History off the Shelf: History goes online

Opportunities for furthering the productive relationship between the Modern History Faculty and its constituency of secondary school pupils have recently been transformed by an imaginative use of modern technology to bring together the communities of dons, graduates, undergraduates, and sixth-formers in discussing historical issues of mutual interest. John Watts explains.

Off the Shelf website

‘What caused the French revolution?’, asks Stephen, a furry fox-like creature with a slightly sleazy grin. ‘I think the crown’s financial crisis was the most important factor. It meant the king had to appeal to the people at a time when his regime was vulnerable’. Tester agrees. S/he appears to be some kind of robot, but his/her pretty cogent view is that it’s not just the shortage of money that’s the problem, but the structure of French taxation: the nobles paid too little and the peasants paid too much. Tamsin suggests that the financial crisis was just a short-term cause: surely the ideas of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution provide the important context (Tamsin looks human, but is a disconcerting shade of yellow). John gives more weight to the sexual promiscuity of Marie Antoinette, but Vicki reminds him that this was just popular gossip, and Irra, who has one eye much larger than the other, develops that idea to suggest that the really crucial factor in shaping a revolution was the new-found power of the people: in the hubbub of the 1790s, popular gossip could shape the fortunes of regimes.

This is an extract from an on-line debate hosted by ‘History Off the Shelf’, an on-line community for sixth-form historians that we piloted in the Faculty last term. With gizmos called ‘emoticons’, trendy usernames, and visual signatures for the most regular contributors, even a whiskery topic like the causes of the French Revolution acquired a contemporary appearance, but what really mattered about this pilot project was that sixth-formers from a handful of schools up and down the country were given a chance to debate historical topics with one another, with Oxford students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, and with the occasional kind-hearted colleague (Steven Gunn facing a lengthy grilling on Henry VIII and David Priestland answering questions about that other A-level dictator, Joseph Stalin). This was a widening-participation initiative, funded with Oxford’s share of HEFCE ‘access’ funds and aimed at breaking down the barriers that discourage some young people from applying to a university like Oxford. We were attracted by the idea of creating a web-based discussion forum for two reasons in particular. First, it would be accessible to almost all young people in the target age-range, at least through their schools, if not also through home PCs; participants wouldn’t have to show any initial interest in Oxford, or sign up for a visit – they could simply log on and join in. Second, it provided a means of drawing school students into the world of university through practising the kinds of skills that we actually seek to encourage. This, we thought, would really de-mystify Oxford: while young people at school may or may not be relieved to be told that Oxford is ‘friendly’, or free-thinking, or full of wonderful libraries, it seemed to us that we’d be more likely to attract applications from promising young historians if we gave them a means of getting to know us through historical debate – something we automatically have in common, regardless of social background.

During an eight-week pilot, the web-site received over 2,250 hits from students at seven schools, and more than 100 comments were posted in 32 separate debates. Evidently, more young people wanted to look than to join in at this stage, and some of the postings were put up by our own student moderators, who clearly enjoyed this novel means of arguing with each other. It also appears that school students saw this more as a resource to flesh out their A-level work than a means of learning more about university, but – in the feedback received so far – it’s clear that, for many of them, it confirmed an existing interest in studying History beyond 18 and opened their eyes to the role of debate and interpretation in our subject. Whether or not we can take this project forward and open our forums on a national scale remains to be seen: we’ll need more money, and we’ll need more time from Oxford staff and students, but it’s clear that there is real potential here. Perhaps the last word should belong to Nosey. ‘When they were doing a big guillotining session,’ he asks, ‘how did they keep the right head with the right body afterwards?’. Now there’s a question.

- John Watts

Corpus Christi College Admissions Co-ordinator