This is an upper level course that all religious studies majors are required to take. Since we are a small major, this class usually has between four and eight students. The goal of the class is to give students space to complete a senior capstone project (a requirement for graduation). In addition, students get an introduction to theoretical texts that could help them provide a broader context to their capstone project.
Note: Content adapted from original curricular project
“Senior Projects” is aimed exclusively at seniors. It is a 600-level course. Students who take Senior Projects have all or most of their major requirements out of the way by the time they take the course. They are asked to come to class with an interest or topic already identified. The hope is that students will be able to take work they have previously done and expand on it for their senior capstone project. Students thus have a good grasp of several religious traditions and theoretical approaches to the study of religion. The hope is that this capstone class will give students a chance to synthesize that previous knowledge into a useful whole.
I have introduced changes to this course inspired by what I saw at the d-school at Stanford. The challenge of this course is to provide a meaningful conclusion to a course of study that has lasted several years. In the past this has functioned like a standard seminar course, but it has become something more overtime.
1. Making the course the “Un-course”
I was inspired by the d-school setups (not really classrooms) to try to break out of the standard spaces for a course like this. The Sabin House, newly opened by our new Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life, had an open lower floor suitable for sitting in an informal and quiet setting. The new space allowed for a more egalitarian form of exchange. At the end of their time as students, it was time for them to deal with ideas in a space that was not hierarchical.
2. Applying student work to the wider society
This class took place in the winter of 2017, which provided an opportunity to think about how our academic work spoke to the current political and social moment. I borrowed from d-school philosophy to begin the class with some consideration of this problem: How can academic work become more relevant to our society? And what form could we give our projects to allow for greater reach for our ideas? What good will this final project do in the world?
This gave students a chance to craft a goal and a format for themselves. Some students found the final paper useful to them as they moved on to graduate school. One student created a digital portfolio that brought together all the work done during her time at Lawrence.
This approach of thinking through what forms their ideas and projects could take started conversations about the continuing place of scholarship and thought in their lives after Lawrence. Again, the course functioned as a way to synthesize previous work and move them toward a sustainable post-graduation world.
One of the readings (Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild) also touched directly on social questions that turned us to thinking about how academic pursuits fit in with questions of our times.
3. Engaging students directly with Innovation and Mindset Ideas
I had thought to use the Innovation and Mindset Index as developed by Dr. Sidhu at Berkeley. With my small class I ended up deciding not to take a formal questionnaire, and rather to bring up these concepts in discussion.
4. Visiting new places of worship
We took short trips to visit new places of worship, followed by a discussion of what we had experienced, to get students to think of religion outside of the classroom. This also tied in with political questions about immigration and what it meant to be American. During the follow up discussions, we would synthesize the things learned in past classes and apply those things to novel situations and the contemporary political questions.
Class trip to an Egyptian Coptic church south of Milwaukee.
These learning goals contribute directly to higher order learning on the part of students. This course aimed at breaking out of the standard classroom setting and encouraging the consideration of the role of academic thinking in life after college.
What I ended up taking from the Silicon Valley experience (for this course, at least) was not a set of specific readings and modules, but an approach to the material and a willingness to bend my way of thinking about a capstone course. The lessons applied in this course have to do with not being boxed in by expectations about what a course is “supposed to do”. Next time, I will most likely vary my reading in this course to address questions of time, rather than repeat the exact readings used for this version.
I would recommend to someone teaching a similar course to look at material on the method of the d-school at Stanford. The Design Thinking exemplified in that material allows for the identification of a problem that needs to be solved and asks for the development of a new set of answers to that problem.
Outcomes and Significance
This course is connected to the assessment goals of the religious studies major. These goals are related to the successful completion of the senior capstone project and the presentation of that project at our religious studies symposium in the spring term. We report on this assessment of the work of our seniors every three years, so we keep notes on these students. The changes I made to the course all happen within the standard assessment goals of this course.