History-bots!

I am working on a new class for our intensive winter term here at Centre – you can see examples of previous classes I’ve taught during the term here and here – that will continue to encourage students to group together to create innovative history projects; more specifically, I want students to create history-bots!

What on earth am I talking about?

I have taught during Centre Term each of my six years at this institution. I started out using a “Reacting to the Past” game, Confucianism and the Succession Crisis of the Wanli Emperor. It worked well as an introduction to teaching three hours a day, every day, for sixteen class days. I got a sense for what students are interested in doing, what can tire them out and what they will happily push themselves to do. It proved to be a great term to experiment and a particularly suitable time to work with groups.

Frankly, I was hesitant to experiment much further. Group work is not a natural strength for me. However, I was very interested in bringing my interest in video games, and in particular historical representations in video games, to the classroom. Centre Term seemed a likely fit. I ran a class named “History and Video Games” for the first time in 2015. Since then I haven’t looked back: I do group work every year.

The main benefit of the term is that the students don’t have another class, so you can work on the same idea for the sixteen days, which in practice ends up being about three weeks. The nature of the group work has also proven key. Over the last few years I have had students group together to produce their own video games or to produce podcast episodes based on historical settings or themes. Broadly speaking I am interested in discussing how we can explore new methods of historical inquiry, and in looking at the differences between the history we learn in the classroom and popular representations of the past.

The video games class has been a great way to do both. Beyond that however I gained invaluable experience in working with students towards producing something new: something built on historical research but that felt markedly different from writing a paper, something that belonged to them.

The history-bots idea began with these experiences. In short, I want to put students in groups and have them create robots that can engage in basic conversations based an assumed historical persona. Why did Genghis Khan want to conquer the known world? What is it like to be the daughter of a shopkeeper in 1780s France?

There’s a lot of work ahead and, just like my video games class where I encourage students to use Twine or RPGMaker rather than code from scratch, compromises will need to be made. It is important to me that the students will do things you would not typically do in a history class: solder connections to a development board, create a physical representation for their robot using 3d printing or plywood, anything they might think of.

For now I’m doing some experimenting myself, starting with the TJ Bot, an IBM project designed to introduce people to their “Watson” artificial intelligence. It is still early days, and this for now is the fun part. The goal here is to get myself to a point where I know enough to get students started. They will take it from there.

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