History courses can cover a very broad range of eras, wars, continents, and everything in between.

While many history classes have been rooted in lecturing and reading for students to consume historical information, a more recent format of this type of curriculum is through a concept called Reacting to the Past (RTTP), also called 'reactive learning.' This fall, Saint Leo University offered such a history course taught by Dr. Padraig Lawlor, an assistant professor of history at the university.

The Genesis of a Unique History Course

According to Lawlor, there were several factors he accounted for in developing this history course, formally called HTY 300: Regicides, Rebellions, and Revolutions.

"We wanted to take both micro and macro revolutions and teach a variety of them," Lawlor explains. "Too often, the French and Scientific Revolutions are the focal point. We wanted to also explore smaller rebellions and revolts throughout history. In our research, we found that students wanted to look at revolutions not typically studied much. Honestly, some of these topics are normally taught in grad school."

Moving away from the traditional lecture-based format was a big goal for Lawlor in this class as well.

"One of my colleagues I went to grad school with, Dr. Matthew Schownir, was raving about this type of role-playing learning. He is currently a history professor at Lincoln Land Community College in Illinois. I spoke to him and got some great advice on how to structure such a class."

Defining the Main Events Studied in the Class

Lawlor says there are some similarities among the three types of historical events that the students examined in this history course.

"Revolutions involve the forceful overthrowing of types of governments or social orders. Rebellions are in the same ballpark but at a smaller level. A regicide is the action of killing a king."

Key eras of study included the 1400 to 1700 timeframe in which the Scientific Revolution and early regicides occurred to more established revolutions from 1700 to the present, such as the Haitian and French Revolutions. However, the students also looked at other smaller topics like the Transylvanian peasant revolt, the Belgian Revolution, and even medical revolutions.

"Each of these events has involved Encounters between human populations who perceive the differences that separate them to be greater than the similarities that unite them," Lawlor explains.

Getting Students Out of Their Shell

One major aspect of the class was to help students become more comfortable speaking about and debating various subjects.

"In a lot of history courses, students are often shy to speak their opinions. My teaching style is to knock down traditional barriers. I believe that a student's opinion matters just as much as mine. The idea of having students portray different characters put them in scenarios in which they can learn so much. It really places the students in the mindset of these individual characters in history. Plus, it keeps them proactive with reading and learning. When they're 'attacked' by a student portraying another character, it creates a unique dynamic."

This 'reacting curriculum' involves immersive role-playing games which actively engage students in their own learning. Students took on the roles of historical characters.

"Students chose the characters they were playing through a random lottery draw, even after I asked them whether they wanted to choose their own characters. This throws a whole different aspect into the game. Some students wound up playing characters who were very much against their own personal opinions. This really challenged them to think critically."
According to Lawlor, the students seemed to adopt their roles quite well.

"These were high-spirited conversations. At times, the students were really going at it with strong opinions. But it's all designed to be positive and engaging."

He adds that several polarizing topics like religion, women's rights, minority rights, and slave rights all came up and sparked plenty of thoughtful comments.

In spite of the class being a hybrid format with two rotating groups of students in the classroom and on Zoom, there were very few hiccups in the discussions from a technical standpoint.

"I like to joke that I'm the DJ in these hybrid classes because I can mute and unmute the students on Zoom," Lawlor says with a laugh.

Student Perspectives

This particular class had 16 students. Emma Crafton, a 22-year-old senior in the class, is also captain of the Saint Leo women's lacrosse team and vice president of the Phi Alpha Theta history honor society chapter on campus. She is majoring in history with a minor in criminal justice.

One of the historical figures she portrayed was Gerard de Lally-Tollendal, a French politician.

"I did some general research on him and what he was doing leading up to, during, and after the French Revolution to figure out which side he was on."

She says the biggest concept she learned was that all revolutions are similar when looked at more closely.

"Although all revolutions look different on the outside, when you get to the core reasons as to why they happened, they all happened for the same reasons. People want certain freedoms and rights and when they don't have them, they usually try to change that."

According to Crafton, the role-playing activities have been very impactful and unique.

"They are such a refreshing and fun way to learn about history. I enjoyed everyone putting themselves into the period and really committing to their roles. It's fun to put ourselves into the time and pretend we are taking part in the revolutions and that we can change the way the events played out."

She adds that she has thoroughly enjoyed having Dr. Lawlor as a professor.

"He is a great professor. He's very engaging, knowledgeable, as well as incredibly kind and funny."

Another student in the class, Alexander Tomberlin, is a 20-year-old senior history major. He portrayed Maximilien Robespierre in the French Revolution role-playing activity.

"It was a lot of fun getting in character as such an interesting figure. You have to get into the mindset of your character. I had to be someone obsessed with liberty and justice, willing to obtain it at any cost. I did a lot of studying to better understand him, including reading some of his speeches and writings. While he was a man who believed in liberty, he also had a psychotic side that I tried to emulate. When the game ended in the favor of the opposing faction, I announced, in character, that I was starting a coup d'état and was going to have the other characters executed for daring to defy the republic."

He says the role-playing activities have given him a whole new perspective.

"I feel like this type of activity is one of the best ways to understand the past, as you must put yourself in the shoes of people with very different situations and mindsets than your own. You really get a feel for how people in such different times saw the world and reacted to events."

Tomberlin adds that the approach to this course has been unlike any others he's taken.

"It is much more personal than any lecture-based class, and I feel like this is a useful and entertaining way to learn about the past."

Like Crafton, he agrees that the instructor was fantastic.

"Dr. Lawlor is one of the best teachers I have ever had. He has such a deep understanding of European history, and he teaches it in a very engaging way."

John Macht, a senior history major, portrayed a heliocentric professor in the Galileo game sessions and Stanislas Marie Adélaïde, the Count of Clermont, for the French Revolution activity.

"I prepared by thoroughly reading our assigned readings, searching for historical background info, and relying on my admittedly strong historical knowledge to make a strong impression in the class debate sessions," Macht says.

The 22-year-old offers up his view on the unique format of this history course.

"I enjoyed how exciting this class was. Debating with other students was a lot of fun. It was a refreshing change of pace from lecture-based classes. It was an intellectually stimulating experience, and there was definitely a lot less fidgeting in my seat this class since I had to be on my toes."

He says that Lawlor made the whole experience work so well.

"He is open-minded and respectful of any viewpoint so long as you can provide evidence. He engages well with the students and accommodates his classes. I would totally recommend him to any student interested in taking a history course."

Supporting Students in Their Writing

While the role-playing game sessions were one major component of the course, there were several other activities and assignments. Students had to write a paper on a specific revolution of their choice. This paper-writing process can often be isolating for some students, but Lawlor is proud to offer a paper review process as a way of guiding them in the right direction as they develop their content.

"The students could submit drafts of their papers throughout the semester," Lawlor explains. "It's a way to ensure they're not alone on their paper and the research process. I certainly don't hold their hands, but I am there for appointments and to review what they've done as a pillar to lean on if they need help. I also point them to resources in the library and our CAVE. One big benefit to attending Saint Leo is our small ratio of students to faculty, allowing us as instructors to spend more time with our students."

The Major Benefits of a Role-Playing Class

Ultimately, while Lawlor certainly wants his students to learn the material they are studying, he points to several ways in which a history course like this will benefit students in their future careers.

"This class really helps students improve their oral communication and presentation skills. If you get up in front of people either in person or virtually and have to sell them on an idea, product, or service, you have to do it through both proper speech and charisma. They're also learning about the consequences of speech and thinking about every word they say and how others might interpret it."

He believes such activities can also help students in job interviews and numerous other scenarios.

"They learn how to react and think quickly on their feet. They also learn how to prepare for important discussions and what to know ahead of time going into a challenging discussion."

Learn more about this history course in the video below

The below video is from the Nov. 13, 2020 class period in which the students were in the midst of the French Revolution game session. The primary topic of this session was active vs. passive citizenship and rights based on this argument.