The place: Athens, Greece. The year: 403 B.C.
Athens has given in to Sparta after a long war, its navy defeated and its protective walls demolished. Democratic forces are on the rise. The Athenians are gathered to forge a new constitution.
Erin Nolen, a radical Democrat, makes an impassioned plea: "The Athenian Navy we take so much pride in is the strongest navy anyone has ever seen. We must continue what was our strength and rebuild it."
"We don't have enough money right now," counters Sarah Smith, a member of the Oligarchy, an elitist party believing Athens should be controlled by a few powerful families.
From the back of the room, University of Georgia classics professor Nancy Felson smiles. Her class is engaged in debate, caught up in the political discourse of ancient Greece. The students are learning. And they are having fun in the process.
UGA is one of only three public institutions in the country offering Reacting to the Past, a teaching method that puts students in charge of the classroom instead of in auditorium seats taking notes. Similar to other forms of role play that have been used in many levels of education, Reacting to the Past was created a decade ago at Barnard College in New York and has swept through private, liberal arts institutions. So far, UGA, the University of Texas and Queens College, part of the City University of New York, are the only public schools that have adopted the curriculum.
Felson taught the first UGA class using the technique last fall.
"No one was absent the whole semester, which I've never experienced before," she said.
Barnard history professor Mark Carnes created Reacting to the Past after he realized both he and his students were bored with traditional teaching methods. He devised a series of games, based on critical moments in history and classical literature. Students are given a course outline and assigned roles. They research their positions and come to class prepared to re-enact historic scenes and win strategic debates against their classmates.
"Students, especially this generation, are caught up in themselves," Carnes said. "Reacting liberates them by putting them into a different world and allowing them to feel what it's like to be free from their preoccupations."
Carnes and fellow scholars have published 11 games. Eight more are in the works. Titles range from "The American Revolution in New York City, 1775-76" to "Kansas Board of Education, 1999: Evolution and Creationism."
A class that meets for three hours a week usually can cover two games a semester, often in different areas of study. Felson, a classics professor, is leading "The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 B.C." In the second half of the semester, UGA history professor Laura Mason will lead the same class through "Rousseau, Burke and Revolution in France, 1791."
Assigned texts include basic history of the time. Felson's students discussed Plato's "The Republic" before the game began. Then Felson assigned their roles.
Once the game begins, the instructor moves to the back of the room and lets the students take charge. One student serves as assembly president, charged with keeping order among the Athenians and recognizing those who wish to speak.
The arguments can get heated.
"If Athens were to mount an expedition, we would be committing suicide," said Lawrence Li, a member of the Socratic party, which follows the teachings of the philosopher Socrates, shunning wealth and power.
Insulted, Nolen — the radical Democrat — fired back: "You're dishonoring the glory of the soldier citizens. You're dishonoring our city."
In a typical class most students speak at least once, and many present speeches arguing their position. Many say they spend several hours a week reading to prepare. Students also meet between classes with other members of their assigned factions to discuss strategy.
Students are forced to do their homework because if they don't, they will look stupid in front of their classmates, Felson said.
"I've learned a lot more here than I've learned in history classes in the past," said Catherine Hay, a freshman from Myrtle Beach, S.C. "You grasp so much more when you're role playing."
The students learn about ancient Greece and hone their public speaking skills. In addition, they often are forced to play roles that conflict with their personal beliefs.
Chuck Cohen, a freshman from Marietta who is playing an Oligarch, found himself in the uncomfortable role of arguing against women's rights.
"I had to argue that women were inferior to men," said Cohen, who says his personal political views are liberal. "I couldn't go more than five minutes without laughing."
In the spring, UGA will again offer "The Threshold of Democracy," paired with "Rousseau, Burke and Revolution in France," as well as a second reacting class that will pair "Confucianism and the Succession Crisis of the Wanli Emperor, 1587" with "The Trial of Anne Hutchinson: Liberty, Law, and Intolerance in Puritan New England."
In May, Felson and classics professor Keith Dix will take a class of honors students to Greece to play "The Threshold of Democracy" in the ancient city where the action is set.
That will add another dimension to the experience, Carnes said. He once received a postcard from a former student who had visited Athens after taking his class. She had stood among ruins where Socrates was believed to have written and had been moved to tears, he said.
"In my mind, Socrates is alive," the student wrote to Carnes. "Thank you for making Socrates real to me."