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Skidmore College

A semesterlong quest

January 29, 2018

Imagine receiving a syllabus for a course that hasn’t yet been completely structured, because you and your classmates are tasked with developing it. Then you’re given a brass key and told you can’t lose it. Now what?

“The Quest,” taught by Erica Bastress-Dukehart, associate professor of history, puts her students at the wheel to learn more about medieval and early modern Europe through developing personas, fulfilling tasks, and of course a final quest. “We start the process the semester before,” Bastress-Dukehart said, “and we talk about what the narrative arc of the course is going to be and what kinds of readings we want to do.” For their class, Jess Shapiro ’18, Juliette Rosenthal ’19 and Meaghan McDonald ’18 were transported to the year 1453.

It’s something that we grappled with as we were all taking it. We didn’t want to present it as role-playing because it makes it sound not very serious, but it is a very serious class. We all did an incredible amount of research.
—Juliette Rosenthal ’19


Bastress-Dukehart spends the break between semesters sending drafts of the syllabus to the class: “By the time the course starts, that syllabus is completely owned by the people in the room.” That ownership is so universal that Bastress-Dukehart was confident her students would stay on-course even though she could not be in the class during its first week. It went off without a hitch.

Alliances were formed, personas were developed. Suddenly, each student was completely invested in completing “The Quest,” even though its nature was not yet clear. Students were also given a virtue, such as kindness, honesty or strength, and charged to live by that virtue for the semester inside and outside of the course.  

Every student who has participated in “The Quest” would tell a uniquely different story. Some, like McDonald, would share a time when she had to leave her alliance in secret. Shapiro would explain converting religions. Each student is in a race to complete tasks and conclude the quest, which involves a series of clues, research and an actual hunt on campus for a prized possession. Bastress-Dukehart listens to dozens of presentations during the final race, allowing alliances to move on to the next clue at any time of day, even on the weekends.

Throughout the semester, students develop a deeper understanding of the time period due to the personas they each created and the tasks assigned to them. Tasks were given to each alliance, requiring thorough research so as not to be out-theorized by remaining classmates who determined if the alliance failed or passed the given task. Even a task as seemingly simple as traveling required teamwork and a concrete understanding of resources and limitations of the times. “If you work really hard to fulfill a task, it’s really exciting to present that,” Shapiro explained. “I learned how to do the most meticulous research I ever had to do.”

I didn't really know how to talk about anything else. I still don't.
- Jess Shapiro '18

Each semester, students are intrigued by the mystery of “The Quest” and excited to take the course. “I just saw the name ‘The Quest,’ and I emailed Erica and said please let me take this,” Rosenthal said. She’s not the only one. Skidmore students may not know what to expect when registering for “The Quest,” but they do know it will be an incredible experience.

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