Fair game: How Harper College professor Rebecca Scott combines play, philosophy

You might say that it’s all fun and games for Dr. Rebecca Scott. A lifelong fan of board games, the associate professor uses games and play-based learning in her Harper College philosophy courses. She plays guitar and sings lead in the indie rock band Panda Riot. She’s a devoted Survivor fan.

Scott is also a 2023 recipient of the American Philosophical Association’s Prize for Excellence in Philosophy Teaching. She encourages engagement with her students through games and breaks down barriers between educators and learners via the magic circle of play.

Harper College philosophy instructor Rebecca Scott uses games and play-based methods to engage with students in her classes at Harper. Dr. Scott just earned a teaching prize from the American Philosophy Association, and her rock band Panda Riot is headlining the Harper Music Department’s Spring Festival. Courtesy of Harper College

In Scott’s classes, students may play an argument-mapping game or a role-playing game where the characters are based on philosophers. She uses party games as more than just ice breakers, priming students to enter into a philosophical mindset.

“Play and playfulness is at the heart of who we are as social beings,” said Scott, referencing Dutch historian Johan Huizinga and his works that influenced the idea of the magic circle of play. “When we enter into this magic circle, we suspend the normal rules and it helps us to try out new ways of being. We need students to unlearn or suspend certain ideas and beliefs — question things that they’re not used to questioning. Games offer one way of loosening up assumptions about school: ‘It’s hard’ or ‘I’m not a philosophy person.’”

Scott said that most children are philosophical, curious about big questions about the universe, and she was no exception when she was growing up in Arkansas and North Carolina. Her curiosity about the nature of reality didn’t abate as she entered college, exploring philosophy while majoring in religion at Philadelphia’s Swarthmore College — where she reveled in extended sessions of discussion and community — before earning her master’s and doctorate in philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, with plans to teach about the subject.

As a kid, she also loved board games — another passion that hasn’t abated. Scott said she was introduced to role-playing games through Dungeons & Dragons while in graduate school. She became an instant fan of the game, especially its interactive entanglements, and had something of an epiphany.

“This is what I want my classes to be like,” she remembers thinking, drawing on her marathon undergraduate discussion sessions and RPG experiences. “With the Dungeon Master and players, I saw parallels between teachers and students. They’re co-creating the story within a set structure. The players have agency, and it’s the Dungeon Master’s responsibility to give everyone a chance and to help create a good experience. I saw how fun and engaging that is. That’s the vibe I strive for as a teacher — we all want to be there; we all want to be engaged.”

Scott brought that perspective to Harper in 2018, deploying her game-based teaching methods (she’s currently working on a philosophical RPG for ethics courses). She also led her department’s 2020 inclusive pedagogy project, examining how faculty could rethink classroom instruction to increase inclusion among students of all identities, and helped to implement the department’s learning lab project, designed to create a more collaborative learning environment. Data from the learning labs displayed increased success among students who come from historically marginalized backgrounds.

Scott spoke glowingly about the autonomy and ability to be creative at Harper, where she founded the Teaching With Games community of practice within Harper’s Academy for Teaching Excellence. She sang the praises of the college’s Philosophy Department.

“Everybody cares about teaching. Everyone is thoughtful, collegial and supportive. We have each other’s backs,” Scott said. “I found my professional identity here.”

An identity worthy of national recognition, according to Scott’s Excellence in Philosophy Teaching Prize from the APA. She was self-effacing about the recent honor, although she said she’s proud of the professional validation it gave her and the spotlight it shines on philosophy educators, especially those at community colleges like Harper.

“In our discipline, there can be an elitism against teaching. An award like this is important for highlighting the work that teachers do,” Scott said. “And I’m proud of my community college status. The teaching experience of community college faculty is undervalued.”

Harper College philosophy instructor Rebecca Scott’s rock band, Panda Riot, is headlining the Harper Music Department’s Spring Festival Feb. 3-4. Courtesy of Harper College

Scott focuses her creativity on her teaching, although it’s not her only outlet. She grew up playing classical piano and is the frontwoman for Panda Riot, a shoegaze/dreampop band she formed with her boyfriend (now husband) Brian Cook in 2008. She describes Cook as the primary force behind the four-piece group, although she plays guitar, sings lead, and writes all of the lyrics and vocal melodies.

“Our aesthetic is destructive, ecstatic, explosive,” she said. “The feeling of tragic beauty — it’s beautiful because it’s fleeting and bittersweet.”

Panda Riot to headline music festival at Harper

Panda Riot, fronted by Harper College Associate Professor Rebecca Scott, will headline the first night of the Harper Music Department Spring Festival.

The festival takes place 7-8:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 3, and Sunday, Feb. 4, on Harper’s campus at Building R, Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Algonquin Road, Palatine. Tickets, $15, are available at or by calling (847) 925-6100.

Saturday will feature performances by Janice Raza and Olga Bornovalova, Edward Hamel and Sadie Hochman-Ruiz, the Continental String Ensemble, Susan Dennis, Edgar Gabriel and Chiayi Lee, and Panda Riot. Sunday’s lineup includes the Fermi String Quartet with Peter Aglinskas, the Harper Jazz Faculty Ensemble, the Seraphin Trio, and Jenni Stark.

Panda Riot has released a number of albums, the most recent being 2022’s “Extra Cosmic.” Scott said that it’s not always easy to balance her work in the band, teaching at Harper and being a parent to her and Cook’s 2-year-old son. She said her roles as a performer and educator inform each other.

“Just being in front of people and doing something that was embarrassing and getting over it,” she reflected about the similarities. “I’ve become comfortable letting mistakes happen.”

Whether it involves music or games, Scott said the act of play allows everyone to feel better about making errors. She brought it back to her teaching style, contrasting how students feel about getting something wrong on a quiz vs. during a game in class.

“If we’re playing a game, you can be wrong and it allows for failure in a way that’s less demoralizing,” Scott said. “If your team loses a round, it’s like, “Let’s get the next one’.”

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