Same difference? History at University after History at School.

Hooray! The results are in, your place is confirmed & you are OFF TO UNIVERSITY! To do history! Yaaayyyy!

The next few weeks will probably pass by in a rush of setting up student bank accounts, arranging logistics with parents or whoever is dropping you off, making sure your accommodation is sorted, going through whatever online hoops your institution of choice has mandated for you – tedious, boring, once-done-never-repeated chores. It’s dull but essential stuff. Hopefully, you will also get to have a bunch of parties as your school pals all disperse in their different directions, into work or to different universities. You probably won’t get much of a chance to think about your degree until well into freshers’ week at the very earliest. Even then, it may well be a few weeks into term before you realise that this is not the history you’re used to. And suddenly, excitement turns to bewilderment, or even panic.

In this post, I’d like to go through some of the main differences between the history you’ll have learnt at school, and the history you will encounter at university. I’m going to talk about the subjects, the approaches and the structures, all of which will be notably different to what you’ve experienced before. I am basing this on my own experiences as a tutor of first years – on what students have said to me over the years, and what I’ve observed in the classroom. I’m also an A Level marker, so I’ve got a good idea about the kinds of history you’ve been doing up to this point. And I’ve talked to a number of secondary school history teachers and students at all levels about their experiences and worries about starting a degree. This isn’t meant to be exhaustive, and of course everyone’s experiences are a bit different, but there are some themes which crop up repeatedly.

Subjects

This is one of the most obvious differences. At school, particularly during your exam preparation years, the usual approach is to study one period in a great deal of depth. At the most, you tend to be preparing two areas for different papers, but that’s it. You know, or are expected to know, every fact there is to know about Divided Germany or The Wars of the Roses or England under Elizabeth I, or the British in India. The topics are relatively clear and defined, the geographical focus is specific, the periodization is clear and you know where you stand.

At university, you will be studying for several modules or papers at once. This is one of the things first year students tell me they find really challenging. It’s hard to go from specialised knowledge of one area to being expected to keep multiple thought-balls in the air at once. Mentally, it’s a leap to go from the art of the fifteenth century renaissance to masculinity in Soviet Russia. Not only might you be preparing seminars on different topics at the same time, but on a given day you might be going from a lecture on medieval history straight into a seminar on modern history. You will be a bit familiar with this from your school timetable, but then it was usually distinctly different subjects that you were moving between – some people find moving between histories, so to speak, really hard at first.

What’s also really challenging is remembering there is other history apart from Divided Germany or The Wars of the Roses or England under Elizabeth I, or the British in India. A lot of first year students are quite daunted by the vast array of history they’re ‘confronted’ by as they step through the door, and increasingly, that they’re expected to cover as part of their degree. Most A Levels tend to focus on what we would broadly term ‘political history’ – people, and places and dates. At university, you will be expected to do social, economic, cultural history, gender history, maybe even some visual culture or film studies. Don’t be afraid of new approaches, and don’t run away from theory – it gives you insight into how historians have advanced the discipline, if nothing else.

Breadth may be achieved in different ways. When I was an undergrad (not all that long ago, I thank you!), at my university we were expected to take one medieval module, one early modern module, one modern module, one British module and one non-British module each year. Increasingly, you will find you have a core module or modules you have to do – at Exeter, first years do a Foundation module about how history is done by historians, and then two ‘Understanding modules’, one covering the fall of Rome to the Enlightenment, one covering the Enlightenment to the present day’. That means you will be doing a lot of stuff you’ve never done before – and that can be very scary. Students I’ve met tend to approach this in one of three ways. Either they spend a lot of time resenting the time they have to spend studying everything that’s new, or they spend a lot of time worrying about what they think they don’t know. Or they treat this as an exciting starting point for their university studies, allowing them to go back to what they originally loved about history, getting as wide an appreciation of the subject as possible, and perhaps even filing away topics and areas they might want to come back to later. Guess who has the best experience out of those three?

As a small aside, of course students have preferred areas of speciality, just as members of staff do. But it’s worth holding off proclaiming yourself as a die-hard medievalist, or Nazi specialist, until you’ve checked out the other subjects on offer. I started university convinced I was going to specialise in the Ancien Régime. I was all about Louis XIV, Frederick the Great and Joseph II (guess what I’d done for A Level?) By the end of my first term as an undergrad, I had become obsessed by the Reformation, and I still am, over a decade later. My interests within that subject have evolved, and my focus of interest has changed, but it is still nothing like what I expected to concentrate on. People change their focus – Ian Kershaw famously went from working on the economic history of Bolton Abbey in the pre-reformation period to writing a definitive biography of Hitler. That’s pretty extreme, but similar switches happen to students too. I have had students start my modules clearly nonplussed at studying pre-modern history who’ve come to be fascinated by the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and other students who’ve realised that they’re really more interested in women’s suffrage in the twentieth century, not the English Civil War, as they once thought. That’s one of the things that’s great about history – you get to see where it leads you.

Approaches

This is another big difference – at school, you are very much taught what you need to know. You are mainly working from textbooks, a lot of the work you’re asked to do is based on factual discussion, and there is something of the idea of there being a ‘right answer’ and a ‘wrong answer’ to things. That’s not how university studies work. Knowing tons of factual detail about a subject will only get you so far – although it may be handy in a pub quiz. What we’re interested in as university teachers is seeing how you analyse material, how you develop an argument using that analysis, and your interpretations of both primary and secondary sources. You won’t be told all there is to know on a subject, and there are no right or wrong answers, only strong or weak analysis. Don’t throw out the facts altogether, but think of them in terms of evidence supporting your arguments, rather than lists of detail. We’ll come back to these themes time and again on this blog, but it really is the greatest difference that first year history students experience. Your tutors are there to help and guide you, rather than to ‘teach’ you in the way that you are in school.

You will find that you will need to rethink how you approach both classwork and written work – both things we’ll look at here on the blog. At this early stage, my advice would be to start getting used to having your own opinions. Don’t try to second guess what the lecturer ‘wants’ you to say, build up the confidence to put forward your own interpretation, of both primary sources and secondary reading. If you think something makes no sense, say so. If you disagree with a historian’s interpretation, be prepared to explain why. Most of all, get into the habit of finding evidence to support your points.

Most of this will be done through your reading, at least initially. History students have to read a lot – no apology, that’s just how it is. Get used to spending lots of time in the library, or using online resources. You will be dealing with different kinds of material than what you’ve had to look at in school. You will come across some textbooks, but they should really only be used to familiarise yourself with a new topic, or as basic background reading. More often than not, your reading for essays and seminars will be based on monographs (full length scholarly books on a subject), articles (published in academic journals or periodicals and which have gone through a rigorous selection process) or essays/chapters (about the same length as an article, but published in an individual book, rather than in a journal issue). We’ll break down reading lists and how to handle them in another post. What you will have to do throughout your university career is read critically – don’t accept everything you read at face value. Pick it apart, think about what the author is saying and why they’re saying it – and if you agree with it. The thing most first years fall down on in their early essay work is telling a story rather than presenting an argument. Getting used to including historiographical analysis within your work will really help you get on top of that.

You’ll also be faced with far more primary source material than you have been at school, and you will need to get used to dealing with different kinds of sources, and perhaps using sources in multiple ways. Don’t shy away from it, the further you get into your degree, the more you will be expected not only to use sources, but to find your own sources and build your own research projects around them.

Structures

At school, you have classes and homework. At university, you have lectures, seminars, possibly tutorials, maybe some kind of study group, seminar preparation, essay preparation, presentation preparation, essay writing… yeah, you have a lot of different kinds of learning experience. We’ll have blog posts on all of these aspects of learning in the near future.

What you will hear repeatedly is that you have to take responsibility for your own learning – that you will get out what you put in. But what does that actually mean? Well, in essence, it comes back to my previous point, that at university, your tutor won’t stand at the front of the room and tell you all you need to know. You will do most of your learning outside the classroom – reading in preparation for seminars and writing your essays. Seminars are not there to impart knowledge to you – lectures serve that purpose, to some extent – but seminars are for you to experiment with ideas, talk things through and consolidate your own interpretations. If you want to get the most of your history degree, working out how to get the most from a seminar is vital.

Studying might also seem to be a bit of a logistical challenge – university campuses are a lot larger than schools, you might have to leg it across campus to get to your next class, and you don’t want to get a reputation as the late one. If your timetable does seem to conspire against you, have a word with your tutors – ask the tutor of the first class if you can leave bang on five to the hour, and let the tutor of the second class know you have a tight change around, but you will be making an effort to be on time. Tutors often have to teach back to back classes across campus too, they will generally be very understanding.

Where tutors are less understanding is where they think students have not taken responsibility for their own learning, and have not prepared, or have not planned the logistics of their day. I will talk about seminar & lecture etiquette, including lateness, in another post, but at this point, it’s worth pointing out that on many courses, your timetable will run on a fortnightly rather than a weekly cycle – you will have a lecture one week and a seminar another, or seminar one week, study group or something similar the next. At Exeter, first year history students have their medieval and early modern seminar and their modern study group in the same week, and then the next week they have their modern seminar and their medieval/early modern study group. So you need to keep track of where you’re meant to be at what times, and what you’re meant to have prepared. And that can be hard. At school, you tend to see your teachers regularly, and in any case, it’s the same faces at the front of the classroom. At university, particularly in first year, you’re more likely to be confronted by one group of people in lectures and a different person entirely in seminars. Given that you may be seeing a seminar tutor once a fortnight, you don’t get the same momentum and unconscious reminders that you do at school. Turning up late (or not at all) because ‘I thought the seminar was next week’ will win you no brownie points. Equally, turning up unprepared because ‘I thought this was modern seminar week’ goes down like a lead balloon. My tip? Buy a diary, write down all the classes you have, with the topic under discussion in it, at the start of term. And then USE IT! Write down all your academic commitments, including meetings with tutors, extra lectures, deadlines, and don’t let it out of your sight.

My next post will look at the different people within a history department, but here, I’d just like to say that whilst we may seem intimidating at first, academic historians are, by and large, an approachable bunch. My recent third years told me at graduation that in first year, I scared the hell out of them – but as they worked with me, they realised I had high standards that I was willing them to meet, rather than hell-bent on their annihilation and destruction. Don’t be put off by the titles, or the massive list of publications – your lecturers are humans too, and we’ve all been where you are at one stage. It can be particularly daunting if you’re in a class being asked a question by someone whose work you’ve read in preparation for the class, or as part of your A Level work. We may seem important and grand and busy – that last at least is true – but try not to put us on a pedestal.

How do you handle a lecturer? Be prepared to talk to us. I always ask my first year tutees what kind of history they like – you’d be amazed how many dry up, or list their A Level specialisations at that point. Use office hours to follow up points, or email us if you have a question about how a module runs that’s not in the handbook. If you see us in the street, smile and say hello. Yes, we may drink in the same bar as you. We may even drink in the pub where you have a part time job – we don’t all live in our offices, and you should expect us to have lives outside of being in your classroom. You don’t get the same facetime that you have with your school teachers, but you can get to know us if you’re interested, and we do keep an eye on how you’re progressing. One of my favourite bits of the year is graduation, when I can talk to a student’s parents and say ‘X has been a really good student, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know them too’. A good relationship with your tutor can really help you – we’re the ones you can come to if you’re finding work tough, or if you need a reference for a job. But that works best if we know who you are!

All that I’ve said so far may sound terrifying – you’re going to be dumped on your own, in a massive campus where you have no idea where anything is, the staff won’t teach you in the way you’ve been used to for the last decade and a half, you have to do it all on your own… That’s a very negative way of looking at it, and I really hope you’ve been able to see the positive side of all this too. What I wanted to do here was debunk a few of the myths and give you a bit of a heads up. Your history degree will be challenging, and you will have to get used to very different ways of doing things. Your first year will go by in a flash, and before you know it, you’ll be writing a dissertation & staring down finals. But if you think of this first year, this first term in particular, as a bit of a trial lap, the time and space to find your feet inside and outside the classroom, the time to ask questions, experience a bit of trial and error, and most of all just get used to your university, well, that’s all we ask, and all you can expect. Anything, everything else you experience, that’s just the bonus you get from being student of history.

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About drskbarker

Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Leeds. Interested in all things early modern, European, news & print-culture and higher ed teaching related.

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