Final assignments for some classes, such as ancient battle reenactments and blogs, make Brown’s moniker of “unconventional Ivy” seem well-deserved.
Many undergraduates taking classes that rely on unusual end-of-term endeavors said they prefer completing final projects to taking tests or writing papers, as the experience allows them to explore their course material in a more meaningful way.
Ayano Kondo ’14 recently helped coordinate, choreograph and reenact the Battle of Kadesh with her classmates, an undertaking that accounted for 30 percent of her course grade in EGYT 1430: “History of Egypt I.”
Reenacting the battle “made us learn more about the material because it made us be engaged,” she said. She and her classmates attempted to keep the event’s details accurate to the readings they discussed in class, including the number of participants on each side, the battle techniques employed and the armor and weapons used, she said.
Sophia Blistein ’16 said compiling her final project for AMST 1610A: “American Advertising: History and Consequences” in the fall was much more engaging and intellectually meaningful than writing the two required midterm papers.
“Doing a different kind of final — a project — was good to wrap up a different kind of material,” said Katherine Macpherson ’14, another student in the class.
In class, they studied various visual media, including news advertisements and video clips. For the project, they were asked to create a presentation describing the history of American advertising to an average museum audience, she said.
“Working on a project helped me to retain the information for longer,” Macpherson said, adding that thinking about how to explain complex issues to a young audience took a lot more effort than writing a paper.
“I am very used to writing papers,” she said. Creating a final project “pushed me out of my comfort zone, but I have no complaints,” she added.
The first-year seminar AMST 0150K: “Culture, Communities and Change” also involves a unique structure and final project. Dylan Cole-Kink ’17, one of seven students enrolled, said the first half of the class entailed learning about theories of social action. After becoming more comfortable with the framework, each member of the class worked with an actual organization. For a final grade, they must each write a biographical account of the organization they worked with throughout the semester as a section of a WordPress blog describing the course.
Often, students who read theoretical texts can be skeptical that the ideas are actually implemented — the social action component of the seminar allowed him to see organizations and the ideas in action, Cole-Kink said.
While his class has less traditional academic work, Cole-Kink said, “I see a lot of the content in the class reflected in the fieldwork I do. The whole point of the class is that to understand, you have to be engaged.”
“Reading about ideas in the abstract would be kind of hypocritical,” he added.
Picking on papers?
Susan Smulyan, professor of American studies, said she used to assign take-home exams instead of final projects for AMST 1610A. She changed the final assignment to a project two years ago because the opportunity to collaborate with the Smithsonian Institution arose. She said she focuses on finding assignments that incorporate less writing and more thinking.
“Students get bored of just writing for the professor,” she said, adding that she is always searching for ways to “make more interesting, fun and deep learning.”
Assistant Professor of Archaeology Laurel Bestock said she originally planned the reenactment of the Battle of Kadesh as an experiment for a component of the final grade for EGYT 1430. She said she wondered if students would learn more about ancient Egyptian history and source analysis through a theatrical production.
“Sources aren’t always appropriate to what we want to know,” she said, adding that while reading a variety of sources can give the illusion of a full understanding of an event, some areas can remain obscure.
“The battle project helps students understand this because when you take the records we have and try to restage the battle, you realize how much is actually missing,” she said.
Wendy Ginsberg ’15 is one of six students who developed a Group Independent Study Project investigating Bruce Springsteen in 20th-century society.
The group initially planned to complete individual final papers, she said. But she and her peers eventually decided a final multimedia-based project would better describe what they had learned from their discussions.
Because they chose to make a website, “everyone is bringing something different to the project,” said Matthew Hart ’15, another student in the GISP. “A project like this one allows more creativity, and I like it because as a (computer science) major, it’s closer to my skill set.”
Akshaya Avril-Tucker ’15 helped develop a GISP examining different styles of ancient Indian dance. In the class, “we talk about dance, and then we do dance,” she said.
She added that she originally wanted to have only a final paper — she felt that in-depth research for the paper would promote greater understanding of ancient dance forms. “The more research we do to teach each other, the more we learn,” she said. “Then again, when more focused on discussion, you lose embodying what you’re trying to talk about.”
For their final grade, in addition to their final papers, Avril-Tucker and her classmates chose to also choreograph a dance incorporating the styles of the ancient forms they studied to “make the ancient dance language understandable to the modern audience,” she said. “We’re currently grappling with combining the ancient and the new in an aesthetic and topical way.”
In their recreation of the battle, Kondo and her classmates reached out for volunteers to participate in the battle itself and to help assemble props and costumes.
“They all really enjoyed the experience … and I’ve never had a class project where everyone was working on one thing. It was just so much fun,” Kondo said. “It was more rewarding than having to write another paper.”
Students in the Springsteen GISP also reached out to students not in their class to compile information for their website. When completed, the site will feature their interviews with scholars knowledgeable about Springsteen, as well as data analysis from surveys distributed to his fan base. “I’m excited to see how the fans react” to the website, Ginsberg said.
Avril-Tucker said collaborating to create a final project has been a learning experience.
“It’s easy to feel disconnected from a class when you’re writing a final paper,” she said. Working with peers makes the entire experience of a final assignment more emotional and engaging because others are relying on you, she added. “We’ve gained a huge amount by working together.”
Macpherson said putting together her final project was more applicable to life after college than writing a paper because it required students to convey information to wider audiences.
Smulyan said from an instructor’s perspective, it is important to teach how to write effectively, but not all classes on campus must have that goal.
“I like papers — they’ve had a good run,” she said. “But now I feel they are getting kind of static.”