LTE: In Response to “Changing the Capstone Program”

Dear editors,

In his recent opinion piece, Thomas Keenan presumes to criticize the Capstone Program on the basis of misimpressions, anecdotal comments, and a failure to grasp core principles of journalism: get the facts and go to the sources. He uses random peers’ comments and a selection of some student comments on the Capstone website (bc.edu/capstone). He never troubled to speak to any Capstone faculty, the Deans who legitimate and sometimes teach Capstone, or me, who founded and has directed the program for 27 years.

More egregiously, he presumes to judge the content and goals of 25 varied Capstone Seminars without reading a single syllabus: Every syllabus is on our website, offered by 28 faculty (70 since our inception) from 19 departments. If he had taken the essential journalistic step of confirming superficial impressions by examining key documents, he would have found explanation and refutation of his fundamental mistakes. For lack of background, his essay amounts to a blog—a subjective utterance without verification—rather than an op-ed piece in the tradition of conservative and liberal newspaper writers.

Your word limit requires me to focus on his major misprisions. His chief objection is that Capstone must be taken for a grade but that the “openness,” “personal sharing,” and “on-demand intimacy” that are “promised” are neither appropriate nor possible for a graded course. The 400 student evaluations submitted each year never mention Mr. Keenan’s criticism.

First, on grades. A fundamental premise of BC’s Capstone Program is that skills acquired in a rigorous education—careful reading and research, skillful writing, disciplined discussion—will specifically help to navigate life’s challenges. It is possible to read, write, and discuss carelessly, so it is important to assess those skills in the “laboratory” of graded exercises.

This gives the lie to Keenan’s assumption that course readings are a “secondary consideration” done “insofar as … directly helpful [to] college seniors.” If anything, Capstone faculty strive to move students beyond their frame of reference. Check our syllabi.

He also completely misses a key purpose of Capstone, which is not to dwell in a student’s experience up to now, but to stretch their awareness of future long-term commitments waiting beyond college in citizenship, career, relationships, and spirituality. Capstone helps students imagine a future precisely when they need help to do that by widening, not focusing on, their frame of reference.

Second, on openness in class. While Keenan dwells on students’ praise of friendly sharing in Capstones, that is a by-product, not the goal of the program. Again, read some syllabi. Students know well how to protect their vulnerability. They do so maturely in Capstone. If they lower their guards, it’s because of the chemistry of their Capstone class, but it’s not a requirement. That it may happen is a tribute to us, but our grading certainly does not use that as an assessment criterion.

Rather than casual scanning and chatting which led to his essay, Mr. Keenan really needs a Capstone to strengthen his skills of careful reading, research, discussion, and writing.

Fr. James M. Weiss

Founder & Director, Capstone Senior Seminar Program

Associate Professor, Theology