The goal for this class is for students to explore the ways cities emerge from countryside in the Greco-Roman world, building tools and working with data to consturct an understanding of what it means to be civilized in this time and place. I contacted various professional archaeologists to obtain datasets of (sometimes unpublished) data for the students to work with. I want them to approach this data from an archaeological point of view, and so I have designed a series of formative assessment exercises that focus first and foremost on the techniques of data representation. In practice, this means geographic information systems (GIS) and social network analysis (SNA), techniques that history students are not familiar with. I developed a series of tutorial exercises that students could redo until they demonstrate mastery. Then, I formally assign them the tasks of representing the real data in both GIS and SNA. Only then do they embark on the task of interpreting what this data could mean.
However, the very first thing the students had to accomplish was to re-boot their top-down, western, 21st century view of space and spatial relationships. We did this by playing a simulation of Roman space. I created an interactive fiction which the students ‘read’ (played) by inputting text commands (please see ‘Stanger in These Parts’, Playfic http://playfic.com/games/shawn_graham/stranger-in-these-parts—v01 ). By removing the graphical interface students have come to expect, this simulation forced the students to concentrate on the social construction of space in the Roman world. The students then contrasted this experience with a more familiar map-based interface on the same body of knowledge, ORBIS The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World (Scheidel and Meeks 2012, orbis.stanford.edu). ORBIS allows the user to explore Roman space and to map time and distance of travel from a variety of transport options. Using ORBIS it becomes clear that ‘distance’ depends on social status, time of year, mode of transport, and a host of other factors. The students then filtered both of these experiences through the lens of set readings. The combination of game, simulation, readings and reflection was at first upsetting for the students – ‘I don’t know what you want from me!’ was a plaintive cry. Did I want a five paragraph essay? What were they supposed to look for as they played? What’s the point of all this? I diffused the trepidation in this case by turning the whole exercise into a class-time group exploration of both simulations and the readings, allowing students to collaborate in class while still turning in individual reflections.