Studying Modern History at Oxford

Although in the last quarter of a century, greater emphasis has been placed on research and graduate study, the core of the work of the Faculty remains the teaching of undergraduates most of whom will not become professional historians. With evolving demands of pupils and new interests in the past embracing fresh aspects, approaches, periods and regions, the Faculty has responded by widening the scope of the History degree syllabus and the methods whereby it is examined.  David Parrott describes how things have changed.


The undergraduate History degree as I experienced it in the late 1970s stood at the end of several decades of continuity; a few additions and disappearances amongst Special and Further Subjects were all that differentiated it from the degree undertaken in the 1950s. Undergraduates arriving in their first term studied two foreign texts, with de Tocqueville, Bede and Burckhardt as the choices of the vast majority. In addition they took either a paper on historical geography or one focusing on the writing of Gibbon and Macaulay. This first term, whose dramatic denouement was a three-paper Preliminary Examination in the Schools, was followed by the stately, examination-free – and for most of us rather less vividly-recalled – progress towards Finals. Three English History outline courses offered a broad and, in theory, continuous overview of major events and issues from the Anglo-Saxons to the first decades of the twentieth century; two General History courses were in the main focused upon European history, though a certain amount of Colonial and United States history made an appearance in the later periods; a course on political theory studied thinkers from Aristotle to Mill. In Michaelmas of the third year the student would pursue a source-based Special Subject, and this was followed by a broader, but also text-based, Further Subject in the penultimate term. The final examination supplemented these nine course units (then, as now, the Special Subject was examined by two papers) with an additional ‘General Historical Paper’ which was, in theory at least, untaught. The ten three-hour closed papers were sat morning and afternoon over five days, a charitable innovation of the 1970s having been the insertion of a weekend break into the middle of the process.

Books inside the History Faculty Library

Much has changed in the structure of the history course since then, though throughout the successive rounds of syllabus reforms, the ideal still remains of maintaining breadth while leading the student towards progressive specialization in the latter stages of the course. The most obvious transformation was, in the 1980s, the abandonment of the one-term Preliminary Examination and the substitution of History Moderations at the end of the first year, a change which also entailed rethinking the wider structure of the history course. The Moderation examination consists of four papers. Two of these are outwardly familiar; all first years select a course of British History and one of General History. Students also choose an Optional Subject – one from a number of relatively specialized courses which encourage detailed source-based examination of a particular theme. These Optional Subjects include, for example, the French Revolution and Napoleonic Empire, the Spanish Conquest of Mexico and Peru, or English Chivalry and the Hundred Years’ War. The fourth element of the Moderation course also offers a choice between a foreign text – de Tocqueville remains the most frequently chosen; a course examining ‘Approaches to History’, looking at the various ways in which methods and material from, for example, archaeology, anthropology or art history have had an impact on recent historical study; another, more directly historiographical, option involving study of major historians from Tacitus to Ranke, and including both Gibbon and Macaulay; or, finally, a study of the uses of quantification in history, combining work on statistical methodology with particular historical case studies.

The shift to Moderations facilitated, and in some cases required, a number of other changes. It will probably come as little surprise that ‘English’ has been redesignated as ‘British’ History, though Faculty opinion remains divided about the extent to which the courses have truly become a study of the British Isles. Related to these concerns about geographical coverage has been awareness of the practical limits to anything approaching comprehensive chronological coverage of the history of England or Britain. The introduction of Moderations required the British History courses to be reduced from twelve to eight tutorials each, while an exponential growth in the quantity of books and articles published on virtually every aspect of British History has made the ideal of broad coverage less and less attainable in any realistic number of tutorials. In practice, tutors teaching, for example, British History II (1330–1685) were usually offering students either a study of late medieval history or a course focused on the Tudors and Stuarts. Thus it seemed better to formalize what was already a logical response to an unattainable ideal, and divide British History into six periods extending from c. 300 to the present. This is soon to be increased to seven periods, as the modern British historians argue that a course which aims to provide coverage of issues extending into the twenty-first century must start later than 1830, as is at present the case with British History VI, and have proposed BH VII, from 1924 to the present.

If these represent the main changes which have occurred as a result of the introduction of a first-year Moderation examination, a number of other developments are about to come into effect in the Final Honour School. In part, these are a response to comments about the Oxford History degree made by external examiners and by both internal and external review panels. We have been criticized for an ‘excessive sameness’ in our examination methods, and, partly related to this, for the absence of a dissertation, an extended piece of original, source-based research undertaken by all students with the guidance of tutors, and submitted as an element of the Final Examination. After some debate, partly because we have always provided the option of writing a dissertation within the syllabus, the Faculty is about to implement a series of changes that will both accommodate a 12,000-word dissertation for all undergraduates, and go some way to providing a more differentiated system of assessment. In reviewing our existing procedures we rejected the formalized, ‘continuous assessment’ of term-work practised in most other universities, which we believe would fundamentally alter the character and intellectual potential of the tutorial, which remains at the heart of studying History at Oxford. 

From October 2003 the second-year Modern History student will begin his or her Finals course with a choice of a British or a General History course, following this with the Further Subject in the Hilary term, and a further British or General History course in Trinity, at which point they will also be encouraged to think about a dissertation topic and to undertake some preliminary consultation with tutors. Spread across the Trinity term of the second year and the Hilary of the third will be preparation, via lectures and college-based classes, for a Comparative History, Methodology and Historiography course (‘Disciplines of History’) which will revert to examination through a three-hour paper instead of, as in recent years, a single, lengthy essay, written in the course of the third year. Michaelmas of the third year will be devoted, as before, to the Special Subject, but in place of one of the two examination papers, students will be required to submit an extended essay (6,000 words) answering a question chosen from an examination paper that will be made available around the middle of the term. Recognizing that academic work during vacations has to compete with the demands of employment and work-experience, and that there are substantial divergences between the external demands placed on students, it was decided that the final Hilary term should be set aside, apart from some college classes on ‘Disciplines’, for researching and writing the dissertation. The final examination will be based, as at present, upon seven examination units, but two of these will be submitted pieces of work and five will be three-hour closed examination papers. These FHS changes will be implemented for the history students who are at present in their first year in Oxford. We hope that with these responses to arguments for diversity in structure and assessment, we have consolidated the history course for the second decade of the present century while maintaining integrity of scholarship and the highest standards of teaching as the central values of the Oxford History degree.

David Parrott, Fellow and Tutor, New College 

Faculty Co-ordinator of Undergraduate Studies (2001–3)  

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