In the College course “Italian Renaissance: Dante, Machiavelli, and the Wars of Kings and Popes,” students play out history year after year. With the help of a fully equipped costume rack, some wax-sealed envelopes, and a little bit of whimsy, students in Assoc. Prof. Ada Palmer’s class learn about history by becoming a part of it—at least for a few weeks.
Two weeks of the 10-week course take place outside the classroom. Instead of taking notes on lecture material, students spend the time in picturesque Rockefeller Chapel while participating in a live-action, role-playing game. After deciding whether they’d like to play a moral or immoral figure in history, students are assigned characters, each a member of the Italian Renaissance who participated in some capacity in the papal election of 1492. Equipped with a sealed envelope containing character information, marriage agreement documents, currency, and official titles, the students are thrust into the world of the papal conclave. They are expected not only to arrive to class in character, but to arrange meetings, negotiations, alliances and marriages between class periods.
Palmer enjoys this method of teaching because it allows students to fully be immersed in the material; they come away with a deeper grasp and more meaningful relationship with history after interacting with it personally. Students are given the opportunity to make their own decisions regarding not only aspects of their character’s social life but also to cast a vote in the papal conclave—and the results may or may not mirror what historically happened.