Summer 2024
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A Professor of Historical Importance

Paul Otto’s love of history and connecting with students kept him returning to the classroom for more than two decades By Sean Patterson

A passion to understand peoples of the past and building relationships with students of the present combined to give history professor Paul Otto a reason to look forward to coming to work the past 22 years.

Beyond that, he felt fortunate to teach in two fields that were part of his graduate training – the history of the American Revolution and the history of South Africa – and his discovery 10 years ago of using role-immersion pedagogy, in which his students lived out history in dramatic fashion, further deepened the joy of the job.

But alas, as Geoffrey Chaucer first observed in 1374, “All good things must come to an end.” Otto retired from teaching at George Fox with the close of the 2023-24 academic year, but his fascination with history and the joy derived from sharing that fascination won’t allow him to totally walk away.

Otto plans to continue with research and writing, with the goal of finishing a book about the history of wampum in the 17th and 18th centuries. And his love of role-immersion teaching practice will keep him motivated to support The Reacting Consortium, a national organization dedicated to “Reacting to the Past” classes that promote engaged learning through role-playing games.

It was through “Reacting to the Past” courses that Otto truly saw what his students were capable of – and gave him a glimpse into who they were as individuals.

“It was in those classes that I saw sides of my students I never saw before,” Otto says. “To engage as historical actors, they have to draw on personal strengths and to learn new skills. I’ve seen students become compelling speakers, charismatic leaders, skillful negotiators and eloquent writers. In traditionally taught classes, opportunities for students to reveal themselves that way are quite limited.”

Otto also discovered something else: Students often just needed someone to listen to their own stories and how they see the world.

“I’ve had the privilege to support students who were struggling with mental health issues, with fitting into the neurotypical expectations of the campus setting, and with finding their place in a world that expects conformity where conformity isn’t always possible,” he says.

In addition to offering a listening ear, Otto was “the voice of God” when, as the game master of a role-immersion exercise, he had to intervene in the proceedings. He was also known as the guy who loved Pepsi in a can.

“There were times I’d show up to class and find a can of Pepsi waiting for me at the podium,” he recalls. “Or, knowing that my love of Pepsi is equally matched by how much I despise Coca-Cola, they taunted me (in fun, of course) by prominently displaying Coke products in class.”

Ultimately, it was the students and his colleagues that kept him at it for more than two decades. “I kept coming back for the students, making sure that every student who came to George Fox had someone who could empathize with them and advocate for them,” he says. “And the colleagues in my department have always been supportive, encouraging, level-headed, good-natured and generous.”

In addition to continuing his academic pursuits, Otto plans to spend more time with his spouse, children and grandchildren, do board-game design and play, read science fiction, play role-playing games, and go fly fishing.

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Summer 2024 Journal Cover

Cover of Summer 2024 issue

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