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Students in Europe Learn History by Living It

Mary Dempsey
By Mary Dempsey
  • Current Students |
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Julian Temblador said emotions ran high as he navigated the war crime charges against him as a young George Washington. Connor Kuzminski immersed himself into the life, beliefs and speeches of Roman senator and orator Cicero. Lydia Rose, meanwhile, recalled her scramble to make a toga, given the high cost of the fabric in Germany. 

Temblador, Kuzminski and Rose are among the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) students who have sought out the history courses of Michael Mulvey, a UMGC Europe professor who uses role-playing to teach. Earlier this year, Mulvey was one of two faculty members in Europe, and one of only nine across the entire university, to receive the Stanley J. Drazek Teaching Excellence Award, UMGC’s highest teaching prize.

Mulvey said one advantage of role-playing—or gaming—in the classroom is that it can make learning fun.

“My students have been working all day and they are spending three hours in a classroom after work. If they are in my Roman Republic course, we are debating what situations can lead democracies to fail. I want to offer something that covers the material but is also going to keep students engaged,” Mulvey said. “They are learning about weighty issues and covering serious questions, but we can go at it in a way that is lively.”

The role-playing courses open with students being randomly assigned to portray historical characters. They spend the next weeks learning about those people by reading original documents, engaging in class discussions and examining just historical events but also about what was going in the political, art, social and even architectural arenas of the time period they are studying. Near the end of the course, students use what they have learned during a role-playing exercise that stretches over two classes.

“He’s my favorite professor,” said Temblador, who played a young Washington in Mulvey’s U.S. history course that touches on the so-called Jumonville affair. At issue was whether Washington had ordered or carried responsibility for the assassination of a French commander and the massacre of French troops during the first battle in the French and Indian War.

“Essentially, we held a trial,” said Temblador, who took the UMGC course at Ramstein Air Base in Germany as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army. “We were given briefs about our character. And we all were given information known only to us.”

Temblador’s history course coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, so classes were held virtually. Nonetheless, students got into character. Temblador used a painting of Washington as his screen background and his onscreen name appeared as “George Washington.” Other students changed their profile photos or used creative screen backgrounds to evoke the era and their roles.

Temblador said the course let students learn by doing, not just by reading.

“Professor Mulvey wasn’t a history professor who made you memorize every date,” said Temblador, who completed a bachelor’s degree in communications—with a minor in history—at UMGC and now works as a public affairs officer for the Defense Logistics Agency in California while pursuing a graduate degree in communications at the University of San Francisco. “Instead, you research all this information and you develop your arguments, then you play the game. Most of us really delved into it, even more than was required.”

Temblador noted that Mulvey let his students pursue areas that especially interested them, even if they roamed a bit from the main thread of the course. “I’m interested in the power of propaganda, and he let me focus on that,” Temblador explained.

Michael Mulvey

Students in Mulvey’s Roman Republic course follow a similar program, including using primary documents—such as speeches by Roman senators—to understand the republic’s unwritten constitution, institutions and political life.

Students learn about the senators they are portraying through research, written posts, in-character discussions with allies and in-character talking points they develop. Their course culminates with a loose reenactment of a historic meeting of the Roman senate and a speech by each student.

“I encouraged students to be believable and consistent with the historical moment, to think like Romans,” Mulvey said. “That meant knowing Roman republican ethics, history and virtues. Students had to ask themselves, ‘What would my character do in these contextual circumstances?’”

As Cicero, Kuzminski presided over the senate during a debate on whether to suspend civil rights and impose martial law in defense of the republic. Each student could speak for up to five minutes and their speeches, typical of Rome at the time, were sometimes met with cheers or hisses and heckling. The session peaked with a vote by the senators.

Mulvey said some students came to the debate dressed for the part, literally. He recalled one student who showed up in full senatorial regalia, including a Roman gladius, or sword.

Rose, the spouse of a civilian employee for the Defense Logistics Agency at Ramstein, was one of the first students to take that Roman Empire class when Mulvey joined UMGC four years ago.

“I wasn’t terribly excited because Roman history is not a favorite subject of mine,” said Rose, who completed a bachelor’s degree in history from UMGC earlier this year, “but Professor Mulvey ended up making it so interesting that it became a class I loved. I fell in love with his teaching style.

“Not only did he go over the history, but he brought in culture and society,” she said.

True to the traditions of the era, the role-playing component of the course opened with a ritualistic reading and a sacrifice to the gods. For the sacrifice, Rose contributed a stuffed toy pig, a prop that was used in subsequent classes. She also wore the toga she made. In preparing for her role, she said she adopted the habits of the senator she portrayed.

“We were put into the story, and that gave us an opportunity to understand a little bit of what it might have been like,” Rose explained. “It’s easy to see ourselves removed from history, to see it as something that happened a long time ago or as something that doesn’t apply to us. But even though we’re so far removed from Roman antiquity, we can see leftover remnants in our daily society … and in our government offices.”

Mulvey acknowledged that the classes can get intense. He recalled a debate in his French Revolution course during which the volume of the room rose so high that a professor in a classroom on the floor above came down to complain. During debates in his Roman Republic course, students shout out Latin phrases that would have been used at the time.

Kuzminski was so taken by role-playing as a teaching tool that anytime Mulvey had a course during the academic calendar, Kuzminski checked to see if it would fit into his degree plan. When he played Cicero, he wasn’t even taking the class for credit. Rather, he had permission from Mulvey to audit the class and shadow the professor. Kuzminski, who received a BA in history from UMGC, said he might eventually like to teach history.

He said a big part of the course involved getting to know and trust classmates. “You need to be comfortable around your classmates so you’re able to let down your guard and not feel too silly when you’re in the game,” Kuzminski explained.

He noted that Mulvey encouraged ongoing and in-depth discussion among students, and that the professor sparked lively conversation by sometimes introducing a painting or even an example of architecture from the time period under study.

“We got comfortable speaking out and challenging each other’s opinions,” Kuzminski said. “My interpretation was that this course was not necessarily to learn about a particular incident [in history] but to see how they built the world we live in, where the parallels are to our modern society. I could look at modern society through the lens of the Roman Empire.”

Kuzminski separated from the U.S. Air Force for medical reasons after five years of service before taking UMGC classes at Ramstein; he was eligible to enroll because his wife is an active-duty logistics specialist with the Air Force. The couple is currently stationed in Japan.    

Mulvey said not all moments in history are appropriate for role-playing, although he would like to add board gaming as a learning tool to his courses on European military history. He said his classes have attracted a wide range of students, from a high school student to a retired lieutenant colonel. He also noted that there are unexpected moments when teaching servicemembers.

“The invasion of Ukraine started during one of my courses—it was a Zoom class—and one student messaged me and said he might not be able to attend because he was being deployed,” Mulvey said. “Everyone was on screen when he suddenly popped up. He was coming to us from the woods at an undisclosed location.”