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Art History Comps

Comps Overview

The comps requirement in Art History, also called the integrative exercise, consists of two separate parts, an oral presentation and a comprehensive examination. Both parts are completed during the senior year. Most students deliver oral presentations during the winter term, on topics of their own choosing subject to faculty approval. The comprehensive examination, a three-hour written test devised and graded by a scholar from outside Carleton, is administered during the spring term.

The Oral Presentation

The fundamental challenge of the oral presentation (“comps talk”) is to shape a thesis-driven argument, developed through independent research, and to present it to a general audience.

Initial proposals for comps talks are due in hard copy to the Chair by the last Thursday in October. Students planning to present during the fall term need to submit their proposals earlier, by the first Thursday of the term, and must discuss this option with the Chair during their junior year. Comps proposals need not identify the eventual thesis of the talk, but they should clearly identify the basic subject and, to the extent possible, explain the scope of the research and the approach to the material. Comps proposals are typically 1 to 2 pages of double-spaced text, plus a bibliography. Unlike the sample proposals written in Junior Seminar, these bibliographies do not need to be annotated, though an annotated bibliography is due at the end of the project, along with a one paragraph abstract. It is recommended that you select a topic with which you are already familiar, either from previous coursework, from off-campus study, from a summer internship, or from some other academic experience.

Within a week or two of submission, the department faculty will either approve the topic or suggest that the proposal be refined or changed. When proposals are accepted, comps advisors are also assigned. Students are encouraged to discuss their research with other faculty members familiar with the field (both inside and outside the department), but the comps advisor should always remain the chief contact for the project. Remember that the pacing and planning of your comps research is entirely your responsibility; do not expect your comps advisor to check up on you. You must take the initiative. A “dry run” of the presentation must be given to the comps advisor, normally at least one week prior to the talk, in order to receive advice and feedback about both the substance and style of the lecture.

Never forget that your talk is intended for a general audience. So the subject should be clearly contextualized, and terms likely to be unfamiliar to a general audience should be defined. The language of your presentation should be understandable rather than dense or filled with jargon. The presentation can certainly contain sophisticated ideas, but these should be formulated and presented such that people with no background in your subject area can comprehend them.

As for your manner of presentation, accessibility is crucial. If you choose to read sections of your lecture, strive to make those sections conversational in tone. In any event, you are urged to demonstrate many of your points directly in front of the images on the screen. Speak to your audience, rather than to the lectern; look up from the script often. Allow your enthusiasm for your topic to show. Demonstrate why you chose your subject by the commitment in your voice, choice of words, and gestures. Videotaping a dry run well before your presentation proves helpful to some students; you can arrange through PEPS to borrow the necessary equipment. At the end of your talk, ask if your audience has any questions. Wait for those questions. Continue waiting. There will be questions.

The department will prepare a poster listing all the comps talks for the term. But you should prepare an additional poster for your own talk. Make certain to include your name, the title of the talk, and the date, time, and location for the talk. There is no set number of posters required, but at minimum one poster should be placed upon the easel in the entrance to Boliou starting the day before the talk (this means Friday for a Monday talk).

Immediately following your presentation you will meet with the art history faculty to hear an informal critique of your talk. This is an important part of the exercise. You will have the opportunity during the critique to explain your decisions, elaborate upon your conclusions (as in a studio critique), and answer questions. You should bring an annotated bibliography of sources to this critique session. You should also submit a one-paragraph abstract of the talk that summarizes your thesis and lists the main points or sections of your presentation. You may submit the annotated bibliography and the abstract before the talk.

Make certain to use high-quality images in your talk. Note that you can scan images in the Visual Resources Library. See the Visual Resources Collection page for details or visit: Creating digital images for a comps presentation.

The Comps Examination

Every year the format of the Comps Examination is different, but it always remains a three-hour test, devised and graded by an art historian from outside Carleton. The exam takes place toward the middle of the spring term, usually on the last Friday before midterm break.

The exam covers mostly Western art, with an emphasis upon the period from the Renaissance to the present. The outside examiner is given this directive: “The examination should primarily cover Western art and architecture, and it should be planned to take three hours. You can choose any format you wish, including images. While we reserve the right to make adjustments, the only general stipulations are that there be some variety in the types of questions asked and that, to match our curriculum, the exam should be proportioned with roughly a 3:1 ratio between the Renaissance-to-Modern period and the pre-Renaissance period. We should add that chances to discuss non-Western art will be welcomed by our students, all of whom have taken a two-term survey of world art plus at least one additional non-Western course offering. Many majors in our department will be especially familiar with subjects pertaining to Asian art.”

We will supply the examiner with a list of courses offered during the past four years. We will also explain that Stokstad is the survey text assigned for Art History 101 & 102.

A folder with past exams is available in the department office, although it is worth noting that these are not particularly reliable guides, since each exam is unique. The faculty will make every effort to ensure that the exam seems fair and appropriate given the Carleton art history curriculum.