Forum on Capstone Courses: My First Capstone Course

Ian D. Chambers, September 2009

I was both excited and apprehensive when, as a new faculty member in my first full year as a tenure-track assistant professor at the University of Idaho, I received an e-mail from the department chair asking if I would teach the department’s Senior Seminar (as the capstone course in the history department is known). Numerous questions flew through my mind: How would I choose a suitable topic? How would I structure the course and engage the students? How would seasoned and possibly cynical seniors accept the ruminations of a newly minted professor as a suitable candidate to cap/round off their career as undergraduate history majors?

The department in which I work is relatively small, having eight full-time faculty members and 150 to 200 majors. My first concern was, therefore, how to select a subject of study which would appeal to the broad range of interests among the student body and no less importantly, be within the scope of my knowledge. The choice of topic was one that perplexed me for quite a while. I was certain to have students whose historical and chronological fields of interest ranged from the American military to the Magna Carta, from the slave fort of Lumboko to the inland Northwest, always a popular topic in Idaho.

As I thought about it, I turned, not surprisingly, to my own work, the study of Native Americans, specifically the Cherokee, in an Atlantic world setting. The Cherokee seemed too narrow and specialized for the breadth of students that were beginning to enroll, and the class scheduled for 15 eventually grew to 17. However, the Atlantic World as a topic seemed to offer possibilities. It offered the students both a broad time frame and a large geographical space—several hundred years and four continents—from which to select a research project, and I hoped would allow everyone to find a topic of interest.

I then approached my next question: how to structure the course. I myself had never experienced a capstone course. My BA (Hons.) was completed at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, where the structure of undergraduate education is different—the lack of general education courses and the concept of a full-time subject major, being just a couple of the differences. However, in America as in England, the primary focus of an undergraduate major in history is to provide students with a set of skills—historical knowledge and problem identification, data collection and analysis. With this in mind I selected as the final product of the class a research-based paper of about 20–25 pages, dealing with some aspect of the Atlantic world, to be selected by the student in conjunction with the professor.

The class was then structured to build toward this end product. Students initially received a combination of readings, lectures, and importantly, discussion, on several themes within Atlantic history; following this they were expected to produce a detailed proposal of their chosen topic; and finally they had to present their research in a conference setting within the class (but open to other students and faculty) before submitting the final paper for evaluation.

The field of the Atlantic world was a new concept to many if not all the students enrolled. I therefore spent the first week discussing the concepts and contours of the field. To do so I presented a short lecture to highlight major themes, ideas and people within the field. I also arranged for the students to read a number of articles for further discussion. David Armitage, Bernard Bailyn, and Alison Games provided the reading for this first week as a spirited discussion of the viability and limits of the field as an area of study and on possible topics of research. Following this the class had eight more scheduled meetings, spread over four weeks. Each week consisted of an introductory lecture related to the book selected for discussion during that week. The books chosen for discussion were Christine Daniels and Michael V. Kennedy (eds.) Negotiated Empires: Centers and Peripheries in the Americas, 1500–1820; Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, Puritan Conquistadors: Iberianizing the Atlantic 1550–1700; John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World 1500–1800; and James Taylor Carson, Making an Atlantic World: Circles, Paths, and Stories from the Colonial South. I hoped by selecting these books to introduce the students to the questions of comparative empire development, religion within the Atlantic world, and racial aspects of the Atlantic world. At the end of the first five weeks the students were required to submit their project proposal, with a provisional bibliography. Students would then be required to meet individually with myself for a discussion as to viability and direction of the projects. Following this the students would be released from regular classroom attendance as they conduct their individual research, although I remained available during these scheduled hours to offer group or individual assistance. Finally, in the penultimate week of the semester the students were asked to make 10-minute presentations to the class as a whole and any other interested parties, before the final submission of the projects.

An interesting change in classroom dynamics occurred during discussion from the first week to those following. As the class as a whole was introduced to the field it was, as may be expected, faculty led, albeit with spirited student involvement. In an attempt to ensure greater student involvement and direction in future discussions the class was split into groups with each group being responsible to produce discussion prompts for each book a few days before the class met for discussion. The change was remarkable; with the exception of “hello” and “it’s time to end today’s class” I contributed very little to the direction of the discussion acting more as adjudicator and reference book as the class needed. The students took to the Atlantic approach, dare I say, like ducks to water, and the discussions were wide ranging and intellectually challenging

The class is now over, the papers are finished and graded. The ability to devote increased time to individual students working on research of such depth was a positive experience for both myself, as a new assistant professor, and also for the students involved. The quality of research and the final papers excited and encouraged me. The variety of research was diverse with topics ranging from comparisons in architectural style in the Atlantic World, through a study of female pirates of the early 18th century from Ireland to the Caribbean, to a study of present day French Guiana. One student even traveled to St. Augustine, Florida, to conduct archival research, not a small commitment for a student based nearly 3,000 miles away in rural Idaho. The experience of teaching the senior seminar was at times exciting, occasionally frustrating, but well worth all the commitments made. Would I do it again? Without doubt my answer to such a question is an emphatic “Yes!”

—Ian Chambers is assistant professor of history at the University of Idaho.