The Majors

Performance at the senior art showThe department offers students different paths to explore the vital connection between visuality and creativity. With courses of study in the history of art and the practice of studio art (or a combination of history and practice), each major is designed to train students to develop the technical, conceptual, critical, and historical tools they need to engage the visual world.

Students majors follow one of three routes through the department—art history, studio art or history & practice—to complete ten courses and fulfill the major requirements as outlined on each page. Art history students take classes in Lawrence Hall, while studio art students work in the W. L. S. Spencer Studio Art Building.

For examples of what our majors have studied and created, visit our showcase of student work.Students studying art in the Rose Gallery at WCMAStudents studying art in the Rose Gallery at WCMA




Art Department Learning Goals – Answers to Accreditation Questions:

  • Other than grades, how do you determine whether your majors or concentrators are learning what you want them to learn, and are meeting the learning goals you’ve articulated?

The Art Department ensures that majors are learning what we want them to learn through the construction of our entire curriculum, a path that culminates in capstone courses for majors in both the art history and studio wings.

In the case of art history, the capstone is of two kinds. Majors must take at least one 400- or 500-level seminar and this course will inevitably involve students reading a wide range of scholarly texts and analyzing them verbally in a group setting, writing a lengthy research paper (15-20 pages or more), and presenting orally on their research. This combination of tasks means that they are developing skills of critical reading and writing, of primary and secondary art historical research, and of oral argumentation, at a more engaged and in-depth level than at any previous point in their progression through the major. Our especially ambitious and/or committed art history majors can also apply for our honors thesis seminar, ARTH 494 (this is in addition to the other seminar experience). This course – held in the spring semester each year – involves students developing an existing research project to a new level of clarity, rigor, and interpretive depth. The seminar itself is preceded by a winter study term during which the students involved continue their research and formulate both a more refined thesis and a plan of action for completing the project. Only after this work has been evaluated by a committee of art history faculty are students accepted into the seminar proper. At the end of the year, furthermore, students present their research publicly at a daylong symposium – in the form of a written paper with visuals. This gives our majors the experience of explaining their work orally and fielding questions – crucial skills to develop if they are planning to continue on in academic or curatorial work. On the basis of their work in the seminar, participating majors are given high honors, honors, or no honors by the seminar instructor. The instructor makes this decision in consultation with the students’ thesis advisors and other Art faculty.

Our studio majors, in turn, must take the capstone senior tutorial (ARTS 418). This course also takes place every year in the spring semester. Studio majors develop a project in winter study of their senior year. At the end of winter study, they present what they have accomplished to-date – as well as a plan of action for the spring semester – to a panel of Art faculty. The students then use the critical feedback of that experience to sharpen, expand, enrich, or redirect their creative projects, which can involve any medium or combination of media (including but not limited to performance, film and video, photography, computer graphics, sculpture, painting, printmaking, and drawing). Students then produce a body of creative work that derives from all of the work they have done to that point during their time at Williams, but to a new level of depth, finish, and expansiveness – both conceptually and in terms of craft. Majors then display this finished work publicly, as part of a year-end senior exhibition at WCMA. This is an extraordinary opportunity for our majors to explore what is involved and what is possible in a career as an exhibiting artist and to develop skills related to such a career. Majors must then present their work to another panel of Art instructors – involving the entire studio faculty – in the form of individual public crits, and so must develop the important skill as well of talking about their work. Based on this defense of their work, majors will be assigned high honors, honors, or no honors.

Students, in senior exit interviews and other contexts, have expressed their enthusiasm for the curriculum we have in place, including our capstone experiences. If they have had criticisms, they have been along the lines of asking us for a more diverse array of courses (in terms of global coverage – because we used to be a Eurocentric department; and in terms of media coverage – because we used to be focused on the traditional media of drawing, painting, and sculpture), more diversity in our faculty, and greater flexibility of our requirements to allow students to forge their own way more readily through our major.

  • In the last ten years, have you made changes in your curriculum or requirements that were prompted by your reflections on the kinds of questions listed in [1] above?

The Art Department has attempted to construct the rest of its curriculum – again in both the art history and studio wings – to support the capstone experiences of our majors (at the same time that it also supports the needs and interests of the college as a whole). This is a project forever in process. That is, as a department, we have had years of conversations about our curriculum (reaching a peak as part of our preparation for a self-study, completed in 2015) and on the basis of those conversations we have continued to revise it (or rather them, as we really have two curricula, one in studio and one in art history). These revisions, as recently as this year, have also attempted to address the concerns of students mentioned above (concerns that were reiterated by the external reviewers of our self-study). Specifically, we continue to work hard to diversify our faculty and to expand the scope of what we teach, in terms both of global coverage (in art history) and medium coverage (in studio).

In art history, the curriculum is organized to allow students to move from a broad-scope survey experience, at the 100 level, to more focused surveys at the 200 level, to more reading-, discussion-, writing- and research-oriented courses at the 300 level (tutorials and our methods course required of all majors) and 400 level (seminars); indeed, many of these upper-level courses are writing intensive. In recent years, we have expanded the number of our 100-level offerings to include a survey of African art and architecture (ARTH 104), to go along with surveys of European and American art and architecture (ARTH 101 and 102, both of which have been completely redesigned in recent years) and Asian art and architecture (ARTH 103). What is more, we have changed the requirements of our major, so that students now have the flexibility to take any three of these four introductory surveys. Our major is also designed to make sure students get both exposure to the conceptual underpinnings of the discipline (through our required methods course, ARTH 301) and experience with research and in-depth analytical writing (through the required 400- or 500-level seminar). Other than that, we have worked to allow students maximum flexibility, requiring only that majors have some stretch in terms of temporal coverage (we require that all majors have at least one pre-1600 course and one post-1600 course). Our hope is that by expanding the global scope of required courses at the 100 level, our majors will develop interests in different art historical traditions on their own. This strategy has proven so far to be successful, as we currently have seniors working on research topics related to works of art situated around the world and through time.

In studio, the 100- and 200-level courses are intended to introduce students to a variety of media including drawing, architecture, painting, photography (digital and analogue), printmaking, sculpture, and video. 300-level courses (especially the required junior seminar, ARTS 319), and then the senior tutorial (ARTS 418) are then designed to help students apply the media-specific skills they have learned at the lower levels to larger conceptual/thematic issues and to develop their own creative (and potentially intermedia) visions. In recent years, the studio curriculum for its majors, like the art history curriculum for its majors, has been imbued with a greater flexibility (with fewer prerequisites) as well as a greater range of possibilities, in terms of the media covered. The hope is that the range of media coverage will expand even more in the next few years through the hiring of a tenure-track specialist in performance art as well as one in multiples and distributed art (an emerging field involving new digital and time-based media as well as performance).