An open letter to FASS Dean Lisa Adkins
The 2023 cohort of Art History Honours students condemn proposed changes to Honours degrees under Future FASS.
To: Professor Lisa Adkins, Dean, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Sydney
Subject: Save Art History Honours — The Students’ Case against Proposed FASS Changes
Dear Professor Adkins,
The honours year for any student, of any faculty, is the most important period of their university education. Whether it is a student’s final year before entering the workforce, or their leapfrog into postgraduate study, it is a crucial year.
We feel strongly about the future of students like ourselves and are distressed that this culminating year is in jeopardy. We concur with the coverage in Honi Soit and affirm the negative reception your proposal has received thus far. This email will be also published as an open letter in the upcoming edition of Honi Soit to indicate the seriousness with which we write to you.
Drawn from several long conversations as a class, these are the salient arguments against proposed changes that we feel undermine the standing of our education:
Generalisation of academic study is anti-intellectual
Honours students enrol in this additional year to pursue intellectual passions under the guidance of experts, alongside a dedicated group of peers in the same field. We undertake honours to delve into specific academic study, not to spend fifty per cent of our time mixed with other disciplines for generalised study. Under your proposed changes, the unit ‘Vision and Frames Art Encounters’ will become ‘Theory and Method’ — a watered-down, generalised subject. This transformation comes at the cost of specificity and a slashing of half our coursework which is an invaluable aid to our thesis-writing; it will splinter the integrity of the once rigorous honours year.
The assumption that, when faced with a compromised honours year, students will opt for a masters degree is erroneous: those of us desiring a PhD are nonetheless required to complete honours first, and completing an entire additional degree is unappealing for many students. Put plainly, cutting honours in half is anti-intellectual and will mean that students will learn less.
These changes will impact the University’s reputation
Learning less will mean that the FASS-related Honours, Masters and PhD courses will reduce in quality. Future postgraduate students will be compromised by a reduced exposure to art history theory, academic research and writing skills, courtesy of their own university. Sydney-trained doctoral candidates will be starting their dissertations at a significant disadvantage.
The reputation of The University of Sydney will be tarnished nationally and internationally. How will graduates of your proposed program compete against students from other institutions who possess full, detailed and genuinely specialised honours years, like those available at the ANU and The University of Melbourne?
Art history University Medal winner and current tutor Aiden Magro supports our letter, and has stated to us that “As a current staff member involved in the recent strike campaign I think it is impossible not to view this move by the University as a cost cutting measure designed to move the focus away from research.”
Cutting subject-specific honours in half is an attack on senior staff
In a specialised Honours year, our professors are able to meaningfully exercise their expertise, delving deep into discipline-specific questions and teaching students who are fully equipped to appreciate their knowledge. Rather than allowing our professors to operate as the experts that they are, your mixed honours year will reduce them to caretakers of a broader, multi-discipline class, including students with little interest in Art History.
The University has claimed recently that teacher specialisation is a core concern, yet the replacement of specialised seminars with non-discipline-specific honours units goes against this goal. In discarding the value of being taught by researchers with genuine subject matter expertise, it is evident the University is uninvested in providing a world class educational experience for students.
Universities do not have the right to decide that ‘work-readiness’ is the goal of all education.
The University has consistently framed ‘work-readiness’ as the ultimate goal of course design. This assumption precludes a range of motivations for studying at university. The honours year remains a superior foundation for postgraduate study and research; a one-size-fits-all course of the style suggested neither prepares students for work nor provides a satisfactory conclusion to an honours program.
The concept of a vocationally directed undergraduate degree fails to recognise the purpose of the Honours year. Any student with a breadth of undergraduate knowledge and academic research skills, the capacity for creative and critical thinking, and an expanded worldview, is able to bring these skills to an employer. Where advanced, discipline-specific training is called for, the imposition of Interdisciplinary and so-called vocational units will not develop these more specialised skills. The proposed changes to the University’s existing art history honours program are an implausible substitute for the academic training provided by the department’s most senior staff, and act only to diminish the student satisfaction and reputation of art history students at the University of Sydney.