Students Inhabit History

Emergence of Law in Society Brings Learning to Life

11.15.11

Development of the legal norm from the primitive stages of society to the organization of the first legal systems before modern times -- that’s the course description for HIST 4875 found in the undergraduate course catalog.

Certainly, such brevity does few courses justice. But students who registered for the course, titled The Emergence of Law in Society, with Dr. Abigail Perkiss this semester, lucked out. With her at the helm, the course is much more lively and engaging than it sounds.

Upon entering the classroom, Perkiss’s students quickly realize that the course is not like any they have ever taken. Rather than traditional academic research, writing and lectures, her class is organized around an innovative approach known as “Reacting to the Past.”

“Reacting calls on students to play out the parts of historical actors in key moments of great change,” said Perkiss. “Students, in essence, “become” historical actors, acting out and reacting to these historical episodes as though they were genuinely inhabiting that space.”

Still, the course examines how legal systems emerge alongside rapidly changing social systems. The relationship between law and society is considered, as is the function of law in establishing order during moments of great cultural and political crisis. Over the course of the semester, students actively explore the emergence of law at two different historical moments – Ancient Athens at the threshold of democracy and 18th century France in the throes of revolution.

“Be aware, though, that these modules are not scripted,” Perkiss added. “The central premise of these reenactments is that ideas influence the lived experience of people and the lived experience of people influences the evolution of ideas.”

In other words, students reenact history as though it has not happened yet. As such, the outcomes of these contentious events may very well diverge from what actually transpired.

Click on the image above to watch a video of HIST 4875 students “living history” - including an original play and a boat race at the pool!

And stay tuned to Kean Xchange for a closer look at the woman behind the scenes, Dr. Abigail Perkiss, who spoke to us about her current real-life adventures!