WGSS Capstone Project and Senior Thesis
WGSS majors complete their capstone projects in their first semester of their senior year, with the option to expand the capstone project into a full-year thesis. In the Fall, WGSS majors complete a 25-30 page capstone project that analyzes evidence such as texts, films, interviews, or other research, in conversation with secondary scholarly literature. The purpose of the capstone project is to assist students in producing an original project through research, and contributing to the field of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Students who receive a B+ or higher on their capstone may choose to take a second semester senior seminar to expand their capstone project into a polished thesis, either of the same length with the goal of pursuing publication, or to a length of 50-80 pages.
Semester 1: The Capstone Project
While pursuing their capstone projects in the Fall of their senior year, WGSS students attend a semester-long seminar (known as Senior Seminar) to learn important skills and receive feedback on their projects. This course is a combination of method and writing workshops, intended to help students understand the components that comprise original research projects, and to support students as they produce their own knowledge and scholarly contributions to the field. Students will receive feedback throughout their capstone-writing process, culminating in their final project at the end of the semester.
In the first two weeks, the Fall Senior Seminar is focused on helping students design their topics through brainstorming assignments. In class, students will engage in partnered activities to share and refine the topic they will explore in their capstone project. Students will then collect secondary literature and engage in secondary source assignments. For example, students will pick 5 or 6 sources and write summaries of them and how they would contribute to their project. Such assignments help students shape their topics, and allow students to see themselves as scholars in conversation with other scholars whose work has influenced them.
It is also during this period when students must begin reaching out to potential outside readers. An outside reader is an expert in the field of the student’s topic, who can provide consistent and critical feedback on the student’s capstone draft. Students will receive feedback on their capstone drafts from the outside reader in addition to the senior seminar instructor. Outside advisors can be from any department, any field, and any school (including outside Barnard/Columbia), so long as they hold some expertise in the student’s topic.
After the first few weeks of brainstorming, the Fall Senior Seminar features writing workshops, where students learn how to structure a long academic paper and skills for communicating as effectively as possible through written work. For example, as an exercise, students will analyze works from previous years and secondary scholarly texts to locate core elements of the texts such as: the argument and thesis, methods section and literary review, how the writer uses archives and explains the connection between archives and secondary sources, how the writer introduces evidence and sustains an argument, etc. The seminar also features workshops on databases and research methods. Students who have to conduct research that involves human subjects must also complete an online ethics training course and obtain a certificate per the Barnard Institutional Review Board guidelines.
Most of the Fall Senior Seminar class time is devoted to workshopping class assignments and early drafts of the capstone project. Students partner up and complete a peer review worksheet where they give and receive focused feedback on assignments (such as the brainstorm and secondary literature assignments) and early drafts. Once students begin producing longer amounts of writing as the semester progresses, much of the class time is devoted to making space for students to talk through struggles they are having and encouraging the class to collectively try to figure out next steps and provide support. While students meet in the seminar every week for the first half of semester, in the second half, meetings are staggered as students will use class time to work on their projects, meet with their outside advisor, and meet 1-on-1 with the senior seminar instructor.
Generally, the format of the capstone and thesis is as follows: an introduction including discussions of methodology and evidence, 1-2 substantive chapters that engage with primary evidence and critical scholarship, and a conclusion. Students’ primary evidence most often consists of ethnographies, interviews, cultural analysis, or autoethnographies (where students use their own life story as a window into bigger social issues). The format of the capstone project can be flexible and is open to any genre or medium, though it is critical that students budget the time, effort, and, if applicable, the necessary skills needed to pursue such formats. An example of a conventional capstone project might include a literary analysis written in Chicago style. Examples of nontraditional formats might include film or art projects, projects which incorporate performance, theater, or poetry, etc. Regardless of the format, projects must include a research question, use secondary scholarly literature to analyze results, and articulate the scholarly arguments students are intervening in.
Since many WGSS students engage in interdisciplinary work, they may also wish to intervene in other fields, especially if students double major in an additional field, or pursue a combined major. For example, students may wish to interrogate questions in biology, environmental science, or art history through a feminist lens. Students are welcome to pursue an interdisciplinary capstone, though they must ensure that the project contains a strong WGSS component. Double majors with one combined thesis and students pursuing a combined major must consult with their advisor or department head of their non-WGSS major to ensure that they are meeting the senior requirements for that department as well. Each department has their own guidelines regarding double and combined majors.
Semester 2—The Senior Thesis (Optional)
Students who receive a B+ or higher on their capstone can elect to take a second semester senior seminar in the spring and revise or expand their capstone project into a thesis. Students can choose to either expand their work to 50-80 pages, or polish their writing with the intention of publishing their work in academic journals. In the past, students have published their theses in Eleven, InQueeries, law journals, and online journals. Similar to the Fall Senior Seminar, the Spring Senior Seminar is intended to be a supportive and collaborative environment.
On the first day of the semester, the seminar instructor asks each student to come up with their own syllabus. Students will ask themselves their goals for the thesis semester: do they want to add a chapter, conduct more research, etc? The instructor meets with students individually between the production of new drafts to give feedback on each draft. Students will read two of their classmates’ drafts closely and provide careful feedback. Each week, students will check in on how each student’s writing process is going. Then, either the instructor will introduce substantive pieces that are relevant to the students’ theses, or students will present their work. The student presentations ensure not only that students become more prepared and comfortable speaking about their research, but also that classmates can engage with and share ideas and feedback on the presenter’s thesis. Students receive feedback from both the seminar instructor and outside advisor prior to handing in the final draft.
Students who pursue the thesis will be able to apply for a research grant through the WGSS department. This new initiative allows students to apply for funding to cover the cost of travel, reimburse interviewees, purchase access to certain archives, or other endeavors which would significantly aid students’ scholarship and research. Furthermore, the grant is also designed to financially support students seeking to engage in additional research during winter break between the fall and spring senior seminars. Research grants are awarded on a rolling basis. For more information on the research grant and how to apply, contact the WGSS Department Chair.
The information in this guide was compiled through interviews with current and former senior seminar professors—Dr. Elizabeth Bernstein, Professor of Women's Studies and Sociology and Dr. Manijeh Moradian, Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies.
Alex Volgyesi is a member of the Barnard Class of 2022. She is a senior majoring in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and History. She is a research assistant for the Barnard WGSS Department, the Barnard Center for Research on Women, and a staffer at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn.