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Dr Martha McGill

French Revolution

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This is a role-playing activity, set in 1794, in which students take on the roles of famous dead people who have come together in the afterlife to debate which of them was to blame for the French Revolution. I love it; it’s served as the framework for some of the liveliest seminars I’ve ever taught (including the only one in which I’ve ended up laughing uncontrollably). I used it in hour-long seminars with 12 students, but you can add or remove characters to suit different group sizes. Suggested approach: Give the students a copy of the document above before the class, and assign characters. Ask students to do preparatory reading on the causes of the French Revolution, and find out what they can about their character. Take the role of Fortuna yourself. In the seminar, explain the activity, and note in particular that students are looking to pin blame on other people for the Revolution rather than accept responsibility. (I think the approach of blaming each other makes for a better debate, and works well enough for the characters; things were looking pretty bleak in 1794! You could of course have a discussion afterwards about whether the social advances of the Revolution actually justified the bloodshed.) Begin by splitting students into their teams: monarchy, old order, Enlightenment figures and Third Estate revolutionaries. Give them five minutes to plan a debate strategy. What reasons can they come up with for blaming the other groups for the outbreak of the Revolution? Is there one group or individual they think was most culpable? Give out name-tags the students can place in front of them, or have them make them quickly out of folded sheets of paper. Go round the room and ask each student to introduce their character. They can use the biographical information provided on the document, and supplement it with their own reading if they want. Pick a group to start things off by giving a reason that one of the other groups was responsible for the outbreak of the Revolution. Let that group respond, and launch their own accusation. Continue from there. I usually find that the debate runs itself, though you may occasionally need to call on a group to go next or suggest an argument that hasn’t yet been raised. Let the debate run for 20-30 minutes, then wrap things up by asking students (in character) to vote on the group or individual they think was most to blame. Put aside the characters and spend remaining class time discussing students’ own opinions.
French Revolution