Program Overview

Master of Arts (MA)
in Art History


General Requirements 
for the Degree:

• 30 units taken in graduate standing, including four seminars;
• comprehensive exam;
• foreign language exam (reading comprehension);
• thesis or project

Planning Your M.A. Program in Art History and Visual Culture

A short synopsis of the program given in reverse order to help you see how the parts fit together:


Thesis or Project (3-6 units of the 30 required for the program) completed to the approval of your thesis/project committee of three persons including at least two Art History faculty members, one of whom must be Prof. Bowen or Grindstaff or Simonson.  Ordinarily you would ask faculty members with special expertise in your area of interest, usually faculty members from whom you have taken one or more classes, to serve on your committee.  It is the student’s responsibility to form a thesis committee.  Faculty must approve the thesis topic, agree to serve on the thesis committee, and approve the final thesis draft: without such agreement and approval, a student is unable to complete the degree.  For this reason, you will want to get to know the faculty.


Before you sign up for your thesis or project units, you need to be advanced to candidacy, and before you are finished with the thesis, you need to file for graduation.  The Art & Design Graduate Office helps you with the paperwork for these two steps, and you will need to be aware of campus deadlines for graduation filing.  The advancement to candidacy form asks you to list the 30 units that you will be using for the degree.


You need to file for graduation early during the semester in which you plan to finish. You need to file the Grad Studies advancement to candidacy form early in the semester prior to the one in which you plan to graduate (by October 1 for May graduation).  View current deadlines for more information.


In order to be advanced to candidacy and to form a thesis/project committee you need to have completed both parts of the Comprehensive Exam and also the Foreign Language Exam and you need to have a thesis/project proposal form (signed by your committee members.  The thesis/project proposal form enables you to obtain the add code needed for registration in ART 299 (thesis).  You may have a good idea of your proposed thesis topic when you apply to the program; more likely, you will not know what you wish to work on, and your topic will evolve from interests you discover while taking seminars and/or from talking with faculty members and fellow students.  Again, you are going to want to get to know both the faculty AND your colleagues.  You may wish to explore a potential thesis topic by enrolling in an ARTH 291, special independent study course, and working independently with one faculty member.


Professional Responsibilities Requirement:  Although scholarship is sometimes perceived as a private activity conducted by an individual housed “in an ivory tower,” a contemporary commitment to art history, on the contrary, involves professional responsibilities and professional practice of the discipline that extend beyond the classroom setting. At SJSU such responsibilities would involve supporting the  program and, specifically, events sponsored by your student organization, the AHA, by attending the symposium, for example, and also by exchanging ideas about your own work about current issues in the discipline. Other practices could include museum memberships, membership in the College Art Association and affiliated professional societies, travel to exhibitions, proposing papers to conferences, working (for example, for the VRC or as a reader or graduate assistant) or completing an internship (for example, at a museum) and comparable “résumé-building” activities. The format for reporting on your practice is a comprehensive résumé to be provided to the faculty at the time of the first-year review and again at the time of taking Part II of the Comprehensive Exam and advancing to candidacy for the degree. 


May Review (“first-year” or “first-semester” review):  Faculty and students dedicate the first Friday in May to public discussion of student progress through the degree program—with time also for faculty to share news of their current professional work and areas of expertise. The purposes here are, again, to extend the professional practice of Art History beyond the usual classroom setting and to develop our scholarly community. In advance of the May Review, all currently-enrolled students will be asked to provide a short portfolio containing examples of current papers and a current résumé for a faculty review. On the day of the review first-year students (and those who have not previously introduced their work to the faculty as a whole) will be asked to give a brief presentation of their current work and to discuss preliminary ideas for the thesis and/or about the intended area of specialization.


The Foreign Language Exam is an hour-long reading comprehension test: you will be given a passage in the relevant language of your choice and have an hour (with dictionary, if you wish) to write out a translation of as much of the passage as possible into English. A written translation requires a degree of precision that you would not necessarily need for the casual reading of journal articles in your research; the purpose of this exam is to ensure that students will be able to access needed information and to interpret it accurately. Unless you are already fluent in the language you will need for your research, you should initiate practice of your language as soon as admitted to the program; most graduate programs require French or German due to the extensive scholarship conducted in these languages. Grad students receive no units for lower-division language (or other) study, so the length of time you spend in the program may depend in part on your language preparation. You can schedule this exam through the Art History Advisor at any time during any semester and may retake the exam twice if necessary.


The Comprehensive Exam is ordinarily given at the beginning of each semester. This is a two-part exam, and you will probably take the parts in different semesters.  The first part of the exam examines your broad knowledge of western art—from ancient through contemporary. We expect you to take Part I of the exam at the beginning of your second semester of study in classified status. In preparation for this exam, you will probably want to select upper-division and seminar courses that “fill in the gaps” in your knowledge.  Part II of the exam will consist of essay questions based on your thesis proposal. Confer with the Art History Graduate Advisor for more information than is given here.


The 30 units of your program must include four seminars (ARTH 291 may be substituted for one of these seminars).  If you are specializing in contemporary art, you will want to consider ART 282A/B (listed under ART, not ARTH, in the Schedule of Classes), courses in Contemporary Art and Theory for two of your seminars. Ordinarily two ARTH seminars are offered each semester, and these may not necessarily be in areas of your specialization.  You will want to talk to faculty about possible seminar topics and to plan your program around them.


Each April, the Art History (student) Association puts on a Symposium, inviting graduate and advanced undergraduate students from CSU and other California campuses to give professional papers. You may wish to polish a seminar paper for this exciting venue.

Additionally, we strongly recommend that all graduate students without a strong background in contemporary theory enroll in ARTH 175, “Theory of Art History and Criticism.” We anticipate teaching ARTH 277, “Methodology and Historiography of Art History,” on a regular basis, beginning in Fall 2007 and requiring that course for graduate students entering the program in 2007-8; ARTH 175 is the recommended prerequisite.

You may wish to apply for an Art History Scholarship (usually about $200-800; information/application from the Fine Arts secretary) or to serve as a Teaching Assistant to Prof. Cohen (talk to her about this) or Graduate Assistant (reading papers and exams: application from the Graduate Secretary).

Nine units of the thirty units listed on your Advancement to Candidacy form may be taken, while you are in graduate standing, from “outside” Art & Design.  If you are interested in taking classes in History, Women’s Studies, Comparative Religious Studies, Near Eastern Studies, etc., you will want to find out when those classes will be offered.  You may ask an “outside” (not Art History) faculty member to serve on your thesis committee, ordinarily as a fourth member of the committee.

Back to the beginning: At first, you will take courses because they interest you, because they are available, because they help you to prepare for the comprehensive exams, because you would like to work with a given faculty member. Please plan to meet at least once with the Art History Graduate Advisor during your first semester, however, and to develop at least a tentative plan for your graduate career at SJSU.