Transcription (TEDx): The Capstone Project

The Capstone Project | Jenn Poggi | TEDxAllendaleColumbiaSchool

Students in the photojournalism program at RIT

are required to complete a senior capstone.

This is a year-long documentary project in which they research and pitch

and produce a story on a topic of their choice.

Their work is held in accordance

with the highest, professional, photojournalism standards.

Three and a half years ago, when I arrived at the RIT,

I was tasked with developing and implementing this curriculum.

I was also, at that time, completing my own master’s project.

That cohort of students was about twenty-one people.

But, within one semester it was down to thirteen.

I know, It doesn’t sound very successful.

But, actually, it wasn’t that big a deal.

The capstone process is daunting.

And students, as they realised the magnitude of what they’re being asked

to produce, for some, it was just a little too much.

The results of the projects that year formed a perfect bell curve.

There were one or two that were good.

Most of them were average, and a couple of them just didn’t work at all.

Today I want to talk to you about what I’ve learnt from the capstone process.

And I want to share with you how that’s impacting me

and the work that I’m doing today.

Most people approach this process with a gripping sense of fear.

They look at the blank page or canvas,

and they feel anxiety and fear just like I feel right now.


They look at it and they see a sense of possibility.

But that possibility is a double-edge sword.

It’s the possibility for success, but it’s also the possibility for failure.

I divide the capstone students into three groups:

there are the believers, there are the undecided and there are the doubters.

Those who embrace the process tend to approach the capstone

with a cautious sense of confidence.

That really opens them up to opportunities.

The doubters, they’re reluctant.

They often, also, doubt the value of doing such a project.

By and large, most of the people fall into the undecided category.

They accept that this is a requirement and they’re prepared to do the capstone.

But they are nervous, and they are maybe secretly doubting,

or not so secretly doubting, whether they have what it takes.

All three of these groups look at the blank canvas,

and they feel that anxiety and fear that I mentioned before.

But what sets these groups apart is how they manage that anxiety and fear.

The patterns become clear within the first few weeks of that year.

And the only thing that will upset that trajectory is an ‘aha’ moment.

Following that first cycle of capstone’s, we did a pretty rigorous post-mortem.

And we isolated lots of things where there was room for improvement.

But we also isolated one key factor that was preventing our students

from making meaningful progress in their capstone’s.

Our students were reluctant to create first drafts.

Our students were reluctant to create first drafts.

It was actually quite confusing to us at first,

because they were already in the middle of the process.

And they were making good work.

It was a simple yet stunning revelation.

Without a first draft, all forward progress was stunted

and quite stalled.

The quality of their final projects, it turned out,

could be directly traced back to how early

they had created their first drafts and completed a first draft.

What this also revealed was an overwhelming number of students

were turning in final projects that were just their first drafts.

They were genuinely proud of what they’ve had turned in

and the fact that they had completed the project.

But what they were not understanding was that the quality of the work

that they were producing was taking a backseat.

This too was a huge revelation for me.

Because it was really the first time that I understood

that many of these students never actually believed

that they could produce this project in the first place.

This is a picture of President Obama.

And he’s working on a speech on healthcare

that he delivered to a joint session of Congress in 2009.

I love this picture.

It was certainly not his first draft.

And, I’m guessing, it probably wasn’t the last draft.

And I can understand that, if you look at this picture,

you might feel some sense of anxiety.

But I feel comfort.

I look at this and I think: even the president works in drafts.

And in a time when we scrutinise everything,

I think it’s a really powerful statement that he was not afraid to show this.

Here’s what I know to be true: the fear of failure and rejection is powerful.

And they are forces that can prevent positive progress.

But if a student can transform their thinking,

they can learn to see these as opportunities for future success.

The students that completed the first draft early on,

they were able to obtain meaningful feedback.

They were able to isolate elements that were missing from their storytelling.

And they were able to get started on those changes much earlier.

This also made them more confident.

And as they gained that confidence, they were more likely to take risks

in their own storytelling, in their shooting and in their editing.

As I was going through this process with them,

I was also completing my master’s project.

And I was myself riding a roller coaster of emotions.

The serendipitous timing of this really allowed me an opportunity to see

what my students were confronting.

And the pieces of the puzzle were beginning to fit together.

We all have that answer inside of our heads

to the ‘I am’ statement.

What it turned out to be for my students was, actually, a powerful predictor

that answered the ‘I am’ statement.

It was a powerful predictor for how they might do on the capstone.

What kind of work they might produce and how successful they might be.

If I can transform my own approach at the beginning of the process,

when I’m working with students, there’s a chance that I can also combat

the psychological factors that are preventing hard working students

from making meaningful progress.

And, if the students can transform their own thinking,

they also have a higher probability of a successful outcome.

These days, I start the capstone process

asking students to shift their thinking.

I ask them not to think about the capstone project as a problem

that they have to overcome or work through.

But I ask them to think of it, instead, as an opportunity for them to dream big,

to work slow and to walk away with a really successful story.

Along the way, I talk about failure as an essential part of the capstone process,

an equation.

I encourage them to fail early and fail often.

I also tell them that their first drafts are going to suck,

but that it’s also going to lead them to some unexpected leaps in their work.

I talk about my own mistakes and I definitely talk to them about fear

and how crippling it can be and also how it can lead to shame.

Last spring, I finished my master’s project.

And at the end of my defence, my committee members

were talking about the possibility of being published

and the possibility of a future exhibit.

And I laughed a little bit uncomfortably.

Because the reality was that I was just relieved that it was over.

And, then, one of them turned to me

and she said: ‘Jenn, you know, this is really just the beginning.’

And there it was, the biggest revelation of all for me.

I hope students walk away from the capstone process

with an amazing documentary project.

And so many of them do.

I also though hope they walk away with a greater sense of confidence

about what they’re capable of and perhaps a more affirmative answer

to that ‘I am’ statement.

Because, in the end, the capstone experience

is really just the beginning of all that they will face in life.

Thank you!


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