by Sophie Hilker ’20
When I first heard about capstones as a Prospective First-Year (or PF in Mac-ronym speak) visiting Macalester, I imagined my future self entrenched in summer research, sifting through newspaper articles, academic journals, and Pew Research survey findings. At the time, I fancied myself an incoming Political Science major, who would come up with a comprehensive policy proposal that would one day change the world. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that, in the midst of my senior year, I would be writing a novel.
Though the subject matter and form have changed, my experience preparing for my capstone over the summer was not all that different from my expectations as a high school senior. I read a lot of news articles, scholarly advice on writing practices, and even reviewed trial transcripts from court proceedings. Alongside these more formal writings, however, I added fantasy novels, creative nonfiction, and human interest stories about Taylor Swift. Though I am not a Poli Sci major, my project is no less political and, like many Mac students and alumni, I am still very much interested in changing the world. While policy proposals are a practical way in which to effect change, they are not the only medium through which change can be realized. Some of the most important and impactful publications throughout history have been fictional accounts that take on social issues, like The Round House by Louise Erdrich, Miracle Creek by Angie Kim, and, of course, my problematic favs, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Cider House Rules by John Irving. While I wouldn’t consider myself a regular Erdrich or Irving, I’m excited to carry on in the tradition of writing fiction about causes that matter.
The other students in my class are no different. Five out of the seven projects deal with issues of sexual assault. This capstone group, consisting of all women-identifying students, has created a unique space to analyze and discuss issues that are important to and disproportionately affect women. These circumstances have also led to a more organized effort to cultivate community than I’ve witnessed in any other class, both from students and faculty.
“I love that the class is so small, and the way that [Professor Burgess] runs it is centered around our own voices,” said Alyssa Franzmeier ’20. “A lot of class is us just talking to each other, not feeling pressured or intimidated. The community we have as an all female space has been really liberating. I’ve heard some uncomfortable things from women [who were] in [male-dominated] capstones that have mansplaining problems, where men explain a woman’s project and research back to them, that are not productive to class. Even with a male professor, we’re really neatly sidestepping that.”
When Kate Larson from Career Exploration visited our class to present on internships, cover letters, and what to expect once we seniors become alumni, she tailored her information to her audience. “Women, more often than men, tend to think they’re not qualified when looking at the requirements section of job openings,” she said. “Don’t think that you have to check every box. Don’t let that discourage you. Apply for things you don’t think you’re qualified for! You all have unique talents and experiences to bring.”
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What are you reading? Creative Writing Professor Matt Burgess was last knocked sideways by Karen Joy Fowler’s “We Are Completely Beside Ourselves,” which he’s reluctant to even describe the content of, as discovering what it’s about is one of the (many) joys of the book. #heymac
For Professor Matthew Burgess’ part, he reached out to students over the summer asking about their intentions for their projects. Burgess then chose “readings specifically tailored to each of those projects, so we’d have a common language to talk about each of those projects.” His approach was to treat the course as “seven independent studies,” stressing the out of class workload, then providing a space in which to troubleshoot any obstacles or questions that come up in students’ processes.
Flexibility was a priority for Burgess. When students expressed interest in pursuing a topic different from their initial proposal, Burgess encouraged them. The student would then work with him to find new readings that were more analogous to their project than the previous selections. This culminated in student-led workshop-style discussions on these readings. Students could pose questions about how others perceived the readings and what they thought were the important takeaways on writing about various topics.
“My expectation was that people would be coming in with vague ideas about what they wanted to write, so I wanted to create an environment in which they could pursue those ideas on their own terms,” Burgess said, adding that he wanted the course to be “accessible to people who wanted to write a book, but didn’t know how to go about it yet.”
Structure, too, came with built-in flexibility. This led to student-led workshops, writing days during which no class was held, and one-on-one close reading workshops of 2-page excerpts from student projects.
“I’m curious to see how it feels at the end,” Burgess said of his first experience leading a capstone course. “It’s more loosely designed than previous courses for the purposes of what would be most useful to students generating novel on fly like we are. I’m interested to see how effective that looseness was and reflecting on what exactly my role was supposed to be in the class. My hope is that there was enough room for thinking about career issues and the summation of students’ experiences both in the English Department and at Mac.”
The Words extends a huge thank you to Alyssa Franzmeier and Professor Burgess for their contributions to this article and wishes all capstone students well as they finish up their projects at the end of the semester. English capstone presentations will be held on Monday, December 9 at 4:45 pm in the Old Main 4th Floor Lounge. Come enjoy some kringle and listen to students describe their processes and projects.