Thesis Guidelines

Criteria for MA Thesis, Digital Art History/Computational Media 

updated March 2022

The MA thesis consists of two parts, an essay and a digital project. The essay should be approximately 50+ pages, depending on the topic, and must establish:

  1. the scholarly question
  2. the historiography of the topic
  3. and the goals and purposes of the digital contribution, with a particular focus on how the digital intervention contributes to or changes the character of the research question.

A thesis must be fully and carefully annotated and include a substantial bibliography. Each essay must have an introduction, analysis, and conclusion.

The thesis must also include documentation of the digital/computational media component of the thesis, as well as the digital project itself. This documentation may be added as an appendix to the written essay, or contained in a thesis chapter.

Together the scholarly essay and the digital project form a final portfolio to be submitted at the conclusion of the program. As the culmination of their work, students are also expected to present their final projects formally to the Digital Art History/Computational Media Faculty and the public.


A thesis must consist of a study of some aspect of art history, material, or visual culture based on library and (where relevant) field research, and must have a substantial computational media practice component.  It is not simply a description, but rather an analysis and interpretation that seeks to focus the digital contribution towards a research question that can have a public-facing component.  The computational media project should help make an argument or explore a concept more effectively than a stand alone written essay. While some projects will tilt more towards academic and scholarly questions and representation, others will focus more on the technology and its affordances for an example project prototype. Thesis projects might arise out of your own previous scholarly work, current or new research, and/or as an offshoot of an existing Wired or CMAC Lab project. Collaborative elements are possible, but your thesis will be judged on your own, clearly defined written and digital contributions. Regardless of the emphasis, students are expected to do a "literature review" of the conversation they are entering in terms of prior and current approaches to their selected topic. Students may choose to use any combination of the digital tools listed at the end of this document, or additional tools with the approval of the Thesis Committee members.

A typical outline might include:

  1. Introductory chapter outlining the problem or topic
  2. Research-based historical background and/or computational media field survey addressing the question 
  3. Overview of your own digital project and contribution
  4. Documentation and reflection on your project and possible next steps for its implementation

For examples of past DAH/CM MA projects, consult Proquest from the Duke Libraries website.


The thesis is an independent scholarly contribution that demonstrates the utility of computational media technologies for a historical, cultural, artistic, or social question. The student must demonstrate an ability to gather, analyze, and interpret research data using the specialized literature in the particular field of study and theoretical perspectives that are current in the research area.

Criteria for Assessment

  • Clear statement of the research question and goals of the project
  • Form, quality and depth of the written documentation, presentation and intellectual argument
  • Form and quality of the digital component; success and clarity in relation to the stated goals of the project (for example: public outreach; mapping or modeling a research question)
  • Analysis and conclusions
  • Clear and articulate description of the research methodology
  • Demonstration of competence in the discipline
  • Clear and complete documentation of process and final project

Format of the Project

The essay must conform to the criteria of the Graduate School and have been submitted within the designated time frame for a degree to be awarded in December.

Other Critical Deadlines

Internal Program Deadlines

  • October/November of Fall of First First Semester: initial proposal meetings for Year 1 students
  • End of Semester of Fall of First Semester: preliminary outline & list of resources (suggested)
  • February 14 of Second Semester: first draft proposal due
  • February 14-April 15: revisions, advice, meetings with prospective committee members
  • April 11 of Second Semester: detailed chapter-by-chapter proposal/plan due, with prospective committee members identified
  • May 1 of Second Semester: Summer Research Plans submitted to the Department and advisor as part of continuing fellowship application; tentative decision about defending in Fall or Spring of the following AY should be made at this time
  • December Graduation: October 1 of Third Semester OR May Graduation: February 1 of the Fourth Semester  full draft submitted to the advisor; consultation with other committee members recommended throughout the process - students anticipating a May Graduation should still submit a Completion Plan by October 1

Graduate School Deadlines

  •  See the Graduate School website for the latest info, especially Graduation Deadlines - Graduate School deadlines takes precedence and are not flexible. The digital component must be included with the thesis on a cd or via link to a persistent, Duke archival site (not attached only to your netID).

Proposal Outline Details

This document must clearly state the research goals, the digital tools to be used, and provide a preliminary 1-page bibliography. Students must demonstrate that they are prepared to do the project, both in terms of content and technical expertise, and provide a preliminary outline for the paper, with a proposed timeline for completion of the different component parts. A primary advisor and possible additional committee members and advisors should be identified at this time.  The schedule must be shared with the research committee and contain specific dates for completion and review, keeping in mind the overall Graduate School Calendar. See Thesis Proposal Outline for details.

The Thesis Committee

In the second semester of Year 1, after the formal proposal has been revised and accepted in March, the official committee of three faculty will be established. They will both serve as advisors and will review the final project at its completion. Students are encouraged to identify and contact potential committee members during the first semester  - faculty teaching topical and technical classes are likely candidates for committees, but you may also look further afield, especially for subject-area advice. Note that some faculty and staff may not be members of the graduate faculty but can serve as additional advisors  beyond the core committee of three. (See the Graduate School list of Graduate Faculty to determine who is eligible to serve on your committee. You should also consult the DGS for final approval of your committee members.) The committee will meet with the candidate periodically and establish the plan for the summer research, the digital component, goals for the project, and a schedule of work until final submission. In most cases, the thesis research credits in semesters three and/or four will be taken with the primary advisor and other committee members, though students may also take or audit additional classes in the third semester if they need more credits or want to acquire additional skills. 

Sample Tools Summary for the MA

Core Topics:
  1. Content Management Systems / Blogging (WordPress)
  2. Digital Collections (Omeka/Neatline)
  3. Basic GIS/Mapping (ArcGIS, qGIS, OpenStreetMaps)
  4. Basic Data Visualization (Tableau, D3, web applications such as Palladio)
  5. Video Production (iMovie)
  6. Image Manipulation (Photoshop)
  7. 3D Modeling (Sketchup)
  8. 3D Acquisition (Photogrammetry, Laser Scanning)
Specialized Topics:
  1. HTML/CSS/JavaScript/JQuery
  2. Databases
  3. DiVE
  4. Physical Computing/Sensors
  5. Advanced Audio/Video production
  6. Text Analysis/Mining
  7. Others on on approval of the Thesis Committee