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History role playing reinforces sociology concepts

Dec 14, 2023

KOKOMO, Ind. — A life (figuratively) hung in the balance, as students in an Indiana University Kokomo class debated the fate of abolitionist John Brown.

Brandi Keith, adjunct faculty member, led a Reacting to the Past role playing game to wrap up the fall semester, and allow students to see the concepts they learned in Introduction to Sociology play out in a realistic scenario.

Her goal is for students to gain understanding of a historical event by putting them in the shoes of those who experienced it.

“We connect how what happened during this time led to where we are today as a society,” she said. “We look at what has changed and what still needs to change. We also talk about how similar things may be happening now, or what if something similar is happening now.

“Ideally, I want them to know why it is important to understand historical events, to be engaged in the history we are a part of now, practice their communication skills, do a bit of research, and see many of the terms and concepts we have covered in the course come to life.”

During the class, students played roles in the aftermath of Brown’s raid and incitement of a slave rebellion in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. They included politicians trying to curry favor with voters, northern abolitionists who wanted Brown to be freed, and Virginians who wanted him executed.

Each student received background information on the situation, along with background on their own role in the scenario.

For two days, students gave speeches from their characters’ perspectives, arguing for why Brown should be executed or sentenced to life in prison.

Sophomore Seth Ireland portrayed Virginia Governor Henry Wise, who was trying to appease citizens of his own state without jeopardizing his own presidential ambitions. After meeting with students in the abolitionist roles, who offered to turn themselves in if he spared Brown’s life, Ireland decided to commute the sentence of execution to life in prison without parole, so Brown would not become a martyr for the abolitionists’ cause.

However, most of the Virginians had to agree to that, and they refused any plan that did not end with Brown’s execution.

The class followed the path of history, and Brown was sentenced to hang.

Ireland explained they weren’t just re-enacting history – they were considering what would happen if things were a little different.

“I felt a little slimy playing my character,” he said of the governor. “He honestly didn’t care if Brown lived or died. He just didn’t want to make the northerners angry because he wanted to be president. It was weird playing that. My goal was the numbers game, of who I needed to keep on my side for my own goals.”

Keith noted that Wise lost support for a presidential bid after the situation, leading his party to decide it was better to nominate an unknown candidate with few enemies. They chose Abraham Lincoln, whose nomination led to the succession of the southern states, followed by civil war.

Freshman Katie Yocum said the role playing game helped her understand concepts from the class.

“We were against each other about how this person should face justice, and that helped me relate the conflict perspective,” she said, adding that it pushed her to learn more. “When you get into the game and you have the mindset of ‘I want to win,” you’re inclined to do research and go deeper into it.”

Education is KEY at Indiana University Kokomo.

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