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Review of McMaster University Undergraduate Art History Programme

May 2009

Dr. David Cast, Bryn Mawr College

Dr. Janice Helland, Queen’s University
Dr. Sheila Petty, University of Regina
Dr. Maureen Hupfer, McMaster University

Executive Summary
The reviewers were asked to comment on the programme’s identity, curriculum, resources,
student performance and experience, teaching and any identified major areas of concern. As
external reviewers we recognize the significance of the art history programme within the School
of the Arts as a dynamic and vital component of the university and of the community beyond the
university. Faculty are committed to the learning environment offered to students and to
collegiality within the institutional structure. The reviewers recognize the excellence of faculty,
their commitment to the programme, their commitment to providing first-rate undergraduate
training for students which provides transferable skills aptly directed toward living in a visual
and global world. We saw a collegial faculty who will continue to integrate and develop within
SOTA. There is a widespread perception of a lack of recognition for the programme on a variety
of levels, many of which are linked to resources. A full operational and curriculum review
leading to a strategic plan is advised given the limited resources currently available to the
programme. We also highly recommend a position for SOTA in the area of contemporary visual
culture with an emphasis on globalization and non-Western art. This individual would deliver art
history/visual culture courses as a SOTA faculty member and would be recognized as an addition
of benefit to the entire university community.

1. Programme Identity
Major strengths of the Art History programme include the quality of the faculty and students and
their commitment to creating and sustaining the best possible environment for learning. In this,
they meet McMaster University’s mission and vision to “inspire and support a passion for
learning” alongside “a commitment to excellence, and to integrity and teamwork.”

The review team was presented with the Faculty of Humanities’ Vision Statement (no date),
McMaster University’s “Refining Directions” (May 23, 2003), and a programme proposal for
“The Study and Practice of Visual Culture” (2006). There does not, however, appear to be a
current strategic or vision plan for the School of the Arts or the Art History Programme
specifically, and the programme seems to identify itself around 3 primary foci of Western art,
with some recent offerings in Asian art history. There is a desire to create more breadth in terms
of offerings, but this has resource implications.

Without a concrete plan including vision and milestones, it is difficult to assess programme
objectives. Indicators of quality for the faculty include their excellent teaching evaluations, high
quality research programmes and productivity and dedication to service. Indicators of quality for
the students include their successful and timely completion of their degrees, number of awards
garnered, success in applying to graduate programmes and success in their chosen employment
fields. In all these categories, the students are very successful. The programme should be lauded
for the fact that overall enrolments in Art History have significantly increased over the past three
years. This, in itself, is evidence of its high quality.

In the fall of 2008, Dean Crosta launched a Faculty newsletter with the goal of raising awareness
of the programmes across the university and within the local community. The dean stressed her
goal of creating more support, “morally and financially” for the arts. Faculty, however, feel there
is a lack of recognition for the programme on a variety of levels, leading to a diminishment of
programme identity.

2. Curriculum
Three programmes are listed: Combined Honours in Art and Another Subject, Honours Art
History, Combined Honours in Art History and another Subject; the requirements of which are
laid out in detail. How easy it is to work with all of these, given the small size of the department
and the pressures upon it to service other parts of the University, is unclear. The number of
students taking Art History (82) was below that in music (150) but more than Studio (57).
Particular areas of concern expressed by students included the limited number of available
courses. Students often were closed out of courses, even those required for the major, and it was
suggested that in every such class a certain number of placed be set aside for them. This issue is
directly connected to the amount of service teaching that the Faculty does. Students also asked
for access to the higher level courses earlier in the programme.

Faculty in the art history programme are advised to begin an intense and extensive curriculum
review in light of the very limited resources available to them. The review should aim to provide
students with a curriculum that emphasizes quality rather than quantity of courses. Faculty might
assess and evaluate programme requirements particularly with regard to courses required by
studio art in order to continue the good working relationship between the programmes. The
curriculum represents a high level of cooperation amongst SOTA programmes which should be
continued and encouraged.

The review team also questioned the need for required Classics courses. Some students felt that
professors in Classics, who taught the courses, demonstrated a certain favouritism to their “own”
students (e. g. in the readings of Latin texts in class). Thus, the required courses in Greek and
Roman art history could be eliminated from the programme requirements and become options
for interested students. Similarly, at the 4th-year level rather than designating specific courses
from which students must select their 6 credits, the programme might state “6 units at the 4th-
year level in art history” thereby allowing for greater flexibility and management of resources.

Finally, it was also felt that there were not enough opportunities available for what is listed here
as initiatives in pedagogy and programming. Art history faculty should continue to offer lecture
courses at the first and second year level with an engaging first-year course which combines
traditional pedagogy with intense learning in small groups, some of which are housed in the
gallery. It was not clear how this problem could be remedied, unless the programme of
internships at the McMaster Museum of Art and the Art Gallery of Hamilton could be reworked.
The curator of the McMaster Museum of Art should participate in curriculum review discussions
particularly with regard to student and faculty use of the MMA. The teaching status and the
supervisory status of the curator, and her relationship to the art history programme requires

clarification. This discussion may require input from the Director of the school and the Dean of
Humanities. If there are budget implications, creative solutions might be sought, for example,
implementing an honorarium.

3. Resources
The dedication of the faculty to their programme and students, and their commitment to the
university’s values, although identified as a major strength in Section 1 (Programme Identity) is
a source of concern in terms of resources. Faculty believe that increased funding to the
programme would enhance its ongoing effectiveness. It is difficult to determine the actual extent
and amount of these needed resources without a complete “review of operations” including a
curriculum review, which might reveal significant cost-saving measures (e.g., Are all the courses
currently offered necessary? Is the number of art history requirements necessary for the
degrees?). It was revealed by the dean, associate dean and faculty members that SOTA sustains
the second largest teaching/service component in Humanities, yet faculty numbers have shrunk
by half over the past 15 years. The issue of which unit receives the tuition revenue for cross-
listed courses appeared contentious, and because there seems to be no clear policy on this, units
are justifiably territorial in terms of the numbers of students they claim as their own.

The Art History Programme collaborates effectively with Art, Classics, Theatre and Film. The
ambiguous relationship with the Museum was cited several times by both faculty and students.
Students believe the programme could more effectively use the Museum’s resources and faculty
are receptive to having the Museum Director teach the Introduction to Art Galleries and
Museums course. This relationship needs to be better delineated and formalized so that the
programme will know what resources it can count on. The programme has developed a good
working relationship with Engineering and is partnering on a joint MA/ MSc programme in Art
and Technology. Several students cited the desire for art and business courses and the
programme is advised to begin exploring a relationship with the School of Business in this

The Faculty of Humanities Vision Statement includes five new major initiatives for centres or
institutes. Art History is not mentioned specifically, but could, however, join the proposed fifth
initiative, the Humanities and Social Sciences Research Institute. This would enable faculty and
students to work and study across the disciplines while maintaining the integrity of Art History’s
programme delivery. Furthermore, resource barriers would be broken down enabling the
programme to enhance its offerings and create new interdisciplinary opportunities for faculty and

Appropriate funding of the programme is essential to its ongoing effectiveness. Although

opportunities might exist for more efficient use of current resources and could be identified
though a complete curriculum review, it is clear to the review team that some new resources are
necessary for the overall health of the unit. The programme is currently burdened with a
significant teaching service component and is struggling to expand into the area of contemporary
art history, an area much in demand by students. Thus, the review team urges the creation of a
new appointment in contemporary art from a global perspective.

One faculty member raised the issue of better access to image databases and the need for more
journal subscriptions in the Library and the issue of the quality of the teaching classrooms and
their equipment in general was repeatedly raised by faculty and students alike. Many students
complained about the lack of dedicated space for art history students.

Faculty believe that current workload assignments are a serious issue considering the fact that
one of the three faculty members must act as coordinator of the programme. Also, the current
faculty complement does not adequately allow for sabbatical or other types of leaves. Course
release for the programme coordinator is of immediate concern and should be established as a
practice within SOTA. .

4. Student Performance
The admission requirements for the programme are established by the University’s enrollment
management team and are consistent with other programmes in Humanities. Students who wish
to enter Honours Art History (or Combined Honours in Art History with Another Subject) must
have completed any Level 1 programme with a Cumulative Average of at least 6.0 (C+ or 67-
69%), including an average of at least 7.0 (B or 73-76%) in the two introductory Art History
courses ART H 1AO3 and 1AA3. Those who wish to enter the B.A. Art History programme
must also complete a Level 1 programme and the two introductory courses; however, the
required Cumulative Average is only 3.5 (just above D+ or 57-59%), including an average of 4.0
(C- or 60-62%) in the two introductory Art History courses.

The student body is less diverse than is the case with many programmes at McMaster. According
to the self-study statistics, students are overwhelmingly white, female and middle class.
However, professors have noticed greater diversity in classes that are less “traditional” and they
believe that given the opportunity to further enhance the programme’s offerings, the student
population will gradually become more representative of that found in general at McMaster.

Statistics provided in the self-study report also indicate that students perform well above the
guidelines required by their programmes. During the past five years (2003/04 – 2007/08), the
median Cumulative Average for B.A. students has ranged from 6.20 to 7.65, while the
Cumulative Average during the same time period for Honours students has ranged from 8.30 to
8.75). Unfortunately, only 2 scholarships are available for specific allocation to Art History
students, although a new award is being established and should be available in 2009. Retention
and graduation rates are appropriate. Furthermore, graduate survey results demonstrate that
students believed their degree at McMaster had equipped them with the knowledge and skills
necessary for further education and/or graduate school. Many have chosen to pursue their studies
while others have taken up careers in the visual arts.

5. Student Experience
This was perhaps the easiest part of this review to put together. There were some criticisms made
about the department – and here we can refer back to some remarks in section 2 – but the
overwhelming response of students, documented both in the open session with the reviewers and
in the comments recorded in the self-study, were positive. Some of the negative comments were
centered around a feeling that the humanities as a whole were not appreciated at McMaster and
that the Department was poorly funded, that it did not have adequate facilities and equipment

(this may have changed recently) and that there was no space available where the students in the
programme could come together. Students believed that communication among themselves
would improve if they had a student space, and spoke of wanting to organize more access to the
Museum and other local opportunities under the auspices of their club. Students also wanted to
see a closer relationship between the Art and Art History students, and expressed an interest in
taken the criticism course earlier on during their programme.

There were some critical comments made about some of the sessional instructors, suggesting that
they did not have a commitment to the students they taught. It was also said that there were too
many such sessional teachers. However, these concerns were fully counterbalanced by the deep
enthusiasm of the students for the programme and what it brought them; the knowledge and
passion of the Professors; new ways of thinking; the quality of the interactions with Faculty; the
accessibility of the Museum; and the integration with the Fine Arts programme.

The small size of the department (three professors) was noted both in our discussions and in the
self-study report. Students were especially concerned about the recent illness of one professor,
the less than satisfactory (although much appreciated) efforts to cover that workload, and the
future of the courses in question should this individual be absent for a prolonged period.
On the other hand, it was clear that the appointment of Professor Sheng was deeply appreciated,
especially since this opened up a whole new range of historical and cultural materials. The
students were also very enthusiastic when asked for their reaction to a possible new appointment
that might cover Contemporary Art in a global perspective, with perhaps a special emphasis on
non-Western art. Such an appointment would allow differentiation from other universities, would
be consistent with university strategy and would also satisfy the expressed need of undergraduate
students for a more diverse range of courses.

Students also emphasized the need for more internship opportunities, and would even consider
positions without course credit, especially if these occurred during the summer.

6. Teaching
The quality of teaching is the programme is very good with much attention given to learning
strategies that encourage critical inquiry along with object-based knowledge. These are
transferable skills that encourage analyses of text and image in an increasingly visual and
globalised world. Evaluations by students tend to fall mostly in the upper levels of satisfaction
(6); this was confirmed in a discussion session with 22 undergraduate students (an unusually
high number to attend such a session).

Faculty teach 5 courses per academic year, a reasonable load for an undergraduate programme
with the added workload of supervisions of honours theses and practical work in the art gallery.
The university should continue to support and enhance quality of teaching and excellence of
research as faculty review the curriculum and work toward making a significant contribution to a
unified programme within SOTA. In addition, the programme could work toward establishing
links with the expanding art community within Hamilton (the review team was told that James
Street North is ‘burgeoning’ with artists) and reciprocal relationships should be continued and/or
further developed with McMaster Museum of Art and the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

The proposed Art and Technology programme should provide an expanded teaching experience
for art history faculty and enable them to supervise graduate students within their own fields of
expertise. The addition of graduate students would provide a pool of teaching assistants and
enhance the undergraduate experience within the programme.

7. Major Areas of Concern

The lack of a strategic plan for Art History and for SOTA is a major concern.

• The reduction of the number of Faculty in SOTA was noted, the reduction over the years
amounting to a decline from 23 to the present level of 12. It was recognized that all
faculty in SOTA felt overworked. It was noted that Classics, for example, has 8 faculty.

• The situation of the budget needs to be examined since no special line seemed to be in
place yet the reviewers were told that moneys were available for visiting speakers, if
appropriately requested. The review team recommends that one representative from each
of the four areas in the school meet on a regular basis with the head of school, including
once in August to determine how to obtain funding for guest speakers for the forthcoming
academic year and once to discuss curriculum offerings and time tabling for the next
academic year. Further, we recommend the development of lines of communication that
would enable art history faculty to understand budget allocations; conversely the Faculty
office and SOTA must provide details that are transparent and assessable. For example,
faculty do not understand that theatre and music have budget lines which represent
recoveries and not expenditures.

• The situation of TAs and their distribution needs to be reexamined, as do other

administrative and service responsibilities. Instead of creating an Assistant or Associate
Director position, which would add another level of hierarchy, an alternative solution
might see the course release allocation (2) received by the previous Associate Director
reallocated to a .5 course release per individual representing each of the 4 SOTA groups.
If the current service responsibilities of faculty are not believed sufficient to merit course
release allocations, the situation should be made clear to them and responsibilities should
be rotated equitably. The composition of Executive Council also should be examined, and
should include a representative from each of the four SOTA groups: Art, Art History,
Theatre and Music.

Art History requires a full and extensive curriculum review.

• Large classes (100 to 150 students) with an indequate number of Teaching Assistants is a
problem and one that is exacerbated by the lack of a graduate programme. However, the
joint MA/MSc programme in Creative Technology, tied into Engineering, is on the books
for 2010 and this might be the model for other such collaborative programmes at
McMaster. Such initiatives would serve as a graduate programme for the Department and
would offer further intellectual opportunities for the university as a whole.

• The reviewers were presented with differing accounts of the academic relationship
between the Museum and SOTA; that the Museum felt that any closer relationship was

not welcomed, the Department and SOTA suggesting that it was. Further enquiries
determined that this difference in opinion originated in a previous administration. The
review team recommends that the McMaster Museum of Art participate in curriculum
review discussions particularly with regard to student and faculty use of the museum and
that the Director of the school and the Dean of Humanities provide input with regard to
budget implications and the implementation of creative problem-solving solutions. The
museum is an outstanding resource and should be recognized as such.

• As indicated in previous sections, a new appointment that covers Contemporary Art from
a global perspective is needed. Even though Dr. McQueen does an admirable job, staying
current in a specialty far removed from her own is a great additional burden. The studio
faculty also were enthusiastic about a contemporary appointment. An additional Teaching
Professorship in Film Studies was offered to SOTA but the department as a whole is
strongly opposed to the idea of such a position and therefore did not accept this offer,
even though it was recognized how valuable such a field would be both for the
department and for the university as a whole. The Art History group also is opposed to
Teaching Professor appointments.