French Revolution

In Fall 2016, I taught “Europe & The French Revolution, 1700-1815” at Utah State University.  A small (22 person) upper-division course make it ideal for experimenting with the Reacting to the Past game on the French Revolution.   My experiences with Reacting to the Past in this course convinced me of the pedagogical power of game-play in the college classroom.  In addition to getting students to practice their oral presentation and listening skills, the game forced students to think critically and analytically.  Once “in character” students had to revisit seminal primary sources, like Rousseau’s “Social Contract” or Abbé de Sièyes “What is the Third Etstate” and create debates their character would have. Sometimes this created a crisis of consciousness for the student when their personal opinions did not align with that of their characters.  But when that happened, students were presented with a learning opportunity.  They truly got to see how another side to an argument.  In their anonymous reviews at the end of the semester, students expressed how the game and role playing “tricked” them into worker harder, reading the texts more thoroughly, and appreciating how individual decisions helped to make history.  For an educational study touting the advancements of role play and game simulation in college classrooms, see:

COURSE DESCRIPTION: When the eighteenth century opened in France, Louis XIV – the Sun King – sat on the throne, exerting what has often been described as “absolutist” power.  No one at Louis XIV’s opulent Versailles court could have envisioned that at the end of the century Louis XVI and France’s monarchy would be overthrown.  This upper division class analyzes how and why this happened.  The first quarter of the course will be devoted to exploring the tensions and fissures in Old Regime France before we turn our attention to “the” Revolution and years of the Terror.  The course will end at the turn of the nineteenth century, when Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in a coup d’état, returning France to an empire.  We will also consider the French Revolution in a wider global context.  How did French Revolutionaries gain inspiration from the American Revolution? How did the French Revolution inspire revolution in the Atlantic and South America? Students should have a basic familiarity with early modern European history (gained from something like Western Civ).  As an upper-division course, this class is challenging, with daily reading assignments and frequent written and oral exercises.


This course is different from traditional history courses on the French Revolution because students will engage in a role-playing exercise called Reacting to the Past for five weeks.  Adopting a particular Revolutionary character, students will conduct research, present debates, write articles, and investigate the motivations and limitations of Revolutionary actors.  Because of this unique format, you should be aware that this course is roughly 80% discussion and 20% lecture.  Students are put in charge of their own learning, with the professor acting as a guide to discovering primary sources and main revolutionary themes.  In other words, this is not a traditional lecture course.

Topics covered include: Old Regime France; The Enlightenment; Constitutional Monarchy; Revolutionary Politics; The National Assembly; The Terror; The Haitian Revolution; Women’s Rights; and Napoleon


Historical Knowledge

  • Identify key events and historical players in Revolutionary French history
  • Discern the multiple causes of revolution
  • Acknowledge ideas of the Enlightenment, American Revolution, French Revolution, and Haitian Revolution

Historical Thinking

  • Understand the French Revolution’s influence on the wider eighteenth- and nineteenth-century world
  • Analyze competing, complex interpretations of historical events

Historical Skills

  • Articulate well-written responses to historical prompts using appropriate evidence
  • Assess the credibility and usefulness of primary and secondary sources
  • Formulate advanced historical questions and debates using primary and secondary sources
  • Complete independent research
  • Respond to other students’ arguments respectfully and with sage historical arguments and evidence