There is no one kind of Historian

         History is such a huge subject and while there may be bits you’re not so keen on, you will find the bit that fascinates and inspires you

Amy Forbes studied History at Magdalen College and graduated in 2020. She is from Nottingham where she attended her local state comprehensive school. She is currently working for Magdalen’s Outreach and Access team encouraging applicants from all backgrounds to apply to Oxford. 

amy forbes

It’s a bit of a joke among my friends the way my feelings changed from one extreme to the other when it comes to Oxford. First year me? Homesick, convinced I wasn’t smart enough and in all honesty, judgmental of somewhere I thought was home to only one kind of person. Now? Gutted to have come to the end of a much-loved history degree and staying on as Magdalen’s Outreach and Access Officer to encourage as many different people as possible to apply here.

I very nearly didn’t apply to Oxford. It had never really been on my radar until my history teacher mentioned it to me. I didn’t know anyone there and I had only heard scary myths about it. One of my biggest hesitations was that I had heard that to study history at Oxford you had to “eat, sleep and breathe” your subject. Don’t get me wrong, I loved history. I would think about things we’d learned in lessons for a long time after and I would follow up on things I was interested in. But it wasn’t my whole life! As I understood it, unless my room was stacked high with history volumes, and unless I turned down offers to socialise in order to watch new historical documentaries then I wasn’t right for Oxford. I essentially believed there was one type of Oxford student; the kind who works 24/7 and takes them self and their subject very seriously. 

I can say with full confidence now that there are all kinds of people at Oxford, all kinds of workers and no one kind of historian. We come from very different places and we all have very different interests. We even work differently. Some like to get up early and get their work out of the way so they can go out as many times a week as possible. Some like to do strict hours in the day, leaving the rest for extra-curriculars or time off. Some of us really enjoy a lie in (guilty), and love to work around other people preferably in a café. Others are late night workers. Oxford is like any other walk of life; there will be people you’re drawn to more than others, but you will find your tribe. I have met some of the kindest, most conscientious and interesting people I have ever known here. 

The second reason I did not want to apply was simply that I wholeheartedly believed I was not smart enough. I now know that every single one of my friends at Oxford thought the same of themselves. I remember leaving interviews thinking that they hadn’t gone badly, but that I was very unmemorable. To my astonishment, I got an offer. 

In all honesty, I found my first few weeks really challenging. I don’t think many people could tell. I made some great friends quite quickly, fresher’s week was fun and I really liked the history tutors I met. What I was struggling to shake was my imposter syndrome; I thought my success was a fluke. I was painfully shy in tutorials, after having been a vocal member of discussion groups at my school. I didn’t know where to start with reading; it all seemed to take me so much longer than some of my peers. My first tutorial partner was also a bit of a walking encyclopaedia.  I was so worried that I had just lost my identity, and the smart, confident person I was at school would never reappear in this new environment. I believed Oxford was against me, and that there was no room for someone like me to feel at home there.

Two things really helped me; reaching out and speaking to my tutor about this, and – quite simply - time! I spoke to my history tutor about feeling completely out of my depth. She listened and was completely reassuring about how common it is to feel that way. She also gave me some practical tips on reading more efficiently, making notes and setting myself time limits. I started to realise that I was a student – I was there to learn, not to demonstrate that I already knew it all! And as time went on in my first year, I got into a routine that worked for me. I figured out when I worked best in the days, in which libraries or cafes and how long reading and writing generally took me. Fast forward to the end of the year and I knew how to handle my weekly work and I could easily plan around it. Everyone, and I mean everyone (even your tutor) suffers from imposter syndrome at some point; it is normal and it does pass!

Finally, something that was contributing to my imposter syndrome was the fear that I was not a ‘real’ historian. I felt that I lacked sort of ‘general history’ knowledge. I would hear people rave about the beautiful architecture of Oxford and how special it felt to walk around an historic town – all I could think was that it looked nothing like Nottingham and that I must be a rubbish history student because the old buildings weren’t really doing it for me! Then, I took a paper called ‘Bodies of Feeling: Gender and Sexuality since 1500’. This paper blew my mind. I had always had an interest in gender history, but had assumed this meant just looking at ‘what women were doing’ in the Big History topics. This paper considered how the way that bodies are understood, represented, experienced and regulated has changed over time. We studied dress, beards, sex, male intimacy in the trenches to name only a few topics. I discovered that gender history meant so much more than amplifying some voices, it meant questioning the whole way history is done and finding new ways of recovering experiences of the past. These interests led me to my thesis topic looking at the experience of victims of domestic violence in Britain’s first women’s refuges. History is such a huge subject and while there may be bits you’re not so keen on, you will find the bit that fascinates and inspires you. Part of what I now do in Outreach is offer ways that you can start exploring these things ahead of applying; the history section of our resource pack has lots of suggestions to help you find the thing that inspires you!

Three years on and my friends are right; I could not feel more differently about Oxford than I did when I started. There are still many things I would like to see change at Oxford, but instead of feeling angry as I did in first year, I now just want to be part of the change. As well as getting past the imposter syndrome and learning there is no Oxford ‘type’, I thank my history degree for this change in approach. Finding histories I was passionate about helped me articulate many things I care deeply about, meeting people from such varied walks of life pushed my world view constantly and I hope to take what I learned from my thesis about organisations, welfare structures and feminism into a career. I owe much of who I am now and how I see the world to my history degree.  

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