‘Because I did well on it at school’: Progression and Novelty in HE History

Each semester, I ask my first-year students why they chose to study history at university. With some very minor variation in vocabulary, the most prominent responses are ‘because I think it’s interesting’ or ‘because I did well on it at school’.

In their second year, I ask them why they chose to take my module on US history. A sizeable minority continue to state ‘interest’ but the majority, by far, state that ‘I did some Civil Rights (or Civil War) history at school, and I did well at that, so I thought I would do it again.’

As they prepare for their final year, and their honour dissertations, I ask them what they would like to do. Their first response is generally along the lines of ‘I did some (insert module title / A-level subject here), and I did all right at that—or occasionally, I found that interesting—so I guess I’ll do that for my dissertation.’

Let me preface that there is absolutely nothing wrong about any of these responses. Interest and ability are completely rational reasons for choosing a degree programme, a module or a dissertation project. If a student did not find a topic at all interesting, or felt certain they would fail, no sensible person would recommend it. Moreover, it is a testament to the hard work of secondary school educators that history, including American history, was so engagingly taught.

Nonetheless, it worries me slightly that these responses change very little over the course of their university education. Many students are hesitant, if not outright hostile, to the idea of exploring a wholly new topic for their coursework, let alone their dissertations. I was extremely pleased that so many of my second-year students wanted to pursue a US history topic for the dissertations—it means that I did not completely terrify them during the introductory module—but the prevalence of the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War, very broadly defined, left me somewhat concerned.

These are excellent topics, but they are well covered in secondary school units and second-year modules; thus, in initial dialogues, students stick very closely to the themes, and sources, with which they are already familiar. Some students, it seems, are not necessarily progressing into more detailed, nuanced examinations of these topics of their own accord; they usually need gentle prodding from their supervisors.

But is this all a matter of preference? I had an extremely eclectic undergraduate experience, an experience my liberal arts university encouraged. Take, for example, my first year

  • First Semester: Western Civilisation, Spanish, The Freudian Interpretation of Grimms’ Fairy Tales, The Creative Actor
  • Second Semester: Actor as Thinker, Spanish, Comparative Genocide, Introduction to Logic

and my final year

  • First Semester: Intimacy and Dictatorship, Latin, Modern Drama, Comparative Colonialism, Dissertation
  • Second Semester: Renaissance and Reformation, Dissertation, Latin

Although my degree specialism was pre-1800 Europe, I took as many modules in literature, theatre arts and foreign languages as I did in history. It was, after all, a liberal arts institution. In the end, I do think that this nearly random assortment of modules—my personal tutor had to reign me in slightly my final year—made my choice of dissertation topic equally random, but that was the fun of it.

My students are no less clever than I was. Many are probably cleverer, or at least more knowledgeable on certain historical topics than I was at their age. But many are less adventurous, and I often wonder why.

On the one hand, perhaps it is the much earlier specialisation of British history students. My experience of history at secondary school was two, non-consecutive years of US history, a year of European history, and a year of world history. They were roughly chronological romps and assessed, in the main, by short coursework essays and rote-learning exams. My students, on the other hand, have already spent months, even years, on very narrow themes and topics, developing a great deal of intimate knowledge about them. There is absolutely a momentum to education—it was why so few historians suddenly become biologists after completing their PhD—and perhaps their experiences have focused their interest at a much earlier age.

This early specialisation is magnified by their relatively short university experience, a mere three years, at most eighteen to twenty semester-long modules, compared with my thirty-four. I had much more space to explore (and be bored with) a huge variety of periods and topics. With some British programmes consisting of just 9 year-long modules, there is little encouragement for eclecticism.

Finally, it could just be plain and simple common sense. There is a huge financial and social pressure upon students to immediately enter a ‘good’ programme at a ‘good’ university and leave with a ‘good’ degree. Experimentation may not seem worth the risk.

What I do find heartening, however, is that some students do rise to the challenge. Over the past semester I worked with forty-or-so second-year students to develop proposals for their dissertations. Many began with very broad topics, heavily influenced by the current coursework. But with a little prodding from me and my colleagues, many began to ponder the wider possibilities a bit more seriously. Random comments during lectures and seminars began to trigger ideas. Suddenly they were coming up with very precise, very unusual, but completely feasible projects.

This was I find most particularly gratifying about supervision. I am a curious person and I like nothing better than learning something new from my students.

So I ask you, gentle readers, and especially any of my students who have wandered here today, what has your experience of progression been? Have you been eclectic or focused? Safe or reckless? Contented or left wanting?

**Image courtesy of The University of Iowa Libraries, provided CC-BY-NC

3 thoughts on “‘Because I did well on it at school’: Progression and Novelty in HE History

  1. Emma Louise

    I love writing about new topics; especially if it has nothing or very little to do with the module I am taking. To me it is an opportunity to get even more out of my degree. Whilst Melodee was most supportive of this, other tutors have been extremely skeptical. My favourite essay I have ever researched and written was my second year assessed essay on the Seven Sisters Colleges – a topic that had really not come up in the North American Themes module! I hadn’t even heard of these Universities until I was discussing what I was possibly interested in writing about. I believe that this made the experience all the more rewarding as it was a journey of discovery, as much as analysis and essay construction.

    However, in other modules when I have wanted to write something similarly unusual, I have been flatly refused or heavily discouraged. My final year US Foreign Policy module would have been much more fun had I been able to write about the impact of the Iraq war on Hollywood science fiction (something I just thought might be interesting to look into… and yes, this idea came to me whilst watching the final Star Wars film on tv!). Instead I was forcefully advised to pick from a list of pre-approved essay titles, and thus I became just one of the many students to write the exact same essay about the rise of China. If it is boring for me to write, I can’t imagine how mind numbing it must be to mark several dozen all the same.

    If only the lovely Melodee could teach all my modules *sigh* 🙂

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