Independent Study / Senior Thesis

Independent Study in Art History

You may request to undertake independent work in your Junior or Senior year, either as ARTH 295 or ARTH 395. A maximum of eight credits of such work can be elected during your career at Mount Holyoke. A 3.5 GPA in Art History is required for 395. A 295 project is equivalent to one of the Department’s 200-level courses that are explorations of some aspect of Art History. A 395 project is equivalent to one of the Department’s advanced seminars and requires significant research and a lengthy term project. A 395 project must be preceded by or take place at the same time as a 300-level seminar in Art History.

To initiate a 295 or 395 Independent Study, you should contact a faculty member with whom you wish to work. This optimally needs to be done during the advising/registration period of the semester before the intended independent study. You will need to secure a faculty member’s permission to proceed.

The Art History Thesis

Highly motivated students may work on a thesis in their senior year if they have an adequate background, a viable topic, at least a 3.0 GPA overall, and a 3.5 GPA in Art History. A thesis is a demanding, long-term research project that culminates in a cohesive and lengthy set of chapters on a concentrated topic. It is not a track within Art History; it is not a requirement of the major; and it is not a prerequisite for graduate study.

Students who wish to undertake a thesis should plan to enroll in ARTH 395f or an equivalent capstone course in the Fall semester and ARTH 395s in the Spring. The year-long project culminates in a written thesis and an oral examination. To receive the designation “Honors,” the text must be recognized by your project supervisor as of thesis quality, and then, at the end of second semester, be judged worthy of Honors by an Honors Committee and the Department of Art History. Until that point, it should be understood that you are working on an independent study project with the intention of it being considered eventually for Honors, and the project remains an independent study until it is accepted by the supervisor, the examining committee, and the Department as Honors work. If the project does not culminate in Honors, it is recorded as independent work.

A thesis topic is shaped by a student in conversation with a supervisor who is a faculty member of the Department. The topic should focus upon a question or an issue that can be adequately addressed over the nine months of the academic year. It should be a subject that you care about, that will sustain your interest, that will take you on numerous paths of inquiry, including into primary and secondary literature, and that will allow for an argument to be mounted and defended. Merely exploring a topic is not sufficient.

Keep in mind that this is an independent study, and that a supervisor’s job is to aid in the study, not to teach the subject. A supervisor will discuss readings and help strategize the development of ideas, the direction of research, and the improvement of argument. A supervisor will read and comment critically—sometimes very critically—on chapter drafts. But remember, this is your project, and it will be your responsibility to direct yourself. Only your own initiative, motivation, and hard work will lead to success.


  1. A potential thesis project must be discussed with a member of the faculty, at the latest during the advising period of the previous Spring semester. If your topic is acceptable, you should register for ARTH 395f or an equivalent capstone course and develop a plan for summer work on laying the foundations for research. Typically, that would be reading and taking notes, as well as shaping the scope of the project.
  2. Within one week of the first day of Fall classes, the Department requires you to submit a two-to-three page project proposal (both electronically and on paper) to the instructor of ARTH 395f or the capstone seminar. The proposal should include a working title, description of the project, the questions that will be addressed, your methods in addressing them (how you will proceed), and an annotated bibliography. A transcript should be attached to the paper copy. The prospectus will be circulated among the Department faculty. If the Department gives the project the green light, you will begin meeting individually with your specific supervisor. You and your supervisor will develop a timetable for research during the Fall. If the Department does not approve the project, you should consult with your advisor about an alternative course.
  3. In mid-November, you will be asked to present the project to the faculty. By the week after Thanksgiving break, you need to submit to your supervisor a self-assessment that details the project and your sense of its importance, the status of the research to date, the outline of the chapters, and the timeline for the Spring semester. Evaluating the presentation and self-assessment, the Department will decide by the end of the Examination Period whether you may proceed for a second semester. There are many reasons a project may end: the topic was not viable, research materials were too difficult to locate, issues were too broad or narrow to allow a reasonable thesis, ideas were not cohering, prospects of excellence were in doubt, the student lost interest, etc. If the project is approved and the student goes on, she registers for ARTH 395s.
  4. In the second semester, the project should be completed. It should be at a higher critical standard than seminar papers. It should encompass three to five chapters, number between 50 and 100 pages in text length, exclusive of the accompanying scholarly apparatus of footnotes and bibliography. Rules for margins, footnotes, paper, fonts, etc. are available from the College (see guidelines). A final draft is due no later than two weeks before the end of classes. Your supervisor will determine, in consultation with the Department, whether the project is sufficient in length, depth, quality, and originality to be considered a thesis. If it is determined that it is not to be considered for Honors, then you will receive a grade for ARTH 395s.
  5. If it is determined that it will be considered for Honors, an examining committee of at least three faculty will be formed, in consultation with you and your supervisor. At least one faculty member will come from another department. The student will need to get the thesis to the members of the committee in a timely fashion. A two-hour meeting of the committee will be scheduled during exam. A public event, this “defense” is more like a conversation than an examination. Immediately following the meeting, the committee will evaluate the written paper and the oral discussion of it and determine whether the thesis is worthy of Honors. If it is, the committee will recommend the level of Honors to the College’s Academic Advisory Board and you will receive a grade for ARTH 395s. If it is not, then you will just receive a grade for the course.