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Hampshire College's Division III: To Know Is Not Enough
In my current job doing research, I am responsible for running several projects. I make all of the day-to-day decisions about the experiments I run—how to troubleshoot problems, and how to best organize the data collected. It is my responsibility… to keep my supervisors updated, and to know when to make a judgment call vs. when to seek out help. My Division III at Hampshire… put me in this exact same position—in fact, I’d argue that my responsibilities and independence were even greater for my Division III than they are for my current job.
—Lyndie Wood, Hampshire alum
For over forty years, every student at Hampshire College has completed a yearlong senior capstone project, the Division III. Although it is common to have a required capstone for an honors program, it is unusual to have a required capstone for all students, and it is perhaps unique to have a universally required project of the magnitude of the Hampshire Division III. The Division III project is the central activity of a Hampshire student’s final year of study and comprises a major piece of independent research or creation in the form of a written thesis, artistic production, or both. It demonstrates a student’s ability to handle complex concepts and questions using research or production skills in the student’s area of concentration. Students are required to take only one advanced course, internship, or teaching assistantship each semester of their Division III year, devoting the rest of a full academic year to their project.
Hampshire was conceived to change the way undergraduate students are educated. Its program requires students to take greater responsibility for their learning, and so, the curriculum leads very purposefully to a large independent project. A Division III project grows out of students’ questions and interests and is mentored by a committee of two faculty members who often represent different subject matter domains. The frequent committee discussions and feedback on student work push students to consider the theoretical underpinnings and practical applications of their work.
Hampshire’s motto—Non satis scire or “To Know Is Not Enough”—is an articulation of the institution’s commitment to having students develop a critical analysis of the ideas they encounter, to understand their own position relative to knowledge and power, to develop an interdisciplinary perspective, and to apply their learning and take informed action. In Division III, we want students to take risks in thinking creatively. We want them to become a part of an intellectual community.
In the best and most successful cases, students complete Division III projects that not only push their own abilities and boundaries but those of their faculty committee members as well. The yearlong independent project becomes a collaborative endeavor and invites faculty into the process of creation not only as supervisors and mentors, but as active participants as well. Hampshire faculty have often mentioned how personally meaningful the Division III process is as students will challenge them to rethink and reimagine their own fields of research. Norman Holland, associate professor of Hispano literature, says, “The best students push me to think differently, to see new connections or possibilities.” And Nell Arnold, associate professor of fiction writing, comments, “In most cases I think a Division III’s quality is a reflection not only of the student’s work but of the committee’s ability to really listen to the student and to help them.” Student interest and interdisciplinary committees have led to the development of new co-taught courses and even cross-school programs at Hampshire.
In this paper we describe the relationship of the Division III project to the rest of the Hampshire curriculum, discussing the aspects of our system that we believe foster a rich and unique capstone experience. We demonstrate the role the Division III plays in student learning through examples of student work and share faculty insight into student gains. We hope the Hampshire experience helps to shed light on the capacities that students can develop during a college capstone year.
Why a Capstone for All Students?
Hampshire students progress through three levels of study—Division I, II, and III—each with an important role in the development of independent thinkers. The rationale of Division I is distribution, and students pursue courses in their first year in which they learn the approaches to scholarly inquiry in four out of five broad domains. Arts, Design, and Media; Culture, Humanities, and Languages; Mind, Brain, and Information; Physical and Biological Sciences; and Power, Community, and Social Justice. The purpose of Division II is concentration, sometimes equated with an individualized major. Students negotiate a four-semester concentration with their faculty committees, pursuing coursework, internships, independent studies, and other learning experiences. The concentration gives students depth of understanding and breadth of context, as well as practice in the methods appropriate to their field(s) of interest. The principle undergirding Division III, or the entire fourth-year experience, is integration (Patterson and Longsworth 1966). Students pose questions and address problems that cause them to put together their own ideas, often across disciplines and often integrating theory and practice. Although we call Division II “the concentration,” the learning in Division II leads to unanswered questions and new learning goals that drive Division III work, deepening students’ engagement with the central ideas of their concentrations.
How does every student get to the point of developing an individualized capstone project in which they are expected to integrate their thinking? One answer is through close advising. Students have committees of two faculty members that help them develop their concentration and articulate a Division III project. But a successful project depends as much on what has come before it. Leading up to the Division III, faculty work with students to develop the capacities and experiences that they will need to complete a successful capstone project—the college-wide goals of critical research and writing, independent project skills, multicultural perspective taking, and quantitative reasoning. Students pursue other goals through individualized programs of study. The college-wide cumulative skills are built upon through courses and other evaluated learning experiences starting in students’ first semester of study, so that successful Division III students are prepared to find the resources they need, understand possible approaches and the implications of their methodological choices, and organize and write a substantial paper or manage a large creative piece.
Hampshire’s negotiated concentrations give students enormous flexibility to incorporate learning opportunities from outside the classroom into their program of study, building knowledge and skills necessary for a wide range of possible projects. A student’s Division II concentration generally includes independent study projects with faculty, internships, study abroad experiences, and community-based work, which are evaluated by outside supervisors. These alternative learning experiences are intentionally and thoroughly integrated into students’ educational programs and are documented on the students’ transcripts. In addition to being sites for new skill acquisition, they create an authentic context that complicates student work and leads to projects that prepare students for a life beyond the college.
Half of Hampshire alums go on to achieve advanced degrees and one in seven holds a PhD or terminal degree in her or his field. Hampshire is consistently in the 1 percent of all schools in the US in terms of the rate at which our students go on to obtain doctoral degrees across all disciplines. Our graduates regularly tell us that their Hampshire education prepared them to hit the ground running in graduate school, and that compared to their peers, they were far more prepared to formulate a question and design a methodology for answering it.
The best way to understand the Hampshire Division III project and the wide range of student accomplishments experienced is through example. These are but a few; there are more featured Division III projects posted on our website at www.hampshire.edu/news.
Division III Examples across the Disciplines
In the arts, students’ Division III projects often entail a creative piece—an original novella or collection of short stories, a film, a play, paintings or sculptures, installations and multimedia projects—paired with a critical paper or reflection. These two components ideally complement and inform each other, and provide a rich picture of the student’s research process and creative journey.
Theater student Adelind Horan created a show about mountain top removal in Appalachia and the devastation it is creating in people’s lives. The playwright, who is originally from West Virginia, was also the solo performer in the piece. She wanted to create a show based on transcribed interviews with miners, their families, the public relations people in the mining corporation, and local ecology activists. Avoiding caricature and stereotypes, the student wrote and performed each character with dignity, a point of view, and a tragedy to explain and come to terms with.
Aimee Aubin, another creative writing student, wrote short stories about mothers and daughters, exploring puberty, sexuality, motherhood and body image, as well as a short one-woman play about body image. An important part of her Division III project was a women’s writing workshop, which she designed, led, and documented in an essay that was also part of the overall project. In this case, Aubin had thought deeply about her own commitment to the art form and to its importance in forging and strengthening communities “off the page.”
Camilla Flores D’Arcais’s Division III project consisted of a video essay, “Welcome to Italy,” and a twenty-five-page manuscript, both of which examined Italy’s position as a country with a long history of both emigration (particularly to the US) and immigration (from the Philippines and Albania). D’Arcais developed a bilingual approach that proved to be integral to the context and tone of her final script about the histories and experiences of displacement, immigration, and belonging.
In the humanities and literature in particular, the Division III project often takes the form of an analytical paper that ranges between fifty and one hundred pages. Students are asked to demonstrate that they are capable of sustained research and writing, close reading and historical contextualization, and a familiarity with theoretical approaches.
Danya Maloon’s Division III project grew out of her Division II concentration on national identity and historical trauma in contemporary literature. She produced a comparative study of two postcolonial novels, Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and Jamaican Michelle Cliff’s Abeng. Maloon analyzed these two texts through the dual lens of psychoanalytic theory and postcolonial studies to discuss female adolescence as a bodily and psychic experience that has particular political implications for the female postcolonial subject and the formation of nation states in the wake of colonial rule in Africa and the Caribbean.
In the sciences, many students engage in empirical research, sometimes conducting their research in the field, other times in labs at Hampshire or across the globe via internships and the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, funded by the National Science Foundation. Still others pair their empirical work with creative productions or the design of new technologies.
For example, Emily Ryan studied public health and medical ethics. On a January Term trip, she accompanied physicians into rural villages in El Salvador where cervical examinations were done without the high-tech equipment of a typical diagnostic setting in the United States. She realized that an examination table doctors could carry with them—through terrain sometimes too rugged for anything but travel by foot—would make their jobs easier and the procedure more comfortable for the women. She designed a portable gynecological exam table and tested it on a second trip. Two other Division III students continued this work, improving the design. A course was developed around the project, examining the manufacture and marketing of the portable table.
Lyndie Wood explored memory and learning at the molecular level using Caenorhabditis elegans (a nematode commonly used as a model organism). While designing her experiment, she wrote a substantial literature review that ensured that she had both a solid grasp of the current understanding of the cellular processes underlying associative learning and the ability to convey the important ideas to a broader, general audience. Wood produced a write-up of her experiments in a style designed for publication. Complementing her research, Wood completed advanced courses and an internship in a lab at the University of Virginia.
In the area of social sciences (or critical social inquiry at Hampshire), students often engage in ethnographic research, oral history, library and archival research. They produce critical analytical works, policy papers, historical treatises, or combine these with creative representations. Liz McGourty conducted a piece of current history, producing an analytical paper as the product. She used the college’s archives and conducted extensive oral histories to examine community formation at Hampshire College. Developing three case studies, McGourty insightfully points to the intellectual and cultural practices that have shaped community at Hampshire since the college’s opening in 1970.
What Students Say about the Value of the Division III
Lyndie Wood reflected on the how her Division III project contributed to her learning in this way: “The most important part of my Division III, for me, wasn’t the experiments I ran or the techniques I had to learn... It was the process of making a plan on paper and turning it into a series of actions, adapted for the particular space and the particular tools I had available… Hampshire’s Division III is so valuable because it gives students an opportunity to do something big, where the emphasis is on the process and not the final product.”
Liz McGourty concurs: “For me what feels the most important about my Div III experience was the process. I spent an academic year pursuing research questions that really interested me and from that work I produced a big paper. But the paper isn’t what feels important. What is useful, and feels really personally satisfying, are the skills and strategies I learned. I learned how to manage my time to meet deadlines. I learned a lot about the value of revision, and how much stronger it will make my work. Employers don’t necessarily care about the formation of community at Hampshire, but when they see that I can work independently, they like that.”
A third student, Parimal Satyal, said, “I had to pick a topic that interested me, condense it down to a realizable project, seek out resources and turn an idea to something whole, complete and of academic (and practical) value. I learnt as much from this process and my missteps as I did from the actual content of my research and experimentation.”
What Faculty Say about the Value of the Division III Project
Faculty members echo many of the students’ sentiments, citing a wide array of benefits that students reap from focusing their attention on a single project from concept to completion throughout their final year. Whatever shape their Division III project might take in the humanities, cognitive and natural sciences, arts or critical social inquiry, the students’ dedication to a research, writing, or arts project affords them the opportunity to go through a crucial process of knowledge creation that teaches them lifelong skills in self-directed learning as well collaboration and negotiation with others. Students learn to take responsibility for their own work, project planning and time management, and working through inevitable setbacks and tough spots they encounter in the course of this yearlong project.
In the end, the Division III experience is different for each student, depending upon the context of their work, the scope of their research, and the technical and creative demands of the medium or field they are working in. Not every Division III project is as stellar as the examples we put forth in this paper. However, all students go through the process of outlining and conceptualizing their project to drafting and revising their pieces, listening to and incorporating, after careful consideration, critiques from their peers and advising committee when they are useful. The Division III as final “product” is often only a portion of the work that students have completed in the process. Students all learn a great deal about managing a project and adjusting in the light of new information or even dead ends—skills that lead to adaptive flexibility and resilience. The final narrative evaluation allows the chair and member of the committee to comment on both the quality of the final project as well as a variety of other aspects, such as how the student handled the process, what they learned about writing or their craft as well as the subject matter, how they connect their Division III project to prior learning experiences, and how they see their work in relation to other work out in the world.
The complex dimension of the Division III projects in these examples demonstrates that Hampshire College encourages its students to go well beyond traditional senior thesis project expectations. Our students experiment with multiple forms of expression; reflect carefully on their own role as artists, scientists, and community members; and think about how to present their work to a wider public. Hampshire College’s Division III is such a successful capstone project model because we don’t confine students through disciplinary boundaries and requirements. We set high expectations and actively encourage students to play and experiment with new forms, new approaches, and new ways of seeing and thinking. Some students clearly come to Hampshire College already primed to take advantage of the opportunities we offer and are open to the journey of exploration and experimentation, but the Division III process requires all students to explore, explain, and create. Completing the Division III also provides them with the tools and understanding of how to develop larger independent projects that set the stage for their later careers and work in a variety of fields.
Hampshire’s motto, Non satis scire (to know is not enough), invites students (as well as faculty and staff) to go beyond the passive acquisition of received knowledge to extend and augment knowledge through the student’s own creation, inquiry, critique, invention, and informed action in the world. We believe that a Hampshire education creates active learners for life.
Patterson, F., and C. R. Longsworth. 1966. The Making of a College. Cambridge, Mass: M.I.T. Press.
We would like to thank the students and faculty who contributed their work and ideas for this article, even those we do not directly cite.
Laura Wenk is the dean of curriculum and assessment, and Eva Rueschmann, is vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty, both of Hampshire College