Undergraduate anthropology majors are immersed in a wide body of ethnographic work from near and far. In other words, they read extensively about others’ experiences and research in “the field.” Relatively few of them (at least of a cultural-anthropology bent) have any deep, systematic engagement with real-world problems. I offer thoughts here about experiential learning to generate discussion and illustrate how a well-intentioned program went significantly astray.

Now you might say to this, more than ever, that students have access to practicums, internships, study abroad, honors research, or senior capstones as forms of engaged learning outside of the classroom. To this I would respond that these are good and important, but… often do not lead to truly deep-learning experiences.

For example, let’s take one of my least favorite of the list above: the senior capstone. Of course, senior capstones can result in deep-learning experiences in some institutions. Here, however, I turn my attention to a capstone project that became more of an educational boondoggle than a learning asset.

Often undertaken during a student’s last semester, the typical capstones I have experienced were a quick on-off race to the finish line; a box to check before being handed a degree. I have seen remarkably gifted students do remarkably shoddy work on their capstones because they are focused on getting out the door. Additionally, in this academic structure, we were asking students to do a lot in a very compressed timeframe. I have yet to run into a student in the institutions in which I have served who was seriously interested in any feedback, further underscoring the superficiality and marginality of this kind of experience.

How might we, then, design a better, pedagogically-sound capstone experience that results in deep learning? Here is my humble proposal for an experiential learning model that can accomplish a number of goals for our students through a two-semester plus program. The focus of this experiment was to create a deep-learning capstone that was structured, intentional, and reflexive.

This experimental, long-term capstone was designed around three key components: identifying a topic/problem; creating and carrying out a project based upon it; and developing a final product. Each piece could be done through one-credit, on-line modules in consultation with a faculty member. Ideally this process would start in a student’s sophomore year and culminate in either their junior or senior year. Because timing is relatively flexible, even a second-semester junior could conduct this kind of capstone. The end result is a portfolio that students can present to prospective employers or graduate programs that demonstrates their ability to apply their good, classroom learning in the design and conduct of a real-world project.

Indeed, Southern Utah University did this for a number of years as a core curriculum requirement for graduation. As a Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, I participated in this program as often as possible. I worked with students who were focusing on projects with an emphasis on the environment and sustainability.

Importantly, students often learned that their project turned out to diverge from their initial set of ideas and goals. One project that immediately comes to mind focused on planting trees in public green space. What the student discovered was that her project on the environment transformed into one on local governance and public administration.

She had to sell her idea to the city. Therefore, she had to quickly figure out which public offices and staffers were key to greenlighting the project. Once they were on board, she then presented her idea design to the city council with the support of the other offices and figures already identified. Et voilà!

There were occasionally some spectacular results, like the one above, yet the overall program turned out to be a dismal failure.

What went wrong? The problem was not in the concept but in the execution. The program was part of the core curriculum and run through five or six centers (Leadership, Creativity, Outdoor, etc.) that were independent of departments, and designed to promote interdisciplinarity. Center directors largely managed the projects with a loose confederacy of faculty helping with feedback on student proposals. In some instances, center directors did all the work, perhaps to justify their centers and their position in them.

The problem was several-fold. First, students did not see the relevance of the program. To them, it was a make-work hassle. After all, their identities were tied up with disciplines and departments. They had trouble connecting this engaged-learning program to their major. Second, students saw it as redundant because they were already undertaking capstones as part of their major program of study. These major capstones did not count toward core curriculum requirements, but only toward their disciplinary program of study. Third, the faculty were ambivalent at best because they were, largely, disconnected from the program. Fourth, it was expensive because of the overhead required to operate independent centers.

The solution should have been a simple, structural one: embed the engaged-learning program into majors as THE capstone. While the notion of interdisciplinarity is laudable in the abstract, it is largely misunderstood and misapplied (cf. Graff 2015). Had these interdisciplinary capstones been treated as a disciplinary capstone, I am convinced they would have thrived. Students would have a deep-learning experience, new professional networks, and a portfolio demonstrating their skill set.

Graff, Harvey J. (2015) Undisciplining Knowledge: Interdisciplinarity in the Twentieth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

About the Author: James H. McDonald

James H. McDonald
James H. McDonald is an applied cultural anthropologist who has worked on issues concerning rural development and systems of governance in Mexico and Guatemala. He also served in a wide variety of academic administrative positions, the last of which was Provost at the University of Montevallo, Alabama’s public liberal arts university.