you could do outreach and find out who might be interested in forming a WAG? In the Reacting community, we have two very helpful Facebook groups--the Reacting Faculty Lounge and the Reacting Game Design Lounge

    2. Decide what kind of WAG you would like. 

    There are at least two different ways to think about WAGs. In one, you share goals at the beginning of an in-person or virtual writing session, everyone writes, then you share progress. The other involves sharing writing goals for a week or two, often using a shared document. Then, the group uses the weekly meetings to discuss what you wrote and the ideas you would like to discuss. Make sure the group is clear and in agreement on your WAG type.

    3. Organize into a group of three-to-five game designers. 

     If everyone is going to share and interact, and keep the time commitment reasonable, a small group is key. If you have more interest than you anticipated after making queries-- which happened when I asked in a Reacting reading group on Nicolas Proctor’s Game Designer's Handbook --one strategy is to help the group break into more than one WAG. 

    Bonus: If you create or become aware of another game design WAG, you can have an “exchange day” where each group sends some members to the other WAG, or a “mega-WAG session” where both groups join together. The two Reacting WAGs that evolved out of our earlier reading group have benefited from an exchange day and are preparing for a mega-WAG session. It’s great for intellectual cross-fertilization!

    4. Decide on the frequency of meetings. 

     Weekly, biweekly, or monthly meetings are all fairly common. In the case of our reading group that evolved into WAGs, it was easy to divide. We had three game designers who preferred biweekly meetings and four who preferred weekly meetings. So, the frequency of meetings helped us figure out who would go into which group.

    5. Agree how long everyone commits to participating in the WAG. 

     3-months? One semester? Decide how long you would like everyone to initially commit to the WAG.

    6. Agree on a time and place to meet.

    Finding a good day of the week and time when everyone can meet is critical. You might use Doodle, Google Docs, or email exchanges to figure out availability. If your group can meet in-person, it’s helpful if you can find a suitable space that will reliably be available. If your group will meet virtually, someone needs to create and share the link.

    Sharing your game design challenges, triumphs, and processes with the same group of people over time can do more than help you design a better game on schedule. You get to know and enjoy the company of other people with similar interests. As a result of our group, I have joined a WAG member’s class to play an art buyer in the Art in Paris, 1888-9 game. Group members have shared readings, podcasts, and TV recommendations. (Some of us have finished watching The Crown; others were motivated to do so after an interesting discussion.) Meeting online, we have gotten to see and admire each other’s pets. And--a hallmark of life during COVID--we have cheered each other on as we received vaccine appointments and, then, vaccinations.

    From the point of view of productivity, shared knowledge, and all around camaraderie, creating a writing accountability group for game designers can be a wonderful experience.

    Traci Levy's Game Designer Writing Accountability Group meeting on zoom   (Alt text: Screengrab of four zoom squares featuring smiling Reacting professors who are writing education games and simulations, three women and one man)

    About the Author
    Traci Levy is Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Gender Studies at Adelphi University. She is designing a role-playing game that focuses on the inequities of informal caregiving in the United States. The game is tentatively titled “The Challenge and Politics of Care.”

    Blog Author Questionnaire
    One word to describe faculty: Learners
    Two words to describe your school: Academic COMMUNITY
    Three words to describe students: Teaching's best part
    Four words to describe favorite games: Develop community through teamwork
    Five words to describe Reacting: Students arrive early, leave late

  • May 14, 2021 5:05 PM | Anonymous


    By: Kyle Lincoln
    Lecturer of History and International Studies
    Norwich University, VT, USA


    Having played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons in college, finding a group to play with in graduate school seemed like an important way to cope with working forty hours a week and taking a full slate of courses. Every week, a classmate and I would drive out to one of St. Louis’s suburbs to meet with another classmate—who has since left academia—and play for hours into the night, eventually driving home in the small hours of the morning, chatting about the stress of our position and how we might get out of jams, both real and fantastical. It’s hard to say whether that was what made one of our faculty mentors, a Jesuit priest who studied the minutiae of canon law in the saecula obscura get involved, but when he took notice of our conversations about twenty-sided dice, he invited us in to help with one of his undergraduate survey courses. We were assigned the roles of metics that had recently been enfranchised to the Athenian polis; we were off to the races.

    Looking back on that bit of small fortune, I think of how the class in question was in a classroom that was at the engineering end of campus; it was in a building that, to that point and since, I have never stepped foot in. Perhaps that’s what made the experience so transformative and fantastical; Vonnegut says that “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” Vonnegut was a humanist, but the punchline of travelling across campus to help with a Jesuit’s class would not have escaped him, I think.

    91% of American adults, in a clinical setting, have a longer attention span than I do. In colloquial terms, I’m somewhere between “moth” and “dead goldfish”—in several states, I may not be legally allowed to operate a toaster oven—and to say that traditional lecture courses were hard for me is an understatement. I drafted a fantasy baseball team in “Chemistry and Societal Issues” as an undergraduate, rolled characters in “Readings in Film” and only in Classical Language classes or Medieval History classes could I reasonably maintain any stream of focused attention. (The brain-eaters call this “hyperfocus” and it’s what the ‘H’ points to in AD(H)D.) The same was not the case for this Athenian assembly. I was hooked from that moment.

    They say that there is no zeal as white-hot as that of a convert. In my case, that might well be true. When sitting down to write this short introductory post for a blog that hopefully runs ad infinitum, I thought first about writing about the professional development workshops I’ve run and then about the multiplicity of Facebook posts that accompany any number of games. I then wondered how many different simulations that I had run in classes, including those in development. I got to fifteen before wondering how many more that I had played and realized that, in most cases, it doesn’t really matter how many were played.

    What matters is this: if the lord of Swamp Castle, in the 1974 epic Monty Python and the Holy Grail, admits to building three castles—the last of which was still standing—how many had he really tried to build? In concealing his failures to his son, whose marriage seemed as doomed by Launcelot’s intervention as it did the fitness of the match in question—no matter how huge the purported tracts of land might have been—how many of his other failings were covered up? In concealing to ourselves and our colleagues how many traditional lectures or formal discussions had not gone the way we wanted them, how much emotional energy were we emptying from ourselves to make the classroom as holy a space for us as it could be? It seems, to me, that my “dancing lessons from God” led me to build my own Swamp Castle after only two years of teaching on my own.

    If anything, the architectural triumph of Swamp Castle has been its staying power in so many different swamps. Community colleges in Fargo, North Dakota and the New College in Florida would not seem so similar, yet I know personally that both places have their own Swamp Castles. Jesuit Schools have Swamp Castles; the military academies—public and private—have Swamp Castles. There are Swamp Castles in Canada, New Zealand, and even in Indianola, Iowa, where one can buy a roasted cherry and goat cheese gelato for a reasonable price. The key was neither the swamp, nor the castle, but the determination to build where it seemed hopeless. Hope, though, is not just a college in Michigan, but rather a way of life for faculty in the Reacting community.

    As the first post that will go in this Blog, I pondered for quite a while what kind of post it should be, what themes I could point out, and how much of an editorial spin I wanted to put on any of these topics.

    Then, rather serendipitously, my dog’s tail knocked a copy of The Needs of Others from the textbook shelf in my home office. Having just finished teaching that wonderful simulation, I realized that even asking those questions was a set-up to a joke. One does not control a Reacting classroom, and an editor cannot control, influence, shape, smooth, cultivate, exfoliate, or provide reasonable and affordable home and auto insurance coverage for a Reacting Blog.

    So, what kind of Swamp Castle should we build next, colleagues?

    About the Author:
    Kyle C. Lincoln is a medieval Iberian historian. He has taught widely: at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo College, Webster University, Saint Louis University, and, most recently, at Norwich University (in Vermont). His publications have appeared in more than a dozen venues, and he currently serves on the Reacting Consortium’s Game Development Conference Committee and the Reacting to the Past Editorial Board.

    Blog Author Questionnaire:
    One word to describe faculty: 
    Convivial
    Two words to describe your school: Faculty Uniforms?
    Three words to describe students: Youths in Uniforms! 
    Four words to describe favorite games: Scheming within the Issues
    Five words to describe Reacting: GAME (Generally All-encompassing Masochistic Experience) 


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