What happens when you’re out of class for a week and have to catch up. 

A model capstone student stares at her computer screen for hours on end, hoping that she will be able to figure out what comes next. 

After a few hours of working, the student takes a break to have lunch. 

And then the break is over and the work continues. That awkward moment when you start working at nearly noon and don’t leave until it’s midnight and the moon is high in the sky. 

What’s a Capstone?

The beginning of the Capstone process is weird.  It’s some strange combination of coffee and waiting and throwing away one idea after another.  This period can last days or weeks or sometimes for an entire semester.  Sometimes, If you’re really unlucky it’ll last well into the project itself.

It is, in a word, hard. What makes it so hard is that there are no rules.  Not really, you go to a brainstorming session and you sit in a room surrounded by other students–many just as lost as you are–and you talk about what you’ve seen others do and what you want to do.  And while you’re sitting there listening to someone tell you about their project idea, you throw away another one of yours, because some part of you thinks that it isn’t acceptable or that it isn’t good enough.

But, that part of you, the part telling you to throw away your ideas or give up on a concept is loud, too loud to allow you to hear the voice telling you that you’re enough, that your idea is enough. And often, it is.  But many students, students like me, spend so much time comparing what they want to do to the things other people have done that they fail to see the value in what they’re doing or thinking of doing.

And that’s the hardest part.  The pre-proposal, the proposal, the project itself, they’re not the part that’ll leave you crying or have you up  until three in the morning–they might, if that’s the way you are, but you get the idea. The part that will steel your sleep and make you cry and leave you ready to drop out, is the brainstorming, because it’s the part that has no rules.

When you write a pre-proposal or a proposal, you have guidelines.  You have to tell them what you want to do, why you want to do it, and why it should be considered an appropriate Honors Capstone project.  The project itself has guidelines, you have to turn in documentation and results and sources.  Even the final presentation has guidelines, a time limit, a layout.  But the brainstorming part is an abyss.

You stare at your computer and read what others have done and think about what you’re passionate about, and then you come up with an idea and you start playing around with it and you think you’ve got what you need, and then you give it up because you see something that steals your certainty and you start over.

Capstone projects are hard, they’re meant to be, that’s the reason they exist, to test you.  But the beginning, is exponentially harder than the end.

The first three weeks.

The first three weeks of the semester are strange, because they’re not really an indication of what the rest of the semester will be like, but they aren’t anything like the three weeks before them either.

You get up and you go to class and you do homework and you work and then you go to bed and do it all over again.  But you’re not having to work for it.  There are no late night study sessions.  You don’t spend the night on the floor of your bedroom with your notes and a cup of coffee. You just, exist, in a routine, simple sort of way.  Until suddenly everything is late, everything is hard, the world is on fire, and you’re crying.

The first three weeks of a Capstone semester are even more strange, because they’re a sort of limbo. Nothing happens, nothing is due.  And yet, if you do nothing, you’re suddenly behind and scrambling.

No one is presenting, no one is finished, but some people are close, in their final stretch, running toward the finish line because they want to be done so badly that they can taste it.  But no one is there quite yet. They’re writing their papers and building their presentation and scheduling their time slots and looking toward graduation day with hope. And then next week, suddenly their advisors will be expecting something that they wont have and they’ll realize the end is closer than they think and they’ll panic a little.

But for now, all is calm.  The storm won’t come for a little while more.

Capstone Comparisons

Today I had my first Official Capstone Meeting with A, my advisor, and did I mention that Capstone’s are terrifying?  I’m already panicking, and I’m ahead of schedule, so I should be cool as a cucumber. But, I’m not.  I don’t present well, I don’t like the sound of my own voice and the words never come out the way I want them to.

My advisor is incredibly intelligent and she knows this about me. So, her suggestion was that I go through old projects and read the proposals and things that the previous students submitted. So I did, and then I went searching through news stories about Capstone projects and the students that came up with them.

I found these two particularly interesting.

This first one is about a girl that took an app and completely reimagined it.

http://patch.com/ohio/miamiuniversity-oxford/freedom-summer-app-gets-re-vamped-senior-capstone-project

The second one is about a girl who is going to be using the inauguration as a part of her project.

https://www.uml.edu/News/stories/2017/Inauguration2017.aspx

I’ve been to at least two capstone presentations a semester since I’ve started college, but I had never seen projects like these–or like mine–and seeing that there really is no limit to what a capstone project can look like was comforting.

But, I’m still terrified.

Laments of a Capstone Student

So, did I mention that capstone projects are terrifying?  If I didn’t, I’ll tell you now, and probably a few more times. I have so much to do that I sort of think I might drown, and the semester literally started on Monday.

For those of you who don’t have any idea what a capstone project is, it’s a huge project that a student completes near the end of their program to reflect the things that they have learned in some way.  Like I said before, mine is called ‘Caricaturized, Dying, or Actually Straight: The under and misrepresentation of gay and lesbian characters in film.’

If you’re like half of the people in my life, your next question is going to be either ‘why are you studying gay people, are you gay?’ or ‘that doesn’t sound like it has anything to do with journalism, why are you doing your project on that?’

I usually ignore people that ask the first question, mostly because it’s completely irrelevant to their lives or mine.  But, I usually answer the second question by explaining that, no my project doesn’t actually have anything to do with Journalism, and that it doesn’t have to because it is in fact not for my major, but for my honors distinction.

The next question is usually, ‘how did you come up with it?’

And the answer might make me sound a little gay.  But that’s okay.  I came up with my capstone project in the same way that I come up with a lot of the fiction pieces I write, by watching people.

I was sitting on the floor in one of the places I feel safest, a building on my University’s campus that is mostly empty most of the time.  From where I sit, I can see directly in to two faculty offices.  One belongs to the beautiful and incredibly intelligent woman who is now my Capstone Advisor, we can call her A. She’s weird and wonderful and it’s awesome.  The other belongs to the beautiful and incredibly intelligent woman that I take all of my honors courses with, we’ll call her K.  She’s all sorts of things, she’s sassy and spirited and she watches far too much television, but she’s brilliant, and I’ve had nearly all of my honors courses with her.  (You only have to take five, but I think I’m at seven just with her.)

Now, on this particular day, I was working on clearing out my hard drive of all the miscellaneous school things I would never need again. K and A were both in their offices, and I think K might have been watching a sexy video of Alan Rickman.

Anyway, as I was deleting things, I accidentally opened a saved file.  When the file opened and before I could close it again, I caught sight of a single line of text and the little light bulb above my head went ‘bling’.

The file was the syllabus from my first ever honors class.  The class where the aforementioned beautiful and intelligent woman screamed ‘fuck’ at the top of her lungs on accident while doing an acting exercise and was unapologetically sassy every second. (There is zero exaggeration there, seriously, she’s so sassy.) The class where K leaned over me in the middle of a film (Sense & Sensibility, I think) and made a sex joke, because she just couldn’t help herself.  The class that introduced me to the program that would change my life. (Which sounds super dramatic, but is absolutely true.  I’ll tell you about it later.)

One line, from one syllabus, from one class that felt like a lifetime ago.  That’s all it took to show me exactly what I wanted to do for my Capstone project.

The line was a discussion question, it asked us to consider whether the film industry reflected societal norms or changed them. That’s all it was.

My answer? Both.

So, I asked myself another question.  “Is it the responsibility of the film industry to my portray people or groups of people correctly.

My answer? No.

In my opinion, the film industry is completely independent and therefore technically able to depict any person or group of people in any way it wants.  But the writer in me said that was wrong, because the writer in me knows that depicting people incorrectly can be a really bad thing.

Now, the problem with the answers is that in a lot of ways they contradict one another.  I said that the film industry reflects the views of society, and it does. I said that the film industry can alter the views of society, and it does.  I said that the film industry is under no obligation to represent minorities, majorities, individuals, or groups correctly, and it isn’t.

Well then, what happens when the film industry–being that it is now and has often been the only exposure people have to the cultures that are not their own–presents something like the gay culture in a negative way? People start to look at gay culture in a negative way.

When gay characters were originally portrayed in film, they were creepers.  The portrayals gave people the feeling that the homosexual next door was going to kidnap their kid and keep it as a pet. As gay characters on screen changed, the overall view of homosexuality changed.  That’s the power of film.

So now, instead of seeing the creepy homosexual next door on screen we see the stereotypically fabulous gay man, the butch women, the lesbians who don’t have sex, the gay best friend, and other stereotypical representations of gay culture and people.

Which is what my project aims to study. Gay and lesbian characters are often caricaturized (the token gay, the queen, the flamboyant and overly sexualized boy, etc.), terminally ill and dying (cancer usually), or actually straight (like the mom in The Kids are Alright that sleeps with the kids’ father) when we see them on screen.  That’s not any more realistic than the older portrayals.

So, for my project, I’m watching movies, a lot of them, and figuring out what works, what doesn’t, and how it can be changed, because the industry may not have the responsibility to portray people correctly, but Hollywood runs on money and if we demand to see change, eventually they’ll listen, because we the moviegoers are what make them money.

And that’s my capstone, in a nutshell.

It’s terrifying.