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The Department of Art History, in the College of Liberal Arts, has an 8-member full-time faculty and enrolls approximately 50 students as majors. Writing in this highly visual field is based on close observation and careful description of visual material (including works of fine art, popular culture, photographs, prints, films, architectural spaces, built environments, decorative arts, and illuminated manuscripts). Art historians also conduct research in primary and secondary sources to produce detailed historical narratives, offer new interpretative arguments, and think critically about the role of the visual arts in human societies around the world.

Art History Writing Plan

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Writing in Art History

The Art History faculty generated the following list in response to the question, “What characterizes academic and professional communication in this discipline?"

  • It derives knowledge from visual, spatial, and material artifacts.
  • It is descriptive and requires careful visual analysis.
  • It exhibits logical precision in the assembly, analysis, and presentation of both evidence and argument.
  • It exhibits transparent clarity in the transmission of information and ideas.
  • It is effective in representing the many forms of evidence that support the case being made.
  • It synthesizes different forms of evidence to bear on historical, aesthetic, or theoretical problems.
  • It is interpretative.
  • It links together wide-ranging and perhaps disparate historical contexts, artifacts, or ideas.
  • It is creative and original.
  • The narrative is fluid and well-organized.
  • It is grammatically and typographically correct.

With these characteristics in mind, the department faculty approved the following description of discipline-specific writing to guide our work in relation to WEC:

"Art historical writing does more than merely report on pre-existing knowledge, or simply represent research that the writer has undertaken and amassed elsewhere. It is rather the means by which knowledge is generated for specific audiences (scholars, students, museum patrons, movie and gallery goers, professional colleagues, etc.), and it is thus a key site in which art historical research and thought take place. In other words, writing is a form of Thinking."

Writing Abilities Expected of Art History Majors

The Art History faculty generated the following list in response to the question, “With which writing abilities should students in this unit’s major(s) graduate?”

Minimum Requirements for Writing in the Major

1. MECHANICS: Student writers should be able to minimize grammatical and spelling errors (through proofreading and self-editing), so that content is not obscured by distracting mechanical mistakes.

2. CITATIONS: Students should be able to employ professional citation practices (typically in the Chicago Manual of Style format), so that readers can trust the veracity of the information presented and now how to retrace the researcher's steps.

3. ORGANIZATION/CLARITY: Students should be able to write in an organized, logical manner, so that readers can follow a lucid historical account and a consistent train of thought.

Intermediate Requirements for Writing in the Major 

4. ARGUMENT: Student writers should be able to put forth an argument articulately and persuasively, so that readers know early on what to expect and why it matters.

5. DESCRIPTION: Where specific works of art are investigated in isolation or otherwise used as a source of evidence, student writers should be able to provide careful and detailed descriptions, A. so that readers can clearly see and appreciate key observations related to work, and B. so that they may then follow the writer's steps from observation, to analysis, to conclusion.

6. HISTORICAL CONTEXTUALIZATION: Student writers should be able to provide accurate and richly detailed historical contexts for art objects, historical actors, ideas, and/or events, A. so that the conclusions offered are historical in nature (related to a chronological narrative of change-over-time and/or claims to period specificity), and B. so that the conclusions are not based on (or not based only on) subjective opinion.

Advanced Requirements for Writing in the Major 

7. INQUIRY: Student writers should be able to devise and clearly explain an area of inquiry, A. so that they may conduct independent research. B. so that readers can discern the nature of the conclusions offered (e.g., a report on already-known information and/or ideas; a new interpretation of already-known information and/or ideas; a contribution of new information and/or ideas).

8. RESEARCH: Student writers should be able to conduct an expansive, thorough research campaign relative to their area of inquiry, A. so that they can report on some combination of primary, secondary, and/or theoretical textual sources, as well as non-textual sources, e.g., images, objects, buildings, sites, films, or performances. B. so that the conclusions offered draw from and build upon a variety of resources.

9. ANALYSIS/SYNTHESIS: Student writers should be able to develop and fully prosecute an argument throughout their work, so that the presentation of all forms of evidence (e.g., historical information, visual observation, analysis of existing literature) clearly relates to and further develops the core thesis.

10. VOICE/STAKES: Student writers should be able to adopt a confident and distinct authorial voice, so that readers understand that an author is responsible for the text's many decisions (from choice of subject matter, to research path, to conclusions drawn, to writing style -- which may include narrative, objective, poetic, and other forms of art historical "voice").

Menu of Grading Criteria Used in Art History Courses

DESCRIPTION: Where specific works of art are investigated in isolation or otherwise used as a source of evidence, the text includes careful and detailed descriptions, so that:

#1: Readers can clearly see and appreciate key observations related to the work.

#2: Readers can clearly follow the writer's steps from observation, to analysis, to conclusion.

HISTORICAL CONTEXTUALIZATION: The text includes accurate and richly detailed historical contexts for art objects, historical actors, ideas, and/or events, so that:

#3: the conclusions offered are historical in nature, related to a chronological narrative of change-over-time and/or claims to period specificity.

#4: the conclusions offered are not based on (or not based only on) subjective opinion.

INQUIRY: The text explains its area of inquiry, so that:

#5: the reader can discern the nature of the conclusions offered (e.g., a report on already-known information and/or ideas; a new interpretation of already-known information and/or ideas; a contribution of new information and/or ideas.)

#6: the reader understands the decisions behind the research conducted.

RESEARCH: The text reports on, synthesizes, and contributes to some combination of primary, secondary, and/or theoretical textual sources, as well as non-textual sources, e.g., images, objects, buildings, films, or performances, so that:

#7: the conclusions offered are based on evidence.

#8: the conclusions offered draw from and build upon a variety of resources.

ARGUMENT:

#9: The text includes an articulate and persuasive argument, so that readers know early on what to expect and why it matters.                                                              

ORGANIZATION/CLARITY:

#10: The text is organized in a logical manner, so that readers can follow a lucid historical account and a consistent train of thought.                                   

ANALYSIS/SYNTHESIS:                                                                 

#11: The text develops and fully prosecutes an argument throughout, so that the presentation of all forms of evidence (e.g., historical information, visual observation, analysis of existing literature) clearly relates to and further develops the core thesis.                                                

VOICE/STAKES:                                                                

#12: The text is written in a confident and distinct authorial voice, so that readers understand that an author is responsible for the text's many decisions (from choice of subject matter, to research path, to conclusions drawn, to writing style - which may include narrative, objective, poetic, and other forms of authorial "voice")                                                           

CITATIONS:                                                                        

#13: The text includes professional citation practices (typically in the Chicago Manual of Style format), so that readers can trust the veracity of the information presented and know how to retrace the researcher's steps.                              

MECHANICS:                                                                    

#14: The text includes minimal grammatical and spelling errors (through proofreading and self-editing) so that content is not obscured by distracting mechanical mistakes.

Highlights from the Writing Plan

After conducting research into the sequencing of courses in the major, the forms of writing instruction offered in specific courses in the curriculum, and the paths taken by Art History majors through that curriculum, the department decided both to offer more writing resources to students through a Moodle site (which it has continually updated and revised) and to redesign its major project course. It has worked to transform that class from a 1-credit independent study to a standing 3-credit writing-intensive "capstone" class with explicit goals, discipline-specific writing instruction, and a final public presentation of student research. Now, each semester, an award jury, which includes faculty, museum professionals, and staff from the Center for Writing, awards a prize to a paper written in this course.

As articulated in its third-edition Writing Plan, these efforts have already been enormously beneficial. At the most fundamental level, they have raised writing instruction to prominence in faculty discussions about curriculum, pedagogy, and undergraduate advisement. They have provided a mechanism for reviewing and sometimes revising habits and procedures that had become obscured over time. Significantly, they have also increased awareness among our community of majors about our goals and expectations for writing in the discipline. Signaling our shared commitment to improving not only writing skills, but also our undergraduates' individual success—both in their coursework and in their professional lives after graduation—has gone a long way toward fomenting a stronger undergraduate community in art history.

For its third-edition Writing Plan, approved by the Campus Writing Board in Fall 2017, Art History has identified three key goals: (1) Maintaining support for its revamped Senior capstone project; (2) supporting writing instruction more intentionally at all levels of its curriculum; and (3) developing its teaching resources for faculty.