Opinion

Degree Reviews: Undergraduate History

This post is the first in a series of articles that The Oxford Blue will be publishing about Oxford degrees. First person, in depth, and critical accounts of an Oxford education are hard to find online and open discussions about what our University doesn’t get right are needed outside the confines of salty Oxfesses. We hope this series will be useful to prospective students, and resonate enough to spark real change about the issues addressed.

I think it’s much easier to criticise your degree than to praise it – especially when you’re having a bad day. So before I get negative, I think it’s important to remember everything my degree gets right. An Oxford history degree honours the beguiling variety of the past: one term I might be studying nineteenth-century America, the next, the radical anarchism of 1970s London. In 1st week alone, I found myself both perplexed by the intricacies of Devon criminal law in the 1650s and moved by powerful post-Second World War literary representations of trauma and memory. The choice of topics isn’t limitless, but it’s extensive enough that it avoids being prescriptive and accommodates a host of interests.

The reality is, anything I can criticise about studying history here (usually done, I have to admit, muttered under my breath as I descend into the Gladstone Link first thing on a Monday morning) could probably be levelled at any Oxford degree, and perhaps underlines the pressing need for a far-reaching rethink about the culture and expectations of academic life at this university.

An excessive workload, both in term time and vacations. Some dodgy lectures. A breakdown in communication between tutors rooted in the fragmented nature of the collegiate system, which leaves us with a million essays to submit in one week, and literally nothing to do the next. These are complaints I’ve heard about countless subjects.

And when I find myself frustrated by the (at times) fusty, pale, male and stale content of my degree, it’s not so much a criticism of Oxford as it is the global nature of history as a discipline perpetually fighting to be inclusive, relevant and engaging.

It’s not all as ossified as it could be – while there’s still loads of work to do on inclusivity and diversity within the subject, I’ve enjoyed multiple opportunities at Oxford to study different kinds of women’s history, colonial and anticolonial history and, in the radicalism topic, LGBTQ+ history. Tutors have encouraged me to think globally and apply the thinking of crusty Western philosophers to broader international comparisons that totally invert the way we understand the past in this part of the world.

Of course, history as an academic discipline has much self-improvement to carry out, but that’s an inescapable part of its evolution. Through the main arteries of most history degrees run a predominantly Western, white, masculine take on the past and Oxford, sadly, is no exception. Those old perspectives need to be reconciled – and not just supplemented – with the stories told by the precise kinds of people old-school history can’t be bothered with. And there are plenty of topics that have been done to death, seeing few real advances in decades. To address this, I’d like to see new, unexpected additions to the syllabus in the coming years.

If I had to change anything about my degree, though, it would be the ‘Approaches to History’ and ‘Disciplines of History’ components. Apologies to any of their fans. These modules cover the historiographical and methodological aspects of the course – you know, why do we write history the way we do? They’re clearly important, for understanding the historian’s craft is just as important as understanding what actually happened in the past. Yet both modules just feel tacked onto the main corpus of a term’s work. It’s always a case of cramming in an Approaches or Disciplines reading list on top of the usual stack of books and while it’s manageable, I’ve never been able to do properly do them justice, which frankly makes me feel like a dreadful historian.

I also think the history workload, like any Oxford workload, is just a bit too much. It’s a matter of opinion, of course, and I’m sure students of the sciences will currently be rolling their eyes at me, with my meagre two-and-a-half contact hours per week. But it would still be entirely possible to work seven days a week for this degree, which I don’t believe is particularly healthy – especially when expectations to work through vacations remain unfairly high ahead of collections. On the subject of collections, I’ve been told they’re ‘meaningless’ so often that I’m not entirely sure what they’re for any more. Is it perhaps time to start a conversation about their real value?

I suppose the real challenge for the historian is knowing when to stop, and that’s probably the case for any degree that has no handy framework to regulate how much you’re doing. Yet I can’t help but wish there was more time to breathe, to get properly engrossed in work without feeling like it’s always a race against the clock. I’ve so far avoided any ‘essay crises’, but the pace of things is still frenetic. Maybe it’s just me.

Thankfully, the flexibility of a history degree does allow you to control your time in a way that works for you. And while it can be tempting to work endlessly, there aren’t any rules about how much you ‘should’ be doing. You can start work at whatever time you want, and finish when it feels right. Flexibility doesn’t mean you work less – it just means you work on your own terms, and that’s both liberating and enjoyable.

My criticisms aren’t specific to my history degree, nor to Oxford for that matter. And while it’s positive to be critical and reflective, I wouldn’t want to do any other degree, or do it anywhere else. History at Oxford has plentiful room for improvement, but I invite you to suggest any degree for which that isn’t the case. It’s still been a challenging, exciting and illuminating experience that has taught me as much about myself and the way I think about the world as it has about the past. 

At the halfway point of my studies, I’m really looking forward to what comes next.

Oliver Shaw, 2nd Year Historian

Oliver Shaw

Oliver (he/him) is the Senior Current Affairs Editor at The Oxford Blue for the summer vacation and Michaelmas 2020. Oliver lives in Warwickshire and is entering his final year studying History at Merton College.