Capstone: The Legacy Project

From day one, I imagined my capstone as a dynamic team project, developing a city plan for my struggling hometown, or perhaps creating a social ...

Jan 25, 2014

From day one, I imagined my capstone as a dynamic team project, developing a city plan for my struggling hometown, or perhaps creating a social enterprise centered on expanding opportunities for rural students. Admittedly, my idea changed every other week. But the flexibility presented in the capstone description published in the 2010-2011 NYUAD bulletin inspired my interest and motivated me to think about the impact I could make with my capstone. The following is an abridged excerpt of that bulletin’s description.
"The Capstone Project is a demanding, year-long endeavor aiming at a significant piece of research or creative work… Unlike other courses in which faculty establish the structure and set assignments, the Capstone Project puts the student in charge. The fundamental challenge is to enter unmapped terrain and to extend oneself in making knowledge or creating something new. Students will also have the opportunity to organize and participate in a collegewide team project. A College Capstone draws together students from different fields and with different strengths to focus on a multifaceted problem or creative endeavor.”
The idea was that NYUAD students, from various backgrounds and majors, would engage in a collaborative project and, through their academic accumulation, extracurricular experience and diverse world perspectives, develop a project with a social and intellectual impact. You could say we were to utilize our capstones as a legacy reflecting our having been a part of the great experiment that is NYUAD. The capstone would also be a launching point for our inevitable impact in and on the world.
However, when it came down to bringing the capstone from theory to practice, we did what has become relatively commonplace: chucking this new, challenging idea of a capstone project in favor of a ‘copy-pasted version’ of what is done in NYU. I think the capstone manifested in its current form due to two factors which were wholly within our control. First, the visionaries who first conceptualized the capstone had little to do with bringing the capstone into fruition. Consequently, faced with the challenge of bringing something so unique into existence, we ended up with a safe and rather unimaginative replica of what many of the faculty had likely seen elsewhere in the world of academia. Second, as a student body, and specifically the inaugural class, we were afraid of the capstone because it was so nebulous and because it presented such a lofty and challenging goal. The idea of the capstone expected a lot from us, as we were to be the drivers of something that would ultimately determine whether or not we graduated. Understandably, we wanted someone to tell us exactly what the a capstone is and what it should look like, and when students ask for answers we often get them.
This first run with the copy-pasted version of capstone has been bumpy. I fear this will only lead to an increasing rigidity in what the projects will be and how they will be conducted. I’ve had first-hand experience with the political science senior thesis process in New York. The formulaic program is designed to pump out senior theses, and it is really good at doing so. If we are content to have our program reflect a good version of what exists in every other institution in the United States, then by all means, let’s continue on our track and adopt exactly what they have in New York. However, I think our student body and the founding vision of our institution require, at the very least, a more in-depth conversation about the capstone before we allow a group of administrators and faculty operating without the student voice to simply copy-paste and parade this relatively mundane project around as our capstone.
Please do not mistake my criticism to mean that NYUAD should not produce senior theses. On the contrary, I think if students want to develop a thesis for their capstone, then they should be empowered and supported to do so to the full extent of our institution’s considerable capability. However, as I would venture to say that the majority of our student body have no aspiration to join the world of academia, I believe that we should take very seriously the standards outlined in the original capstone description and ensure first that the projects are student-led endeavors, and second, that they are allowed the breadth necessary to further their goals and aspirations as global citizens. Teamwork across disciplines should be encouraged, and we should have support beyond a faculty mentor assigned to each project. Furthermore, I believe our student body should see every project and cheer on our fellow students while holding them to the absolute highest standard.
What can we change now? We are too late for the inaugural class to engage the original concept of capstone; however, our institution can still shift direction toward pursuing the founding vision. This requires that we, as a student body, demand a reopening of the conversation and come to the table as willing participants. Perhaps it makes sense for the inaugural class to be the drivers of this conversation. Maybe that can be a part of our legacy. However, that means our students have to be willing to truly lead our own capstones. Our opportunity is now, before the current process gains too much momentum to change course. It is a challenging endeavor, both to shift the direction and to figure out how to make some rendition of the initial concept work. Regardless, we were ultimately brought here to be partners in the capstone conversation, and I suggest we begin our efforts by joining it.
Brett Bolton is a contributing writer.  Email him at
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