How Does Advanced Work... Work?

By Krista Thorp '15

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It’s that time of year again. Seniors are but 57 days away from graduation at the publication of this article (sorry guys) and juniors have just turned in their plan confirmations. About fifty percent of the school has been plunged into the end result of the plan process: the ever mysterious “advanced work”.

The “Plan Process” document distributed by the college defines Advanced Work as “the realization of work in one or more areas of study that moves well beyond the introductory level and demonstrates a broadly formed understanding of your stated areas of study and their connection to your educational goals.”  While this functions as a conceptual definition, no actual procedural guidelines are outlined in the document. In fact, the section that elaborates on how students can build their advanced work seems to be deliberately vague: “Generally,” the document reads, “each student’s work will be assessed in relation to how successfully she has realized the Expectations of a Bennington Education […] Beyond these expectations, each discipline may have additional methods of assessment and/or opportunities for engagement within that particular community of inquiry. This may include a review process, performances, thesis work, lecture series, colloquia, and more.”  It is the student’s job to discuss and “clarify” with their faculty advisors how to do advanced work across disciplines, and the only responsibility of the plan committee is to “provide guidance.” Ideally this would mean that students have the freedom to work independently and create the kind of project they want to. However, it can also give the plan committee enough power to stop the student from doing a project that they don’t agree on. While, hopefully, by their sixth term, students trust those three or four faculty members with their lives, they are still given complete veto power over anything the student may want to do. Provided a student’s plan and advanced work proposal is passed during sixth term, the plan committee can call a seventh-term plan meeting (which happens only in unusual circumstances, the document points out) if the work that the student is doing is not “acceptably advanced.” The document lacks a list of requirements or traits that might define something as “acceptably advanced,” and interpretation is left entirely up to the plan committee. Faculty work from the same document and one additional set of guidelines, a one page document titled “Expectations of a Bennington Education.” It has two vague points  about senior work; by the time a student graduates, their “skills can be applied in multiple contexts,” and are “expect[ed….to] explore this breadth of application in sophisticated and integrative ways.” The document also says that “By the time they graduate, students should be able to employ these skills individually and collaboratively, demonstrating a capacity to act creatively and effectively.” While this perhaps implies some requirements about advanced work, specifics are explicitly left out.

Theoretically, all of this seems very progressive and in line with the idea of a Bennington education—it functions on the same building block that every system at this school depends on: the conversation. While these “conversations” that are so integral to the way students provide input to the school can be useful for brainstorming and getting ideas flowing, they have their drawbacks—nobody is held accountable for the information that is given and nobody is required to give any specific information or answer any specific questions. They are far from an ideal form to address the questions that students simply cannot answer themselves about their advanced work. When is my plan progress essay due? What are my options? What projects am I working on right now that I can get credit for as advanced work?

It is also important to note that not all disciplines are created equal. The avenues through which one can pursue advanced work are significantly clearer in some disciplines than others. For instance, Visual Arts has four classes titled “Advanced,” Dance has two projects classes, and music has two. Last term a Literature projects class was taught. Special Projects, a class taught this term by Eileen Scully, covers all the social sciences, though it was originally intended to deal only with history. Drama has a number of avenues for completing advanced work, but those that give credit are very exclusive and can only serve a few students at a time (directing a student production during senior year, serving some role in the faculty production) or only come around every so often (like Sitcom, or Directing II). Students who wish to create a production for their senior work are, more often than not, unable to get credit unless they are selected for the few aforementioned opportunities.  While science does not have an abundance of projects classes, they recently held a Science Workshop about how to complete advanced work in the sciences, and the path seems very clear. “In terms of the science faculty communicating with science students, a lot of that happened during fifth term seminar,” said Joseph Kendrick, a sixth-term science student. Kendrick was away last term so he did not take fifth term seminar, and through being proactive and asking often about his senior work (a project supervised by long term faculty member Kerry Woods), he is having a fine time starting. An anonymous science student who took fifth term seminar has a different point of view. “I keep hearing conflicting things about what advanced work is from the same person, I keep hearing that it doesn’t have to be new, cutting edge work that is pushing the boundaries of science, and then they also tell me on my proposal that it’s been done before and I can’t do it. They say I have to improve it, but they don’t explain how to improve it,” he said. His project advisors are both new faculty members, and he says that it’s clear that they, and his faculty advisor, who does not work in his discipline, are not working from a shared set of criteria. Luke Dowling, a senior, has had a similar issue. He said that it did “not at all” seem as if the two faculty members advising him had a consistent idea of what advanced work should be. “Especially because there’s a visiting faculty member who doesn’t know any of the criteria,” he said. Dowling also said that, though there haven’t been any issues, the two faculty members advising him have had differing opinions on what his advanced work should look like.

In an email interview, Associate Dean of the College Duncan Dobbleman said “As you can imagine, advanced work can take a range of forms, depending on the student’s Plan, so it is very difficult—and generally undesirable—to prescribe as a fixed set of specific criteria that students in a given area must adhere to,” While discipline faculty regularly meet to discuss advanced work procedures and requirements, there is no “official” criteria or guidelines as to what senior work needs to be.  “I should add that I’m not suggesting that we don’t need more clarity,” Dobbleman said.

This flexibility should allow for students to work on projects that are self-generated and inspiring to them. However, that is not always the case. Sofie Sherman-Burton, a December graduate in the class of 2012, spent much of her time here leading, with Bryan Markhart, the creation of the Bennington Sustainable Food Project as we know it today. Soon after completing a garden internship after her first term, she began thinking about her work on the food project, the farm, and the co-op as something that might turn into an advanced work project. “As I was listening to campus community members talk about CAPA and its intentions and melding those with my understanding of Bennington culture, I started to think that the best realization of my time and projects at Bennington was a real, living project that was trying to do something great for the community.” Sherman-Burton worked on the project her entire time at Bennington, but was unable to use that as an advanced work opportunity. “What would have been wonderful about the opportunity to focus my senior work on the BSFP’s various endeavors would have been to do those things more vigorously and to devote even more time and energy to them. And also just to have everything that I was doing, the practicality and real-ness of what I was doing validated, realized in the same way that I think other students’ projects are.” The “other students” Sherman-Burton is referring to are students mainly in the visual and performing arts, who create performances or pieces in their discipline, usually in advanced classes or projects classes for credit. Sherman-Burton, however, never received any credits for her work on the BSFP, although she said that, realistically, it often took priority over her academic work, often in the form of the practical application of ideas she learned about in her classes, mainly in environmental studies.

This brings up the issue of students in all years that complete something that might, in another context, be considered “advanced work,” but is done for no credit and outside of class. Tonight, in fact, the student production that goes up each term will premiere, and the actors as well as much of the production crew are underclassmen. Only the directors, who are two of three senior drama students who will get class credit for an individual project this year, have the production as a supervised tutorial.

There are some activities that students see as being part of their plan, but are paid jobs rather than something that students receive class credit for, such as Sherman-Burton’s summer farm internship. Most of these jobs, however, function at the same time that classes are in session, and therefore can often take away from the classes that are evaluated by professors and show up on transcripts. However, these students often consider their work at these jobs part of their classes. ‘As someone who has recently gained an interest in journalism and media studies, the BFP has been a very useful tool in exploring that newfound fascination,” said Celene Barrera, voices editor of the BFP, “It is rather unfortunate that I cannot receive credit for this very much academic endeavor.”

The fact that individual projects make up a significant amount of work for some students and not others does not have to be a complaint about being busy or having an unreasonable amount to do. Those asked to do more also have more opportunities than others. Because advanced work can mean anything from taking an advanced class to creating or collaborating on a complex original project, some students graduate with experience leading a public action group, putting on a show, or creating a newspaper. Students who don’t seek out or do not, by chance, discover those opportunities, graduate having done less practical work than others, which isn’t fair for them. The lack of clear pathways towards completing individual projects, not only for credit but with the support of the faculty, creates an unequal distribution of the type of education that Bennington professes to have.