Independent Study / Senior Thesis

Independent study in art history

Students may request to undertake independent work in their junior or senior year, either as ARTH-295, ARTH-295p or ARTH-395. A maximum of eight credits of such work can be elected during one’s career at Mount Holyoke. 

An ARTH-295 project is equivalent to one of the department’s 200-level courses that are explorations of some aspect of art history. An ARTH-295p project, usually for two credits, is an elected follow-up to a practicum.

An ARTH-395 project is equivalent to one of the department’s advanced seminars and requires significant research and a lengthy term project. An ARTH-395 project must be preceded by or take place at the same time as a 300-level seminar in art history. It must be taken in addition to the two 300-level seminars required for the major. A 3.5 GPA in art history is also required for ARTH-395.

To initiate an ARTH-295 or ARTH-395 independent study, contact a faculty member with whom you wish to work. Optimally, this should 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. For an ARTH-395 course, a proposal must be vetted by the department.

The art history thesis

Highly motivated students may propose an independent study project on a concentrated topic 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. If the research project results in a cohesive and substantive exposition that is informed by rigorous research and that offers original conclusions, it may be submitted, with the approval of the department, as a thesis for defense by an examining committee. If successfully defended, the thesis is awarded the appropriate level of honors.

Every thesis is a demanding, long-term research project that begins as an independent study. It should be at a higher critical standard than a seminar paper. 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.

The faculty 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.

Thesis timetable

Spring semester, junior year

  1. An independent study with thesis potential is shaped in conversation with a faculty member in art history. This conversation should begin during the advising period of the previous spring semester. The topic should focus on a question or an issue that can be adequately addressed over the nine months of an 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.

Fall semester, senior year

  1. Students should plan to enroll in ARTH-395f (Independent Study) or an equivalent capstone course.
  2. Within one week of the first day of fall classes, a two-to-three page project proposal (prospectus) is submitted (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, the methods to be used in addressing them, and a descriptive 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, it will be necessary to develop a research timetable and begin meeting individually with your supervisor. If the department does not approve the project, consult with your academic advisor about an alternative course.
  3. By Thanksgiving Break, students should submit a self-assessment, detailing the project and its importance, the status of the research to date, a comprehensive outline of the argument along with a bibliography, and the timeline for the Spring semester. After Thanksgiving, students will be asked to present their projects to the Department. 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, interest in the project waned, etc. If the project is not approved for a second semester, a grade will be entered for ARTH-395f.
  4. Should the project be approved for a second semester, the student would then sign up for ARTH-395s. 

Spring semester

  1. A decision is made after spring break on whether the year-long project will be advanced as a thesis. 
  2. To receive the honors designation, the final result of the project must be a sustained and original argument and be recognized by the supervisor, the examining committee, and the art history department as of thesis quality. Until that point, it should be understood that it is an independent study, with the intention of being considered eventually for honors.
  3. 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 the student and supervisor. At least one faculty member must come from another department. 
  4. The student will deliver the completed thesis to all members of the committee two weeks before the end of classes and schedule a defense with the committee during the exam period. Rules for margins, footnotes, paper, fonts, etc. are available from the College (see guidelines). 
  5. Immediately following the defense meeting, the committee evaluates the thesis project to determine whether the thesis merits honors designation. If it is, the committee recommends the level of honors to the College’s Academic Advisory Board and awards a grade for both ARTH-395f and ARTH-395s. If it is not, then only grades for the two independent studies will be submitted.