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Ben Alpers

Reacting to the Past

Professor Ben Alpers Receives Teaching Award

Ben Alpers portrait photo
Prof. Benjamin Alpers

The OU Honors College would like to congratulate Prof. Benjamin L. Alpers for being selected for the 2021 University Distinguished Teaching Award!

Benjamin L. Alpers began teaching in the University of Oklahoma's Honors College in the fall of 1998 as one of its first three faculty members. His research and teaching concern intellectual and cultural history, and are particularly focused on political culture, film and collective memory. He was among the founders of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History and was the first editor of its U.S. Intellectual History Blog. He currently serves on the Board of Oklahoma Humanities.

The four distinct courses that he offers this academic year (2020-21) show the range of his teaching for the Honors College because each one represents a different way of teaching about the past and its relationship to the present.

His “Reacting to the Past” perspectives course encourages students to understand the past from within, as they are asked to play figures from history and navigate important turning points from the past. Students engage directly with the ideas and motivations of historical figures and gain an unusually experiential understanding of historical contingency. His colloquium, “World War II Memory,” takes almost the opposite approach, as it encourages students to see how events in the past affect the present in different times and places. His “American Social Thought” Perspectives class is a more old-fashioned approach to intellectual history – a variation on a “Great Books” course. Almost all of the material he uses consists of primary texts. By engaging with key texts from the American past, students come to better understand the ideas that have shaped our country and its cultures. Finally, his colloquium, “Film Noir,” opens up a variety of vistas on 20th-century U.S. cultural history and gives students the tools to think in richer ways about a medium and a genre that continues to shape their lives and our culture.

These courses are just a sample of the many courses Alpers has taught since joining the OU faculty some two-plus decades ago. Each demonstrates his commitment to students and the energy and creativity he puts into the teaching aspect of being a university professor.

Reacting to the Past classroom photo
Prof. Alpers' Reacting to the Past class role-plays the 1945 Yalta conference among the Allied Forces of WWII

Reacting to the Past is an innovative pedagogy that uses role-playing to put students in the shoes of historical actors at key moments in history.

Over the course of the semester, students play three Reacting games beginning with America's Founding: The Constitutional Convention of 1787, a game in which students will have the opportunity to debate and frame the U.S. Constitution. Next, the class plays Peacemaking 1919: The Peace Conference at Versailles.  Finally, they play Chicago 1968, which reenacts the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  Though set in different places and times and focused on decisions of radically different scope, each of these games explores the meaning of democracy and the challenge of rethinking institutional and political orders in situations in which the participants profoundly disagree on matters of importance.

Each of these games begins with about a week of set-up phase, a week of more-or-less traditional classes during which students study the historical background and major issues of the game. Participants are then assigned a role and, for the next several weeks, play out the events of the game. Unlike in a traditional history course, the outcomes of these events are not decided in advance. How the events play out is up to the students. And persuasion largely determines the outcome of Reacting games. Through writing and speaking – always in character and reflecting the knowledge gained of the person the students portray – participants try to persuade their fellow students to support their positions in the conflicts that lie at the center of each of these games.  After each game concludes, there is a brief post-mortem phase, during which the winners of the game are announced, students leave their roles, and the class returns to a more traditional format to discuss the game and to consider what really happened in the event that has been studied.