Letter to the editor: In defense of historical re-enactment assignments

The Old Capitol Building on the University of Iowa Pentacrest. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Submitted Aug. 29

By Catherine A. Stewart, Professor of History, Cornell College

I was dismayed to read the article in the Gazette, “University of Iowa redesigning assignment that asked students to be ‘a slave or slave master’” (8/28/2020) by Vanessa Miller, regarding a student’s objection launched on social media to an assignment in Dr. Leslie Schwalm’s History of Slavery course. I feel compelled to offer a broader historical and pedagogical context for assignments that ask students to inhabit and write from the perspective of historical figures as a way of engaging them in the historian’s craft, such as this one that apparently asked students to write from the perspective of an enslaved individual or an enslaver. This educational method has been used effectively and with increasing popularity with students and the general public to facilitate a deeper understanding of key historical events. Living history museums, historic sites such as Colonial Williamsburg, Barnard’s celebrated and widely used role-playing games “Reacting to the Past,” teachers, and educational organizations such as Kamau Kambui’s Underground Railroad Reenactments, have all turned to different forms of historical re-enactment with varying degrees of success.

To be sure, this approach does engender controversy at times, and stories of hurtful implementations of role-playing by docents or educators who are not sufficiently skilled, knowledgeable or emotionally attuned to the potential misuse of this method have exposed the ways it can unfortunately result in microaggressions and a reinforcement of the very hierarchies this method is meant to expose and critique. However, when designed and applied with skill by a knowledgeable scholar and gifted educator such as Professor Schwalm, this type of assignment encourages creative empathy in students and the public for the experiences of the enslaved and a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics of power and terror in a specific historical context. Asking students to use their imagination to momentarily inhabit the world view and perspective of a historic individual is not just a means of engaging students in the study of history, it is what historians do, every day, in the course of their own research and scholarship.

As a historian I am familiar with Dr. Schwalm’s outstanding scholarship and her exceptional leadership and activism in the struggle for social and economic justice across multiple communities and intersecting vectors of race, gender, class and sexuality. Learning communities must be built and nurtured by students and faculty and are not well-served by the viral soundbites of Twitter and Instagram. Professor Schwalm has demonstrated with humility, grace and aplomb that she is more than willing to engage in sincere and honest reflection and discussion and that she is willing to learn from her students. I hope they are equally willing to learn from her.

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