Texas Tech University

History Students Experience French Revolution Firsthand Through Role-Playing

Glenys Young

June 16, 2020

Erin-Marie Legacey won the Texas Tech Parents Association's Spencer A. Wells Creativity in Teaching Award.

It's rare that college seniors are instructed to pretend. It's even rarer in a college history class. But Erin-Marie Legacey found out by doing just that, she was able to insert her students into the action of history and, through fantasy, open their eyes to its reality.

Legacey, an assistant professor in the Texas Tech University Department of History, teaches a senior seminar about the French Revolution. Each student is assigned a real-life character and given a small amount of information of about that person's role in the revolution. Students then have the opportunity to research their character and learn more about them before stepping into their shoes: writing, speaking, debating, scheming and legislating in character for six weeks.

Legacey teaches a class.

"I have never had a class where students are so engaged and excited about course content," Legacey said. "The outcome of 'our' French Revolution was very different from what actually happened in the 18th century, but at the end of the game, students had to reflect on their experience and write a paper describing and analyzing why what happened in our role-playing game would have been unlikely, if not impossible, in the 18th century.

"It was such a fun and exhilarating way to teach material that I've been teaching for over a decade. I'm already planning to do it again."

It's this kind of innovative activity that earned Legacey the Texas Tech Parents Association's 2020 Spencer A. Wells Creativity in Teaching Award.


Can you describe your research and its impact, both in academics and society?
As a scholar, I am interested in the unexpected, but important, ways that populations respond to massive disruptions. Specifically, I study the aftermath and immediate consequences of the French Revolution. My book, "Making Space for the Dead: Catacombs, Cemeteries and the Reimagining of Paris, 1780-1830," does this by telling the story of Paris's most famous spaces for the dead (including the Catacombs and Père Lachaise Cemetery), both of which opened in the decade following the end of the revolution. It argues that people used these unique new spaces to process the trauma and upheaval of the revolutionary era. In the process, they created a new kind of burial culture that inspired similar cemeteries across the world.

What projects are you working on at this time?
I am in the early stages of a new project about daredevils in early 19th-century France. Specifically, I am investigating the lives and adventures of women aeronauts, who flew hot air balloons and engaged in spectacles of bravery for audiences across Europe. For example, one woman was famous for shooting off fireworks from the basket of a balloon, while another was known for parachuting back to earth after ascending to a great height. I am interested in figuring out what these women's careers can tell us about everyday life in Napoleonic France, particularly for women who had far fewer political and legal rights than men during this time.

What areas are you interested in for future research?
I hope to expand this investigation about female aeronauts into a larger project about daredevilry and risk-taking in the Napoleonic period. We have a lot of histories of Napoleon's battles and his policies, but there are remarkably few books about ordinary – or in this case extraordinary – life during this protracted period of war and empire.

What rewards do you get from teaching?
I love researching unexpected cultural phenomena, but it takes a long time to see the results of a research project. One of the things I so appreciate about teaching is seeing the instant effect of history on students. I absolutely love watching my students get excited about the past and understanding how events from hundreds of years ago might still have relevance to their 21st-century lives.

What motivated you to pursue a career in academia?
I pursued a career in academia because I couldn't imagine doing anything else. As far back as I can remember, I loved going to school, but I always assumed I would have to stop at some point. I am a first-generation college student, so I didn't have any conception of what "school" might look like after an undergraduate bachelor's degree. In college, I learned more about academia and what professors actually do with their time, and I was so excited by the possibility of making a career out of reading, writing and teaching about history.

How has Texas Tech helped you advance your research and teaching?
Texas Tech has been incredibly supportive of my research and teaching. When I won a research fellowship to the Newberry Library in Chicago in 2015, the Office of Research & Innovation helped me relocate and supplemented my fellowship stipend so I could spend the year working on my book. When I gave birth to my second child, the Modified Instructional Duties policy (adopted in 2015) allowed me to spend time with my infant without jeopardizing my progress toward tenure.

In terms of teaching, I have always felt like I had the freedom to teach the content I wanted to, using whatever methodology I thought would be most useful. For example, when I implemented a new teaching style in the fall of 2019, where I "flipped" my classroom for a third of the semester and had my students play an immersive role-playing game, I had nothing but support from my colleagues and supervisors.

Who has had the biggest impact on you and your career, and why?
My father has had the biggest impact on me and my career. He was a bookseller who loved books and never tired of learning new things. He passed this on to me at an early age and even taught me how to read when I was still in preschool! He never attended college himself, but in his free time, he was always reading, thinking and writing about topics that caught his interest. He passed away before I began my doctoral program, but I know he would have been extremely proud of what I've accomplished as both a scholar and a teacher.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?
One of the things I love about working at Texas Tech is how I've been able to develop as both a scholar and a teacher. We're a research-intensive university, but one that seems to value good teaching as well as innovative research, and I appreciate that balanced approach to higher education.

The only other thing I'd like to say is how much I appreciate my students at Texas Tech. One of the things I have learned since arriving here in 2012 is that many of them are very open to new ideas and new ways of learning in the classroom. If you are willing to take risks and provide them with unique opportunities and challenges, they can really surprise and delight you with their creativity.