Since Yale’s art history major modified its requirements a year ago, several students and faculty members have expressed mixed feelings in response to the changes.
Changes implemented at the start of the 2013-14 academic year included updated course requirements that emphasize greater diversity of study in terms of geography and chronology, as well as the adoption of a new organizational “grid” to help students better map their trajectories within the major. History of Art Director of Undergraduate Studies Carol Armstrong said that while the number of required courses in the major has not changed, students will now be expected to take a wider variety of classes.
“Before, [the major] was ‘Western history of art’ with a sense that you would do at least one ‘non-Western’ course as part of the six distributional requirements,” Armstrong said. “It’s the same number of requirements, but now there are six requirements on the grid, and those six courses have to be spread out differently.”
The previous requirements stipulated that art history majors take courses in each of four areas, of which only one included art from non-Western cultures. That area encompassed African, African-American, Native American, pre-Columbian, Islamic and Asian art, while the other three were dedicated to individual periods in Western art history. Under the new requirements, students are expected to take courses in a minimum of four of the grid’s new geographical and chronological categories, which are more balanced than the previous system.
History of art major Adlon Adams ’15 said she thought the new changes were particularly effective in their ability to guide students in the major through different time periods and cultures. Fellow major Charlotte Belling ’16 added that she thinks the grid structure is extremely important to the major.
“The history of global visual culture includes a broad range of topics, and it is important to develop an awareness of the interconnected nature of this discipline by approaching art from a variety of contexts,” Belling said. “The grid allows students to look at art history from a global perspective and also explore the origins of styles over time.”
Some faculty members, including history of art and African American Studies DUS Erica James, said that they thought the decision to redesign the major was necessary. James added that she believes the shift was important with regards to the department’s current pedagogical goals and the state of the art history field as a whole.
Armstrong highlighted that the change was heavily driven by student input. In addition to the fact that the department’s faculty is increasingly composed of scholars who specialize in “non-Western” areas of study, Armstrong added, feedback from the student body was also important in the decision to modify the requirements.
History of art major Austin Johnson ’16, who served on the committee of students that helped advise faculty and administrators in implementing the changes, said that while he believes the grid is a step in the right direction, the University still needs to hire more faculty who can teach classes on areas outside of Western art.
“The grid also pretty explicitly highlights areas where our course offerings are still lacking,” art history major Colleen McDermott ’15 said. “Requiring students to take classes in a variety of areas only goes so far if those classes do not actually exist.”
Armstrong said that there are already a number of faculty members who specialize in Islamic, Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Caribbean arts, and that the department actually lacks faculty who study fields such as Renaissance, medieval and contemporary Western art. She added that she thinks the majority of art history students are willing to take a broad range of courses that focus on areas outside of Europe Art history major Alison Hutchison ’15 said she and several of her peers in the major chose not to follow the grid and instead adhere to the previous requirements, noting that current seniors have the option to do so because the changes were not necessarily in effect when they declared their major.
But McDermott said that in choosing to use the new system, she was able to expose herself to areas of art history that she would not have pursued under the earlier guidelines.
Pauline Chiquet ’15, another history of art major, said she thinks the new system has been effective in prioritizing a less Eurocentric view of art history, but noted that there is still progress to be made in terms of the number and “depth” of non-Western course offerings.
“I think the new grid definitely facilitates the study of a more ‘global art history,’” Belling said. “By breaking down the barriers associated with the terms ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western,’ students within the major are inclined to understand art history from a broad viewpoint rather than categorize artists or their works as one or the other.”
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