ASA 2019: Teaching the Contingency of History

I presented a paper titled “Teaching the Contingency of History” at the 2019 American Studies Association Annual Meeting in Honolulu. Using examples from historical role-playing games (Reacting to the Past), I highlighted a difference between ahistorical (impossibly anachronistic, for example) and unhistorical (meaning, the outcome of the game does not match the historical outcome) results students may create in these games. In my view, the presence of unhistorical outcomes does not diminish the usefulness of historical role-playing games in the classroom, because the lesson of contingency is more important than approximating the actual past outcome. 

I argue that through the game experience of internally diverse debate, competing claims to authority, and surprising overlaps of mutual interest in a crucial historical moment, students learn about the contingency of history. What I mean by contingency is simply that things could have been different. Reacting to the Past games do sometimes conclude with historically accurate outcomes, but importantly this is not always the case. Especially during the debriefing after games in which instructors explain what historically occurred, students see the small variations in debate and context and influence that could have had hugely consequential effects on the outcome. For me, this lesson of contingency is key to students seeing the contingencies in our own historical moment. In the spirit of the conference’s theme (Build as We Fight), I suggest that seeing the contingency of our own moment can open political and moral imagination toward possibilities for liberation, construed most broadly.

Further evidence from studies on active learning bolster my argument, and using this data I connect my argument about contingency to student self-efficacy, locus of control, and immersion. My interpretation is that the student experience of contingency in Reacting to the Past pairs a sense of diverse influences on a historical moment with the insight of how their role could have affected that moment, even if only incrementally. Within the games, the students are placed in an immersive historical situation in which they have a clear set of goals, but the limits of their role’s influence become clear in the process of failing to meet these goals. In this way, failure in the game is also a productive lesson on the possibilities we might find in our own historical moment. Students who feel a higher sense of self efficacy can contextualize and appreciate the interventions they might make alongside the inevitable limits.

To broaden the context for this work, I conclude that teaching the contingency of history builds student capacity for imagining the ways our historical moment might yet be different. This is connected, I think, to their interest in civic engagement and belief that they can create new and perhaps better futures.