A comprehensive Intergration of Role Playing into Latin American History

CLAH Newsletter, vol. 30, no. 2 (Fall 1994)
Teaching and Teaching Materials Committee

The Teaching Column has periodically featured descriptions and reading lists of Latin American history courses. Stuart Voss presents here an example from his courses at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh which uses role-playing to engage students. Although this column plans to continue sharing novel course syllabi and reading lists with CLAH newsletter readers, technology has overtaken us a bit. In that spirit, Phil Mueller, H-LATAM moderator based at Tulane University, has provided a short description of how to access syllabi via the electronic highway. We urge CLAH members both to send their course syllabi to H-LATAM and to access this source.

Teresa Meade, Chair, Teaching and Teaching Materials Committee.

It began about 15 years ago as a limited attempt to have students interact in class more directly through playing roles of character types they had encountered in their readings and lectures. It has, periodically and cumulatively, developed into an integrated core learning experience in all of my Latin American history courses, both introductory and upper-level. Through this evolutionary process I have come to be able to give my students a variety of differing learning experiences and assist them in improving (or acquiring) skills of analysis, reading,writing, and verbal expression. The devising of this teaching method has been mainly driven by responding to student suggestions.
The Integrated Role-Playing Method: The fundamental building block is the creation of a family sequentially through the course, by each student individually. The periodization of each course determines the stages of the family histories being created. Usually, the end point of the period coincides with an important historical event or watershed. Students are asked to create their specific character (and accompanying family) on the basis of four criteria: gender, occupation/social strata, race/ethnicity,and region. They are to weave the personal experiences of the family into the larger historical circumstances and events. They can choose real historical personages for family members, but they generally create more generic types (a female casta shopkeeper in Mexico City, for example).
For each period (section) of the course, students draw upon material from the general readings and lectures that apply to their chosen character (family). More particularly, each selects an article from a historical journal that provides more detailed information and then abstracts it (graded assignment, 150-250 words). The student then writes a biographical sketch of their family during the period under study (ungraded, but critiqued assignment, 300-500 words). With their characters thus created, the students come together in a role-playing session, with the instructor as the moderator (royal visitador, president of the convention, etc.) and usually a specific theme chosen (1790–the Bourbon Reforms). Points are given each time they speak, varying according to the quality of their contribution. In most settings (especially post-independence), the drafting, debating, and voting of resolutions is appropriate, with points awarded to the drafters.

At the end of the course, before finals, the students are asked to write a cumulative analytical essay (graded assignment of 1500-2000 words) in which they synthesize why and how their families have developed as they have over the course of the semester. They have been creating them sequentially; now they are asked to see them from a long perspective, as the product of the general history they have studied. One student in my colonial survey last year, for example, began as a wife of Atahualpa, the Inca emperor, and ended as the domestic servant and lover of an independence leader in Bogota. Reviewing the history of the family for her mestiza daughter (which provided the creative form for the essay), the lesson for her family was that though her Indian family had stubbornly clung to their heritage and survived, a new age was dawning in which that heritage should be abandoned and a new foundation–as a person of mixed ancestry–should be adopted.

Obligations for the Instructor: The written assignments to be reviewed and graded are many. To help assist the students in the creation of their families, one must be willing to read more diverse regional and local studies, being prepared to refer them to specific articles or to suggest possible lifestyle changes and connections to events and trends. In the role-playing sessions, one must be creative and flexible, prepared to open up areas of debate, moderate conflicts, and reinforce salient points that have been made (often through humor).

What the Students Take Away from the Integrated Role-Playing Experience: On a skills level (especially for introductory classes), students become acquainted with an area to which they are all too often little exposed: the micro worlds illuminated by local and regional studies contained in historical journals. Moreover, they learn how to read abstractly as they abstract the article in writing. Most students I teach know little more than how to scan reading for memorization of details. The biographical sketches allow them to work on the creative aspects of their writing. The role-playing sharpens their verbal expression. Many of my students have never had to participate so actively in class (especially in the give and take of debate with fellow students). Student evaluations have uniformly commented on the improvement of these learning skills.

More fundamentally, through this integrated role-playing process, students come to see history in three different (and for them, generally, novel) ways.
1. They see the history they are studying from a particular perspective, that of their family, and they listen to other, varied perspectives in the role-playing sessions, perceiving conflicts, contradictions, and commonalties.
2. They are forced to a take a long view of the history they are studying, with their own individual ownership in doing so, especially as they reflect back on why their family has turned out as it has.
3. Creating their families sequentially, they are encouraged to see that history is series of options or choices to be taken, each with its consequences, cumulatively creating that history.

Hopefully, these three understandings about history will come together in a more fundamental understanding: that they are part of their own society’s history, viewing and participating in it from a particular perspective, being part of a long process, and choosing from the options that the times and the society in which they live have made possible. To hear of those understandings in verbal revelations in and outside of class, to read of them in course evaluations, makes the greater demands on instruction more than worthwhile.

Stuart F. Voss
State University of New York–Plattsburgh