Columns

Seda ’12: BUSUN and the art of simulation

By
Opnions Columnist
Wednesday, November 16, 2011

You may have noticed the swarm of seemingly younger-than-average students taking over the Main Green this past weekend. Judging from the neat display of blazers, folders and nametags, you may have thought it was yet another job recruitment event or career fair aimed at those 2012-ers seeking to be employed right after college. Chances are that, unless you knew what was going on, your first guess would not have been that 800 high school students were gathering at Brown for the 15th annual Brown University Simulation of the United Nations conference.

BUSUN is a student-run Model UN conference that takes place every year on Brown’s campus during the second week of November. For three consecutive days, the participants, who this year hailed from as close as Barrington, Rhode Island, and as far as Cork, Ireland, temporarily ditched their uniforms and casual garments to don the robes — as they had to dress in Western business attire for the duration of the conference — of delegates. As with other Model UN conferences around the world, BUSUN aims to reproduce the structure of the UN and is thus a superb exercise in role-playing.

But is it just inane role-playing?

The answer is more complicated than a yes or a no. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that I’ve been reading about mimesis, simulacrum and other sorts of mind-boggling Theory with a capital T for one of my courses that I’ve become more observant of imitation, copying and what’s real or not. As an outsider to Model UN who did BUSUN for the first time this year, I was initially amused by the idea of putting on my professional face and overseeing a group of high school students as they compiled the newspaper publication for this year’s conference. I am in no way trivializing the experience, but I must say that the performative aspect of this conference secretly enthralled me and ultimately brought me to it.

Nevertheless, as the conference progressed and the team of reporters for the BUSUN Buzz took their roles to heart, I saw another interesting pattern emerge in my committee: Despite the artificiality of the setting, there was real reporting taking place, along with real learning. And then it dawned on me that maybe the whole reason why Model UN is built around the simulation model is because such a model has been proven to be an adequate preparation for the real.

So my next thought was: Why not export that model to the classroom?

One weekend as a committee chair at this year’s conference was enough to convince me that the simulation model really works. It’s the learning tool at the core of Model UN conferences, but it doesn’t have to exist solely within those limits. Role-playing teaches us much more than how to be convincing actors — it compels us to engage with real issues and craft our own interpretations of them. It can be argued that its effectiveness equals, or even surpasses, that of committing to memory a stream of facts that will only be filed and forgotten in the deepest recesses of the already saturated brain of a Brown student. But that is not to say that role-playing should displace other traditional forms of learning. In fact, what you would call a “convincing” performance is one that reveals a truthful appraisal and internalization of the facts. Performance, in a way, is the next step in the information-processing continuum.

And at BUSUN, that was exactly the case. The conference provided all delegates with a forum in which they could engage with a situation, discuss it, dialogue with allies and enemies, practice diplomacy, report honestly and accurately in the case of press corps members and, above all, deliver a convincing performance. The delegates also learned how to act as representatives of their respective countries or organizations, speak in public and explore situations from conflicting viewpoints. Listening, debating, negotiating — all the skills that we celebrate in leaders today — were, and still are, at the heart of BUSUN.

While it is true that role-playing contains an element of lighthearted play and amusement, the truth of the matter is that it can teach us more than what we sometimes like to acknowledge. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have more role-playing exercises in class every so often, both to dramatize a particular situation as well as to demonstrate our full understanding of it.

All I’m saying is this: Let’s give role-playing a shot at being a useful tool for learning in academic settings. Let’s not dismiss it as something trivial and inconsequential. Just as there is more to role-playing than whimsical divertissement, there is more to BUSUN than high school students acting as delegates for 72 hours. It may be a fictional scenario — with its own outrageous moments that made it all the way to the BUSUN Twitter page — but the learning is very much real. And, who knows, maybe this copy of the real — this simulacrum — is, to paraphrase Jean Baudrillard, the real truth at the end of the day.

Lucia Seda ’12 thoroughly enjoyed all the Model UN puns at BUSUN 2011. She can be reached at Lucia_Seda@brown.edu.

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