I spent three hours today doing job interviews via video conferencing. In one of those meetings, as I was describing this course, I was asked what I would do differently next time to make it even better. My initial thoughts were to reduce the number of readings and try and help facilitate clearer connections between the in-class projects and the final projects. I would be quite surprised if any of you disagreed with me about these things! But even given those caveats, I still think (and I told the people asking me this question) that this pedagogical experiment was largely a success.
One thing I don’t think that the students in this course really knew much of was how this class has evolved over time, or what pieces from Lee’s tenure I chose to keep. There was a sense that we were in uncharted waters all year. While that was true, it doesn’t mean that there wasn’t background information grounding my decisions. I was the ITF for this course beginning in 2009-10. The first step was to demonstrate that a technological component to this course had any relevance at all, which is what we did in the first year. From there, each year following, we built up the tech capacities of this course, until this year’s all-digital spring semester. So from a broader perspective of some years’ involvement, this course already had a history. It’s just that it was an institutional history, not an individual one. But believe me, Macaulay wasn’t about to let this experiment happen out of the blue. There were four years of precedent, as well as a growing community interest in re-thinking what a thesis is, what a “Macaulay capstone” should look like.
In that sense, you were all part of the first of those experiments. In the coming years, I know Dean Ugoretz and Jenny and a bunch of other people will be involved in further experiments, and I think that Macaulay will eventually become a very forward-thinking institution, when it comes to how the senior capstone experience is managed. Now, I know being first can be really tough. There’s no clear path to follow sometimes, and that’s frustrating for everyone. For students, who are used to meeting their professor’s expectations, I think those expectations can sometimes seem murky (or even nonexistent) in such situations. That can cause anxiety (please raise your hand if you did NOT have anxiety about some aspect of this course), fear, etcetera. But I also think that every project ended up reflecting what I think of as true learning–that each project taught you more about the process of discovery itself.
It may seem difficult to believe this, but even if this course had been run as a very traditional, completely tech-free experience (which isn’t even truly possible, given the way we do research now), there would still have been moments of deep fear and doubt, of having to dig deep within yourself to find stamina and clarity, of navigating a journey without a map. Yes, there would have been more of a tradition to guide you and surround you than there was in this instance. That’s true. But you would still have walked a solitary path, and it wouldn’t have been terribly smooth.
I have mixed feelings about where the projects we created ended up. I like that they are all different, that each of you took your own interests and came up with something unique to your own process. I kind of like the fact that they feel a little raw, a little unfinished. But it also makes me feel desperately uncomfortable–part of my professor self still wants there to be a big sign that says “THE END” at the end. So I’m negotiating that complexity, and I’m learning myself–how to let go and let our end results really reflect that fact that learning is a habit, more than anything else. I think you’ve all witnessed what happens when I hold on tightly, and I swear, I thought I had weaned myself off of most of that before the semester began (obviously not–now just try to imagine how uptight I was when I began teaching, ten years ago!). But every new teaching experience helps me loosen the reins a little more–and this was definitely no exception. When you all asserted authority over your projects, I was always a bit taken aback–and then really proud. Because at the end of the day, isn’t that the fucking point of education to begin with? If we’re not giving you the tools to formulate your intellectual independence, then I don’t know that we’re doing our jobs as teachers.
The other thing I want to point out to you, however, is this: in the absence of many of the traditional rules and expectations of classroom-oriented learning, you didn’t just survive–you thrived. Was it easy? Probably not. But you demonstrated just how capable you were as people, not just as students. And you’re ready to go do whatever the hell you want. So go on! Keep going!
Jenny and Steve and your advisors and I are lifelong contacts for you–you can be in touch with us as much or as little as you like. We’ll support you as best we are able to do. If you would like a formal written evaluation of your final project, I can put one together for you on letterhead, and e-mail that to you–let me know if it would be helpful to have that feedback, and I will send it off right away. Otherwise, enjoy graduation! Congratulations.