Quality versus quantity: Students report frustrations with studio art class enrollment

Jan. 26, 2022, 8:35 p.m.

Freshman year is chock-full of firsts, from the first Stern burrito to the inaugural fountain-hopping expedition. Some learn to navigate sharing space with roommates, while others are new to crowded 100-person lecture halls. For starry-eyed freshmen, the first enrollment period passes in a giddy rush as their first quarter takes shape. In the shadows of these thrilling new beginnings, however, lurks an equally important milestone — their first rejection.

The experience is especially familiar to curious underclassmen hoping to explore studio art. Many are left disillusioned upon discovering the stringent application process to just take lower-level art classes.

The issue stems from the low enrollment capacity of studio art courses, which usually offer only a few sections with eight to 15 students each, according to Area Director for Art Practice Camille Utterback. Such small classes quickly become over-enrolled with eager students seeking to explore the arts or fulfill the Creative Expression Ways requirement. Instructors are then forced to make difficult decisions about whom to keep. For this purpose, the art and art history department has set a standardized admission priority ranking that privileges students with declared majors in the department.

Prioritizing these students is understandable, as they have largely have degree-specific requirements to fulfill — but it is unfortunate for the average undeclared frosh, who will find herself or himself nearly at the bottom of the list.

Slim chances of enrollment have thus been a source of irritation among interested underclassmen.

Take, for example, Jackie Liu ’25, a Daily staffer and skilled acrylic painter who has used art as an outlet for creative expression all her life. In recent years Liu has shared her passion on TikTok, where she has amassed a sizable following. Open to exploring art education during her time at Stanford, Liu attempted to enroll in the newly offered Art Practice Foundations I last fall, but was ultimately rejected. She has since declared an Art Practice major, allowing her to successfully enroll for the winter.

“It’s kind of backward that you often have to declare the major before you can even take a single class in the department,” Liu said.

For Kelly Wang ’25, photography is a passion tied to family. It has brought her close with her father, and even forms an important part of family vacation traditions. Wang was excited to further develop her artistic style in Introduction to Photography.

At first, she thought the process ended on SimpleEnroll, “but a couple of weeks before class started, they sent out an email” which stipulated that registering for an Art Practice course in Axess does not guarantee a place in the course. The email went on to say that many studio courses are over-enrolled, and instructors will determine who is actually in the class based on responses to a course enrollment form. It also included instructions for being added to the waitlist in case of rejection. Wang said it felt “frustrating and annoying” to be left in limbo for so long, only to be rejected and end up back at square one.

Fellow frosh Robin Hwang ’25 hoped to take the introductory photography course in order to formally learn what has, for now, been a self-taught hobby. “I thought the intro classes at Stanford were perfect for that,” Hwang said. Yet when roughly half of the students that were initially enrolled in the Introduction to Photography section were turned away, she found herself browsing the course catalog once again.

Describing her annoyance with the rejection, Hwang said, “You have to explain yourself, and your answer has to be validated — to be considered good enough. It’s not really allowing or providing easy access for exploring that creative side of your scope of interest.”

Several factors inform the low enrollment capacity of studio art classes, but perhaps the greatest is the hands-on teaching methodology. According to Utterback, these courses always include an individual critique component, in which the class gives 10 to 15 minutes of feedback on each student’s work. A pedagogical focus on “intensive individual critique,” she said, “means we need to keep our classes small to allow this personalized feedback.” Along the same lines, Utterback noted that the department also strives to foster an intimate, involved sense of community between students and instructors — an important goal that would be impossible to achieve in a larger, more anonymous class.

Finally, the director also cited technical impediments, such as purchasing materials and having sufficient space for student workspaces.

A lack of tenured faculty poses another potential logistical limitation. Last year, the department’s 19 tenured professors (compared with 68 in the Computer Science department) taught the art practice major’s 35 undergraduate and graduate students, along with students not formally associated with the program. Drawing I alone enrolled 38 students during fall quarter.

Even Gabriela Fedetto ’23, a junior majoring in art practice, was turned away from one of her desired classes this quarter due to over-enrollment. She sympathized with her fellow frustrated students, noting the contrast between the “scale and extravagance of the McMurtry building” and the discouraging inaccessibility. Fedetto also pointed out that “a lot of people don’t even know that Stanford offers an art practice major, and I think part of that reason is, you know, you don’t hear people taking art classes because there are only twelve people per class.”

A photo of the first floor of the McMurtry art buildig.
The McMurtry building is a central hub for Stanford’s Art & Art History department. (Photo: SOFIA GONZALEZ-RODRIGUEZ/The Stanford Daily)

Utterback encouraged students to persevere and work around the logistical limitations by taking advantage of the waitlist or, for frosh and sophomores, to look into Introductory Seminars. Additionally, she stated that the Art & Art History department uses data on unmet demand to help allocate its resources. Utterback also said the department offers nearly 100 studio courses each year, with a high concentration at the entry level. In another move toward increased accessibility, the 2020–2021 school year saw the elimination of course fees for art practice courses.

Nova Wu ’23, a prospective engineer who was able to enroll in Drawing I on her second attempt, said that art courses can benefit people from diverse academic backgrounds: “There’s a lot you will learn from these sorts of art classes that I think could help you in some engineering respects, like how to design machinery, capture what you observe.”

Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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