The Department of Art History, in the College of Liberal Arts, has an 8-member full-time faculty and enrolls approximately 50 students as majors. Writing in this highly visual field is based on close observation and careful description of visual material (including works of fine art, popular culture, photographs, prints, films, architectural spaces, built environments, decorative arts, and illuminated manuscripts). Art historians also conduct research in primary and secondary sources to produce detailed historical narratives, offer new interpretative arguments, and think critically about the role of the visual arts in human societies around the world.
After conducting research into the sequencing of courses in the major, the forms of writing instruction offered in specific courses in the curriculum, and the paths taken by Art History majors through that curriculum, the department decided both to offer more writing resources to students through a Moodle site (which it has continually updated and revised) and to redesign its major project course. It has worked to transform that class from a 1-credit independent study to a standing 3-credit writing-intensive "capstone" class with explicit goals, discipline-specific writing instruction, and a final public presentation of student research. Now, each semester, an award jury, which includes faculty, museum professionals, and staff from the Center for Writing, awards a prize to a paper written in this course.
As articulated in its third-edition Writing Plan, these efforts have already been enormously beneficial. At the most fundamental level, they have raised writing instruction to prominence in faculty discussions about curriculum, pedagogy, and undergraduate advisement. They have provided a mechanism for reviewing and sometimes revising habits and procedures that had become obscured over time. Significantly, they have also increased awareness among our community of majors about our goals and expectations for writing in the discipline. Signaling our shared commitment to improving not only writing skills, but also our undergraduates' individual success—both in their coursework and in their professional lives after graduation—has gone a long way toward fomenting a stronger undergraduate community in art history.
For its third-edition Writing Plan, approved by the Campus Writing Board in Fall 2017, Art History has identified three key goals: (1) Maintaining support for its revamped Senior capstone project; (2) supporting writing instruction more intentionally at all levels of its curriculum; and (3) developing its teaching resources for faculty.