Teaching heroes: Simulations help students visualize history

James Pickett in his "Empires of the Steppe" history class


In James Pickett’s “Empires of the Steppe” classroom, there is talk of fomenting revolution.

The students are starting their simulation of the Grand Quriltai of the year 1251 — the political battle to be the next Great Khan of the Mongol empire in Central Asia.

Student groups representing the four lineages of Genghis Khan are conspiring separately in four parts of the room to gain support from each other. “You can make moves in isolation, or you can engage in diplomacy,” announces Pickett, an assistant professor in the Department of History, as he walks from group to group.

The students strategize: would a royal marriage secure the khanship? “Should we take one of their daughters or offer one of ours?” a student says.

“Is there anything worthless, that they would like, that we could give them?” counters another.

“Do you want to just offer them 10 of our finest horses, right now?”

“Not 10, five.”

Soon, delegates from one group are visiting others, forming alliances, while in secret there is still talk of fostering a rebellion or employing assassins.

The winner of the simulation, which has several rounds, will be the group that can show — using examples from the actual history of the Mongols — that their chosen moves have a chance of succeeding, and why.

“It’s ultimately like an essay-writing exercise, with arguments and evidence,” Pickett points out. “I’m very big on interactive simulations. I’m always in the process of designing another one for that class,” as well as for his other courses: “Russia to 1917” and “Rise of Islam.”

For instance, the “Steppe” course also gives students a chance to play census taker, which shows them how very different were conceptions of ethnicity and nationality in this time and region, which will soon see the rise of Islam and Muscovy — and the chance to realize the vast cultural divide between the rural peasants and the ruling elites.

Pickett also believes students need to read historical materials in their original incarnations. “I have a huge emphasis on primary sources,” he says. “How do we know what we think we know?” To supplement this class, he has offered an optional one-credit course for Russian-speaking students to consult the original texts with him.

“I try to find a way to go beyond just texts,” he adds. Before the simulation, he passes around Mongol coins to give students a glimpse of the times.

Viewing current times through the lens of history

As an undergraduate political science major, Pickett had veered toward history courses, he recalls: “I became addicted to this feeling of reading the headlines and wanting to understand more. I was almost being misled by my reading of current events. ... Teaching is a real venue where you get to leverage history that way.

“There’s something thrilling about exposing students to a world,” he adds, noting that many say they chose his “Steppe” course precisely because they knew so little about Central Asia.

Pickett was a teaching assistant at Princeton and got classroom experience as a post-doc at Yale before entering his first Pitt classroom in the fall of 2016. He is already changing things up.

“Starting this term, I’ve started to integrate a lot of technology into my teaching,” he says. “I’ve been very happy with the results.”

Students are required to post in their Yellowdig discussion forum — creating a sort of collective blog. Pickett also uses the interactive in-class software Top Hat, which lets students answer questions or vote on queries during his lecture. “For me it has made my lectures better. It has augmented them, not replaced them,” he says.

He couples all this with what he labels a “slightly old-fashioned” teaching method — an emphasis on getting students to “know stuff” and make sense of it all.

“In an age of Wikipedia and smartphones, a lot of the basic information is at your fingertips,” Pickett says, “but being able to sift the good information from the bad is a learned skill you can get from a history class.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.