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Assessing critical and contextual understanding in the final year of the BA Fine Art degree course Anglia Polytechnic University - ADC-LTSN Pedagogic Research Project Fund Final Report Project Overview While the Art and Design Benchmarks emphasise the importance of contextual and critical awareness, the QAA Subject Overview expresses unease about the ability of parts of the sector to develop these areas of understanding. This project attempts to shed light on one aspect of the problem, by looking at the assessment of contextual and critical awareness in the final year of the Fine Art BA. It is then that students might be expected to be able to construct informed, complex and critical accounts of both their own practice and the practice of others. Data was gathered from the QAA subject reviews, a questionnaire sent to course leaders and a survey of web-sites and prospectuses. However, the inquiry relied principally upon visits to twenty-one art schools across the United Kingdom. To avoid an inquisitorial approach, we held conversations with course leaders, contextual studies lecturers and heads of departments, refining the agenda as the inquiry matured. Where we were offered access, we looked at course materials and dissertations. In addition, we visited thirteen final-year exhibitions, in an attempt to gauge the extent to which contextual and critical awareness was evident in exhibited work. This method offered a dynamic, if partial, view of current thinking. As the project progressed, the perimeter of the inquiry expanded, as we became increasingly concerned about the ways in which the assessment of final-year contextual studies related to the entire epistemology of the Fine Art degree Findings The dissertation, usually rated at between 15% and 20% of the final award, remains the most typical form of final-year written assessment. Registered early in the second semester of the second year, submission occurs very early in the following new year. Word-limits in the range of 4,500 to 6000 are usual, with 9,000 to 12000-word versions sometimes permitted for double credit. Normally, the rubric for the Fine Art dissertation is closely modelled upon the university's template. Shared expectations of academic rigour, together with careful explanations of standard referencing practice, are everywhere set out in detailed dissertation guides. In the majority of departments visited, students are encouraged, but not required, to find a link between the dissertation subject and an issue relating to the preliminary stages of the final practice, though students on two courses we came across are permitted to write on subjects outside of visual culture. The sometimes quite tenuous relationship between the dissertation and final-year practice is apparent in the dissertation schedule. Normally submitted five months or more before the final show, the Fine Art dissertation cannot be synchronised with final-year practice, which will often diverge from the dissertation topic, as projects move in quite unanticipated directions in the final months. Tutors, as well as

students, can view the dissertation as an obstacle in the way of the development of the final project. Subjects which require a developed understanding of several complex theoretical areas or the surveying of tracts of art seem to be relatively common. This unwillingness to focus militates against a coherently argued thesis, while encouraging superficiality. Weaker students can appear to be out-of-their-depth with the difficult quasi-philosophical topics they have been allowed to tackle. The underdeveloped analytical skills of some students may leave them unable to tease out the relationships between the more theoretical parts of their dissertations and the art-works they introduce. In departments where close supervision of dissertations and one-to-one feedback on essays are not the norm, there can be a tendency towards inauthentic construction and inarticulate writing. In the examples we were able to see, the assessment criteria for the final practice project and degree exhibition included a requirement related to contextual and critical awareness. For instance, NTU expects students to have `understood the position and context of their practice within contemporary fine art practices and discourses'. The view that this understanding will be evident in the final practice submission itself, unsupported by an explanatory text, is held quite vehemently in some departments. However, even when evidence of contextual understanding is apparent in the practice, assessors are still faced with a dilemma. If we suppose that the student's practical work should silently demonstrate contextual understanding, then the task of the verbal articulation of intention, meaning and association will not be rendered unnecessary but will simply be devolved from the student to the assessor, acting as critic or advocate. There are several remedies. All of the courses we came across require students to position and evaluate their work in presentations. As often as not, these presentations are regarded as developmental and are not assessed. Where they are assessed, they are guided by a rubric and supported by a written submission. In the cases we looked at, the presentation was rarely used at the time of the final project submission or exhibition and it was unusual for students to be given a viva. Another method is the assessed workbook, which has the advantage of accompanying practice and can adjust the analysis of intention, process and reference to unexpected shifts in direction. Surprisingly, given its versatility, the workbook had been adopted by only one of the Fine Art courses visited, and then only as an option submitted in January. A third form of explanation is the final statement. On some courses it is not used at all, perhaps indicating a lingering distrust of the relationship between word and image. Where the statement does occur, it may take non-assessed forms, typically an optional short written piece composed to accompany the final show, or assessed forms, ranging from a brief reflection on practice to an extended essay, governed by an exacting rubric. The more elaborate assessed statement, if written retrospectively, may be open to the criticism that it can impose inappropriate methods of linear narration and logical explanation. Guidelines on statements made accessible to the audience of the final exhibition often appear to be permissive. The proportion of the programme given over to self-initiated written and practical projects ensures that the Fine Art degree is unique amongst BA courses; indeed, the view that this distinctiveness is itself the prime justification for the Fine Art degree is fiercely held. Though Music and Drama include composition and improvisation, they are essentially performative and often collaborative disciplines, requiring precise familiarity with score and text, while Creative Writing typically puts students through genre-related exercises.

With few exceptions, Fine Art students begin initiating aspects of their own practice by the second semester of the first-year, working relatively autonomously from then on, with the support of tutors and peers. They may engage in communal projects, group criticisms and shared programmes but the controlling ethos is that of individualism, physically defined in the subdivided studios, which will eventually convert into the independent exhibition booths. At the conclusion of the degree, the classification will depend almost entirely upon the assessment of self-initiated work. This self-defining by the student of the limits of interest raises the question of whether there might be a wider contextual and critical fine art knowledge into which students ought to be initiated. There was little consensus and some anxiety amongst colleagues on this, yet a belief in a common knowledge is inscribed in the contextual studies' curriculum, which will typically cover generic issues such as the subject, the object, language, identity, definition, evaluation, interpretation, presentation, audience, marketing, consumption and media. Almost all courses prioritise contemporary issues, while opinion is divided on the need to cover modernism. There may be optional art history modules but compulsory excursions into deeper history, or art beyond the Atlantic, are uncommon. Even when departments express a concern for disciplinespecific histories, such as those of painting, sculpture and printmaking, few provide them. Though these programmes may inform a student's practice, they are not generally coordinated with it. Students are normally expected to develop the skills to research for themselves the `concepts' and `issues' related to their autonomous practice. There are those who thrive within these arrangements, yet the benefit of this approach for many students is questionable. Complexity, density, breadth of reference and freshness of thought, qualities which might be expected by the conclusion of a degree-course, were not obviously apparent in many of the examples of final work we were able to see. Exhibition statements often deployed opaque, inflated or solipsistic thinking, in front of relatively unsophisticated and derivative visual work. Within a curriculum which idealises autonomy, the integration in some studios of contextual and practical teaching does not appear to have checked these tendencies. The final shows also demonstrate how far the rhetoric of `professional practice' has moulded itself around an earlier language of individual creativity, resulting in a discomforting discrepancy between students' aspirations and the forms of art-work they produce. The present arrangements for assessing contextual and critical awareness do not seem well-suited to dealing with these problems. The dissertation is often too eccentric, poorly defined or mistimed to support concurrent practice. The assessed presentation, workbook, statement and viva are used inconsistently by some departments, where there appears to be an over-confidence in the power of the final project to speak for itself. The orthodox faith in the idea of the primacy of the student's personal visual language is at times in tension with the responsibility of the curriculum to provide a general education. We conclude that a rethinking of the ways in which writing can support practice in the final year needs to take place within a review of the way practice itself relates to the claims of the broader curriculum. Implications for teaching and learning This inquiry has uncovered some striking examples of good practice in the assessment of final year critical awareness and contextual understanding.

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The approach of the University of Wales Institute at Cardiff corrects some of the most slippery tendencies of the dissertation. The semester 4 `theory' assignment demands a dissertation title, a 500-word proposal, an outline of the contents, an initial bibliography indicating titles as yet unread, and a critical review of a relevant book, article or exhibition. Staff retain one of the two copies of this assignment for reference. Three half-hour tutorials are compulsory, including one after the submission of the first draft. Students' responses to the written and oral feedback are factored into the final mark. De Montfort University's statement is an academic essay of 2000-3000 words, in which students set out their intentions and discuss the subject, content, form and processes of their final project work. Students are expected to understand the ways in which their work might be said `to continue, reflect, question, engage or synthesise the work of other artists' and consider relevant philosophical, critical or political frameworks. From this extended statement is drawn the brief statement, hung at the final show. At De Montfort, this final statement replaces the dissertation; at the University of Ulster, students will soon be expected to complete both a general dissertation and a final context essay. The creative writing option of the Falmouth College of Arts (there are similar options at Wimbledon and NTU) is an alternative to the orthodox dissertation; it permits `first-person recollection, dialogue or fictional narrative' provided the result `demonstrates substantial original research, reflection and effort at verbal organisation on a topic related to fine art practice'. Though taken up less frequently by students, the creative writing option can stimulate the ablest students to display wit and originality while giving evidence of the conceptual grasp and knowledge one expects from a dissertation. The workbook, offered as an option by the Edinburgh College of Art, asks students to document their work, step-by-step, explaining what motivates them, what they want to communicate to others and the literature and art which has stimulated them. The workbook also requires self-appraisal. The outline proposal of 1500 words is composed in the preceding summer term and the workbook is submitted in January in one of two forms, 5000-6000 words, or 10000-12000 words. The University of Plymouth uses a form of viva, as students are present at the time of their assessment and may expect to be interviewed. Where students have been able to use presentations to refine their powers of explanation, this seems to be a simple way of avoiding the problem of ventriloquism. (Also, at Plymouth, an art history/contextual studies tutor is involved in the assessment of final practice). The Duncan and Jordanstone School of Art is planning the option of a final presentation, of 15 minutes (15% weighting) before peers and tutors, followed by 10 minutes of questioning and supported by a 2000-3000 word statement. An internet site is also being considered, as an alternative to the long essay; it will enable an interaction of text and images.

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What may now be needed is a synthesis of some of the best practices in final-year assessment, together with a review of the relationship between contextual studies to practice in the earlier stages of the degree.

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There is a good case for the reinstatement of group projects in the earlier stages of the course, as at the University of Central Lancashire. Taught jointly as practice/theory modules, they should enable students to become knowledgeable about the concepts they are considering. Students might also be encouraged to show their own work in the 'theory' seminars. This method, coupled with the rigour, coherence and breadth of reference of the `theory' programmes in stages one and two at the University of Wales at Cardiff, correlated with the high quality of dissertations and with a varied and thoughtful series of final exhibitions. The existing fully-fledged dissertation has an undoubted value for some students. However, there is case for reviewing its use as a compulsory element. As it appears to be incapable of contextualising the final practice, it might make sense to offer it as an option and to make a shorter second-stage independent essay compulsory. There is a need for more varied and articulated forms of writing in the final year (and, probably, throughout the degree) relating practice and commentary more closely. A patchwork text could subsume the best aspects of the workbook, the creative writing project, the presentation and the final statement. In one model, students present texts (patches), loosely related to their practice, at intervals to small groups of students and submit them as a portfolio for final assessment. There would be a plan for exploring the theme and a reflective account integrating and reflecting on the separate patches. It could include: reports, reviews, analyses of relevant concepts, discussions of precedents and contemporary sources, reflections on wider social, philosophical, political and scientific matters and accounts of personal encounters, or it could take fictional form, for instance a short story, a film-script or a poem. Dissemination Plans

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We hope to co-operate with Dr Carolyn Wilde of the University of Bristol and call a conference, early in 2004, on the place of the theoretical and contextual studies in the BA Fine Art curriculum. Contact Points Paul Shakeshaft [email protected] Vivien Perutz [email protected] The inquiry was conducted by Paul Shakeshaft and Vivien Perutz, with the assistance of Andrew Aarons, Mary Conochie, Penelope Kenrick and Marichi Antill. Many thanks to colleagues in the following institutions: University of Brighton University of Central Lancashire Cumbria College of Art and Design De Montfort University Duncan Jordanstone School of Art Edinburgh School of Art Falmouth College of Arts

Glasgow School of Art University of Hertfordshire Kingston University University of Leeds Loughborough University Northampton University College Northumbria University Norwich School of Art and Design The Nottingham Trent University University of Plymouth The Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing The Slade School of Fine Art University of the West of England University of Ulster University of Wales Institute at Cardiff University of Southampton Wimbledon School of Art

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