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A Call for Undergraduate Senior Capstone Courses

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With the hysteria of shopping week behind the Class of 2019, second-semester seniors have enrolled in courses for the last semester and are preparing to embark on the final undergraduate academic experience. Many have completed or nearly completed both concentration and General Education requirements, positioning students to take advantage of the nearly 3,000 courses offered by the Faculty of Arts & Sciences in the spring of 2019. As most seniors have only four more classes to take, naturally, they will want to make these final courses count.

For students who have taken courses that are continually narrower in focus into a particular discipline, it can be rewarding to take a step back and explore different areas from some of the leading educators. Unfortunately, intermediate- and advanced-level courses with low student-teacher ratios are frequently reserved for concentrators, guarded by applications, and made elusive by comedically unattainable prerequisites for students with little experience in the department. On the other hand, introductory courses have high enrollment and are often filled with first- and second-year students. The lecture-based structure of most large introductory courses limits the individual student voice and lacks intimacy, which is unappealing to many seniors searching for an enriching experience to culminate their undergraduate education.

After learning about the existence of capstone classes for graduating students at other schools through personal conversations, I advocate for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Registrar to consider offering similar courses to Harvard’s graduating seniors. A capstone is the highest stone in an arch and represents the apex, visible completion, and culmination. In academia, a capstone course is an opportunity to tie together the educational journey. Many educational institutions offer these courses or some derivative. For instance, the Capstone Program at Boston College strives to offer students “a dynamic and meaningful conclusion to their college experience.” Notably, in the Boston College model, the Capstone is not the final course in a major, but rather an opportunity to “focus on personal development — in relationships, society, academics, spirituality, career, and personal skills.” I expect students at Harvard would value tremendously the opportunity to engage if such courses were offered to them. A consistent and valid reason to question the value of liberal arts institutions of higher education — from those involved and from those looking in — is the lack of touch with society and lack of preparation for everyday life. Capstone courses could provide a resolution to this criticism and offer students something desirable for students that the current course listing fundamentally cannot offer.

Moreover, capstone courses could address the canonical shopping week dilemma. Course shopping and enrollment decisions outside of requirements are influenced by a host of factors. Renowned teaching staffs, the opportunity to take a class with classmates outside of a concentration, and high Q-scores are some of the principal factors that drive students to some courses. But for a considerable cohort of students, the quest for the elusive near-guaranteed GPA booster with minimal workload overtakes shopping week. These “gems” quickly gain student-wide reputation fueled by content students who previously took the course. The process leads to inevitably overflowing classrooms and course lotteries for limited enrollment due to teaching staff limitations. For instance, about 300 students shopped Folklore and Mythology 90i: “Fairy Tales and Fantasy Literature” in 2012; the following year, approximately 600 students swarmed to Fong Auditorium to lottery for just 45 spots. A randomized lottery with those odds means that students in the graduating class of 2013 who were accepted to enroll in “Fairy Tales and Fantasy Literature” could rejoice overcoming worse odds (7.5 percent admission rate) than they faced when applying to Harvard assuming they were accepted in 2009, when the admission rate was 9.1 percent.

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To be clear, disparaging “gem” classes is not my intention. I wholeheartedly recognize and appreciate the value of offering students an opportunity to gain exposure to diverse topics they would not have otherwise sought out. Finding courses that are less time-intensive provide a chance for students to balance their schedules and commit the requisite time to more rigorous courses — a practice I unashamedly implemented to balance some pre-medical courses I expected to be especially challenging.

Yet as a graduating senior, I would have cherished the opportunity to take a course with a professor from another discipline and a small group of seniors. Specifically, it would have been rewarding to articulate the meaning and value of our education and to contemplate and discuss what lies ahead for us as individuals, members of smaller communities, and members of a global society. Capstone courses could have a similar course structure as those in the Freshman Seminar Program, which uniquely fostered an environment for first-year students to meet each other and a professor in a somewhat informal setting. Semester- or year-long weekly meetings that bring together a faculty member and 12-15 graduating seniors for seminar-style courses on topics such as career planning, personal finance, leadership, mindfulness, relationships, “adulting,” and more, would provide an much-needed opportunity for students to select a topic of personal value and come together in an intimate academic environment one last time before commencing life after Harvard.

Mark E. Czeisler ’19 is a Neurobiology concentrator in Quincy House.

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