Is It Time For a New Capstone Course?

The latest issue of Perspectives [as I write this the current issue is not yet online] includes an interesting and useful forum on the capstone course in the undergraduate history major. Because I’m teaching such a course this semester, I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about the course and the contributions to this forum really helped me crystalize some of my thinking.

As the title of this post suggests, I think it’s time we devised a new version of the capstone course–not as a replacement for the one described in the forum essays, but as an alternative that students might select if they wanted to do something other than the standard major research paper.

Don’t get me wrong. I think there is great value in having history majors conceptualize, research, write, and then present the results of a major research project. I’m in the fifth iteration of my own version of this sort of course and as is the case every year, I expect to see some really excellent papers from my students. Last year one of my students wrote a paper that was so good I thought it worthy of publication and was really disappointed that he wasn’t interested in pursuing that option.

What then is my beef with the capstone seminar as it is currently structured? As Mary Stockwell makes clear in her contribution to the Perspectives forum, for a lot of history majors the senior seminar is just another history course, but with a long term paper. That’s a very different thing than a “capstone” of their undergraduate career.

With the exception of those students who go on to graduate school, how many of our majors find that capstone project useful beyond its role in completing their graduation requirements? Given how few history majors go on to graduate study in history, it seems to me we need to offer the rest of our majors an alternative–one that will have relevance beyond graduation day.

What would such a course look like?

I can think of several models right off the top of my head. The first would be a version designed specifically for students interested in a career in public history. As Melissa Bingmann points out in an essay in last month’s Perspectives many history majors are surprised to find that they can work in public history right out of their undergraduate programs. A capstone course for these students would focus on the creation of a product that they could show to potential employers as evidence that they are well-prepared for work in public history.

A second alternative version of such a course could be designed for students planning on a career as history teachers. Wouldn’t it be much more useful for these students to create a senior project focused on teaching and learning history rather than a major research paper?

A third version might focus on service learning, giving students with a community service bent the opportunity to apply their skills and knowledge in history to an issue in their community. So, for instance, a student interested in the impact of coal mining methods on local water supplies might create a project that blends history and public policy with community activism.

But where’s the history in all this you might well ask?

Right in plain sight. Each of the examples I’ve proposed could–and should–include all of the things we hold dear in the capstone course: a project designed by the student, significant research in archival/primary sources, the creation of a significant and original end product, and the presentation of that end product to peers (or even the general public). I’m just arguing that such an end product doesn’t have to be a research paper to be history.

Finally, I would say that if a department somewhere (mine, perhaps) were to consider such an experiment with the capstone course, there would need to be a careful discussion of how students were prepared for the capstone.

Right now our “methods” course prepares our students for the typical senior research seminar. But if we were to offer, for instance, the public history version I’ve proposed, then we would also probably need to require students to take at least one public history course first. Similarly, throwing students into a service learning version of the capstone course without their having ever taken a service learning course seems like a recipe for disaster.

Whatever happens, I hope we’ll soon seem some new thinking about the capstone course.

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3 Responses to Is It Time For a New Capstone Course?

  1. I like these proposals. Would it be easier to pull this off if the prerequisites for these alternative capstone courses were interdisciplinary courses that served not just history? What if English, Journalism, Media Arts, and Library Science joined with History to provide a course about the public presentation of cultural heritage? What if Community Planning, Political Science, Economics, Medicine, and Urban Studies collaborated with History in offering an introductory course on service learning?

  2. Angela Smith says:

    I wholeheartedly agree an alternative approach would be useful for history majors. A variation is needed for those students who wish to move into particular fields such as public history. I would suggest one other option you did not include in your post, a process learning course with a resulting product such as a documentary, website, museum exhibit, or a archival project. Any of these end products would encourage students to dig in and “do” history. They end up with a product they can use to showcase their skills. Yes, it is necessary to prepare students by teaching them the content of history, but teaching them with hands-on projects pushes them into utilizing the core skills of a historian: research, contextualization, interpretation, and writing. I have supervised several independent studies and senior projects for both history majors and media studies students and the results have been very positive. I think it would work in a classroom setting, and I will test my suggested approach next fall at Belmont University. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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