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Art History: A Preliminary Handbook

by Dr. Robert J. Belton

Evaluation in Term Papers

There are two basic types of assignment in the art history courses offered by the Department of Fine Arts. One places more emphasis on basic research skills and broader themes. The other places more emphasis on criticism and direct engagement with a work. The former is intended to show your ability to find, to compile and to evaluate information. The latter requires you to describe the appearance of a work and to formulate a conclusion about its meaning, sometimes in the absence of supporting material. (This does not mean simply stating an opinion or a preference. See Some Particular Pitfalls to Avoid.) Some assignments ask you to do both of these things. CHECK WITH YOUR INSTRUCTOR IF YOU ARE UNSURE. Whatever the type of assignment, the cover page should bear the title of the essay, the student name and number, the professor and the course, and the due date. (Incidentally, many instructors find plastic folders and binders more of an irritation than anything. Check with your instructor.) Papers should be neatly typed or word-processed. Handwriting or printing, no matter how neat, sends a subliminal message of unprofessionalism or indifference. Double-spacing permits a marker to make a running commentary. (See the grades section below for reasons why this is desirable). Everything is single-spaced here to save paper. A research assignment is substantially a commentary on the published discussions of a single artist, theme, issue or work. It is usually intended to give evidence of three academic skills (or the lack thereof):

a. i. Research Skills

(I.e., the ability to do basic research on a given topic.) This means finding monographs, catalogues and periodical literature. Monographs and catalogues are fairly easy to find, provided we have them in our library. However, be sure to avoid the pitfall of simply typing an artist's name into the computer. This often produces lists of general "coffee-table" books, which often should be avoided like the plague! Moreover, some of the more interesting research is being done in the context of general studies which might not be catalogued with an individual's name, so use "subject headings" too. More focused information is usually treated in periodical literature. In our library, the standard index is The Art Index, but you will find numerous others at larger universities. If your subject has been treated in relatively recent mainstream journalism, don't forget to check the CD-ROM. If you need general background information, consult the titles listed in the section below on basic research materials. Finally, if you need things through interlibrary loan, order them as soon as possible. There are all sorts of reasons not to procrastinate.

a. ii. Thinking Skills

(I.e., the ability to digest and present your results.) This means that you have made a conscientious effort to come to terms with art history as active, ongoing research. For example, a historian named Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov maintains that Van Gogh was more responsible for the development of the style known as cloisonism than has hitherto been recognized, disagreeing fundamentally with Charles Chasse, who insists that Emile Bernard was the prime mover. Each of these positions is an argument (i.e., a conclusion supported by reasons), but one of them may be better than the other because it is supported by more reasons or by better use of the same reasons. Whatever your topic, you should be able to distinguish and evaluate the various ways in which it has been interpreted. In doing so, you should provide evidence of a particular argument which focuses your research. Some of you may find that it is quite clear. On the other hand, you may find yourself unable to decide an issue, in which case you should explicitly state something to that effect. However, don't allow this option to become an excuse to avoid critical thinking. Keep in mind the acronyms listed below.

a. iii. Writing Skills

(I.e., the ability to write clearly and effectively.) This means not only proper grammar, spelling, and bibliographical formats, but also coherence, conciseness, and intelligibility. For better or worse, we think of writing as a mirror of thought. If the surface of the mirror is unnecessarily dirty -- that is, if your writing skills are substandard -- then either the thought itself is flawed or the reader is incapable of determining its real value because it is obscured. There are various style guides for this, J. Buckley's Fit to Print, K. Turabian's Manual for Writers, J. Heffernan's Writing: A College Handbook, the MLA style sheet, and so on. The secret to getting the most out of any of these is TO USE THEM. ALWAYS CHECK WITH YOUR INSTRUCTOR TO SEE WHAT NOTATION FORMAT IS PREFERRED. The example following asks you to use the MLA format, explained below. A paper that is intended to be a critique -- i.e., a direct engagement with a work -- is chiefly about the last two sets of skills, thinking and writing, because it puts less emphasis on research.

© Copyright 1996 Robert J. Belton

Last reviewed shim12/19/2012 11:12:37 PM