Each fall semester, Maranatha Baptist University offers a senior-level English class called Literature Capstone. This class is required for English majors and is available as an elective for students in related studies. Students in Literature Capstone dedicate the entire semester to writing a research paper at least 31 pages long on a literary work of their choice. In the spring semester, these students publicly present their class projects as part of the course requirements.
This spring, five students held their presentations on the university campus. One of these students, senior English major Melissa Troutman, shares her journey of taking Literature Capstone.
L-R: Isaiah Kazarovich, Hannah Milam, Melissa Troutman, Rachel Mayes, Shayna Goeman
My hands trembled slightly as I laid my materials on the podium in front of me: a few pages of notes, my tattered paperback of Othello, my equally worn copy of Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare: The World as Stage and my phone with the timer set to fifteen minutes.
It seemed impossible. Impossible to talk about a ten-month journey in fifteen minutes. Impossible to feel excitement and reluctance wrangling so fiercely in my stomach. Impossible that today, in these moments, my capstone journey would end.
I couldn’t wait to share with my friends, family and professors all I had learned about Othello. But when the very process of sharing completed one of the most enriching experiences of my life? It took the energy out of my excitement.
I sucked in a breath. Impossible or not, the moment was here. I had to embrace it. I hit “start” on my timer, faced my audience and began the last moments of my capstone journey.
Four Years of Literature Capstone
My journey began, in a way, during my sophomore year. I first heard about Literature Capstone early in the spring semester, when I learned that several of my friends would be presenting their senior literature projects. To support them and to satisfy my curiosity, I attended the event. Four students presented, their works ranging from C. S. Lewis’s ’Til We Have Faces to Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was attending the first Literature Capstone presentations on the Maranatha Baptist University campus. The course had only been introduced the year before in response to an ongoing discussion among the English faculty. This discussion had recognized and responded to the need for a culminating experience that not only employed students’ skills from their college careers but also prepared them for potential graduate studies.
In the fall of 2014, the first student took Literature Capstone 490 under the direction of Mr. Jerry Kolwinska, English coordinator. Mrs. Susan Stephens, an adjunct professor, contributed her editing experience near the end of the course. In 2015, she took over as professor of the course to coach my four friends along their capstone journeys.
Two Years of Anticipation
As I listened to my friends’ presentations, I learned exactly what this course entailed: a great deal of reading and research followed by the writing and revision of a paper no shorter than 31 pages. This paper was divided into three chapters, with the first chapter discussing the author’s life, the second chapter summarizing critical literature of the work and the third chapter presenting the student’s own thesis from the work itself.
My friends impressed me with their profound theses and well-developed discussions. Their vulnerability also touched me; despite the variety of topics, each presenter expressed the same appreciation for the course, for Mrs. Stephens and for the grace of God. In fact, several students held back tears as they reflected on God’s goodness and acknowledged the end of their capstone journeys.
That will be me someday. I congratulated my friends and walked away, squinting into my future as an English major. What work would I choose to study? Would I cry at the end of my presentation? Would I be able to express the same gratitude my friends had expressed?
The following year, I attended my friends’ Literature Capstone presentations of Alice in Wonderland and A Wrinkle in Time. Again, these students managed to communicate the enormous amount of work their projects required while expressing their gratitude for the experience and its benefits.
That will be me next year. I hugged my friends and left, feeling both daunted and excited. Would I be able to handle to challenges of the course? Would I do well? Would I enjoy the process?
I would find out soon enough.
Ten Months of Mentorship
Just two months after my friends’ presentations, in March of 2017, Mrs. Stephens sent the first email to the next Literature Capstone class. We were five students this year, four English majors and one English Education major.
Even in this first email, I heard Mrs. Stephens’s voice of kindness, professionality and personal interest in us students. When I emailed back with some initial ideas and doubts, she replied with the advice that settled my decision: I would study Othello.
Over the summer, we communicated through email and over the phone as I gathered sources, brainstormed ideas and prepared for the semester. In all our correspondence, Mrs. Stephens provided the direction and encouragement I needed to plunge into and wade through the daunting process of research.
Three Months of Research
My research started shortly after I returned home for the summer in early May. The first step I took was to visit my local library and ask the reference librarian if she knew of any good biographies of Shakespeare. “I’m reading it right now,” she said. She told me what made it a good biography and gave me the title and author. I read the library copy, bought my own copy and read it again.
For the rest of the summer, when I wasn’t working or studying for my online classes, I was preparing for capstone. I read the textbook. I bought Othello and read it twice. I combed the databases of both my local library and my university library for material. I printed articles, checked out books and marked page after page with pen or highlighter.
By the time I arrived on campus at the end of August, I had read at least 20 articles or chapters on Othello. I hole-punched my sources and put them in the binder that would become the home of my capstone life. I was ready to start writing.
Four Months of Writing . . .
At least, I thought I was ready to start writing. First we had to review our material for our outlines, then we had to write our outlines, and then we had to revise our outlines. Only when Mrs. Stephens approved these outlines did we have the freedom to begin writing the papers.
I wrote the first chapter. I sat down to write the second chapter and ended up taking a lengthy detour to reread and reorganize all my sources. By the time I finished the chapter, it was almost a week late. But I had worked hard on it, and I was proud of it when I finally turned it in.
My third chapter also arrived in Mrs. Stephens’s inbox a week late. Again, I had underestimated the amount of time required to organize my material before writing about it. Yet as I reread and studied Othello, color-coding it according to my main points, I understood parts of the work I never would have noticed my first, second or even third read-through. By the time I emailed my final chapter to Mrs. Stephens, I was excited to share the insights I had gained.
. . . and Revising
With the completion of each chapter came the revisions. Mrs. Stephens met with each of us students for first one and then two hours every week. We discussed our progress and, eventually, revised our papers together. Mrs. Stephens always read my chapters aloud. I followed along on my laptop, and we stopped frequently to make corrections, ask questions or make notes for later study.
I quickly came to anticipate these weekly meetings; I loved learning from Mrs. Stephens’s wisdom and experience, and our revising process turned out to be something I’d never imagined it could be: fun. As a result, I felt both excited and disappointed when Mrs. Stephens read the final words of my last chapter. I would miss our weekly meetings that had enriched me so much.
I experienced the same mix of emotions when I visited her apartment for the last time during finals week: excitement to physically hand in my revised and completed 40-page paper, and disappointment to say goodbye to such a wonderful professor. All too soon I walked out into the cold December air, leaving my capstone paper behind me to be read and graded one final time. And for the first time since my sophomore year, I felt light.
The Journey That Never Ends
I felt the same lightness as I walked away from the podium a month later in January. My presentation was done. I’d gone a little over fifteen minutes, but in a journey of ten months, three books, and over twenty sources, what were a few extra moments?
I hugged my four friends, my fellow conquerors of Literature Capstone. Laughing and talking out of pure relief, we congratulated each other on our presentations, on our outfits, on our joint accomplishment. The journey we had started so long ago was now over.
I walked out of the room, clutching the binder that contained my 40 pages of capstone gold. Reality swirled around me, and for a moment I couldn’t swallow. Tears threatened to push past my composure. Was I really done? Had I really finished Literature Capstone? Had I really completed my greatest accomplishment as an English major?
I had. I had taken the last step in my capstone journey. Now what? As much as I anticipated my final semester without capstone, I would miss—and already did miss—the movement of the journey that had taught me so much.
Keep going. On to the next thing.
The flutter in my stomach settled. Keep moving forward. I hefted my backpack, took a deep breath, and started down the hallway.
Melissa Troutman graduates in May with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in Spanish. She intends to continue her studies in the TESL Graduate Program at The College of New Jersey.