Posted on Monday, July 8, 2013 by Rachel Walther
An "elective" at art school is in many ways the opposite of what the term means for a traditional university student. Rather than taking a painting class for fun in between economics and political science, art students have to decide what math class to fit in between their painting courses.
All undergraduates at CCA (except Architecture majors) are required to take 51 units of Humanities and Sciences coursework, which by the time they graduate ends up representing about a third of their total units.
All of these courses are highly rigorous. Some are essential and required (for instance writing and art history) but many are creatively designed electives open to students in all majors. In "Bad Science at the Movies," for instance, professor Christine Metzger uses preposterous representations of geology and climate change in popular films to launch an in-depth survey of environmental science.
It's hard to predict which electives will "catch fire" with the students, but there are certain standout faves that fill up fast, year after year. "The comics electives have been really popular, and they are very interdisciplinary," says Yookyung Bang, Humanities and Sciences program manager.
"For instance there's a course that studies comics as literature. We also recently offered a comics-related ENGAGE course where students went to the Mission District with their instructor, Justin Hall, and created comics based on interviews with locals."
Tim Goodman, chief television critic for the Hollywood Reporter, also teaches several highly popular Visual Studies electives. In one, students watch an entire season of a television series in order to analyze all the ingredients of the show's success as well as the constraints that shape it.
In another, students create their own television network and design all of the programming, justifying and pitching their choices just like a producer would to a board of directors.
Many courses take advantage of the Bay Area's wealth of natural and cultural history. Incorporating fieldwork as much as possible, William Littman offers an architecture-oriented art history course on World War II Japanese American internment camps in which students travel to the actual sites and then interview men and women who were incarcerated there.
There are also electives centering on the history of the Arts & Crafts movement (a key part of CCA's institutional history) and Bay Area activism, including a recent one studying the Occupy movement from both a global and a local perspective.
Electives for Professional Life
Dominick Tracy, assistant director of Humanities and Sciences, says that listening to students' interests and concerns has inspired a broadening of course offerings aimed at postgraduate life and entrepreneurship: for instance more writing classes structured around artists' statements, grant writing, and cultural blogs. In 2014 CCA will offer its first business math courses.
"Increasingly over the years, art students have become more pragmatic about acquiring professional skills, more cognizant of the need for a post-college career plan," Tracy reflects. "We truly believe that everything they learn in our courses will enrich their creative practices, make them more attractive to potential employers, and make them clearer and more critical thinkers. No matter what field you go into, those are all incredibly valuable things."
From First Steps to the Senior Thesis
The Humanities and Sciences faculty and staff are always devising new concepts for art history, math, science, history, and literature courses that will keep CCA students engaged and complement what they're exploring in the studio the rest of the time.
"We explicitly gear most of the courses toward art and design students," explains Tracy. "So, for instance, the social science courses frequently emphasize topics related to freedom of expression, or ethnographic research (of particular interest for designers), or examining the relationships between power and designed spaces."
The first-year Humanities and Sciences courses are designed to give students an active introduction to art history, critical theory, and writing. Writing 1 and 2 are not literary surveys, but an opportunity to read articles and essays about art, design, aesthetics, and society, and for the students to develop their own writing through such topics.
Then, as they progress into their third and fourth years, they can take "Writing for Fashion Designers" (or whatever their particular field of study might be), which engages them in the key forms of writing in their fields while supporting the research and writing for the senior thesis.
Since most Humanities and Sciences courses are not specific to any particular program, they represent a golden opportunity for students to interact with peers in other disciplines. "It's a chance for an architect to be in the same room with a painter," says Tracy. "This is an essential part of CCA's ability to deliver on its interdisciplinary ideals."
A Diverse and Changing Menu
"Some of the faculty have specific expertise in industry, and many of them have developed successful electives that run pretty much every year," Tracy continues. "But we also try to make sure it's not always the exact same menu. Instructors are really encouraged to propose a new idea if they think it will engage students. It's not like at some universities, where it takes years to get approval for a new course. Here, it may take an hour."
Tracy lauds CCA's faculty for their ability to make tougher-to-latch-onto fields, such as math, feel relevant to visual artists. "Our math faculty have really done a lot to structure the courses to 'daylight' math within the arts context. For instance we offer advanced geometry courses for the architecture students, and 'Math and Media' for designers."
Environmental sustainability is a core element of CCA's worldview, and Humanities and Sciences supports this as well by partnering with studio faculty to foreground the connections between science and creative practice.
In the family of courses known as Exploring Science in the Studio, an "embedded" scientist leads students through fieldwork and environmental study on a particular "green" theme, and the semester culminates in a gallery exhibition of student research and creative work produced in these courses.
Bang says: "Building connections between art, science, and the environment really makes clear to students the value of being liberally educated. They emerge with a deep understanding of how diving into non-art fields can absolutely deepen their art practices."
Minor Degrees in Visual Studies or Writing and Literature
These degrees do not extend the time needed to graduate; students interested in pursuing one of them work with their advisor to tailor their Humanities and Sciences requirements to meet the 21 required units.
In 2014, for the first time, students minoring in Visual Studies will hold a symposium to present papers on their topics. So far, the minor degrees have been very popular. "They've attracted some of our brightest and most ambitious students," Tracy reports.