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Minds on Fire

Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College

Mark C. Carnes
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 300
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  • Book Info
    Minds on Fire
    Book Description:

    Why are so many students intellectually disengaged? Mark Carnes says it is because students are so deeply absorbed in competitive social play. He shows how month-long role-immersion games in the curriculum can channel those competitive impulses into transformative learning experiences, and how bricks-and-mortar colleges can set young minds on fire.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-73560-6
    Subjects: Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. Debate at Dawn
    (pp. 1-16)

    “If it’s okay with you, Professor, can we begin class thirty minutes early?”

    Paul Fessler gaped. As an instructor and department chair, he had fielded plenty of odd questions, but this one floored him. Class normally started at 8:00 A.M.

    The strangeness had begun three weeks earlier, when Fessler replaced his usual Western Civ lectures with an elaborate role-playing game, one of dozens created by scholars in the Reacting to the Past consortium of colleges and universities.¹ Fessler had distributed role packets, assigning students to various political factions of the National Assembly of France in 1791. Students spent two weeks...

  4. CHAPTER 1 “All Classes Are Sorta Boring”
    (pp. 17-36)

    I was late for class, the last of the fall semester, 1995. As I made my way across campus, I leaned into a raw December wind. Leaves skittered along the brick walkway. A few clutched at my shoes and then slipped away. That’s how it was with students. They hurtled with manic energy toward uncertain futures while teachers plodded along a set path of professional advancement. Briefly, our lives intersected.

    As I entered a stately Georgian building, I looked at the clock above the door. It confirmed my tardiness. But I could do no better than a purposeful trudge up...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Subversive Play: The Bane of Higher Education
    (pp. 37-62)

    Henry Seidel Canby, a young English professor at Yale, had worked hard crafting a lecture on Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” and now his words swelled to a climax, powered by the meter of the poem. After the final cadence, he abruptly announced, “That’s all for today.”

    Stunned, the students sat in silence. Canby would never forget that moment—a “somnolent afternoon” when orioles flitted through the trees and a grass-cutter clattered on the college lawn. A few students quietly slipped out of the room. For a time Canby basked “in the pleasant glow of successful...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Creating an Academic Subversive Play World
    (pp. 63-86)

    The issue raised at the outset of this book—why Nate and his classmates volunteered to attend a class before sunrise—now has an obvious answer. As the French Revolution game approached the final weeks, Nate explained, everyone had gotten caught up in the drama. Imagine, he said, a heated debate with friends over stem cell research or abortion; then superimpose on that debate the final minutes of a close basketball game. That was how Reacting felt. “It was a story that required closure, a game that needed completion,” he added. To end it early would be like walking out...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Critical Thinking and Our Selves
    (pp. 87-123)

    “Shalom,” “Fareeda” (a pseudonym) said with a broad smile, her face framed by a polka-dotted black hijab. “I apologize for my lateness. Some of my chickens and lambs ran astray and I was trying to bring them back home.”¹

    Some giggles, a few guffaws.

    “But that is the issue I want to talk about today. Bringing the Jews back to their ancestral homeland.”

    Fareeda was playing David Ben-Gurion in a Reacting game set in Palestine in 1936, when British commissioners had been sent to end the escalating violence between Jewish settlers and Arab Palestinians. A bright student with sparkling eyes...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Overcoming the Silence of the Students
    (pp. 124-150)

    As I settled into my seat in the back of the room, I pulled out the class roster for the first session of a game set in Athens in 403 B.C.E. The previous year Athens had surrendered to Sparta, a calamitous end to three decades of war. The Spartan army installed a group of dictators, soon known as the Thirty Tyrants, who butchered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Athenian democrats. But some demo crats eluded the death squads and fled to the mountains north of Athens. There they raised an army and resumed the war against Sparta and the Thirty Tyrants....

  9. CHAPTER 6 Learning by Failing
    (pp. 151-180)

    “I’m not going to lose,” “Madeline” (a pseudonym) declared. Two weeks earlier, she had been excited to be selected first grand secretary of the Emperor Wanli. But before lunch her meeting with the Ming empire’s top literati had gone badly.

    Now she was worried she might lose the game.

    “The odds are against you,” I said. “In history the emperor lost and his critics won.”

    “Still,” she said, “I’m not going to lose.”

    She set her jaw and fidgeted with the straps on her book bag.

    “I’ve never failed at anything,” she added, voice wavering.

    Then her eyes moistened and...

  10. CHAPTER 7 Building Community and Global Citizenship
    (pp. 181-206)

    “I hate you.”

    We were in the school cafeteria and she was sitting to my right, at the end of the table. The three students opposite me, members of Governor Winthrop’s faction inThe Trial of Anne Hutchinson,exchanged glances. They had waved me over as I was walking through the student cafeteria on the way to the faculty dining room. As I approached, they urged me to join them. I sat down and they peppered me with questions: “How did individual Puritans determine whether God had chosen them to be among His saints?” “How did they know a revelation...

  11. CHAPTER 8 Inculcating Morality and Empathy (!)
    (pp. 207-227)

    “Slavery is a positive good.”

    James, standing, clutched the pages of his speech with both hands. His classmates, seated around him in a large half circle, fell silent. Behind him, through an expanse of windows, the hills of Ypsilanti, Michigan, sloped toward the Huron River.¹

    “These laborers fuel the engine of commerce,” he declared, and then listed the economic benefits of slavery. He gestured toward a book “allegedly written by Frederick Douglass” that had appeared in print just last year. Whether Douglass had written the book credited to him, or whether the stories it related were true, James had no...

  12. CHAPTER 9 Teaching Leadership through Teamwork
    (pp. 228-245)

    “I will never forget the smell of burning bodies.”

    Beyond that, Mateso Mbala-Nkanga would say no more. She had been a young girl when troops from Rwanda and Sudan invaded mineral-rich Kinshasa and drove thousands of Congolese from their homes. Some of Mateso’s friends were killed and others vanished. Mateso and her immediate family escaped through Gabon and eventually settled near Detroit. A decade later, Mateso enrolled at Eastern Michigan University.

    During the first semester, her history professor assigned her the role of John Ross, principal chief of the Cherokee nation in a Reacting game set in 1835. The Cherokee...

  13. CHAPTER 10 Teaching the Past by Getting It Wrong?
    (pp. 246-270)

    The bill of his Mets hat, tilted upward, was twisted halfway around his head. “His name is Juan,” Barbara Waldinger whispered, sitting next to me in the back row of her classroom at Queens College in New York City. Her students were midway throughThe Trial of Anne Hutchinson.Juan was John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. I recalled the famous painting of Winthrop, hatless, wavy black hair spilling over a starched Elizabethan ruff. I wondered what the Puritan leader would have made of the young man who was now walking—no, loping—toward the front of the...

  14. CHAPTER 11 The Strange World outside the Box
    (pp. 271-298)

    When Barnard president Judith Shapiro asked me to explain Reacting to her science advisory panel, a group of esteemed scientists and physicians, it seemed like a good idea. But as I walked to the podium, I wasn’t so sure. During the preceding thirty minutes I had watched in mounting horror as these formidable scientists grilled a tenured scientist about his new course. What would they make of a historian’s proposal to teach science through role-immersion games?

    As I stood at the podium, perspiration trickling down my neck, I outlined the general concept of Reacting. When I saw the same stony...

  15. Socrates at Sunset
    (pp. 299-302)

    The semester was drawing to a close and, as had happened with Nate Gibson’s French Revolution class, my class’s game on woman suffrage and radical labor would end before it had reached a proper conclusion. We needed additional classes to complete the game. While Nate and his peers had volunteered to come to extra early morning sessions, my students chose an extra class in the evening.

    Aviva Buechler, who played Mabel Dodge, a socialite patron of radical causes, offered to host a “salon” at her “mansion” on Fifth Avenue on Saturday evening. Though I would be out of town, I...

    (pp. 305-307)
  17. NOTES
    (pp. 308-367)
    (pp. 368-372)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 373-387)