Studying History

Why Study History at Oxford?

Oxford is one of the leading universities in the world in the study of History, at both undergraduate and graduate level.

The Oxford History Faculty is at the forefront of research. Pioneering research is being conducted on topics which are at the frontiers of current academic historiography, including cultural history, popular politics, economic history, the history of mentalités, law and history, gender studies, the history of the book, and the relationship between the arts and society. 

We believe strongly that research and teaching feed into each other. Most of the people who will teach you while at Oxford will be leading researchers in their fields, and lecturers are encouraged to put on new courses which reflect their research interests. 

Oxford attracts a host of visiting speakers, some as the guests of the University and its colleges, others at the invitation of flourishing student clubs and societies. In coming to Oxford you will be participating in one of the most vital intellectual cultures in the world. 

Undergraduate Study

Every undergraduate is a member of a college, under the personal guidance of a tutor who is also a lecturer in the Faculty of History and an active research historian. Your tutor will take a keen interest in your welfare and intellectual development, organizing your teaching to ensure that you are directed to the appropriate experts. Because individual tutors are more closely involved in the selection of undergraduates than in most other universities and because colleges exist in a friendly rivalry, tutors are committed to realizing the full potential of their students. 

 

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Tutorials are at the heart of undergraduate learning at Oxford. Students have at least one tutorial per week, for which they are expected to write an essay, which is then discussed with a specialist. Tutorials usually involve pairs of students working with a tutor, and they therefore offer an opportunity for an in-depth mutual exploration of a topic. Tutors will explain to you how you can make your arguments more effectively; they will give you an opportunity to ask questions about the material you have been reading; and you will be able to challenge their assumptions. In an independent assessment of the quality of the teaching of History at Oxford, the majority of tutorials were found to be excellent, bringing students face to face with the necessity for literate historical argument, and developing the critical and verbal skills so valued in the world of work. And in a questionnaire of students finishing their history degree in 2002, around 90% rated tutorial work and the opportunity to learn from researchers themselves as very positive elements of the course.

Although Oxford historians believe that there is no substitute for the intellectual rigour of the tutorial system, tutorials are complemented by seminars and lectures. Seminar groups in Oxford are small (usually between eight and sixteen members) and give students an opportunity to discuss each other’s work by the presentation of papers in turn to the group. Lectures are provided on the Faculty’s courses, and the size of the Faculty means that on many of your options you will be able to hear a variety of contrasting viewpoints. History at Oxford is therefore a subject of energetic debate: debate between your tutor and yourself, debate between you and your fellow students; and debate between your tutors themselves. 

Broad Geographical Range

In addition to Oxford’s specialists in British and European history, recent appointments have been made in non-European fields, and this is reflected in popular student options on North American, Latin American, Asian, and African themes. Oxford historians have also been in the vanguard of the assault on a narrowly Anglo-centric approach to British History, and there are new options on the English and the Celtic peoples in the later twelfth century, on Irish Nationalism from 1870 to 1921, and on the Northern Ireland Troubles.

Interdisciplinary Approaches

Oxford historians are also encouraged to adopt a variety of interdisciplinary approaches to their studies. Among the more popular first year options is a course on Approaches to History which explores the cross-fertilisation between history and other disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, economics, archaeology, art history, and gender studies. Moreover, it is one of the strengths of the tutorial system that the choice of topics on outline papers can be tailored to individual needs to a far greater extent than is the case in other universities. Thus students with particular enthusiasms in, say, gender studies, or cultural, economic, or religious history are encouraged to follow them up. During their second and third years students are encouraged to think comparatively about the work they have undertaken on different periods, discussing their ideas in seminar groups within their respective colleges, and also have the opportunity to do independent research while working on their thesis.

Emphasis on Historical Theory

For those who are interested in the development of historical thought a first-year option looks at the work of historical writers from Tacitus, the chronicler of the corruption of early imperial Rome, to Max Weber, the founder of modern sociology and second only to Marx in his influence on historians. Another popular optional first year course introduces students to the work of leading political theorists, developing conceptual approaches to the study of history through the study of the writings of some of the greatest minds on issues of political organization. There are opportunities to study the History of Political Thought in greater depth later in the course. Throughout their time at Oxford students can study options with a strong literary and art historical content, or dealing with scientific and technological history.

Graduate Study

The Faculty of History at Oxford is one of the world’s largest centres for graduate study in History.  The Faculty contains around 105 full-time academic postholders, but the total size is closer to 350 academics when those Faculty members who are research historians, historians holding college-only posts, academics employed in other faculties but with strong historical interests, are added.  The Faculty was ranked in the highest category of research excellence in the last Research Assessment Exercise.  Its academic strengths are matched by unparalleled library and archival resources, both in the University (Bodleian) Library and in the Colleges and various research institutes. 

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All postgraduate students are assigned a supervisor (or in some cases two co-supervisors). The supervisor’s primary responsibility is to advise the student on the programme of work necessary to complete a dissertation or thesis. To this end, the supervisor should maintain a general overview over the student’s studies and academic development. Supervisors should help their students to identify and acquire the knowledge and skills needed to complete the dissertation or thesis, and to further their aims for study or employment, insofar as these build upon the programme of graduate study.

Oxford students have the additional advantage that they are also members of the academic community of their respective colleges. Colleges will usually appoint one of their History fellows or lecturers to provide pastoral oversight and general academic advice to their junior members in History. There is no presumption, however, that graduate students should be at the same college as their expert supervisors; in fact, it often enhances the opportunities for academic contact if the supervisor can provide a link into a different academic community. 

 

Teaching Provision

Training Self-Assessment Checklist

All graduates are encouraged to identify and prioritise their own training needs, and to consider how and on what timetable these might best be met. The checklist below has been devised to assist students in this process. You should aim to discuss your training plan with your supervisors regularly, especially at the start of the academic year (with an emphasis on work to be done or classes to attend during the year) and during Trinity Term (with an emphasis on work to be done over the summer).  Copies of this form will be sent out to new students before their arrival, so that the Graduate Office and supervisors have advance notice of students’ training needs.

If you have training needs not covered by the checklist, or not well provided by the means indicated, please discuss with your supervisor and alert the Graduate Office. The checklist may help students not only to identify and find ways of addressing training needs, but also to report on both needs and achievements.

Research students are also asked to summarise training needs and training taken in their transfer and confirmation applications (relevant questions are set out on the standard university forms). Increasingly British funding bodies also ask for such reports. 

Teaching Induction Scheme

Research students completing their probationary period who wish to be inducted into teaching on the faculty plan will need to discuss this with their supervisors and return the appropriate form early in the summer vacation.

Graduate Supervision System (GSS)

The university's online Graduate Supervision System (GSS) gives all students enrolled on graduate programmes each term the opportunity to report on their learning experience and training needs. Using the system is easy and intuitive, and we hope students will find that stopping for a few minutes and taking stock of what they have achieved in a termly cycle will help them to stay focused. The Humanities Division has published a short online guide with suggestions how the system could be most fruitfully use

Languages

Each year the Faculty provides, in conjunction with the University's Language Centre, a range of language classes in major European languages. In addition, students, with the support of their supervisor(s) may apply for funds to support language teaching outside these provisions, e.g., for tuition in an unusual language. But we ask supervisors and students to communicate with the Graduate Office before making any such arrangements, since it may be possible to organize provisions for several students who, unknown to each other, have common needs. 

Teaching formats and assessment criteria

Further teaching and collaborative academic activity takes place chiefly in: 

  • classes – small groups of students meeting on a regular basis to present and discuss assigned work under the guidance of a class convenor;
  • tutorials (at graduate level only applicable in very specialist contexts) – one or more students meeting on a regular basis to present and discuss assigned work with a tutor;
  • lectures – presentations by a lecturer. Graduates may attend undergraduate lectures; lectures specifically for graduates play some part in introductory teaching;
  • seminars – groups of students and academics meeting on a regular basis to hear and discuss research presentations by members of the group or visitors. These allow graduates to develop links with the university’s larger research community. 

Students' work which is submitted and formally assessed for a master's degree programme, or for research student progression, will be reviewed under the Faculty's approved and published marking criteria. 

Pattern of Work

Graduate students are expected to apply themselves to academic work on a full-time basis throughout the duration of their course, both during university terms and vacations, except during public holidays and when they take time off for personal holidays (perhaps to a total of six weeks during the year). This also applies (pro rata) to part-time doctoral students: they are expected to set aside on average some 20 hours per week for their individual research and regular, at least fortnightly, attendance at relevant Oxford research seminars. 

Unless they have completed their residence requirements, full-time students are expected to be resident in Oxford during term time. Tutorials, classes and seminars, and formal assessment interviews (for Transfer or Confirmation of Status) will normally be scheduled only during full term or in weeks 0 and 9. During university vacations students are expected to pursue independent study and research. Neither supervisors nor students will necessarily be in Oxford during vacations, but supervision meetings may be arranged if it is mutually convenient.

Required forms of Participation

Students on taught master’s courses are required to follow the programme of study specified for their course, and any additional requirements agreed with their supervisor. This usually entails a combination of the following: 

  • classes in research methods, theory or historiography
  • classes or other training in specific technical skills (e.g., Latin, palaeography, quantitative methods)
  • classes or tutorials devoted to the study of a specific topic or topics, usually chosen by the student from a menu of options
  • individually arranged meetings with a research supervisor devoted especially to work on a research dissertation
  • attendance at relevant lecture and seminar series

Research students are required, in addition to working on their dissertations or theses, to attend a ‘core research seminar’ in their area of specialisation; all research students are also strongly encouraged regularly to attend one or more additional research seminars, and to make occasional presentations based on their research.

Other Opportunities

There are many opportunities for students to benefit from classes or seminars other than those they are required to attend:  

  • students on most taught courses may on application substitute options offered for other courses for those offered in their own course (see Approved papers for details; note that a student choosing an option from another degree course must conform to the regulations of that course in relation to participation, contribution, modes of assessment, submission deadlines, etc.)
  • students (including research students) may choose to audit course-specific classes (implying regular attendance and completion of all work assigned for class meetings). The Faculty Lecture list, published each term will assist you to find a course that is relevant.
  • students on taught courses are also warmly encouraged to attend research seminars relevant to their fields of research
  • students may also organize their own seminars, to discuss work in progress, or to provide a platform for invited speakers (e.g., Graduate-run seminars) 

Language tuition is encouraged and we sponsor language acquisition as far as feasible so that students are given the chance to improve existing foreign language skills or to learn a new language in order to extend the scope of their research. We are keen to support the development of students' language learning.

Both the university and the faculty organise a range of classes; there are facilities for independent study, and it is sometimes possible to organise or fund additional provision. Please note that in general teaching is envisaged as accompanying and supporting students' independent study: the aim is not to coach, but to support students' learning.

Language Centre

The Language Centre at 12 Woodstock Road (01865 283360), provides both courses and a very large collection of audio and video material and equipment for individual study. The excellent facilities are available free of charge to graduate students. The pressure on places in the classes is considerable, and you are urged to register for whatever course you wish to follow as soon as possible after enrolments begin, in Week 0 of Michaelmas Term.

For non-native speakers who wish to improve their English there are a variety of courses in English for Academic Studies. Note also their pre-sessional courses, held in July to September.

There are also classes (all of them lasting a full year) in French, German, modern Greek, Italian, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Welsh, and English as a Foreign Language. The Library and Language Laboratory have facilities for the independent study of some 130 languages.

European Languages

The University's Language Centre provides courses in major languages at every level, including reading courses, and the Faculty co-organises with the Language Centre reading classes in certain European languages. In the case of continental European topics, students will need to satisfy their supervisor and the course convenor that they have, or are acquiring, adequate (reading) knowledge of the relevant language(s) to pursue their dissertation work. Those specializing in the history of the British Isles are strongly advised that their research would also profit from linguistic competence in other languages than English, and they are explicitly encouraged also to make use of the opportunities for language training.

Pre-sessional course in medieval Latin

We offer a three-week pre-sessional intensive introductory course in Latin in September before term begins, covering elementary morphology, syntax and vocabulary. It is specifically designed for incoming graduate medieval and early modern historians, and there may be places for some new graduate students from other faculties. The course was held for the first time in September 2001 and has been deemed a resounding success by all the students who have enrolled on it. Usually we have two groups (beginners and intermediate), but this depends on demand. You will very likely have a class in the morning and then do your homework in the afternoon.

Knowledge of Latin is fundamental for any work on primary sources of medieval Europe, and is often also of significant relevance during the early modern period, and this opportunity to acquire or develop that knowledge is offered without additional fee to candidates enrolled for a degree with the History Faculty. Attendance to either the pre-term or term-time course is considered compulsory for those arriving without evidence of proficiency in the language to read for the MSt in Medieval History or the MSt in Medieval Studies (unless they opt for another medieval language), and for research students in medieval history. Proof of enrolment in a similar Latin course outside Oxford would be an acceptable alternative. Students enrolling on the course would normally be expected also to join the Latin classes during term to build on the foundations laid in the three-week course. Please note that we cannot take complete beginners for the term-time Latin course, so if you need Latin and have none you should sign up for the pre-term classes.

Students will be expected to make their own arrangements for accommodation and pay for such accommodation. They should write in the first instance to the college to which they will be affiliated to see whether they can be accommodated there (not necessarily in the room to which they will be eventually assigned) and at what cost, indicating that they are attending a pre-term language course arranged by the Faculty of History.

All new medievalists under the auspices of the History Faculty are expected to take a Latin Assessment Test. Early modernists who are not sure how important Latin is likely to be for their research should seek advice from their prospective supervisors before missing this opportunity of skills development. These tests are not part of the assessment for the degree; they serve to indicate how far the student needs to make further progress in the study of the language in order to undertake competently research in the field of medieval history. Weekly classes for those who need to improve their Latin will be available throughout the three academic terms of the year. Teaching is also available for a wide variety of medieval and modern languages (including medieval Celtic and Germanic languages).

How to Apply

Language as a subject of study

Our programmes in Late Antique and Byzantine Studies and in Modern South Asian Studies are conceived with comprehensive language modules which form part of the programme of study, and in these cases you should carefully consider, in consultation with your supervisor how much additional commitment to language learning you can realistically undertake.

Other Languages

The Faculty has also set aside some funds to sponsor language tuition, mainly in non-European languages, for which there is no formal provision in Oxford (e.g., through Language Centre or Oriental Studies Faculty). Our funds are limited, so we will not always be able to cover all the cost involved. We would at the very least recommend that you apply in parallel to your College for support.

In the first instance, you should consult your supervisor about your need of language acquisition, and once you have agreed a way forward you are welcome to apply to the Faculty for support.

There is currently no formal application procedure, an email or free-form letter to the Graduate Office is perfectly acceptable. Before you submit an application you should investigate how you could acquire the language skills you need:

  • Are there some standard language courses outside Oxford, or would private tuition be unavoidable?
  • What would be the (approximate) costs for such teaching?
  • How would this fit in with your academic programme of work?

Once we have this kind of information we will be happy to consider what contribution the History Faculty would be able to make in your particular case.

The History Faculty has a large and lively postgraduate student population whose research interests lie in the following broad fields of academic interest. Under each heading we provide a short description of the general scope of the research area, a list of current students and academic in the field, and links to their personal profiles. Student profiles are hosted by the Oxford History Graduate Network (OHGN), an initiative developed and maintained by the Faculty's current graduate community. 

 

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