Unlike A-level, or school essays, university essays are not knowledge tests to see who can remember the most facts and statistics, but rather who can write the best logical argument.
Tom Wells is a first-year BA history student at Somerville College. He came from a non-selective state school outside Reading and wants to help others to access their full potential. His passion surrounds historiography (‘the study of history’) and how society engages with itself and its past while advocating there is more to History than old assumptions that it puts people to sleep. In this article, he attempts to explain how students can get involved with historical discussions.
Oxford University has kickstarted countless passions, life purposes and careers for many authors, academics and world leaders throughout its history. But an Oxford degree contains more substance than simply acquiring knowledge (although we all go because of it!) In this regard, a question keeps re-occurring in my mind that leads to some interesting answers: what is the point of ‘historical knowledge’ if you feel you cannot apply it to the real world?
History in the twenty-first century has always sparked intrigue in human decisions, actions and relationships. Recent books, like Helen Carr and Susannah Lipscomb’s What is History, Now? have opened up new and intriguing conversations about how professional historians and the public can engage with our modern culture. For example, environmental history, queer history, disability history, feminist history (and much more!) have all taken their rightful place within the historian’s toolbox. And the importance of history can be seen in the current discussion about ‘colonisation’: How do we memorialise specific people? How can museums share past stories sensitively?
Public historians write books, give seminars and debate with each other on how history should be interpreted (with the age-old question of it being simply subjective to the historian’s viewpoint). As a first-year student, it feels like students don’t always know how to integrate themselves within this community. Of course, history students haven’t gained all the tools to put forward an engaging interpretation; however, I’m sure that practice in this field will help a student’s confidence in writing essays as well as applying the knowledge they’ve learnt to a real-world scenario.
At Oxford, history students are made aware of the following journals: History Workshop Journal, English Historical Review and Past & Present. History requires debate to maintain its purpose of shaping our perspective of the past. But how can students step into this ‘discussion’? The Oxford University History Society (OUHS) has created a specific journal for students from any university to write and share essays and articles.
A history lecture at the beginning of the Michaelmas term taught us the best way to write concise prose that persuades and argues for a specific point. Unlike A-level, or school essays, university essays are not knowledge tests to see who can remember the most facts and statistics, but rather who can write the best logical argument. So, it is clear that history students learn how to engage with this type of material. Yet many students don’t actively engage in internal or external historical debates. Are there ways for students to engage with historians outside the university (like public historians)? Like anything else, a student must pursue their interests individually, but it is always a good reminder when somebody reminds me that opportunities are available.
Personally, fear wrecks creativity and confidence within my work. Asking myself if great historians like Edward Gibbon, E.H. Carr, Lucy Worsley and Olivette Otele had doubts about their work, challenges my preconceptions that every essay or article must communicate new and original concepts. Reading countless online and magazine articles, which discuss similar ideas, proves there are no original ideas – just new ways how to display and interpret the information.
Any history student has the opportunity to enter the historical discussion. And maybe it is time for students to challenge the experts (either getting into contact with professional historians or writing for a journal or a magazine – e.g., BBC History). If this becomes too time-consuming, maybe just discuss and critique current affairs and social preconceptions with friends and family. Ultimately, I hope this helps you (either as a prospective candidate or a history undergraduate) to realise that history serves an important purpose that you – as a student or an enthusiast – can get involved with. You might not come up with a brand-new ideology to change how society views the subject, but you can certainly provide history with your viewpoints.
History Workshop Journal - https://academic.oup.com/hwj
English History Review - https://academic.oup.com/ehr
Past & Present - https://academic.oup.com/past