Peer Review

Empathy and Engagement: Using Avatars to Bring Students into History

I no longer sigh when students intimate that Richard Nixon is as ancient as the Peloponnesian wars. But I remain deeply concerned that students understand the history they are studying as a lived past. For many of my students, the moving image is the primary vantage from which they look back on other times, so they often observe the past as they would a movie. To the extent that they appreciate both history and cinema as texts built on narrative coherence, research, informed selection, and judicious editing, I’m right with them. But it is unsettling to realize that they imagine past lives as the lives of actors who performed roles, not as real people who lived them.

The desire to make history real led me to develop a project in which students could locate themselves in the past. Unlike role-playing experiences where students re-enact moments in history by “becoming” historical figures, the project I designed required that students create avatars who would live forty years of the history we were studying. The project took both students and myself beyond traditional (“chalk and talk”) approaches to history learning, and beyond the limitations of history role playing (where the tendency to see figures of the past as actors is often accentuated), and resulted in some of the most significant student learning I have experienced in thirty years of teaching. Students not only learned the specific history we explored more deeply than in a lecture-based class, but they also absorbed some fundamental concepts of liberal education: empathetic imagining, the ability to appreciate the role of contingent knowledge and relative values, and the need for ethically grounded decision making. In short, by becoming real participants in a self-constructed but historically accurate past, my students not only took ownership over their learning, but came to understand the reality of the past.

I have been teaching Dirty Wars and Democracy, an upper-level Latin American history course, for fifteen years. In it we examine the history of Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay from the late 1960s to the present. Over that period, each country fell into military dictatorship (from Brazil in 1964 to Argentina in 1976), endured long years under exceptionally brutal regimes, and has struggled with the memory of those events since returning to civilian rule. The class has always been challenging to teach because it introduces a number of profound, often unanswerable questions: Why do democracies become dictatorships? How do we explain human cruelty? What does justice mean for torture victims who encounter their torturers sipping coffee at a corner cafe? Is national reconciliation possible in light of starkly opposing historical memories?

The Avatar Project

Key Elements that Make HIPs Work
  • Time on Task
  • Writing and Research

For me, the challenges are also deeply personal. I lived in Chile during Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government, bore witness to the 1973 military coup, saw friends murdered by the new regime, and engaged in a seventeen-year struggle to return democracy to that country. I have never kept my own history outside of my classes; indeed, I consider it imperative to include it. But when I teach this class, I am adamant that my students understand the reality of the past they are studying and be prepared to grapple with it intellectually and emotionally. So, when I read a brief description of an avatar project that Edith Sheffer used for a twentieth-century Germany history class at Stanford, I felt I had found the key to unlock this door (Sheffer 2009).

I introduced the “Avatar Project” to the forty-three students enrolled in Dirty Wars the second week of the fall 2010 semester. Reaching into a box, each student drew out a slip of paper with demographic indicators: a country (either Chile or Argentina), gender, birth year (from 1930 to 1965), birthplace, parents’ birth location if different, parents’ occupations, and religion if other than Catholic. For example: “Chile; female; Valparaíso; 1950; Father: reporter for El Mercurio (Valparaiso edition); Mother: nurse; both born in Santiago.”

Students had a few days to give me a pseudonym for their avatar, using traditional naming conventions for Spanish ancestry countries. Only I could connect students to their avatars. Colleagues in Oberlin’s Cooper International Learning Center (CILC) helped create a central blog structure for the project. On it, each student, identified only by their pseudonym, had a separate presence. The class had agreed to make all blogs publicly available, so we employed a locally hosted version of WordPress rather than using our content management system. After a short training session at the CILC, the students were ready to begin.

For the remainder of the semester, the students wrote weekly posts that corresponded to specific dates I selected, beginning in the late 1960s or early 1970s and mapped onto important events in the history we were studying. Students were encouraged to write in the language (English or Spanish) in which they could be most colloquial. The students’ final post occurred in the last week of class; in it they could reflect on their avatar’s life while still occupying that character or on the project as a whole using their own voice. All quotes in this article from student blogs are referenced by their pseudonyms and, where pertinent, the date on which the avatar wrote it.

Most students introduced themselves (i.e., their avatars) in a two- to three-paragraph posting, but all soon became more expansive. All entries were available online, and I read and wrote brief comments on each entry (which, with forty-three students posting weekly, nearly undid me). Because the class was so large, it was unrealistic to expect students to read all the other entries. (Following a student’s suggestion, when I repeat the project, I will divide students into groups of six, with three students from each country, to make cross-commenting easier.) I wrote my own comments from the perspective of that avatar, supporting his/her approach, but also scaffolding questions to help the students provide different kinds of information (“So, what are the workers talking about in your factory?”). If needed, I corrected factual mistakes in my own voice in a separate part of the comment.

I felt it was essential for the success of the project for students to identify themselves only by their avatars’ names. I had written the avatars’ characteristics in an attempt to produce individuals who could represent many different subject positions in these countries: they were children of wealth and power, of military officers, of workers, peasants, and public sector employees. Yet I knew that many of my students would feel uncomfortable representing supporters of dictatorial regimes. My decision to have them post pseudonymously, I felt, would encourage the broadly empathetic perspective taking that the project was designed to enhance. As one student reflected, “I’m so glad it was anonymous. I think I would have felt completely paralyzed if I knew my name was attached” to the post.

The project produced striking results which I can only touch on here. Among the most important were the ways in which students began to understand what it meant to affirm their own commitments in a world of contingency and relative values; the critical importance of teaching empathy as historical perspective taking; and a deeper appreciation for the reality of the past which, concomitantly, allowed them to understand the importance of historical knowledge to the way we live in the present.

Contingency and Uncertainty

Key Elements that Make HIPs Work
  • Engagement within Diversity
  • Meaningful Interaction with Faculty and Peers

The educational psychologist William Perry argues that students should learn to “accommodate uncertainty, paradox, and the demands of greater complexity” as they move past an absolutist, “right-wrong” view of the world (Perry 1999, xii). Although we spent considerable class time studying iconic cases of moral decision making (including Stanley Milgram’s “obedience to authority” experiments and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment), most students felt confident that they knew how they would act if they found themselves in the situation of many in Chile and Argentina who either carried out acts of torture (close to 40,000 cases in Chile alone), witnessed it, or knew it was taking place (National Commission 2003). And yet, as their avatars witnessed individuals plucked from buses and forced into the white Ford Falcons used by Argentina’s secret police, or as they confronted the reality of their lives as air force officers who were also family breadwinners, they often realized they were surprisingly uncertain as to what they would do in such circumstances. For “Amacio Torres Rodriguez,” the process of writing his avatar’s life had left him with greater insights but also “with a series of unanswerable questions,” that he now “felt compelled” to investigate further.

Empathy and Moral Choice

One of the Avatar Project’s paramount goals was to develop approaches that could scaffold empathy, or informed perspective taking. Empathy is not the same as sympathy; it is rather the capacity to understand actions and choices made from another’s perspective. Psychologists have long considered the capacity for imaginative attribution to be a critical foundation for promoting cooperative, pro-social relationships (Hoffman 2000). Within the context of the project, I was interested to see how those avatars that supported the military regimes understood their choices. “Juan Hoffman Morales,” a Chilean naval officer, felt Pinochet had “the best interests of the country in mind” and blasted those who turned him out of office in a 1988 plebiscite as “impatient, spoiled children.” Reflecting on the project, the student who created “Hoffman Morales” admitted that she struggled writing from his perspective. Ultimately, she decided “to bring out his internal conflict over government actions, even as he remained a [regime] supporter.” The student concluded in her final reflection that “I think this project…brought out the important point that those who commit violence may in fact be conflicted about their actions. They’re real people. They’re faced with situations and they have to make a decision.” Still in the voice of her avatar, a student who had spent the previous semester in Chile and was writing in Spanish reflected, “What is bad is that people think that their view of the past is a fact, something absolute, when in reality it’s completely subjective. Until the Chilean people realize that the truth is different for each person, we can’t get ourselves together as a unified nation, cachai [you know]?”

If the project helped students amplify their ability to occupy multiple viewpoints (“It made me think about things from a perspective that I would not have tried out or understood as well without my avatar,” one concluded), I worried that students could displace their moral bearings when representing the position of those who supported regimes founded on violence. What I found was that while students came to understand why others could partake in, or turn a blind eye toward, morally reprehensible acts, they also understood the circumstances that could foster such outcomes.

One student, who wrote from the perspective of an Argentine Air Force officer (“Nahuel Mellea Casares”) who admitted taking part in flights which dumped prisoners into the Atlantic, later reflected that “writing from the perspective of a conservative-leaning individual helped me understand how he might have thought about that crazy world he saw around him…When examining things from another’s point of view, the black and white fade to shades of gray.”

Historical and Real Lives

That many students initially located their avatars’ lives squarely within the thicket of the political past that they were studying did not surprise me. Their avatars reported on rallies attended and slogans chanted, watched with dismay (or enthusiasm) when civilian governments collapsed, agonized over the disappearance of a father, or their own actions while in military service. At some point around mid-semester, however, many avatars began to live “real” lives: they married, had children, struggled with unemployment, and voiced their hopes for the next generation. (Two avatars even moved in with each other!) “I want my grandchildren to be strong and fight for their beliefs,” “Enrique Armando Jiménez Valazquez” wrote on Sept. 11, 2010, “but I know that I can never let it happen. I want them safe. I want them alive. I know that we make mistakes to learn from them. This is history. But what mistakes have I made to learn from.” By merging the politics we discussed in class with their avatars’ lives, the students produced what I most desired: a sense that people living through difficult times remain real people with lives that are lived on many levels and in many modalities. “History” (those upper-case events recorded in monographs) happens but will be lived differently by an eighteen-year old, the parent of young children, or, as was the case for many of the avatars by the end of the project, grandparents looking back over tumultuous lives. “I may be a lawyer,” “Francisco Rossi Costa,” reflected, “but I don’t know what justice is or if this country will ever get it. But I know that the best way to honor my [disappeared] parents’ memory is through love.”

“…[T]here was a sort of settling in with the material we discussed in class, a sort of aging in my heart that accompanied (and oddly mirrored) what my avatar was feeling at the time,” one student wrote at the end of the project.

Big questions about memory, pain, loss, repression, and history which confound me, confuse me, make me struggle, stretch my heart, make me think things I don’t understand–all of these conflicts remain just below the surface in my avatar’s mind. However, my avatar takes a different approach because she must live in Argentina, she cannot exist ‘ex tempore’, and so I have explored, through her, trying to be present and attentive to life experiences in history that would be much more comfortable to keep at arm’s … length. My avatar is much more objective, much more calm, much more level-headed than I am: that is because she had to be, for her own survival (“Frederica Rojas Fuentes” final reflection).

“History books tell you the facts,” another concluded, “and historical analysis tells you what those facts mean, and suggests what a specific event’s effects were on the people living at the time. But this assignment forces you to really think about how those people feel, and what is going through their heads, and how they must try to go through everyday life, even when they are confronted with traumatic experiences…By literally placing yourself in the shoes of someone like [Isabel Carrasco-Vera, her avatar], it is possible to feel a part of that history. And in doing so, you come to feel for the people who actually went through that.”


It is far from easy to construct alternative approaches to teaching and learning history. The Avatar Project took me far outside my comfort zone and involved considerably more time than traditional assignments. I don’t think I understood its full significance until I read one student’s reflection. “Writing a ‘primary account,’” “Martina Rodríguez Aguilar” wrote, “feels like a much larger responsibility than reading one.” Placing students in this context was, for me, more a responsibility than an assignment. But when I read over the responses, I know I will eagerly repeat the assignment this fall. As one student concluded, “Now I am done—the questions that this course raises are still with me, but my avatar is now at rest. Will she pop up again someday? Will the lessons that she taught me bring me forward? I hope so.” So do I.


Hoffman, M. L. 2000. Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture (Comisión Nacional Sobre Prisón Politica y Tortura, “Valech Commission”). 2003. “Commission of Inquiry. Chile 03.” United States Institutes of Peace. (accessed June 6, 2012).

Perry, W. G., Jr. 1999. Forms of Ethical and Intellectual Development in the College Years. Ed. L. Lee Knefelkamp. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sheffer, E. 2009, Nov. 22. “Creating Lives in the Classroom.” Chronicle of Higher Education.

Steven S. Volk is a professor of history at Oberlin College and the 2011 Outstanding Baccalaureate Colleges Professor of the Year.

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