The syllabus prescribed that my graduate students and I would spend the three-hour class discussing the French Revolution. I’d assembled my lecture notes. I’d reminded everyone what they needed to read before class. I was reasonably certain most of us would be prepared.
Stepping in front of the classroom, I sketched out the noteworthy milestones we needed to cover in our one-class survey of a very big topic. Students busily typed on their laptops or wrote in their notebooks. I sat down on the table that served as my desk and swung my legs forward and back; waiting for everyone to give me their attention. I had an idea. It came to me as I sat there. And then, I began . . .
Mr C, you are a member of the old aristocracy. What do you think of the newly titled nobles? Please answer me in character as one of the ancient nobility. I’d asked him to do this because he’d revealed at the beginning of the semester that he does amateur acting in his town. His brow furrowed for a few seconds. He shifted in his seat. Then, he took a deep breath and decided to go along with me. He created a character on the spot and began complaining about the commoners-made-nobles-on-account-of-money. I had two others in the class who were actors and I gave similar assignments to each in turn. They also played their parts.
‘Now, imagine all of you are called together as the new assembly. It is time to deal with the reforms of the french state.’
I moved us through the outline on the board, through the timeline of the Revolution, and I added in every one of my students with a part. Following the lead and the inspiration of the others, I saw new actors born one by one.
I explained the significance of one or another developments during the time period. I asked them how they felt their characters would react. The energy level rose, the frustrations rose, the anger rose — and then the terror began.
At appropriate points, I asked one faction or another to act upon their interests. Fictional blood was flowing. There were massacres and the guillotine was brought in motion. As we reached the peak of things, I was directing with my hands like a conductor of an orchestra and people jumped in with their historical deeds. Briefly, I asked them why they’d done what they’d just done. Some times I added comments; but mostly the students got to the heart of things.
One woman, recently sent to the guillotine, complained about how things were shaping up in our imagined Paris. I told her, ‘Be quiet, now, — you’re dead.’ She stopped in mid-sentence.
When the class came to an end, we’d gone the whole while without a break. Where we arrived was at a point of sadness, depletion, and mental exhaustion.
Everything I’d planned in terms of material made its way into ‘our French Revolution.’ Most of it was brought in by the students themselves. And the significance of it all was encountered both intellectually and emotionally. The students left the room in somber silence. One woman remained.
‘That was amazing,’ she said. I’ve studied the French Revolution many times in school and college. It never made so much sense as it did to me today. How did you know that was going to work?’
She looked at me quizzically.
‘But I thought it could be quite something if it did.’