"Reacting to the Past" Removes Frederick Douglass Role-play from print version

Peter Knupfer, H-SHEAR's picture

[Ed ,note]: I wonder if any of our readers use this resource, and what their reaction might be to this development.  Below is an excerpt from the larger article. What are the strengths and pitfalls of role-play concerning highly emotional historical subjects?]

College Professors Drop Slavery Role-Playing Lesson Over Concerns It Upsets Students

Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2022 (behind a paywall)

by Douglas Belkin

The directors of a role-playing game that requires students to debate slavery pulled it from print recently after college students and professors complained that advocating for, or listening to, the views of white supremacists made them uncomfortable.

The move has sparked debate among historians, and some professors who use the lesson plan said withdrawing the game infringes on academic freedom and teaching about race in America. Nationwide, schools from kindergartens to colleges are scrutinizing materials resulting in an increase in book bans at public schools and a series of protests preventing controversial figures from speaking on campuses.


Last month, Reacting to the Past removed from print the game featuring Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave turned abolitionist and author. The game was launched in 2010 but was drawing increasing concern from professors that students may either sympathize with the white supremacist rhetoric at the core of the debate—or be offended by it, said Nicolas Proctor, editorial board director of Reacting to the Past....

“Racist speech can easily create an unsafe environment,” he wrote in an email to the game’s co-creator. It “can be demoralizing and triggering, particularly for African-American students.”

The game is effective because it requires empathy to succeed, said Mark Thompson, who uses the game in his introduction to rhetoric class at California State University at Stanislaus. The shift in perspective helps students understand how others can hold vastly different beliefs because they are products of their time and context.

“To persuade someone to actually change, you must understand those core values and beliefs,” Dr. Thompson said....

Read the rest of the article here.

Hi, I am the editor of the Frederick Douglass Papers, a documentary editing project based at IUPUI. I have been hosting a biannual symposium on Douglass' life and times since 2012. Last February, we moved this event online out of Covid19 considerations. As part of the program, I had planned a series of readings by IUPUI students of excerpts from some of Douglass's speeches attacking lynching, advocating women's rights, welcoming immigrants, and of course promoting the abolition of slavery. I was surprised when my request for student volunteers from my university's Communications Department was met by a well-organized and effective boycott by students refusing to present Douglass's words to the online audience. The symposium went ahead with this significant gap in its program.

I share this information because it might be evidence of a more deep-seated problem among today's undergraduate students than the WSJ article infers. There maybe a growing discomfort to even acknowledge the embedded racism in our nation's history that goes beyond current political correctness debates. Removing one-half of the history of racism as Reacting to the Past seems to be doing could very well lead to erasing the other-half in the interests of keeping our (white) students guilt-free and comfortable--or better, "comfortably numb."

Jack McKivigan

Hi Jack,

The final sentence of your disturbing post captures perfectly my deepest concern about the decision to cancel Mark Higbee's and my FREDERICK DOUGLASS, THE CONSTITUTION AND THE PROBLEM OF SLAVERY-- In this case the fact that fully credentialed historians unilaterally cancelled the scholarship and pedagogy of their colleagues and peers because, as one such censor put it, it addresses the problem of slavery (this is the literal quote) "too forthrightly".---- .

How, one might ask, can historians stand strong against the likes like Ron DeSantis let alone enlighten "comfortably numb" students if they willingly censor themselves, or worse still, one another?

Thanks Again,

Jim Stewart

James Brewer Stewart
James Wallace Professor of History, Emeritus
Macalester College
Jim Stewart's Historical Tonic for Fragile White Folks

Jack, Jim, I absolutely share your sentiments. I am at a west coast institution where most of my students are BIPOC, and I have used the Frederick Douglas game, but after using it once, I modified it so that white supremacist ideas are presented through avenues other than character speeches. Aside from the triggering aspect, it just felt like I was giving too much of a platform to these ideas, and it seemed too much like it was offering those ideas some sort of legitimacy, which is of course the last thing that I want to do. But I keep the game because it offers a powerful way to get at what people during this period believed and why they believed it, and perhaps most importantly it directly confronts the mythologies that so dominate students’ understanding of US history. A brief glance at the comments under this article reveal just how far we still have to go as educators and how ignorant many people are of what the study of history is and does. (The hostility toward Reacting pedagogy from people who clearly know nothing about it and who probably are not educators was also notable and concerning.) Despite a herculean effort by Peter Knupfer to try to educate these folks in the comments that history is on-going debates not a list of facts, the ignorance of many commenters regarding what the study of history is and seeks to do is clear. A statement to the effect: “Just teach the facts. History is history. Teach it. Then move on,” reveals a profound misunderstanding of what historians do and the value and purpose of historical inquiry. This ignorance regarding history and the study of the past, it seems to me, is now increasingly informed by a deep hostility that is ideological. Not to pick on IUPUI, because I think this is a phenomenon happening, at the very least, across the Midwest and South, but I taught the US surveys there a few years back, and when I began the second day of my two-part lecture/discussion of the Civil Rights Movement I was met with: "why are we covering this so much? Weren't there other things going on?" At another institution (in the South) I had students refuse to play Reacting characters that would require them (as their characters) to express ideas sympathetic to socialism. It seems that we are being pulled into a situation where instead of historical inquiry informing ideology, ideology is gaining control over historical inquiry. As I have said repeatedly: history, especially US history, is different than other subjects because students often come to class convinced that they already know, and now some have moved on to "you can't teach any history that doesn't fit with what I already believe about the past." (After all, how could you if history is simply a list of settled facts?) I have also long feared that "trigger-warning" claims could be used as cover for censorship by folks who are not in reality at all concerned about triggers. Rather they want simply to deny that such things--systemic racism, systemic gender bias, microaggressions, white privilege, class hierarchy, the history of racial and sex and gender-based violence, the history of discrimination--exist at all.


For Release:  Frederick Douglass Not Included in Forthcoming University of North Carolina Press Series

April 15, 2022

On April 11, the Reacting Editorial Board (REB) concluded that revisions would be necessary before Mark Higbee and James Stewart’s "Frederick Douglass, Slavery, and the Constitution, 1845" could be published in a new edition by the University of North Carolina Press. On April 13, Nick Proctor, Chair of the REB, informed the authors of the decision and encouraged them to pursue revision. The authors rejected Proctor’s offer. “There is no further reason to pursue this matter with you or the Editorial Board,” Higbee and Stewart replied.
The rights to the game now revert to the authors, who are free to publish or distribute the game as they wish. 

The Reacting Editorial Board is part of the Reacting Consortium, Inc., a not-for-profit organization that supervises the Reacting to the Past pedagogy, used by over 500 colleges and universities. 

Proctor explained that the chief issue for the REB concerned the voicing of pro-slavery positions by students. “Racist opinions must figure in any historical account of the antebellum era,” he observed, “but the Board maintained that we should not require students to voice the idea that slavery benefited enslaved peoples, or that people of African descent are inherently inferior to whites.”
“The Reacting pedagogy seeks to put students in the shoes of historical figures, even those whose views students may find disagreeable or even repugnant. This sharpens critical thinking skills and promotes historical empathy,” Proctor added. “The editorial board believes that the Douglass game is powerful, but that it needs to provide more scaffolding and more options so that instructors and students can engage with these ideas in ways that do not have the potential for serious harm.”

Mark Carnes, Executive Director of the Reacting Consortium, affirmed the independence of the organization’s editorial board.”The Reacting Editorial Board, like the editorial boards of most academic societies, exists to make hard decisions about which ideas and materials will bear the imprimatur of the organization. When editorial boards ask for revision before publication, they are seeking to advance knowledge by providing authors with the considered judgment, from multiple perspectives, of a deliberative body. Such judgments are not infallible. But the review process, shared by most institutions of higher education, generally functions to promote creative inquiry while grounding it in acceptable scholarly standards.”  

Gretchen Galbraith, chair of the Board of the Reacting Consortium, added: “We are disappointed that the authors declined the REB’s offer to assist in the revision of Frederick Douglass. The Board of the Consortium greatly appreciates the work of Nick Proctor, outgoing chair, and of the entire REB, which supervises the continuous development of over 30 published games, and another 200 in development. This group’s unpaid efforts are a major reason why Reacting to the Past is widely regarded as among the nation’s most powerful active-learning pedagogies.”

The University of North Carolina Press will publish the Reacting to the Past series beginning in July 1, 2022. https://uncpress.org/series/reacting-to-the-past/  . The series had previously been published by W. W. Norton. 

For more information, see the new website of the Reacting Consortium:  https://www.reactingconsortium.org/ 

Contact Information: 

Nick Proctor (nick.proctor@simpson.edu), Chair of the history department at Simpson College; 

Mark Carnes (mcarnes@barnard.edu), Professor of History at Barnard College and former Co-General Editor, from its inception, of the 24-volume American National Biography (American Council of Learned Societies & Oxford University Press)

As a professor who heavily uses Reacting, including having used the Frederick Douglass game, I feel that the WSJ story is not a very complete report and also leans into the idea that Reacting decision makers are afraid to teach the history of race and racism in a frank and honest way. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, it is important to keep in mind that Reacting is a particular kind of pedagogy, and it helps students learn in a unique way. But it is not the ONLY way to learn. Prudence may demand approaching some subjects with pedagogies other than Reacting. In other words, the choice of the Reacting editorial board to approve a game for publication or re-publication should not be construed as a statement about what topics should or shouldn't be taught in the classroom.

Dear Josh,

The mass murder in Buffalo has been so much on my mind that I've had to defer responding to your thoughtful post. I well appreciate the difficult choices presented by intractable students and also understand why you responded to them by toning down the White supremacist elements in the FD game.

At the same time my approach to student Fragility/ Intractability has always been to stand my ground and insist that the "tough stuff" ( quote from the late, much lamented James O. Horton) must be confronted as honestly and amply as possible. If I fail to convince them, its on them, not me to defend their beliefs right there, on the spot, in class. And if that leads to complaints to higher ups, that's just fine by me. Serious change requires conflict that generates heat as well as light. Just as was the case for the original abolitionists, it's controversy, not concessions, that moves us forward.

All best wishes, Jim

Dear Mark Carnes:

We thank you most sincerely for your highly detailed account of how and why you and your colleagues decided to cancel publication of our Frederick Douglass, Slavery and the Constitution:1845. That’s because (much to our surprise) it buttresses our conclusion that your decision was driven by fears of White fragility, Black backlash and White supremacist manipulation. 

Cut through your explanations of bureaucratic decision making (and the promotion of your Reacting book series) and your account confirms what we already know--- that you gave us an ultimatum either to remove our book’s proslavery material or to anticipate its immediate cancellation. We refused and attempted to negotiate but you rejected our proposed revisions. Then you cancelled our book while audaciously asking us to revise it, submit it and await your decision about its (re)publishability. You cancellers were to become our peer reviewers!  Predictably, we walked away from your offer.

Why such adamancy and inflexibility on your part? Because, as messages to us from your close colleague Nick Proctor make clear, you feared that our book’s antiracist pedagogy “can create an unsafe environment…[be] demoralizing and triggering particularly for African American students…. May provide an avenue of attack by racist revisionists….” In short, you silenced us because our pedagogy is, in your “politically correct” view, excessively antiracist.

Finally, in your post you quote your associate Nick Proctor's statement that "The [Reacting to the Past Editorial ] Board maintained that we should NOT REQUIRE STUDENTS to voice the idea that slavery benefited enslaved peoples, or that people of African descent are inherently inferior to whites.”

We state categorically that our pedagogy DOES NOT REQUIRE students to voice proslavery opinions. Those who elect do so are volunteers, not conscripts  Proctor's claim to the contrary is patently untrue. You can consult our book to confirm this for yourself.

Most sincerely,

Mark Higbee and James Brewer Stewart --

After the Civil War, the great abolitionist Wendell Phillips warned that while slavery was dead "the master survives." I see from the expurgated explanation offered by "co-general editor" Carnes that the master still reigns in New York and North Carolina. The revealing words of John C. Calhoun are now too inflammatory for white students? Does Prof Carnes actually believe that African Americans are unaware of what white people have said about them and do to them every week? Who exactly does Prof. Carnes think he is now protecting? The book was the series's most successful volume when published by W.W. Norton, but now--for some reason--it is too dangerous? I am simply shocked by the cowardly, evasive, and white-supremacist decision made by the intellectual descendants of the master race.

Most Sincerely,
Donald Yacovone

Jim Stewart and I created the Frederick Douglass "game" that the Reacting to the Past leadership recently decided to cancel from its series. Since 2006, the Reacting pedagogy has been a huge part of my professional life.  The Reacting pedagogy is terrific for engaging students with Big Ideas!  But the RTTP bureaucracy lacks transparency and accountability to anyone outside of its little circle. 

These are facts:  

  1. this decision to cancel the very successful Douglass book was NOT based on any data, but on fears of what "may" happen when students & instructors use the book. (If Drs. Carnes & Proctor had data, they would have provided it when Jim and I asked for it.). 

  2. The RTTP leadership's decision to ancel Douglass is arrogantly meant to violate the academic freedom of Reacting instructors, because it's meant to deny them the opportunity to use the book in class.  

  3. Jim and I will update the book, with another, braver publisher. This will take time!  Meanwhile, instructors have our permission to photocopy the book for their students!   Email me for Characters/roles for your class, at mhigbee@emich.edu. (Or even for a copy of the existing book). 

  4. None - absolutely none - of the claims made this year against the FD book are NEW allegations. Each was just as "true" when RTTP and Norton published "Frederick Douglass, Slavery, and the Constitution 1845" in 2019...

  5. All that has changed is that some in academia are more cowardly when it comes to confronting racism in classrooms on campus. Sadly RTTP is now controlled by such people, who oppose anti-racist pedagogy.

  6. Lastly, please know that this cancellation of a successful book is an extraordinary act by the sponsors of an academic book series. It was unexpected, out of the blue. No complaints about the book had been expressed to Jim or me since its publication in 2019, until Feb. 15, 2022. Not by RTTP leaders or the book's users in classrooms across the country. Reacting instructors defended the book, but were ignored.

Frederick Douglass will continue to advance the cause of equality and education! 

Mark Higbee
Eastern Michigan University 
734 754-1261

First and most important: in many years of using Fred. Douglass no one in any of my classes has ever been forced to play a member of the Status Quo faction in the game. If teachers have required students to do so, they should stop. If there is no accumulation of evidence of such forced action, members or representatives of the Reacting Editorial Board should stop insinuating that there is. 

The most important point in using Fred. Douglass is that it pushes so hard on students to develop empathy. I link this back to the work of Carl Rogers, the founder of the humanistic, client-centered approach to psychological counseling who said that developing empathy causes fear and takes courage because we risk change. Educating, transforming is not a neutral act; it is often a dangerous business. No one in my classes has ever changed to support slavery, but they have come to understand how others could think so differently under a different system of values and beliefs and how economics can drive science, religion, legislation, and, well, history. Is there any practice that we need more to have woven into our pedagogies in 21st century America? I understand that there is some backlash against empathy as some faculty may fear that their own ideologies will not be accepted and parroted; however, I still cling to the idea that empathy is at the very core of what makes a human human. And Fred. Douglass is the game that practices and challenges empathy par excellence.

The directive to remove the Status Quo faction and remake the game as a debate among abolitionists has a very real consequence—it abets the delusion among students that they all would have stepped outside of their primary reality, that they would have been a William Garrison or in the 20th century a Martin Luther King. It is important to see the roles of the Status Quo played in the game to demonstrate how the social forces including family, school, and church shape our values and beliefs. 

This move by the Reacting board seems part of a much larger debate about what can and should be taught at the university; some seem to search for a combination whereby we enact the age-old mission of a transformative experience yet do not cause any discomfort during the transformation. And some are too quick to automatically conflate discomfort and trauma. So far as triggering, I have had only one student come to me and say “I am so glad this class is over.” Then adding, “I was so nervous. I couldn’t stand one more day talking about religion!” However, I have kept The Trial of Anne Hutchinson as part of the available rotation of games for my classes.

Finally, I feel for Jim Stewart and Mark Higbee as they are both dedicated anti-racists and have had to endure this rejection of their work for that cause.

Mark Thompson
Professor of Rhetoric
California State University, Stanislaus. 

I have been following the discussion of the Reacting Consortium's decision to discontinue publication of the Frederick Douglass Game. I played the game at a RTTP conference in 2013 and used it in my history of slavery class in 2014 and 2015. I decided not to use the game again. I am a white woman faculty at a PWI. Many of my students struggle to understand the history of racism, particularly historical constructions of biological racial difference. I recall the distinct discomfort of a student who played Thomas R. Dew. Based on the demographics of my classroom, my own subject position, and my pedagogical insights, I felt that it did not serve my students' understanding of the history of race, racism, and white supremacy to play this game. In other words, I decided that this pedagogy was not the best way to cover this content. 

The faculty outraged by the publisher's decision might point out that my not using the game is distinct from the issue of its publication. And yet their arguments stem from their own pedagogical experiences, which at times betray an unexamined consideration of their own power and position in the classroom. I think it is valid for the publisher to ask whether this is the best pedagogy to promote for teaching this material and reconsider publication. 

Some of the comments seem to conflate using this RTTP game with teaching this material at all. Far from it. The issue, again, is whether RTTP is best served to teach about white supremacy in environments where there is persistent white supremacy and misunderstanding of the history of race.

With respect to the creators of the game who are understandably disappointed, I think it bears considering that the men who have expressed outrage on the network are academics who have historically been dominant and overrepresented in institutions like SHEAR. How might the very challenges that SHEAR is confronting about its culture and lack of diversity be reflected in this discourse? Why might SHEAR members who support this decision to end publication of this game feel reluctant to speak up?

Thank you, 
Sara E. Lampert (she)
Associate Professor of History 
Coordinator, Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies 
University of South Dakota