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Foreign Language Exam

Because you must pass the Foreign Language Exam in order to Advance to Candidacy and register for thesis units, passing the Foreign Language exam should be among your first priorities as you begin graduate study.  (Passing Part I of the Comprehensive Exam should be your other priority; see below.)

The requirement of proficiency in reading a language other than English has both a practical purpose and an intellectual one.  You will be expected to use the language in your research for seminars and for the thesis.  Additionally, scholarship in art history is multilingual: developing language skills is an essential step towards being a part of the discipline’s intellectual community.  Students are required to demonstrate reading/translation competency in a language appropriate to their area of specialization.  This may be accomplished through an exam given by an Art History faculty member or through certification by the Department of Foreign Languages.  Please make arrangements with the Art History Graduate Advisor about a month before you wish to take the exam.  The exam given in Art & Design consists of a scholarly art historical passage which you are to translate (with the aid of a dictionary if needed).  A passing score results from your being able to translate at least a half page without making significant grammatical or other errors of translation.  The exam may be repeated twice if necessary.  The exam must be passed before the student may be advanced to candidacy and register for thesis units, but we recommend that it be passed as early as possible.  Note: if you plan to apply to a Ph.D. program, please understand that most programs expect you to pass sophisticated reading/translation exams in both French and German at entrance, although some cases another European or Asian language may be substituted for French.  If you have not yet acquired a foreign language, French and German are the recommended choices.

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Comprehensive Exams

Because you must pass the Comprehensive Exams in order to Advance to Candidacy and register for thesis units, passing Part I should be among your first priorities as you begin graduate study.  (Passing the Foreign Language Exam should be your other priority; see above.)

Recommended Reading Lists 

Preparation for the Part I slide identification will include a 25-30-title Recommended Reading List covering the seven broad areas of the Western survey and selected by the faculty member(s) who cover these periods.  Each area (Ancient, Medieval, Italian and Northern Renaissance, Baroque-Rococo-Neoclassical, Early American, Modern, and Contemporary-Theory) will be represented by one book that presents an overarching survey and two indicating the depth of specialized studies within it.  An additional bibliography of standard and specialized texts within each area will be made available to students both to give them a more complete sense of a given field and to aid in preparing for the Part II of the revised Comprehensive exam.

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Comprehensive Part I: Slide Exam
(to be taken no later than end of the second semester) 

Purpose: The M.A. in Art History is a degree that prepares one for community college teaching and for more advanced work at the Ph.D. level.  Either of these endeavors requires basic familiarity with characteristic monuments within the Western canon and with standard texts for each of the broad areas of the Western survey.  Award of the M.A. signals both such breadth of knowledge and also possession of the analytical skills needed to discuss objects and articulate relevant issues.

Format: Ten slides will be shown for ten minutes apiece, and students will identify by period style, relevant dates, function and patronage (and possibly other points) and write a concise essay demonstrating what they know about works of Western art.  Baseline measures of student knowledge will be determined through inclusion of two well-known works and seven to eight secondary works that clearly demonstrate the defining characteristics of their respective period styles, etc.; these works will derive directly from the Recommended Reading List.  The exam may also include an anomalous image that students will likely not be able to identify for the purpose of evaluating deductive reasoning on the basis of formal elements. All faculty will read and evaluate these exams.  The tasks in each essay would be to:

  • Assign individual objects (experienced through slides) to major stylistic and cultural categories of a section of art history as laid out in the influential textbooks and including approximate date (within 20 years either side) and location of artistic production;
  • Present a convincing argument about why the piece belongs in that category based on: (a) a competent visual analysis that recognizes stylistic components in the object that are characteristic of the period; and (b) comparison to relevant works of art (perhaps two) from the period;
  • Discuss the object intelligently and recognize its intrinsic interest.  Such discussion would demonstrate: (a) a general understanding of the function of the piece in its original cultural context; (b) a good understanding of the “context” of the piece, including a basic ability to discuss relevant historical, literary, social and/or religious content; and (c) ability to recognize important visual and/or theoretical issues that a piece might raise.
  • Any answer should be well-written with grammatically correct English (with some flexibility extended to non-native speakers), good vocabulary, and discipline-appropriate language.   

Part I essays will be read and evaluated by all (or as many as possible) members of the Art History faculty and the scores averaged.  Points for each slide essay will be assigned within a range of 0 to 10, where 10 signifies an excellent essay, 9 good, 8-7 satisfactory, and 6 and below not satisfactory.  Evaluations will be based on the following:

  • Accuracy of assignment of the piece to a stylistic category;
  • Quality of the argument; relevance of comparisons;
  • Demonstration of an understanding of the object itself and the issues it raises (including but not limited to general cultural awareness, understanding of content, ability to articulate relevant “issues” surrounding its production and use;
  • Ability to understand and discuss the object in thematic and/or comparative ways;
  • English competence and use of discipline-appropriate language.

Passing is 70%.  The exam may be repeated once—in the following semester.  Please note that a student who does not pass on the second attempt will not be permitted to continue in the program.

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Comprehensive Part II

Preliminary Thesis Prospectus Submission

A thesis proposes an answer to a question.  The answer takes the form of an argument, customarily broken down into a series of chapters which present the evidence for the writer’s thesis.  The argument and the evidence, based on research and reflection, are not likely to be obvious to you when you first decide upon a “thesis topic.”  The first stage of writing a thesis (or any significant essay, for that matter) requires the writer to identify a question to be researched and also to identify the most congenial method for addressing the question.  Does responding to this question, for example, seem to demand an argument based on gender theory, or semiotics, or social contextualist study? 

Probably your initial ideas about a thesis will involve identifying a “topic,” one which might be securely situated within a historical period or perhaps one which crosses historical and/or cultural boundaries.  And you are likely to begin with a rather broad range of approaches to the topic.  Before you can suitably narrow your focus on a specific question and develop a theoretical or methodological approach that will help you answer this question, however, you will probably want to discuss your preliminary ideas with several members of the faculty and certainly to familiarize yourself with the standard works that are germane to your proposed topic (perhaps another 10 books and significant articles, some of which will probably be those be listed on the Part II Recommended Reading List).

As soon as you have a reasonably clear idea of where you are headed, you will need (a) to set up a prospective (pre-thesis) committee for the next step and (b) to submit a preliminary thesis prospectus to this faculty group.  Your Part II comprehensive exam will be based on your thesis prospectus: it is a pre-thesis exam.  

The sequence of required steps as you move through the program is relatively straightforward:

  • pass Comprehensive Exam Part I;
  • obtain approval and pre-thesis committee signatures on a preliminary thesis prospectus (discussions with committee ok before Part I passed, but no signatures or prior approval of prospectus);
  • receive Part II study questions and bibliography from pre-thesis committee (up to 3-4 weeks after prospectus approved);
  • pass Part II (and allow 1-2 weeks for committee to read the exam);
  • file Advancement to Candidacy forms (also requires passing the language exam and must be completed no later than the semester prior to the semester in which you plan to graduate);
  • register for thesis units (ART 299, or ART 297A/B for a project, prior to the “add deadline” for a given semester).  

The timing of your moving through these steps, however, will require some careful planning.  In order to proceed with preparation for the pre-thesis exam you will need to form a pre-thesis committee that supports you and your project and that includes three members of the art history faculty. (The pre-thesis committee, like the eventual thesis committee, will need to include Bowen, Grindstaff, Raynsford, or Simonson amongst its members.)  Your pre-thesis committee members will evaluate the documents that you provide and may indeed require you to re-write your prospectus one or more times before accepting it.  In this respect, you should be advised that although faculty would like to support you and probably will, they are under no obligation to approve your prospectus or to serve on your pre-thesis or thesis committee.

We would like to suggest that you begin talking with faculty while your ideas are in the formative stage, before you have a finished prospectus.  Indeed you may begin thesis conversations with faculty as soon as you enter the M.A. program.  Before proceeding further, however, you must first pass Part I of the comprehensive exams. 

The Thesis Prospectus should include

  • a working title,
  • a reasonably clear, brief outline of the project,
  • a thesis statement,
  • brief and preliminary chapter summaries and/or possibly chapters in progress,
  • and the start of an annotated bibliography.  

On the basis of your prospectus, the Art History faculty who have agreed to serve on your thesis committee will need to meet and to develop specific questions for your pre-thesis exam and to suggest additional readings that may help you prepare.  Because art history is inherently interdisciplinary, such readings may include standard works from other disciplines, such as anthropology, culture studies, history, and, almost certainly, standard works of contemporary theory as well as the basic art history titles that are fundamental to your proposed area of study.  For example, a thesis on French eighteenth-century furniture would require a broad understanding of the eighteenth century itself and an awareness of current critical writing about this subject from a number of disciplinary and/or theoretical perspectives.  You should expect a delay of three to four weeks between obtaining signatures on your prospectus and receiving Part II study questions from your pre-thesis committee; please plan accordingly. Once you have received the questions, you and your committee should plan the date of the exam, in conference with the Visual Resource Center curator.

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Pre-Thesis Exam   

Purpose: The advantage of a pre-thesis exam over an exam with broad, general questions is its immediate relevance to your proposed study: faculty can evaluate the depth of a student's knowledge before the student embarks on independent thesis hours, and any weaknesses or deficiencies can be identified and addressed.  

Please anticipate that it may require your pre-thesis committee from four to six weeks before they can provide you with a list of 6-8 questions from which two will be selected for the pre-thesis exam.  At the time of discussing the questions, you and your pre-thesis committee should set a date for the exam.   You will not be able to register for thesis units until your exam has been evaluated by your committee, a process that is likely to take 1-2 weeks, so you should pay attention to the “add deadline” for the semester in which you plan to register for the thesis. 

At the time of setting the date for the exam, the following need to be filed with the art history graduate advisor (Simonson):

  • preliminary thesis prospectus
  • study questions and extended bibliography
  • signatures of three art history faculty members in support of the proposal

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Essay Description

For the Part II exam, your pre-thesis committee will provide you with two short lists of questions.  One set of questions will examine the breadth and depth of your understanding of the proposed area of study.  The other set of questions will ask you to focus on issues related to the theoretical issues underlying your proposed approach to the project.  A thesis dealing with fifteenth-century Flemish portraits, for example, might propose to use semiotics or iconographical strategies or might otherwise examine relationships between paintings, based upon dendrochronological analysis of the wooden panels.  If this were the case, then one list of questions would perhaps be based on your having a thorough understanding of late 14th-century and 15th-century Northern Renaissance art and the other list of questions would assume that you had an equally thorough understanding of the theoretical and scientific methods pertinent to your study.  Your proposed approach as well as your proposed topic should generate not only possible exam questions but also suggestions for pertinent reading. 

For the Part II exam your committee will select questions, one from each of your lists, and ask you to write out responses to these essay prompts for approximately one hour each.  (Two hours total.)   Essays will be available to be read by all faculty but will be evaluated on a pass/fail basis (with pass a maximum 100% through a minimum 70% score) by your pre-thesis committee.

  • Quality of the argument; 
  • Reasonably comprehensive understanding of the field and/or historical period most pertinent to the proposed thesis topic, as demonstrated by the ability to articulate issues related to cultural production in that period and to explain the critical positions of prominent scholars who have written about it;
  • Working knowledge of relevant theoretical writings and a demonstrated understanding of how to apply critical methods to the proposed topic of research;
  • Preliminary understanding of how the proposed thesis will contribute to the area;
  • English competence and use of discipline-appropriate language.

The exam may be repeated once—in the following semester.  A student who does not pass on the second attempt will not be permitted to continue in the program.

Because the exam is made available for the entire Art History faculty to read (and any art history faculty members may provide their evaluations to the pre-thesis committee members directly), the results on your exam may take up to two weeks to announce. If the committee decides that you have not passed the exam, you will be permitted to retake the exam during the following semester.  If you are still unable to pass, you will not be permitted to register for thesis units and to complete the M.A.

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Candidacy and the Thesis Process

Advancement to Candidacy papers should be filed as soon as you completed Part II of the Comprehensive Exam (and also the Foreign Language Exam).  Visit GAPE for online forms.

Please note the deadlines carefully: approximately March 1 for December graduation and October 1 for May graduation.  The “Departmental Request for Candidacy” form asks you to list the 30 units that make up the coursework for the M.A. degree.  These units must include the three to six units of ART 299 that you are planning to take, and they must include the required graduate seminars.  In case you have additional units, in excess of the required 30, then you may decide what to include.  (Lower-division courses, those numbered 1-99, do not count for graduate credit.)  This form needs to be typed and to be signed by the Art History Program Coordinator and the Art Grad Advisor; Deborah Wijas needs a copy for her files, and the original goes to Graduate Study.  Please be sure that you retain a copy of this form—and also of all other official paperwork—for yourself.

The form will ask about the date when you exchanged “Conditionally Classified” for “Classified” status and will also ask about your satisfying the “Written Communications” requirement.  If you were admitted to Art History as a conditionally classified student (probably because you had not completed 24 or more upper-division units at the time of admission), then the form is asking for the semester in which you were fully classified (via the “Change of Classification” form signed by the Art History Graduate Advisor): this form indicates the semester when the courses in which you register begin to count towards the 30-unit graduation requirement.  “Competency in Written English” corresponds to an undergraduate general education requirement shared by CSU campuses which is also required of graduate students.  If you graduated from a CSU, then you have automatically satisfied this requirement (probably by ART 100W at SJSU); if not, then you wish to check the Graduate Studies website for the approved list of courses (see: art history seminars) which meet the requirement.

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Register for ART 299 (thesis) units

The add code for ART 299 will be supplied by Deborah Wijas when you have these:

  • Copy of your signed Advancement to Candidacy petition “Departmental Request for Candidacy” form;
  • Copy of the 299 form signed by all members of your thesis committee (probably your pre-thesis committee and perhaps an additional member from outside the school or university.

These can both be found on the Forms section of the Art & Art History Website.

thesis is generally considered to be a scholarly paper and is read (and subject to approval) by a representative of SJSU’s Graduate Studies Office, once fully approved by your committee.  A project is another M.A. option and one generally reserved for students who are curating and then documenting an exhibition and/or working on a curriculum or similar project not entirely suited to essay form.  The decision about whether you register for ART 299 (thesis) or for 3-6 units of ART 297A/B (project) is one made by your pre-thesis committee at the time you are initially discussing your proposed work with faculty.

Few students complete the thesis in one semester, and an incomplete grade is automatically filed by the Art Graduate Advisor (the instructor of record for all 297, 298, 299 courses) if there is no evidence for the work’s being finished in a given semester.  Ensuring that the incomplete is cleared and resubmitted as a “credit” grade will be one of the tasks that accompanies filing of the thesis.

Please note that a project (for which you have registered in 297B units) is not filed with Graduate Studies and customarily uses the formatting and other guidelines provided by the Art Graduate Office (Deborah Wijas), rather than those generated by Graduate Studies.

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Candidate Status

Once considered a candidate for the degree, you are not required to register while working on your thesis. You retain library privileges if a statement about your candidacy (from the Art History Graduate Advisor) is on file at the Circulation Desk at King Library.  And you are invited, even expected, to participate in Art History and Visual Culture activities, such as the annual symposium, as if you were a registered student.  Especially because most students experience an abrupt transition from “classmate” to “thesis-writer,” you are strongly encouraged to be in regular communication with your fellow thesis-writers and also with the members of your committee.

Your committee will ordinarily be composed of three faculty members.  Bowen or Grindstaff or Simonson needs to serve as chair of your committee, and at least one other committee member, preferably two, needs to be an art historian at SJSU.  An “outside” committee member (not a faculty member in Art & Design or at SJSU) would ordinarily be a fourth person on your committee.  Please note that faculty members have the option of declining to serve on a committee and may also resign from a committee; similarly, you may re-constitute your committee, if necessary, although it will still need to correspond to the basic structure just outlined.

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Working with Art History and Visual Culture + Art + Graduate Studies

At the time you apply for candidacy (file the “Department Request for Candidacy” form with Graduate Studies, you should become increasingly aware the M.A. degree requires you to pay attention to rules and procedures governing Art History, the Department of Art & Art History and also the university.  You will want to meet regularly with the Art & Art History Advisor and also to familiarize yourself with the Graduate Studies website and to heed the posted deadlines for filing forms and your thesis.

Thesis Guidelines for Art History, a separate handout, makes suggestions for working with your committee during the writing process and introduces some of the formatting and procedural issues to be addressed when preparing your manuscript and securing illustrations.  You will also need to obtain the university’s official Thesis Guide.

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Apply for Graduation

The “Application for Award of Master's Degree” form (Graduation Application) is due to the Graduate Studies office early in the semester in which you plan to graduate.  For the form and more information, visit GAPE. You will want to submit the application for graduation before you have your committee’s full approval of your thesis.

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Thesis Submission to Graduate Studies

Please pay attention to Graduate Studies’ deadlines and instructions for submitting your thesis.  The thesis will need to be fully formatted (a time-consuming process) and you will need to have a title page signed by all members of your committee.  You probably want to include photocopies rather than originals of your illustrations just in case there are further corrections to be made to your text before you number the illustration pages. Graduate Studies assumes that the thesis will be thoroughly proof-read and letter-perfect when submitted to them.  Minor errors will be indicated on a correction sheet returned to you with the thesis; more than a few minor errors will result in having the thesis returned to you for repair and resubmission in the following semester.

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“Culminating Experience” (Oral Examination) Meeting

You need to arrange a meeting of your full committee to complete the university’s requirement for an Culminating Experience/Oral Examination.  This meeting can take place either before or after you have the manuscript turned in to the Graduate Studies office.  The format for this exam is determined by your committee but will typically be a meeting of the entire committee (and possibly other interested faculty and students) of approximately one hour in length.  You will be expected to speak knowledgeably on such topics as the relationship between your work and contemporary approaches to Art History, to discuss the historical and bibliographical sources for your work, and to critique the work with some degree of objectivity.  Once this requirement has been satisfactorily completed, your thesis or project committee chairman should sign the Comprehensive Examination form, available in the Art Graduate office, and you should return this signed form to that office.

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Thesis/Project Binding and Submission of Copies

Thesis/project reports are usually bound at the Associated Students Print Shop.  This process takes about ten working days to complete.  One copy of the thesis or project is kept in the Art Graduate Office for future reference.  An additional copy of a thesis (but not a project) must be submitted to SJSU Library.  As a courtesy, you may also wish to ask your committee members if they would like copies (not necessarily bound).  At the time that the bound copy is provided to the Art Graduate Office, you want to be sure to provide a signed copy of the Completion Of Thesis/Project form (attached as the last page of the Thesis Guide for Art History) to the Art & Design Graduate Advisor: once that form is received, the Grad Advisor (the faculty of record for ART 299) will change your grade for the thesis to “credit.”

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Graduate…

SJSU holds commencement ceremonies once each year.  Please visit the

Commencement guide for further information.  Additionally, there is regularly a separate ceremony for the Department of Art & Art History.  These are joyous occasions.  You—and also your family and friends—will want to attend!

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