It’s Greenwich Village, New York City. The year is 1913. Gathered together is a collection of suffragists, labor activists and Greenwich Village bohemians. The issue at hand is how best to sort out the conflicts and competing interests of these three distinct groups and convince others from the different groups to fight for their cause.
The debates are lively. The speakers are convincing. The verbal attacks are both personal and philosophical. A winning solution seems light years away. There’s just one wrinkle. All of this is taking place in present day, in Mary Berry Hall, at Simpson College.
Welcome to the world of Dr. Nick Proctor. A professor of history at Simpson, Proctor isn’t shy about his belief that history is best learned when it’s brought to life — literally.
“It puts contingency back into history,” Proctor said. “It helps students realize that history is made by people making choices. By doing this we’re focusing on the decisions, as opposed to just the outcomes of decisions. It makes history come alive more.”
For many of his classes, Proctor has adopted Reacting to the Past, a series of learning “games” based on real historical events that was launched by a faculty member at Barnard College. Students take on roles and blend what they’ve learned from readings and class discussions with the philosophical and intellectual beliefs of the historical figure they’ve been assigned to play.
“What you see in a setting like this is the discourse getting deeper and sharper,” Proctor said. “You learn it emotionally as well as intellectually. When you’re screaming for the King’s blood at the onset of the French Revolution, you get a whiff of what the revolutionary spirit is in a way that even a very fine book can’t convey.”
And Proctor has set the bar pretty high in this regard. It was his May Term class last year — in which students spent just three weeks plotting, outlining, writing and marketing the book “A History of the Great Zombie War” — that earned a healthy dose of press and rave reviews from students. That book project was inspired by the Humans vs. Zombies game that overtook the Simpson campus earlier in the year, which Proctor helped coordinate.
As a kid, Proctor always was drawn to these kinds of games, often war games that involved epic historical struggles. But he admits, he never knew how effective a tool it could be in the classroom. He never knew that his classroom could become an amphitheater in ancient Greece, the setting for America’s Constitutional Convention or a dive restaurant in Greenwich Village.
“It’s always interesting to see how students respond,” Proctor said. “They come to realize that a situation is never as simple as they thought it was. Plus, it’s fun. It gives you permission to be ridiculous. I completely reject the notion that learning, at this level, can’t or shouldn’t be fun.”
It can. Unless you’re a zombie.