Semester project: To write a proposal for an art history-related study, that can serve as the foundation for a future book, art exhibit, or Master's / Doctoral thesis or dissertation, and to present your project to your art history classmates at the end of the semester. This project may be interdisciplinary, and includes a minimum of four meetings with me, each of approximately 45 minutes in length. During the semester you must present to me a minimum of THREE drafts, which includes your final draft.

Objectives: To encourage you to take intellectual risks, do graduate level work on a topic you care deeply about, and to lay the foundations of a project you can take with you when you graduate from Marist. Since no one does their best work while looking nervously over their shoulder, a necessary part of this is that PROVIDED THAT YOU WORK CONSISTENTLY THROUGH THE SEMESTER AND HAVE REGULAR AND PRODUCTIVE MEETINGS WITH ME the lowest semester grade you will earn will be an A-minus. This means that being fully--and hopefully joyously--engaged in taking intellectual risks and creating a "magnificent mess" will result in a higher grade than will choosing a "safe" topic well below your ability and not fully engaging in scholarly dialog with me.

Due dates are flexible, but assume steady work throughout the semester. You should figure that your problem statement, subproblems, and Need for the Study should be pretty well in hand by midterm week. Your final draft is due the Monday of the last week of classes. Our final group meeting with presentations will be during Exam Week, with the date to be announced.

Description of the project:

Length: Approximately 10-15 pages. Length of end-of-semester presentation: Approximately 15-25 minutes. Keep in mind that this is a miniature version of a fully developed proposal.

Assigned reading: I expect you to be familiar with all of Barnet's A Short Guide to Writing About Art. You may use any (fairly) recent edition of the book. If the book is too costly for your budget, the Library has several copies in the reserve collection. The rest of your reading will relate directly to your project, and will be a combination of works you select and ones that I suggest.

Meetings: You must meet with me for a minimum of four meetings, of approximately 45 minutes each -- altho I encourage you to take full advantage of the opportunity and meet with me more frequently. The intent of these meetings is to have the opportunity to interact with faculty one-on-one, and to engage in a mature intellectual discussion in which we bounce ideas around to the benefit of your project. We will also work on the craft of writing a proposal.

Drafts: During the semester you will give me at least three drafts of your proposal--usually during or immediately before we meet to discuss your work. These three drafts will include the final draft for the semester.

Documentation and bibliography: Your footnotes and bibliographic entries should be in the Chicago style (Turabian), which is one of the main styles used in the field of art. There's no need to go out and buy anything. Barnet's Short Guide to Writing About Art outlines the basics (as does the Chicago style website), and the Library has several volumes of Turabian available for your use.

Organization / Format: A proposal will will be in Microsoft Word format, and consist of the parts outlined below. Something to keep firmly in mind is that a successful proposal represents a great deal of work -- to the point that a third to a half of the work on the actual project is done by the time the proposal is finished. It's helpful to think about it in terms of writing a competitive proposal for a grant to fund your project, or for an equally competitive fellowship that will pay your living expenses as you write your Masters thesis or Doctoral dissertation.

A helpful image to keep in mind is to imagine that you are competing for grant or scholarship money, and that those who will be reading and evaluating your proposal have a crashing headache and many other things that must be done. Your job is to write clearly and engagingly enough that you keep your reviewer reading. Someone with a bad headache will be tempted to put proposals in the reject pile without reading them completely. Make it EASY for this person to grasp what your project entails, why it's important, and how you plan to achieve your goals.

The written word
Should be clean as bone
Clear as light,
Firm as stone.
Two words are not
As good as one.

Please remember that the final product will look deceptively simple (as does the outline below) but is very, very hard to do well, and impossible to achieve in a quick spurt of effort at the end of the semester.

The Problem and Subproblem sections of your proposal together should--if possible--be ONE PAGE. Your Problem Statement and Subproblems are the executive summary of your project. Remember that your imagined reader who is evaluating your proposal has a bad headache, and has no desire or energy to "dig" for what it is you propose to do with your project. Presenting a concise one page summary gives your reader an overview at a glance.

Problem statement: In approximately 25-30 words (not counting "and," "an," "the," etc.) what is it that you are proposing to do? The trick is to make it both specific AND leave enough room for the project to grow and develop. Let's take as a somewhat silly (but clear cut) example the project of :

"To develop and lead a volunteer-staffed effort to bake iced layer cakes "from scratch," for use in homeless shelters in Poughkeepsie, NY for one year."

This, then, is a silly but clear-cut example of a problem statement.

Note that it starts with the word "TO," and that in this example there's an indication of WHO will benefit. Sometimes it's appropriate to end the problem statement with a short sentence that gives clarification.

It's important to keep in mind that starting your problem statement with "To prove..." is a weak and dangerous beginning, as you risk painting yourself into the proverbial corner: You may find as you complete your study that the thing you were going to "prove" is nonsense! A much better strategy is to use language that leaves the findings of your study open. "To discern ..." is often a good opening to a problem statement.

Two great benefits of writing a problem statement are a) that it forces you to think through what you're doing, and b) a well-written problem statement is a strong start to your proposal and a wonderfully compact description of your project that you can use to promote yourself and your work.

Especially the first time you do it, a problem statement is hard to write--much like writing a haiku, a poem which in its English form is three lines and a total of seventeen syllables. If you're approaching the problem statement in the right way you'll find that you'll write a draft, questions will arise, you'll do more reading, and then revise--doing this over and over until everything falls into place.

You should figure that it will probably take until the middle of the semester before your Problem Statement, Subproblems, and Need for the Study start to solidify. If you find that it comes easily and you're "done" within a couple of weeks of starting your project, then almost certainly your work is much more superficial than it should be. More reading and careful thought as you work on your subproblems and Need for the study will lead to revision of your problem statement (and subproblems, and need!) and a project of greater depth and sophistication.

Here are two examples of problem statements written by outstanding Marist Art History Capping students. Each student started with a general idea, a question, or something that really bothered her. Each read widely and deeply in her chosen topic, and our one-on-one meetings were productive scholarly dialogs: asking questions of one another and together finding new ways of looking at the problem. One student flourished with frequent and lively dialog; the other preferred fewer and quieter meetings. Both took the meetings and dialog as springboards for further independent work.

To determine the need for a new direction that is "pure art", untainted by capitalism. James Castle is a useful test case because he was unaware of current trends in art and only recently has been designated an artist.

To discern how American artists were influenced by French Impressionism, with particular focus on Edmund Tarbell, who was the only artist to successfully transform the painting style into something genuinely American.

Subproblems: What steps or actions need to be taken in order to achieve the project you describe in the problem statement? What steps or actions do you need to take in order to bring your cake and ultimate use into reality? These subproblems are a summary of your METHOD.

Let's return to the silly example of the cake: Problem Statement: "To develop and lead a volunteer-staffed effort to bake iced layer cakes "from scratch," for use in homeless shelters in Poughkeepsie, NY for one year."

Using the example of the cake, here are some possible subproblems, which also start with the word "TO":

Subproblem 1: To identify the shelters and determine the number of cakes needed weekly.

Subproblem 2: To gain access to a kitchen with sufficient capacity and equipment to bake the cakes, which also satisfies requirements of the Health Department.

Subproblem 3: To enlist the aid of volunteer workers.

Subproblem 4: To find or develop an appropriate recipe (or recipes).

Subproblem 5: To acquire the necessary ingredients.

Subproblem 6: To establish and carry out an appropriate production workflow.

Subproblem 7: To establish and carry out a reliable method of distribution of the cakes.

Subproblem 8: To evaluate at the six month point whether the program is a success, and to determine whether the program should be extended and additional funding sought.

Please note that this is a deliberately simple example. Your proposal will be considerably more sophisticated, and your subproblems will address major facets of your study. Remember that the Subproblems are a summary of your METHOD, and you will expand on them in your Method section.

Definitions: Usually you will need this section, but sometimes the definitions are implicit in your problem statement and subproblems. For example, a "iced layer cake" is self explanatory, but you would need to define a "shelter." So, in the Definitions section you list the terms you need to define (each term getting its own brief paragraph), and give the definition you choose to use in your project. You DON'T need to use a dictionary definition for this, altho your terminology should make sense to a general reader. You might, for example, define a shelter as a facility that houses homeless people on a temporary basis (as opposed to more long term housing solutions). Part of the function of the Definitions section is to help pinpoint the range of your project.

Delimitations: Once you've defined your terms, then you state your delimitations (if any). For example: You may decide that your cake distribution will be limited to shelters that serve a particular clientele, or might include only faith-based, volunteer-run shelters. The delimitation paragraphs should be brief --you'll explain the the rationale (why you made this choice) under "Need."

Need: This section is an essay -- usually carefully documented (documentation = footnotes) -- in which you explain carefully WHY your project is important.

What's so great about your project? Why should anyone give you money to carry it out? Why should anyone care? To continue with our example of the cakes, Why cake instead of leading a volunteer-run project to produce a hearty soup? What makes the almost home-made cake better than just raising money and buying mass produced cupcakes, which would be much cheaper and less labor intensive? How will the project benefit everyone directly involved--homeless clients, volunteers, paid staff? How will the project benefit the local community?

If we shift the example to an academic one, How does the knowledge gained in the completion of your project contribute to the field or benefit your target audience? What existing studies have demonstrated that this is an important topic or issue to address, and / or what established person in the field has noted that your topic needs serious attention?

It's important to keep in mind the image of the reader with a headache. Make it clear in the first paragraph WHY your project is important, and then develop this in your subsequent paragraphs. If you bury your argument in the middle of your essay, or put it at the end you will risk having your reader toss your proposal on the reject pile. Make it easy for them!

Consider using a "narrative hook," a paragraph or opening sentence that--when effective--captures the reader's attention and piques their interest so they will want to read more. A clear-cut example of this is the opening of Robertson Davies' novel The Rebel Angels:

"Parlebane is back."
"Hadn't you heard? Parlebane is back."
"Oh my God!" . . . **

Review of the Literature is in a sense a continuation of your Need essay, and certainly is a demonstration that you are familiar with your field.

It will be a continuation of your Need essay because you are demonstrating that no one else has done significant work on the important issues that your study addresses--or if they have--then yours is a new and important approach. In the Need essay, you can make a general statement about this, with a few supporting examples. In the Review of Literature you show that this is true.

Your Review of the Literature shows that you know what you're talking about. If your imagined reader with a headache has read this far, then you've done well, and then your Reader will want to be satisfied that you know your field. The Review of the Literature is an opportunity to demonstrate this, and also to educate your reader--who may not be an expert in your field.

Continuing with the illustration of the cake project, What literature exists on volunteer food production for homeless shelters? What do the various authors say? Have any people written specifically on a cake project similar to yours? If so, what do they say? Are there books / articles on related topics, but nothing on YOUR topic. If there's nothing or almost nothing on your topic this is cause for celebration.

Switching back to the academic context, another way of saying this is that you're establishing your credibility as a person who not only has good ideas, but who is familiar with the literature that relates to his or her topic. AND you need to demonstrate that someone else hasn't already researched / written about exactly the same thing. In writing this section, you want to demonstrate familiarity with your field, but you don't want your discussion to be so detailed that you lose your reader's interest. Please keep in mind also that there's a blurred line between "Need" and "Review of the Literature." You may mention a study, article, or book in "Need," and then continue the discussion in "Review of the Literature."

Method: This is the section in which you spell out HOW you will address each subproblem: For subproblem 1, for example, How will you identify which shelters will participate and what number of cakes are needed? For subproblem 3, How are you going to recruit your volunteers and keep your staffing at levels high enough to get the job done consistently for a year? For subproblem 8, what criteria and methods will you use to arrive at your evaluation?

Bibliography: This is the section in which you present a selected list of the sources you consulted for your project. Your Bibliography should be balanced, at least 20 titles long, and may be divided up into sections according to your judgment.

Style of your proposal: Your proposal must be in the University of Chicago style, which is a standard one for art history.

Banner: Details of Woman with wax tablets and stylus (so-called "Sappho")
Place of discovery: Pompeii. Date: 24 May 1760
Photographer: Carole Raddato
Text of "Art History Proposal Assignment © Jan Mainzer


* Anonymous, cited by Madeleine L'Engle, A Circle of Quiet (1972; reprint, San Francisco: Perennial Library, and imprint of Harer & Row, n.d.) p. 149.

** Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels (

© Jan Mainzer