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Teaching Thursday: Capstone Classes

History at the University of North Dakota has a capstone class.  Called History 440, it requires the students to produce a substantial term paper on a particular topic in history.  The students meet together perhaps a dozen times over the course of the semester as a group, but generally work one-on-one with a faculty adviser who shepherds them through the processes of research, writing, and revision.  The students are responsible for meeting with their chosen faculty advisers and the level of “student engagement” with this process varies.  There is a general hope that the students are familiar with the processes involved in writing a substantial term paper.  Befitting a capstone class, many of the basic skills necessary — from note taking to footnoting — are developed over the course of the curriculum in the department and in History 240, the preparatory methods class.  Ideally, the students have a complete tool kit for writing a substantial and exciting paper.  Having listened to a half-dozen of the papers presented by students this year, the results of this process are varied.  It’s not entirely clear whether we’ve successfully communicated the basic research principles to our majors.  They can, at their best, play the part and present professional sounding papers, but it is a different matter to consider whether they truly understand how to write, think, and do research (and walk) like a historian.  I am optimistic and apparently so are some of my colleagues around the US.  In the most recent issues of Perspectives there was a series of papers on capstone courses and some discussion in the blogosphere (including this nice contribution from edwired)

Since I’ve been teaching History 240, which is the preparatory methods class for 440, I have a front row seat for many of the issues surrounding the capstone course in our department (and I suspect, in departments around the US).  Increasingly I’ve come to the conclusion that a capstone class is not particularly suitable for history majors.  Some of this has to do with the idiosyncratic nature of most history departments, some of this has to do with the kinds of students that we attract to the major, and some of this has to do with the nature of the discipline itself.

Here are some of my preliminary thoughts:

1. Students are drawn to history not because they love to write and do research because the love the stories.  Historical fiction, the History Channel, historical fantasies (like the Da Vinci Code or Larry Potter), and even video games are the primary route through which our students are lured to the discipline.  The major itself, however, is a very different thing from the narrative driven experience that have attracted students to the field.  The shift from narrative to analysis, interpretation, and argument driven writing turns off a significant portion of our majors.  Writing a major analytical and argumentative paper is even more difficult in that they are being asked to make the transition from “content consumers” to “content producers”.  This is difficult and a percentage of our students just check out on the content production part of their education. It’s not why they signed up to be history majors.

2. The skills communicated in our capstone course do not appear to the student to fit clearly within their post-university goals.  Few of our students go on to graduate school in history.  Many go on to teach, go to law school, or go into the business world.  While it is easy enough to convince students that a long term paper will help them develop a particular set of skills that will be useful in their post-university life (e.g. the elusive critical thinking, writing skills, research discipline, et c.), it is another thing to convince them that this is the best way to develop those skills and it is certainly not a method that most of them particularly enjoy (see point 1).

3. History is not a cumulative discipline. Capstone courses are best suited to field where faculty disseminate bits of methods, practices, and procedures over the course of a series of classes.  History doesn’t really work that way.  And our department, which is fortunate to have a wide range of methods and theoretical perspectives represented, does not work this way in particular.  While I can imagine how skills learned in a course taught in Oral History, Quantitative Methods, Mediterranean Archaeology, Marxist approaches, Gender History, and Early Modern and Medieval History could introduce a diverse and robust historical tool kit for an aspiring student, I can also understand why these diverse approaches do not present an easily integrated group of methods for a single project.  The fact that we distribute our students among the various faculty in the department to work on their papers one-on-one reveals that we don’t even expect our students to bring together methods developed across their full range of classes.  So the idea that the capstone paper is some kind of integrative or cumulative experience is likely false.  In reality, our capstone paper follows models of specialization common to graduate programs.  In these models students become increasingly focused on a particular and limited skill set (not necessary to the complete exclusion of other skills, but certainly with the goal of becoming a specialist rather than an individual with a diverse set of transferable skills).

So, to sum up, students aren’t attracted to history by the writing and research, the capstone course does not feed clearly into the post-graduate goals of most students, and at least as our department has established our capstone, the approach runs counter to the most commonly accepted idea of the capstone course as a cumulative experience.

For more thoughts on teaching, be sure to check out our Teaching Thursday blog! 

Edwired offered some interesting, alternatives,  but these could simply exchange one set of professional expectations (i.e. professional academic history) for another (public history, community activism, et c.) and the division of history majors into various tracks with different cumulative projects (public, professional, teaching, community work) would eventually undermine not only the integrity of the discipline as having certain common outcomes ideally assessed and evaluated for all majors, but also would continue to focus the students on certain skills held by particular faculty members in the department.  So in some ways, changing or even diversifying the focus of the capstone experience simply compounds methodological diversity, theoretical differences, and chronological specialization already present in a department with an additional layer of fragmentation based on faculty ability to advise a student on various kinds of projects.  Again, the capstone experience that draws students to understand how the discipline of history functions as a discipline dissolves into the ghettoized compartments of professional specialization.

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