The Avatar Project

I have taught history for about 30 years. Over this time, I have come to realize that I faced two central philosophical problems teaching history. The first is that although we know the outcome of any particular historical process (who won World War I, what were the consequences of the Spanish conquest of the New World, etc.), these were not inevitable. The second is that history actually happened, it’s not a fictional narrative, and it happened to real people. I developed this project to help students better understand the reality of history by placing them in a context where they are “living” in a historical period. As opposed to some history “games” (e.g. “Reacting to the Past”), in this project students invent their own characters (avatars) who live through turbulent times. It is an attempt to get at what C.Wright Mills once described as the “intersection of biography and history”: while the history is real, the biographies are the creative work of the students.

In the second week of the semester, students in my History 293 class (“Dirty Wars and Democracy”), a class which studies the rise and fall of dictatorships in the Southern Cone countries of South America from the 1960-1990s, pick a slip of paper. On this they will find a country (Chile or Argentina), a birth year (from 1935-1960), a town, the occupations of their “parents,” whether they immigrated to the country, and their religion if not Catholic. The students will then create names for their avatars, reflecting their backgrounds, and send them to me. With help from Barbara Sawhill at Oberlin’s Cooper International Learning Center, we establish this blog on which the avatars post weekly entries. I remain the only one who knows which avatar is written by which student.

Students only have three rules in the project: (1) they cannot change the course of history; (2) their avatars cannot die before the end of the project; and (3) if their leave the country to which they have been assigned, they must remain active in an exile community. Further, as they post to the blogs, they can only use the media that was available at that time. Thus, they can insert photographs from the beginning, but cannot add “YouTube” videos until 2005, when the service was created.

Each week the students date prompts, and they write about what their avatars were doing around those specific dates. You can find those dates on the course syllabus – they are listed at the start of each week’s assignments.

For a full description of the project, see: Steven Volk, “How the Air Felt on My Cheeks: Using Avatars to Access History,” The History Teacher 46:2 (February 2013): 193-214.

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