A History of the CGS Project

Whether you called it Utopia or Capstone, there’s no forgetting it.

College life is not without drama. But at the College of General Studies, a little bit of drama—the positive kind—is built into the experience. If you attended CGS within the last 35 years, you probably remember your Capstone Project. For the last four weeks of sophomore year, you and your Capstone teammates adopted the roles of lawyers, advocates, legislators, or policy makers. You researched an intractable problem, one on which real-life experts struggled to find agreement. Is it possible to manage New England’s fisheries in a way that maintains a stable cod population while keeping fishermen in business? Should the U.S. join the International Criminal Court? In a future of genetic sequencing, who owns our genes?

Throughout the month of April, with all CGS classes behind you, your team devoted itself to studying the history of that quandary and contemporary debates and data on the matter, but always with an end in mind. Whether crafting a policy recommendation or an arbitrator’s ruling, you considered the practicalities, the costs, the ethics, and the values attached to your solution. You may have suffered a dose of drama of the uncomfortable variety—“There was fighting; there was yelling; there was crying,” remembers one CGS alum—but even in that you found lifelong (and career-long) lessons about collaborative work. And at the end of the month, your group likely turned in a solid, perhaps professional-quality paper, which everyone was able to defend orally. You probably surprised yourselves.

“It’s one of the most impressive aspects of our program,” says CGS Associate Dean Natalie McKnight. “That groups of five to seven sophomores, in four weeks, can research a real-world problem and compose a 50-page paper that situates the problem in appropriate contexts and offers a viable solution is extremely impressive.”

From the Ashes of Utopia

While the concept of a Capstone Project is not unique to Comm. Ave., CGS has something other colleges haven’t: Professor of Humanities Robert Wexelblatt. “The Capstone Project has Wex written all over it from beginning to end,” says McKnight. “And we owe him a lot for that.”

Wexelblatt spearheaded the Capstone Project in 1977, after the young, newly tenured professor was tasked with reforming earlier, more ponderous and somewhat flawed assignments called the Utopia Project and the City Planning Project. (Wexelblatt details the evolution in an article in Impact, CGS’s new academic journal.)

Along with designing the basic frames of the project—four weeks, 50-page (maximum!) paper, oral defense—Wexelblatt proposed that each department (humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences) take turns choosing each year’s theme, from which specific topics are derived. “You shouldn’t look at Capstone parochially,” says Wexelblatt. “Policy by its nature is interdisciplinary.”

And it is a policy question, not research for its own sake, that drives each Capstone team. “Students learn best when they have to apply what they’ve learned to another subject or, preferably, to solving a problem,” says McKnight.

In that vein, Wexelblatt’s stamp is also evident in the “drama,” as he calls it, in which a group of students must imagine themselves, say, a blue-ribbon panel of experts or a team of civil servants (if they choose the policy recommendation format), or opposing lawyers or arbitrators or judges (if they choose the adversary format).

“I’m a big fan of having an adversary format for the project when possible—a court case, or a debate,” says Wexelblatt. “As John Stuart Mill said, ‘He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.’”

Alexandra Michel (CGS’11, CAS’13) came to understand Mill’s point when she disagreed with her group over Cape Wind. “The project taught me I can’t always be right,” she says. “It forced me to really hear others.”

“It tends to draw students into current events,” Wexelblatt explains. “It makes them more politically and socially aware, and makes them refine their values.”

“The thing that impresses me most about the kids every year is how quickly they learn so much,” Wexelblatt continues. “That’s what never fails to boggle my mind.”

Oftentimes, students end up knowing more about a topic than the faculty—maybe even enough to school federal legislators. Wexelblatt likes to tell the story of Natalie Stein (CGS’02, COM’04), whose Capstone team researched a House bill that concerned the risks of administering antibiotics to livestock. That summer, she interned in Washington, D.C. On her first day, she ended up at a small dinner party where the guests included two congressmen and their senior staffs. One of the congressmen asked if anybody knew anything about H.R. 3804. Stein had studied it backward and forward for a month. When nobody spoke up, she swallowed her natural shyness and regaled her high-powered audience for half-an-hour with all the relevant facts about the bill. She was considered a star intern for the rest of the summer.

Trial and Error

Perhaps more enduring than thorough knowledge of particular policies, students gain confidence and the skills needed to work as a team.

“I dreaded the Capstone Project because I felt my greatest weakness was working in a group setting,” remembers Sean Smith (CGS’11, CAS’13). “Capstone served as a baptism by fire into the world of group projects. I had to shed some of my stubbornness for the benefit of the group. By the end of the month, I was much better at listening, at compromising.”

Much of today’s workforce demands Capstone-style cooperation, and alumni often tell Wexelblatt they’re grateful for the early experience figuring out group time management, meeting frequency, division of labor, and efficient communication. “There’s no other way except trial and error,” says Wexelblatt, though he and other faculty coaches do provide some guidance. “But that’s a lesson you’ll take into the rest of your life. It can’t be taught; you have to go through it.”

Mark DiCristofaro (CGS’06, COM’08), a film producer in Hollywood, finds that his job involves not only a great deal of collaboration, but also “taking on a landscape of information, understanding it, synthesizing it, identifying an audience, and then delivering that information in such a way that it makes an impact on a target audience.”

DiCristofaro’s Capstone Project was on eminent domain. “Will I ever need that knowledge? Maybe. But what I do use on a daily basis is the ability to think critically, problem solve, and communicate as a team member. Those are distinctions, in my experience, that have enabled me and other CGS alumni to take on projects of all types with the confidence and the desire to make a difference in our fields of choice.”

1 comment

  1. Utopia was fun…I just wish we had MS word in those days vs. IBM typewriters that did not correct mistakes!

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