Op-ed: Don’t BS our B.A.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019 - 7:09pm

I’m an Art & Design student in the Penny Stamps School of, yes, Art & Design. Specifically, I’m a Bachelor of Arts, not a Bachelor of Fine Arts, in Art & Design. As the italicization indicates, for us Stampers, that’s a big deal. 

B.F.A. students take two-thirds of their coursework through Stamps and can take IP (Integrative Project) for their senior thesis — three credits in the fall and six in the winter of independent work leading to an exhibition at the end of winter semester. They are guaranteed their own studios, time to work on their body of work from September through March and are advised by two faculty members and one GSI while producing a culminating senior project. 

B.A. students take approximately two-thirds of their coursework outside of Stamps, electives we use to inform our art practice. The B.A. curriculum exists because, according to the Stamps website

“As a part of a tier one research university, we understand the synergies that are only possible when making and research work together as key components of creative practice. With over 100 top ranked university programs, we can offer unparalleled academic opportunities that enrich and deepen our students’ creative work.” 

Interdisciplinary studies is one of the highlights of Stamps — in fact, our dean, Guna Nadarajan, gave a speech in April on the benefits of arts and humanities integration with STEM fields. For B.A. students, our senior thesis project is supposed to be the culmination of that interdisciplinary approach, which we chose when we applied to the school. This senior thesis represents the moment when we finally bridge the gap between all the LSA and Stamps classes we’ve taken for three years. 

Now, possible changes to Senior Studio, the revised B.A. Senior Capstone, threaten to marginalize the opportunity for B.A. students to showcase the crossover between the skills they’ve learned in Stamps and the knowledge they’ve gained outside of it. To put it bluntly, B.A. students have a problem: we’re caught between the ideals of an interdisciplinary curriculum and the pragmatics of tuition dollars. 

First, I would like to preface that some quotes are used anonymously. This is to protect the faculty and students who were so generous in providing their input to this essay and to acknowledge the past precedent of professional consequences in giving this type of input. Second, there is no one “to blame.” I’m writing this so that students, faculty and administration can get a glimpse into a student’s mind and realize that maybe — just maybe — students should have a say in student matters. At the end of the day, this essay is a call for accountability more than anything else. 

Let’s start at the end of Winter semester — Monday, April 15. Stamps Administration called a meeting, open to students, to discuss the B.A. senior thesis curriculum — B.A. Capstone, as it has been referred to in the past, and Senior Studio, as was renamed last year by the associate dean and dean. This coming fall, Senior Studio will be an optional, three-credit course taught by one professor with no GSI support — as opposed to the previous four credit, two semester program that was offered from 2015-2018. Our exhibition would occur at the end of fall semester in December, shortening the work year from seven months to three. We would have the opportunity to be selected for a juried exhibition in the spring, chosen from the senior projects of B.A. and B.F.A. students. There is yet no guarantee we will get our own studios. 

While the B.F.A.’s senior thesis, IP, is referred to as a “program,” or part of the curriculum, Senior Studio has been classified by the Stamps administration as an elective, which they assert makes it possible for them to remove it from the curriculum at any moment and without faculty consent.

For B.A. students, this feels like a marginalization. We are just as dedicated to our studio craft as our peers. We want the same opportunity to produce the best work possible, which means being given the time and resources to be able to produce work of the highest caliber we can. 

In a survey conducted last year asking B.A. and B.F.A. alumni what changes they’d like to see in the senior thesis program, many B.A. alumni expressed hope that in the future, “B.A. Capstone thesis is not treated as a second-class citizen to IP.” The alumni also recommended more credit hours dedicated to Capstone and that Capstone students be guaranteed studio space. The program warrants it. It has had full enrollment (17-19 students in a course capped at 18) each year it has been offered, and is viewed as necessary by many faculty members. As one faculty member explained, “A senior year of IP or B.A. Capstone with the senior exhibition as the culminating moment — a very public moment — is what gives our program teeth and holds both our students and ourselves as educators accountable. In particular, I am bothered by the number of senior B.A. students who were not in the senior exhibition this year due to the fact that they were not supported properly to have the time and space to create work as their peers did.” 

Dean Nadarajang appointed an IP/Capstone Task Force in 2018-19 to determine what the senior thesis year should be for B.A. and B.F.A. students, and this group of four Stamps faculty concluded that “IP continues as a two-semester sequence — 3 credit hours in Fall, 6 in Winter. BA Capstone continues as a two-semester sequence — 1 credit hour in Fall, 3 in Winter,” and that “All IP and Capstone students will be assigned a studio space in the fall and shall be part of the exhibitions in the Spring.” Why, if there was overwhelming faculty and student support for Capstone, was it downgraded from a two semester, four-credit class to a one semester, three credit-class with considerable resources revoked? Well, money complicates matters.

The budget model for the University states that, as of fiscal year 2008-09, student tuition, based on classes taken, would be distributed as “an even split (50% - 50%) between the unit of enrollment and the unit of instruction.” That means that if I, a Stamps student, take a Stamps class, the Stamps School receives 100 percent of the portion of my tuition that goes toward the credits of that class. If I take a class in LSA, 50 percent of that portion of my tuition goes toward LSA, and the other 50 percent goes toward Stamps. When your major requires you to take more classes outside of your school, you can see how the school would be economically disincentivized to prioritize your major. 

But that’s backwards. Especially because, as one alum bluntly wrote, “Stamps endlessly talks about how integrated it is with the wider Uni and how interdisciplinary and collaborative its students can be. The BA students are the epitome of this spirit.” To put it simply, if you’re looking for a traditional art education where the arts are isolated from the humanities, you probably wouldn’t choose Stamps. But, as part of a large research university and as a school that treats each student as an individual without funneling us into majors like “painting” and “sculpture,” we have so much more to offer. 

And that is why this is such a big deal. Many of my B.A. peers, including myself, came to this University contingent on the premise that we were going to be able to work for a whole year to produce a senior thesis body of work within our own studio space, and exhibit this work as part of our graduation events.  The reason we chose a B.A. was to inform our work with other disciplines — not because we’re not as committed to Art & Design, but because we’re intensely dedicated to our practice and understand that we need more information outside of “art” to deepen our insights when creating the work. To us, it seems as though we’re being punished for pursuing art at the intersections of other disciplines: exactly the mission of the Stamps School.

And this brings us back to April 15. After hearing rumblings of concern, our Dean Guna Nadarajan called the meeting to discuss all of this. And I will say, he was incredibly receptive. He stressed that the reason the B.A. Senior Studio program was not being given studios and as much time or credit was because of space. He has appealed to the provost multiple times about these concerns. And yes, I get that. We do have a space issue. But, before the meeting, many students didn’t even know that the B.A. Senior Studio had been shifted from winter to fall or that studio spaces had been eliminated. 

As rising seniors, the 2016-17 Undergraduate Handbook applies to us. That handbook states that B.A. Capstone would be a two-semester program. Any curriculum change should have been put to a faculty vote (the change was made without faculty approval) at the very least and applied to incoming students, not current ones. The 2018-19 IP/Capstone Task Force and the 2017-18 Undergraduate Programs Committee unanimously recommended preserving the B.A. Capstone, and both decisions were vetoed by Dean Nadarajan. A faculty member said, after asking the faculty body for their votes and receiving positive recommendations, Dean Nadarajan undermined their governance by telling them, because B.A. Capstone was a “course” and not a “program,” he had the authority to remove the class from the curriculum. During the meeting, Dean Nadarajan told us students that B.A. Capstone was an “experimental” course that was continuing to be tweaked and that, as it was classified as an elective, it didn’t merit the need for studios.

B.A. students work just as hard on their senior projects as B.F.A.s, as affirmed by a faculty member who taught both courses: “My students built a body of work while earning only four credits for the year. Yet, they worked just as hard as the B.F.A. students who were earning twice as many credits.” So even if the changes were applied to new students and put to a faculty vote, we still feel like we deserve credit where credit is due, and we definitely want to protect that opportunity for future cohorts.

To the Stamps Administration: We, as the Stamps student body, would like for a student committee to be formed to allow us to have input on future changes that would impact students. Simply, we would like greater transparency in changes to the curriculum. We would like any future changes to be put to a faculty vote, and for that vote to be informed by student input. We would ask that Capstone/Senior Studio be classified as a program and be offered for nine credits, or that B.A. students have the option to take IP. If a smaller program is preferable to some students, then a six, four or three-credit program could also be offered to both B.F.A. and B.A. students. We would like studio space. We are committed to working with Stamps to identify potential exhibition and studio spaces that would fit our needs and, as we are aware of the space issues, we will press the provost on this issue as well. We would like to show our work alongside our B.F.A. peers at the end of Winter semester, not December, so that we have a full year to work, and so that the work is visible to our families who come for graduation.

To the Provost: We would like to have a conversation about the space issues at Stamps, especially because it has disproportionately affected B.A. students over B.F.A. students. While we understand that there is a budget model in place that monitors the cash flow of the University, the “most important component” of the activity-based budget (the part of the budget concerning specific schools) is the General Fund Supplement. This section states that “It is this element that gives the Provost leverage in determining the budget and, therefore, the sets of activities undertaken by units.” You have a certain amount of discretion concerning the issues at Stamps. We as students understand that we have a rudimentary understanding of how, at the end of the day, the books are balanced, but we would like to work together to determine how to solve the issues that have hindered Stamps. 

To everyone: Speak up. We can have a voice if we work together. Everybody wants to work together. We all have the same goals in mind: to ensure that we, as students, get the fullest education possible. I know we want that. I know our professors want that. I know the administration wants that, and I’m sure the provost does too. But so far, there has been a void of information. Transparency from the highest levels of the University to those on the ground — students, faculty — is necessary to solve any issue. That is the purpose of this essay. To ensure transparency and accountability. 

I’d like to add that we are thankful that Dean Nadarajan and the Stamps faculty have been listening to us. We are committed to working together, and while we do have a list of demands, that’s only to ensure that we can continue to work together. Students are capable, willing and invested, so please look at us as a resource, not a unit or product. We’re ready.

Akaash Tumuluri is a senior in the Penny Stamps School of Art and Design.