​​​​​​​​​​​School of Critical Studies Academic Requirements

I. BFA Program

General Critical Studies Requirements

CalArts is committed to providing a course of study, which advances both the practice of the arts, and a broad program of general education designed to enable students to consider aesthetic questions within larger socio–cultural, ethical and political contexts. The emphasis on the close relationship between critical studies and studio practice at CalArts reflects the visionary commitment to inter and cross–disciplinary study on which the Institute was founded.

A CalArts education is based on both artistic and intellectual rigor. To ensure that every undergraduate has the broad knowledge and cultural sophistication needed for successful arts careers in today’s world, all candidates for the BFA Degree must complete the Critical Studies Undergraduate Requirements in addition to coursework in their individual programs.

Designed to broaden vision and encourage well–informed, innovative art making, the Critical Studies Undergraduate Requirements help students to develop analytical, writing and research skills, and to learn about a broad range of topics in the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and cultural studies. Many courses directly related to the student’s own métier are also included in the Critical Studies curriculum.

Students awarded a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree are expected to have met the following learning goals:

  • The ability to think, speak, and write clearly and effectively.
  • An informed acquaintance with domains of knowledge beyond the métier such as those in the humanities, cultural studies, natural and social sciences, and other artistic practices.
  • Awareness of theories and methodologies from multiple disciplines and an ability to assess the strength of their claims.
  • Acquisition of research skills and an awareness of the ethical issues involved in conducting and presenting such research.
  • The capacity to incorporate critical thinking skills into one’s academic work and creative process.

All BFA candidates are expected to have taken a total of 46 units in Critical Studies by the time of graduation. This amounts to 2–3 courses per semester (6 units) and represents about 40 percent of each student’s overall course load.

For satisfactory progress toward the BFA degree, students should have accumulated the minimum required Critical Studies units for their year level as follows:

Year Level / Minimum CS Units Completed

  • End of First Year (BFA1–2) 10 units
  • End of Second Year (BFA2–2) 22 units
  • End of First Semester, Third Year (BFA3–1) 28 units
  • End of Second Semester, Third Year (BFA3–2) 34 units
  • End of First Semester, Fourth Year (BFA4–1) 40 units
  • End of Second Semester, Fourth Year (BFA4–2) 46 units

**Any student failing to meet the above year–level requirements will be subject to Academic Warning. (see Institute Policies and Procedures for details. Policy 3.1.4.1 Academic Warning, Probation, Dismissal and Appeal: Deficiencies Leading to Warning, Probation and Dismissal).

The Critical Studies Level 100 Curriculum

The Critical Studies Level 100 Curriculum is a graduation requirement. In the fall semester of the first year, all students must take "Introduction to Critical Studies" a course that welcomes students into the critical conversations that are at the heart of Critical Studies courses and to prepare them to engage with a variety of modes of critical inquiry. In the spring semester of the first year, all students must take a Level 100 Special Topics course. These courses cover a variety of subjects ranging from literature to biological sciences. Both "Introduction to Critical Studies" and Level 100 Special Topics courses have an intensive writing workshop component.

Exemptions from Level 100 Curriculum

Students either participate in both the fall and spring Level 100 courses, or are exempt entirely.

  • Students with 15 or more Critical Studies transfer units, prior to matriculation, are exempt. This exemption occurs even if they do not have the equivalent of "Composition-101".
  • Students with a previous Bachelors degree are also exempt.

Students with fewer than 15 CS transfer units would have to take the Level 100 requirement regardless of having the equivalent of "Composition-101". This is because the first year sequence is an introduction to Critical Studies and not simply a sequence of composition or writing intensive courses.

Deferral of Level 100 Sequence

Non-exempt students who do not test into the first year curriculum will take the recommended English Fundamentals courses in their first year. These same students will then commence the Level 100 sequence in their second year. Currently this group only includes ELL students but could be expanded to developmental English language learners.

Retaking Level 100 Courses or Sequence

Students who fail to receive credit (by dropping, withdrawing from the course, or by receiving an NC) for either, or both, Level 100 courses will have to retake the course the next time it offered. Failing the Fall Semester course will not prevent students from taking the Spring Semester course. Because these two courses are a graduation requirement (unless exempted upon matriculation), students will have to complete the courses to be awarded a BFA. Transfer credit is not accepted for the Level 100 Curriculum. The Level 100 Curriculum is a prerequisite for all Critical Studies 300 and 400 level courses. Students who fail during their first attempt will be monitored carefully by the Academic Advisors and will be required to use the Writing Center when they retake the required course(s). This close monitoring will continue until the student has completed the requirement.

The Critical Studies Core Curriculum

Throughout the remaining three years, students must get at least two units in each of the following Critical Studies categories:

  • Humanities
  • Social Sciences
  • Cultural Studies
  • Science and Math

The remaining units are elective and drawn from other courses offered by the School of Critical Studies, or can be fulfilled through Advanced Placement credits and liberal arts / general education transfer credits from other accredited colleges and universities. To successfully complete the 46 units, it is expected that after the first year, the student will need to take an average of two to three Critical Studies courses per semester (or 6 units).

Residency Requirement

Students with previous bachelors degrees and students transferring in undergraduate credits are required to complete at least 8 CalArts Critical Studies Core Curriculum units in order to obtain a BFA degree from CalArts. While all students graduating will have to meet the Core Curriculum requirement, students transferring in from outside institutions may apply transfer credits to any of the corresponding Critical Studies categories up to a maximum of 38 units. The remaining 8 units (Residency Requirement) which must be taken in Critical Studies at CalArts may fall in the following distribution:

  • 8 units in any combination of Critical/Intellectual Skills, Creative Writing, Computing and Research Skills, Humanities, Cultural Studies, Social Sciences, Science/Math providing the student will have met the Core Curriculum requirement by graduation.

Upper Division Courses

Upper Division courses (400 level) assume students are already familiar with the modes of thought and writing associated with a given subject area.

Foreign Language Courses

Students may take or transfer foreign language credit at accredited institutions outside CalArts during their period of residence (for elective credit only).

Critical Studies Minor

Students who have completed their Level 100 and Core Curriculum requirements have the option of obtaining a Minor in Critical Studies in one of the following categories: Creative Writing, Humanities, Social Science, Cultural Studies or Science/Math. Students are required to take 18 units from their designated area of concentration (12 of which must be completed at CalArts). Students are not required to take additional units to obtain the Minor in Critical Studies; rather students would focus existing unit requirements (46 total) in a specific curriculum area. 

Independent Studies

Students who have completed their Level 100 and Core Curriculum requirements have the option of working closely with a Critical Studies instructor on a well–defined academic project for elective credit. Typically these will be awarded 1 unit and only in exceptional circumstances will be awarded 2 units. Independent Studies allow for further research and development of themes and ideas students have encountered in Critical Studies courses and/or in their métiers; they will not replace Critical Studies courses or requirements. Independent Studies may comprise no more than 10 units of the total 46 needed to graduate.

To obtain credit for an independent study, the student must fully define his/her project in a written Independent Study proposal learning goals drawn from the Critical Studies rubric. The proposal must also include a schedule of meetings and assignments jointly determined by the student and the instructor. Independent Study contracts can be obtained in the Registrar's office.

Critical Studies Policies on Grading and Attendance

The School of Critical Studies adheres to the Institute policies on grading.  If a student is unable to complete the requirements for any Critical Studies course by the end of the semester, he or she may ask the instructor for an incomplete in lieu of a grade. At the instructor’s discretion, a HP, P or LP grade will be awarded only if missing work, completed to a satisfactory standard, is submitted by the end of the following semester.  Otherwise the student will receive a No Credit.

If a student misses more than 3 sessions of one class and does not pursue the formal Withdrawal option, a NC will be given and will appear on external records.

Institute–Wide MFA Offerings

Critical Studies also offers Upper Level courses, which are open to MFA students throughout the Institute, and to upper level BFAs, provided the Level 100 curriculum requirement has been completed. These classes give insight into contemporary criticism and arts practice, with graduate–level readings and assignments.

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II. MFA Writing Program

The two-year School of Critical Studies MFA Creative Writing Program offers a variety of options for study: the Creative Writing Program—the choice of most students; Interschool Writing; and Integrated Media (IM). At any time during their residency, MFA Creative Writing students may choose to complete one of four interdisciplinary concentrations: Writing + Performativity, Documentary Poetics, Writing and Its Publics or Image + Text. Genre experimentation and an emphasis on critical contexts for creative work characterize each of these options.  In support of their writing and thinking, students are paired with a faculty mentor, and work closely with them throughout their time in the Program.

The goal of our MFA Creative Writing Program is to enable students to shape their own unique practice, while familiarizing themselves with an international range of aesthetic and critical traditions through our inclusive and future-forward curriculum.  MFA Creative Writing Program students will:

  • cultivate a writing practice that allows them to produce work to the best of their creative and analytical potential
  • become fluent in a vocabulary that encourages communication and understanding of their own practice as well as of the work of their peers
  • prepare to become practitioners in a career that may include teaching through training in critical thinking and pedagogy
  • produce a thesis that accurately reflects their capacities as writers and that embodies their aesthetic foundation and vision
  • become good citizens of the workshop/seminar and learn to function within a community of artists, understanding the value of that community while following their own compass as writers
  • draw meaningfully from the other arts and academic disciplines to inform their own writing, or to develop an interdisciplinary practice
  • develop a sustainable writing dynamic as they enter a world of increasing artistic risk and diversity

Our Program is designed to inspire students to explore and employ both "creative" and "critical" modes in their practices, without seeking to draw a hard line between the two. All students attend closely to questions of form and aesthetics, as well as to the historical, cultural and critical contexts of literary work.  Many classes provide a mixture of discussions and presentations on both assigned texts and student-generated work. In addition to the more traditional forms of lyric poetry, short story, essay, memoir, novel, literary/arts theory and reviewing, Program courses also cover mixed forms, such as prose poetry, micro-fiction and nonconforming "hybrid" writing that blurs the boundaries between memoir and theory, fiction and nonfiction, criticism and poetry. While not all classes are offered every year, over the two-year program students take a wide selection of courses, and are all encouraged to experiment with and create new forms and approaches.

The CalArts MFA Creative Writing Program is ideal for students keen to develop their confidence and range as writers and to benefit from CalArts' uniquely interdisciplinary and experimental atmosphere. The Program is also attractive to students who seek a formally expansive and critically challenging alternative to existing creative writing programs.

The requirements for being awarded a Master of Fine Arts degree in the Creative Writing Program are as follows:

  1. Students must maintain two years of residence (minimum).  The residence requirement may be extended for students specializing in writing for mixed media or interactive media formats depending on technical skills and in some cases for Interschool Writing students.
  2. Students must complete a minimum of 38 semester units (see chart below for minimum requirements). To ensure graduation in a timely manner, students are expected to complete at least 9 units per semester.
  3. Students must take 2 Core MFA creative writing courses per semester.  
  4. Students may also take upper level/Special Topics Critical Studies offerings and/or institute wide electives. Students interested in earning one of our named interdisciplinary concentrations need to take at least four elective classes in their area of concentration over the course of their time in the program.
  5. All 1st year MFA Creative Writing students must take the "Writing Now" course in their Fall semester. "Writing Now" is structured around the work of contemporary writers who will also be visitors to the Program. The course is taught by a member of the MFA Creative Writing faculty, and includes discussions, presentations, and workshops.
  6. In the Spring of their 1st year, all MFA-1 students must enroll in and attend "Visiting Writers," a one-credit course consisting of four visiting speakers, centered on each the Program's four concentrations: Image + Text, Documentary Poetics, Writing + Performativity, and Writing and Its Publics, which presents the Katie Jacobson Writer in Residence, who will visit the Program during Wintersession.
  7. All 2nd year students must enroll in and attend the "Visiting Writers" reading series in the Fall (for one  credit), and participate in the Katie Jacobson Writer in Residence programming for the Writing and Its Publics concentration during Wintersession.
  8. All 2nd year MFA Creative Writing students must take "Exit Strategies: Professional Development for Writers" in the spring semester of their second year. This course will occasionally meet in the evenings, on nights when the program hosts visitors. The Thesis Workshop is strongly recommended for all 2nd year students in the Fall semester, but not required. 
  9. In their final semester, all students are required to enroll in a thesis-related independent study with their mentors , to support the completion of a sufficient thesis project required for graduation.
  10. All students who are teaching at the Institute for the first time must be concurrently enrolled in the Graduate Teaching Practicum, a course designed to support students while teaching as well as prepare them for future pedagogical opportunities. The Graduate Teaching Practicum is offered in the Fall of every academic year.
  11. All students meet with their mentors a minimum of three times per semester for advisement with an additional meeting in spring semester to conduct mid-residency or graduation reviews.

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MFA Interschool Writing

Interschool Writing students enroll in both Critical Studies and in an MFA program offered by another school of the Institute-Art, Dance, Film/Video, Music or Theater. Applicants must apply separately to each school. Requirements for the other métiers are set on an individual basis or according to that school’s requirements. The following list refers only to the Critical Studies component of the Interschool degree.

To receive the MFA degree in Interschool Writing, students are required to:

  1. Maintain two years of residence (minimum). The residence requirement may be extended for students specializing in writing for mixed media or interactive media formats depending on technical skills. It may also be extended for students whose Interschool requirements exceed a two-year residence (for example, the School of Film/Video).
  2. Complete the same requirements as for the MFA Writing Program, except as noted in the chart of minimum requirements given below.

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MFA Writing Program, Integrated Media

Students who choose Integrated Media (IM) are enrolled as, and must complete the same requirements as the MFA Writing Program except as noted in the following chart of minimum requirements. Additional requirements-including IM seminars and critiques, specified Critical Studies courses, and electives from throughout the Institute-are set on an individual basis in consultation with the Office of Integrated Media.

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MFA Creative Writing Program, Minimum Requirements (38 Credits)

To maintain financial aid eligibility, students are required to take a minimum of 9 units per semester; they are not encouraged to take more than 12.

Year One

Semester One
Core MFA (3)
Core MFA or Elective (3)
Writing Now (3)

Semester Two
Core MFA (3)
Core MFA (3)
Core MFA or Elective (3)
Visiting Writers (1)

Year Two

Semester Three
Core MFA or Thesis Workshop (3)
Core MFA, Graduate Teaching Practicum, or Elective (3)
Core MFA (3)
Visiting Writers (1)

Semester Four
Exit Strategies: Professional Development for Writers (3)
Core MFA or Elective (3)
Directed Study with Mentor (3)

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Interschool & IM MFA Writing Program, Minimum Requirements (29 Critical Studies)

Year One

Semester One
Core MFA (3 credits)
Writing Now (3 credits)

Semester Two
Core MFA (3 credits)
Core MFA or Elective (3 credits)
Visiting Writers (1 credit)

Year Two

Semester Three
Core MFA or Thesis Workshop (3 credits)
Core MFA, Graduate Teaching Practicum, or Elective (3 credits)
Visting Writers (1 credit)

Semester Four
Core MFA (3 credits)
Getting It Out There: Professional Development for Writers (3 credits)

Independent Study with Mentor (3 credits)

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III. MA in Aesthetics and Politics

Students graduating from the MA Program in Aesthetics and Politics are expected to:

  • Have read widely and deeply in the literature on modern and contemporary political, critical and aesthetic theory;
  • Be able to articulate the complex relationship between political and aesthetic problems, theories and movements;
  • Write critically and at a scholarly level for a variety of publications and audiences; and
  • Begin to engage in dialogue with the world beyond CalArts.

This program embraces a multi-perspectival approach to the various intersections between the realms of the aesthetic and the political.  First, the MA focuses on what is normally understood as political art -- i.e. art-making that chooses to become critical discourse in the public sphere.  Second, the program addresses the reverse phenomenon -- the famous "aestheticization of politics" that so troubled critical theorists during the twentieth century and that continues to invite further reflection.  Finally, the program aims to become a pole of attraction for students, artists, and scholars interested in the type of theorizing -- characteristic of continental thought -- that contextualizes aesthetic and political phenomena within a dynamic space in which social meanings are generated, renewed and contested.  Applicants interested in these fascinating crossroads and increasingly burgeoning fields of study will have the unique opportunity of enjoying the artistic environment and interdisciplinary dialogue offered by CalArts.

The MA Aesthetics and Politics is a one-year full time plus one-year low-residency degree program that engages students in an intensive critique of the relations between culture, politics and society in today's demanding global context. Taught in the unique arts-centered environment of CalArts, the Program offers a series of rich and dynamic core courses that span globalization, technology and media, politics and the arts, socio-economics and urbanism. Concentrated elective options delivered by a dynamic faculty and supplemented by a diversity of visiting specialists as well as public conferences enable students to work intimately with leaders in their field. Over two years, students work towards an independent thesis that marks the culmination of their degree and are provided a mentor to support the development of their work. The MA program equips students with a unique combination of creative and analytical skills that enable them to enter their professional milieu with confidence and the ability to participate in practical, cultural and theoretical fields of work. 

This program is flexible and substantial enabling students to focus time and depth on their studies, to take advantage of the creative environment of CalArts, to have access to a larger and more diverse cross-section of theorists and artists, and to opt to study while working in their second year.

Credits 

The Program requires students to take 36 credits of study spread out over two years: the first year, 24 credits, the second low-residency year, an additional 12 credits. The low residency year enables to students to undertake flexible learning options, virtual classes, and provides opportunities for alternative study, internships and professional networking.

To arrive at the required number of credits for the MA, students can add elective courses or independent studies in either year one or two. Alternatively, internships or study abroad can also be credited towards the MA degree. 

Year One (24 credits) 

During the first year, students complete almost all of their core and elective course credits and engage in all aspects of campus life in the School of Critical Studies and at the California Institute of the Arts. Students complete the majority of their core and elective courses.

Core courses (21 credits) 

  • ​​​Contemporary Aesthetic Theory (3 credits) 
  • Contemporary Political Thought (3 credits)
​These two courses interface with urgent questions in art, politics and aesthetics, providing a historical and contemporary context for learning.
  • ​​Contemporary Art Theory (3 credits) 
  • Critical Discourse in the Arts and the Media (6 credits): A year-long core course that enables students to work closely with a specialized series of visiting researchers. 
  • Visiting Faculty seminar (2 credits): This seminar provides students with the opportunity to have a sustained intensive class with a key international thinker who leads a thematic seminar.
  • Theorist in Residence seminar (1 credit): Each year the Program invite a theorist of high critical esteem to visit the School. Past theorists have included Judith Butler, Fred Moten and Thierry de Duve. 
  • Thesis Seminar (3 credits): This course delivers methodology and critical training to prepare students for the development of their independent thesis work in year two. ​

Year Two (12 credits) 

During the second, low-residency year students complete their remaining coursework online and prepare their graduate thesis. The low-residency year also enables students to pursue internships, study abroad, or apply for continued graduate work under the supervision of the program faculty.

​​Core and Residency Requirement (10 credits) 

  • ​Theorist in Residence seminar (1 credit): Students are required to be on campus for two full-time weeks of study in the first two weeks of the Spring Semester. 
  • Critical Discourse in the Arts and the Media (3 credits): This course can be taken on-line or in person. Students will be given set assignments and are able to work virtually through on-line classrooms engaging with a series of visiting speakers. 
  • Thesis seminar (6 credits): ​​This course takes place in each semester, on-line or in person, under the supervision of a designated mentor. Students are also required to meet to discuss their thesis progress with their mentor in person during the two weeks on campus. 

Electives

Each year the MA program offers electives that cover a diversity of topics and methodological approaches. These include courses on subjects that include: neoliberalism and the history of governance; the question of political art today; philosophies of change and the aesthetics of disagreement; the city and architectural media-scapes; technology and the global environment; arts writing; territories of violence; new feminisms; critical race theory; and core methodological questions on the intersection of philosophical, political and artistic practice. Every semester, we offer about 3-4 elective courses, giving the students a relatively wide range of choices. Students can also choose electives that are not on the recommended list, but in this case they need to consult with the MA program director first. 

Independent Study

Faculty are also able to work with students through an Independent Study. Here a student is supervised by a faculty member on an agreed upon set project that supports the development of student work. 

  • First-year, Full-Time students would meet on campus during set office hours. The Independent Study course would include assignments that traverse a range of learning methodologies and outcomes that are specific to a student’s project. Assignments may include case studies, interview and dialogues, literary review portfolios, analytical, critical and creative writing skills. 
  • Low-residency students in their second year of study are welcome to attend their chosen electives in person on campus. The Program does not offer distance learning electives but does provide students to take Independent Study credit with faculty through distance learning. 
  • Internships (2 credits) The Program works with the Center of Life and Work to house students in productive internship environments that include NGO’s, galleries, museums and other cultural industry professions. We welcome students making their own internship arrangements and work with them to facilitate such projects.
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