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Can (Role-) Playing the French Revolution En Français Also Teach the Eighteenth Century?

Peggy Schaller

Introduction | Changing the Game with a Game | Roles | Readings | Rules | Results | Post-Mortem

The Game: Rules, Ruses, and Rhetoric

The last class prior to commencing the game included a brief informal session that sought to acclimatize students to game-based interaction. Having read their role sheets before our meeting, students were to use class time to align themselves with their fellow faction members, solidifying their similarities to determine social and political objectives. At the same time they were to begin evaluating differences and similarities with players outside their factions, thereby ascertaining the possibilities of establishing strategic relationships with potential allies. Since the students needed to connect with others whose backgrounds and desires supported their own aims for the newly forming State, they seemed to interact at a reasonable level, content to be milling around the class and getting to know each other. The anxiety of the game and its somewhat intricate and unfamiliar format put them all on an equal footing of discomfort, affording excellent opportunities for engagement. Hopefully, their anxiety in adopting this new approach, a feeling of loss that Maryellen Weimer describes as a common reaction to learning-centered teaching, would not manifest itself in student resistance to the process itself (152–53). To me they asked process questions about their behaviors (“On peut parler aux autres groupes?”) [“Can we talk to the other groups?”], but to each other they were more direct: “Tu comprends ce que nous devons faire?” [“Do you understand what we’re supposed to be doing?”]. The chatter was encouraging, and the game seemed as though it was off to a good start; at least they were clearly engaged in uncovering each other’s roles and determining strategies.

As we prepared to move into the setting of the National Assembly, several guidelines were established to ensure that students were as prepared as possible for the overall learning experience.9 First, a list of daily topics was established and given to the president of the assembly to distribute before each class (Addendum 5). This gave the students a clear idea of what section of the debated constitution to read for vocabulary and content, thus keeping the target in focus and (hopefully) ensuring a productive discussion. Prior to the second class, for example, the students received notice of the topic du jour: “La deuxième session du jeu: La constitution civile du clergé, 2e partie: Est-ce que le clergé catholique doit prêter le serment obligatoire d’obéissance à la France et à l’Assemblée nationale, et devenir des employés payés par l’État qui est dirigé par l’Assemblée nationale? Est-ce que on doit amener en justice ceux qui refusent de prêter le serment ?” [“The second game session: The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, part 2: Should the Catholic clergy swear a mandatory oath of allegiance to France and the National Assembly and become paid employees of the State which is governed by the National Assembly? Should those who refuse to swear be arrested?”]. Announcing the topic, citing the particular primary source document in question, and providing some of the essential vocabulary gave students the foundation they needed to plan out successful written and oral contributions for the class.

The fact that the game is designed for upper level American students and the game book is written in English results in the inclusion of some complex rules and ancillary activities that were not accessible to my students at their level of comprehension in the target language. Those activities are, however, significant to the cultural impact of the game, cementing notions of representation, power struggles, and class distinctions. Thus, explanations for those detailed operations were provided in English, although they might be enacted in French. For example, members of the National Assembly are assigned vote counts that include their own plus fifty (except for Lafayette who has one hundred) additional votes that they represent. The Sans Culottes, to balance the assemblymen’s power, receive “aristos”—photos of aristocrats—that they can rip up to signal a major protest or riot which, if successful, can result in the removal of a number of votes from the assembly members of their choice. Determining when the crowd could riot, how forceful their riots actually were, how voting was to be done in the National Assembly, and numerous other details, all made for a fair amount of confusion and debate during the early days of the game, even when conducted in English. As the students began to stress, it was important to re-engage them by pointing out the obvious similarities between their bewilderment and frenzy with language, activities, and game interactions and the chaos and confusion that characterized the early phases of revolutionary reform. It also seemed apparent that, while this early frustration in understanding and interpreting rules may have detracted from their other objective of language learning, it also highlighted the need to accept certain tradeoffs inherent in such an engaged learning environment.

Another of the complexities of the game came in the sidebars of information that the Game Master introduced at opportune moments. These included a “News Service” or dispatches released to announce recent events both in France and abroad, ranging from discussions in the National Assembly (“A distinguished society of scientists and horticulturalists applauded the National Assembly’s recent action in establishing a system of weights and measures based on hundred-part divisions, known as 'metric'”) or the slave uprisings in Saint-Domingue to the heralding of Mozart in Vienna and the support of the Prussian and Austrian Emperors for the king of France (Addendum 6; Carnes 33–38). These briefs were translated into French with the idea that they would prompt reaction in the factional newspapers and the speeches given in the National Assembly. They provided useful terms and phrases in French while moving the game along with historical data. Once the students realized that they could utilize these handouts to assist them linguistically and in their historical argumentation, the briefs became extremely useful to them. There were always those few, however, who looked upon these tools as just another confusing document.

Next Section: The Results: Observing Outcomes . . .

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