Being Nehru for 2 Days

In the first of a three-part series, a professor looks at the use of simulation games in the classroom

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July 21, 2014

Simla, India. 1945. With both hope and trepidation in my heart, I strode to the podium and surveyed the representatives of the various political parties in the room. Off to the left, my fellow members of the Indian National Congress gave me supportive smiles. To my right, the members of the Muslim League eyed me skeptically, none more so than Muhammad Ali Jinnah, with whom I so fundamentally disagreed about the future of our great nation. At the front of the room sat two British governors general, who had tasked all of us at the conference with constructing a framework for Indian self-government in preparation for their 1947 departure from our beloved nation.

My task, as Jawaharlal Nehru, a prominent Hindu member of the Indian National Congress, was a remarkably complex one. I had to find a way to convince all of these constituencies that a united India represented our best path forward, and that we could devise a solution to satisfy the desires of the Hindu majority, the Muslim minority, and the host of other, smaller minorities and invested parties who had joined us in the room. If I could not succeed in doing so, my homeland would splinter apart. Worse still, the potential for explosive violence lay just beneath the surface of almost every decision we made.

More on the series

I made my speech. My fellow Indian National Congress leaders did the same. The Muslim League leaders then responded with their own speeches. Neither side convinced the other; the day ended in frustration. The next morning, back in the conference room, the governors general proposed a compromise framework for a federated India that none of us liked. I broke from my party and sought to negotiate individually with the Muslim League, hoping that we could find enough common ground to prevent partition.

Eventually, though, we reached an impasse on the question of whether we would have a strong national army. It seemed like such a small detail to me, but Jinnah would not budge, and everything fell apart. The negotiations had all been in vain—and in the meantime, I had lost sight of my fellow Congress members and left other minority constituencies in the room feeling slighted.

As I sat with the Congress at the end of the day, all of us expressing our despair at the failure of our mission, and wondering if we could salvage the conference through some new stratagem, the game master—otherwise known as Ian McNeely, a professor of history and associate dean for undergraduate education at the University of Oregon—stepped to the front of the room and waved his hands over us.

"I release you from your roles," he said. "So let’s talk about what happened over the past two days."

And yet in spite of this injunction, or perhaps benediction, it was difficult to let go. Even as the Congress’s president, Abul Kalam Azad, transformed back into Patrick Coby, a professor of government at Smith College, and I returned to being a professor of English, we continued to analyze the compromise framework proposed by the British, noting which items needed further clarification. If only they had given us just a little more time. ...

As McNeely continued to nudge us out from our game roles and into a post-mortem discussion, he pointed out that we had learned one of the most fundamental lessons of this game, which is one of many historical-simulation games produced under the auspices of Reacting to the Past, a teaching methodology pioneered by Mark Carnes, a professor of history at Barnard College.

From its humble beginnings in Carnes’s history classrooms in the 1990s, Reacting to the Past has blossomed into a major approach to higher-education pedagogy, with multiple annual conferences, a publication program, extensive faculty networks, and thousands of pages of game materials and resources. My game partners and I, all of us faculty members, had gathered at Barnard’s annual Reacting to the Past conference. We played "Defining a Nation: India on the Eve of Independence, 1945," which comes with a published game book, instructor manual, source readings for each character, and extensively developed role sheets.

The players in our particular game, McNeely explained, experienced firsthand the almost impossible situation in which the historical participants in the Indian postindependence process found themselves. When American students play the game (McNeely has taught it multiple times at Oregon), their first instinct is to propose a United-States-like federated union to satisfy everyone’s desires. But doing so takes too lightly the deeply held religious and political convictions of some of the conference participants, or the simple fact that—in the game, as in real life—some people are less willing than others to negotiate or compromise. Not everyone gets along.

I experienced that myself in the game. The reading I had done in preparation for my role as Nehru convinced me that he was a consummate politician, someone willing to negotiate and compromise, and so I entered into my dialogue with Jinnah and the Muslim League expecting that we could find common ground in the search for a united India. Jinnah, in the game as in real life, did not want a united India. He wanted an independent Muslim nation. All of my negotiating tactics broke against the wall of his desire.

But that lesson about the challenges faced by those responsible for India’s fate was just one of the many I learned over the course of the two-day historical simulation in which I participated. I walked out of the room at the end of that second day with an expanded understanding of the history of India, with new insights into the nature of nationhood and national identity, and with a strong motivation to continue my learning. I have already ordered books on the lives and writings of Gandhi, Nehru, and other key figures of Indian history.

I am not sure I have ever had a deeper learning experience than at that conference. And that’s saying something, given that, as a professor of 20th-century British literature, I have been teaching the partition of India for many years.

The deep learning I experienced at this annual conference at Barnard, which aims to acquaint faculty members with the teaching methodology of Reacting to the Past and expose them to a variety of potential games to incorporate into their own courses, was a truncated version of what students get in a real course.

Professors who use games in the series might include one or two of them over the course of a semester. Each game typically lasts four to six weeks. Reacting to the Past also offers materials for short, "chapter-length" games, which can last from a single class period to a week, but most faculty members who use the methodology favor the longer versions. Professors build content-based classes around the games, use them to break up a conventional course, or play them in skill-based courses in writing or honors programs.

Every skeptical thought you might have about this teaching approach, I can assure you, I had coming into the conference. I don’t play games on my phone or the computer. If you ask me to role-play in a conference panel, I will slink quietly from the room. But once I overcame some initial anxiety and reluctance to step into my assigned role, I was swept into it by the energy of my fellow participants, by the fascinating nature of the problem we were trying to solve, and by the learning I had begun to experience long before the game started.

Of the several hundred pages of advance reading we received, I was already familiar with perhaps half of the material. But now I was reading with a goal in mind: Understand Nehru, understand the challenges he faced, and think about how to use the writings of Gandhi and Azad and others to change my fellow players’ minds. The goal-directed nature of the reading not only brought the history and ideas into sharper focus but also led me to revisit the texts and revise my ideas. Whenever a new challenge faced me or the other representatives of the National Congress, we had to look back at our core texts and find ideas and information that could help us.

That fundamental feature of the game overcame the few drawbacks I found in Reacting to the Past as a teaching methodology. (I will take up at least one of those drawbacks in the conclusion of this three-part series.) To assume a role successfully, players must constantly engage and re-engage with the course readings, and then use those readings in the speeches and papers they produce (typically the graded portions of the game) as well as in the politicking and negotiations that form an essential part of every Reacting game.

As faculty members, we have all seen students engage with course material superficially. They can be reluctant to revise their work and rethink their ideas. From my own experience in the game, and from the testimony of every faculty member with whom I spoke at this conference, Reacting to the Past pushes students into the kind of deep learning that comes from revision and rethinking. When students play the games, they read, they reread, they reread again. And many of them go far beyond the required readings. They conduct independent research in order to help them achieve their game objectives. They engage in collaborative learning, meeting with their factions or teams in their dorms, hallways, and coffee shops.

In next month’s column, with the help of an expert on games and learning, I will delve into the mechanics of Reacting to the Past, focusing on how the games work and on their increasing popularity. Games are now played on hundreds of campuses in the United States and abroad, in disciplines ranging from chemistry to philosophy, in community colleges and Ivy League institutions, in classes large and small.

Meanwhile, you can read Mark Carnes’s account of his development of Reacting to the Past in a previous edition of The Chronicle, or Adeline Koh’s brief account of her experiences at the 2012 Reacting to the Past conference, which she concludes with a list of resources for learning more about the games.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, in Worcester, Mass. His most recent book is Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty (Harvard University Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter at @LangOnCourse.