Senior projects could be mandatory

In the past few weeks, the library has become a haven for stressed-out seniors as they race toward thesis deadlines. Surrounded by books and multiple cups of coffee, they are often furiously typing away on their computers to finish their next draft. This experience, though common, is currently not a universal one for seniors at Vassar—but this may change in the coming years.

Currently, it is at the discretion of each department to require senior majors to write a thesis. Of all 48 departments offering majors, only 20 require the production of a senior thesis or senior project. The reasons behind the departments’ decisions tend to be based in practicality and whether or not the major lends itself to the format of a thesis.

For economics majors, for example, a thesis is an optional project. Chair of the Economics Department Paul Ruud admitted that the project is not always the most effective way to demonstrate expertise in a particular field; rather, it is one of many ways to display the knowledge gained in the course of four years. “The thesis is a good way to show mastery of the economics major,” he noted. “The thesis also suggests a taste for research and a passion for the subject of the thesis.”

Neuroscience and behavior major Rosemary Lopez ’15 will not be writing a thesis, because it is optional for her major. Nevertheless, she recognizes the value of the project. “I think a senior project can be beneficial if anything because it allows you as a student to really divest all your energy into something you’re really passionate about,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “I feel like a senior thesis gives you the liberty of finally focusing on a particular area of interest that might have gone unexplored your previous four years at Vassar.”

Recent measures, however, may be in place in coming years to make the departmental policies uniform throughout the College. In 2012, Dean of the Faculty Jonathan Chenette proposed the idea of a cumulative senior project as a way for students to compile the knowledge they have gained while at Vassar or as a means of exploring a theme of academic interests (“Chenette seeks new senior req,” 15.11.12). “Since my remarks in 2012 presenting the idea, the faculty have engaged in various related conversations at faculty meetings, at department and program meetings, and in other contexts,” Chenette wrote in an emailed statement.

The project has been a topic of discussion among the faculty for the past year and a half. “Since my remarks in 2012 presenting the idea, the faculty have engaged in various related conversations at faculty meetings, at department and program meetings, and in other contexts,” Chenette wrote in an emailed statement. Out of these conversations, members of the faculty formed a subcommittee of the Committee on Curricular Policies to develop a proposal for what is being called Intensive Mentored Exploration (IME). The purpose of the IME is to engage students in their fields of interest while working closely with a faculty member. The project is similar to what are called capstone projects at peer institutions, but the IME is more focused on the interaction between a student and professor.

This past Sunday, Feb. 23, Professor of History and Chair of the Committee Rebecca Edwards and fellow Committee Member and Professor of Biology Meg Ronsheim presented the proposal to the Vassar Student Association (VSA). In their presentation, they discussed the research they have done on senior projects at Vassar. They noted that among the class of 2013, approximately 75 percent of white students chose to complete a senior project, while the number of African-American students who chose to do so was significantly lower. There were also more men than women who elected to take on a senior project. Statistics about differences among socioeconomic groups were unavailable. They were concerned that perhaps the opportunity to engage in senior work was not accessible to all students. “We’re not seeking to add more to your full academic year, but rather to reorient the senior year so everyone gets the opportunity,” Edwards said.

Edwards discussed the potential benefits to implementing IME at Vassar. “Students who undertake intensive mentored work report increased intellectual self confidence, skills in research and in time and project management, enhanced capacity to think creatively and critically, improved written and oral skills—all these have been reported from studies,” Edwards noted. She emphasized that if the proposal were to be accepted by the faculty, the process of putting IME into place would be gradual. Students would begin to see more opportunities for intensive mentored work, and experiences outside the classroom such as JYA and field work might be incorporated into the IME.

Currently, the committee is finalizing their proposal and is seeking out opinions from the faculty and students alike. “We want to plan for impact and identify funds and resources to support initiative-address impact on curriculum,” Edwards said. “This needs to be a collective development; we talked with the VSA academic affairs, and we’re planning on reaching out to majors committee.”

In addition to the faculty members of the committee, Estello-Cisdre Raganit ’14 serves as a student representative. He has been responsible for reporting back to the VSA on the progress of the IME and is now looking to a larger portion of the student body. “I am now going to localize my efforts in soliciting input from students who are heavily involved in academic affairs (i.e. the majors committees) as well those in the periphery, as this is a requirement that will affect all incoming students,” he wrote in an emailed statement.

Raganit echoed Edwards’ concerns about accessibility of senior work. “[I]mplementation [of IME] ensures that all students have equal access in creating and claiming a work of which they can be proud,” he wrote. “Having completed a capstone project last semester, I also can understand the importance of working one-on-one with faculty members who both validate and challenge your efforts.”

The main concerns with IME revolve around staffing and budgetary concerns. Neuroscience and Behavior Chair Kathleen Susman wrote in an emailed statement about the impacts IME might have on the program. “Our courses provide multiple opportunities for individual research projects and our senior seminar provides an intensive integrative culmination that also builds a strong research and intellectual community for our majors,” she explained. “If the College goes to the IME model as it is currently construed, we would need more resources: more faculty, more budgetary resources, more time, to accommodate such a large number of seniors each year in an independent project.”

Jacob Gorski ’15 [Full Disclosure: Gorski is Assistant Photo Editor for The Miscellany News]  a psychology major, shared Susman’s worries about pressure on the faculty. “Rather than adding to the quality of our education, which I believe IME at its core hopes to do, it would subtract from the time and attention professors could give to their already-overflowing classes and to their existing responsibilities,” Gorski wrote in an emailed statement. “In order to even begin considering implementing a mandatory capstone project policy, I believe the psychology department (and likely other departments as well) would need additional professors and administrative resources.”

Gorski noted that the mandatory aspect of the IME might hinder true intellectual growth on the part of the students. “A capstone project—at least from having experienced it vicariously through my senior friends—is an immense commitment that requires dedication, enthusiasm, and self-initiative in a field of interest,” he wrote. “The current non-mandatory approach to capstone projects can be conveniently self-selective, I believe, because it only attracts to it those students who are most enthusiastic about (or stand to benefit most from) completing a project. I would think it requires a huge amount of intrinsic motivation that wouldn’t necessarily be present for students who were pressured into completing a project.”

Susman also acknowledged that there are positive results that come from senior projects, but that making it a requirement might change the nature of the process. “There are enormous benefits to those who want to do it, but if you don’t want to do it and are forced to, is that a beneficial experience?” Susman wrote.

Yet for some, making IME a requirement for senior year may change the nature of education at Vassar. Chair of the Philosophy Department Giovanna Borradori discussed her reservations about mandatory senior work. “I’m concerned about totalization—the idea that a student career culminates in one thing for me raises worries about the exploratory nature of a liberal arts education,” she said. “I worry about unifying the plurality that defines the liberal arts.”

Borradori explained that the Philosophy Department has not come to a clear decision about the IME proposal itself. She emphasized that the frequent interactions between faculty and students at Vassar are one of its strengths. “I’m optimistic about the potential for a close relationship with faculty that could come from IME,” she said. On the other hand, Borradori noted that adding a strain to resources in academic departments brought on by the regulations of IME might hinder this. “We don’t want to take away from what we already give students in the classroom,” she said.

For now the IME proposal is still being discussed and has yet to be formally presented to the faculty. There is still much conversation to be had in order to ensure that its creation would be beneficial for students and for faculty. Susman noted that the IME may not be necessary to give students the opportunity to engage in senior work. “What if, instead, we as a faculty worked on ways to encourage and enhance independent experiences so that more of our students feel that embarking on an independent project is a good idea?” she offered. “Or perhaps we could work on ways to increase the visibility and access to those independent experiences?”

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