Pick and Mix: Thinking About Modules

In her last post, Sara discussed some of the ways in which the type of history you will be confronted with at university differs to that you were familiar with at school; this week I want to look at some of the ways these differences manifest themselves in the range of modules you will have to select from over the next three or four years. After the practicalities of actually arriving and registering at your university, one of the first things you will have to do in the department is select your modules for the coming year. Some of you may have no fixed idea of what it is that you want to do, while others may have their heart set on a particular module, but I would hope that the range of modules, their scope and their format played at least some role in you selecting the university that you are now at, even if the nightlife potential or being close enough to home to ensure a steady supply of clean socks without traipsing to the laundrette may also have been a factor. Here I want to discuss some of the things you might want to consider when making this important selection as well as some of the aspects of your degree which are set in stone; we will look at what you can gain by taking courses outside of your department in a later post on electives. Here, let’s start with those modules over which you have no real say – the core modules.

Core modules:

It is very rare that a History degree programme will have no core requirements but what you have to do will differ from year to year and from institution to institution. Some may require you to cover a particular range of time periods in the first year – for example you may have to do a medieval, early modern and modern module but actually have some control over what you do within these broad parameters – or you may find that most of the credits for your first year come from modules that are taken by the entire year, or some kind of combination of the two. Most of the universities that I’ve either worked at or been a student at have at least one broad core module that is taken by the whole first year, with your chance to take other modules of your own choosing alongside them.

At Exeter, our first year on the single honours degree programme take three core courses, all of which run for the whole year; a foundation course which is about the theory and practice of history and two ‘Understanding’ modules, one that runs from the fall of Rome until the Enlightenment and another which covers from the Enlightenment to the end of the twentieth century. This means for our students, they get to pick 25% of their first year modules, while 75% are fixed. This may seem a little bit mean – after all one of the great things about university both academically and personally is the freedom that you will have – but it’s really important to think about why we get you to do certain things in your first year and not go in to your degree with resentment over this seeming lack of choice.

In these core modules we are essentially trying to do two things for you. Firstly, we are trying to equip you with the skills you will need to practice history at university level. Now I am the first to admit that this may involve some rather tedious work on how to lay out a footnote or having to spend time learning how to locate material on the library catalogue, but the fact is that you are going to run into difficulties further down the line if you don’t master these key skills from the outset. See these not as a chore but as part of your training, like special weapons on the utility belt of being a historian or something…  However dull such sessions may seem, however pointless or however frustrating, do try to keep in mind that (in the vast majority of cases!) we make you do things for a reason, even if that reason is not immediately apparent to you. If you are in such a class and you genuinely can’t see why looking at the small print at the bottom of some academic’s article is going to enhance your learning experience or skillset, ask your tutor for clarification. Don’t be confrontational but also don’t be afraid to ask why what you’re doing is valuable.

The second major thing that we are trying to do is expose you to approaches to history that are perhaps unfamiliar. This can be very practical – from getting you to read certain things, or helping you to write essays in a certain way – but it can also be more philosophical. As you are probably aware, the type of history generally covered by the A-Level syllabuses is largely political, with perhaps a dash of social stuff thrown in there as well, but for the most part you are concerned with power, people, places and events such as wars or reforms. This means that there are not only huge chunks of history that you haven’t explored but also ways of approaching the past that are new to you. Have you ever given any serious thought to why we live in families or how that may have changed over time or place, or how ideas about the body or health have developed over the centuries? Or even with familiar topics, you may feel that you know all there is to know about the Tudors, but do you know what life was like for those outside the royal court – what did people wear, eat, believe? What was it like to be a child during this time, or to be pregnant, or to be a pauper? Similarly, chances are there are more theoretical ways of approaching the past that are going to be new, such as using the lens of gender, or culture, or economics as a way of exploring a part of history, even those parts that at the moment you feel you know pretty well.

What we want to do in these core courses then is to offer you a bit of a tasting platter of history by getting you to think about issues that are new to you while simultaneously getting you to think about things in a way that is also probably different to what you are used to. The really important thing in all this is that you go into it with an open mind – don’t sit there seething in your medieval seminar because you really love the Nazis (so to speak) and you think that it’s a total waste of your time, because if you go in with that attitude it will be! Even if you have difficulty really engaging with the content of what you’re doing, try and see what you are gaining from having a knowledge of this material. You will not only be developing very practical skills, such as source analysis, that you can carry into your other modules, but you will probably also find that you can draw links between what you’re interested in and what you perhaps feel you are being forced to study against your will. Going back to the Nazi example, they were obsessed with the past and not just in an Indiana-Jones-Ark-of-the-Covenant kind of way – take the name of the state, the Third Reich, for starters. Just think how much your understanding of the Nazis, their ideology and German culture would be enhanced by understanding the Classical and medieval legacies that they claimed to be drawing on – everything from the architecture to the gender ideals of Germany in the 1930s had (or was purported to have) its roots in the distant past. This of course works in reverse: if it’s the Classical past that interests you, then you will find plenty even in the modern period to keep you engaged, and not just the Nazis – the art of Revolutionary France or the culture of Stalinism are two other obvious examples. Such parallels can be drawn across a whole other range of seemingly disparate topics so really do think about how what you’re doing in one class feeds in to what you are learning about  in another, as well as how it relates to your own personal interests.

One final thing to bear in mind in relation to core modules is that you do have a degree of agency over what you do within them. You will probably have at least partial autonomy over what you read, what you prepare for your essays and what you present on in class; use this to your advantage, whether it’s to go back to something that really interests you or whether you want to use these opportunities to try out something new. Even if you’re feeling like you’re in some kind of intellectual straightjacket, there’s usually a little wiggle room.

Optional Modules:

Speaking of wiggle room, that brings us on to the choices that you will face in the next few years when it comes to what you study. Again, I should stress that this is likely to differ significantly across departments and will be affected by factors such as the actual structure of the degree programme, staff expertise and even the size of the institution, but what I talk about here should be applicable to most, if not all, scenarios.

The best piece of advice I can offer to someone starting out on their degree is – and this should be read as being bold, underlined and with flashing lights around it – don’t be afraid to try new things. It is perhaps a natural reflex when so much else in your life is changing to choose modules that somehow seem safe or familiar and there is nothing wrong with that, but try to at least consider other options rather than automatically ticking the Nazi/Tudor/1832 Reform Act box. This is particularly important if you only have one or two modules across the entire year over which you have some say. If you find yourself wanting to stick with what looks familiar, ask yourself the following:

  • Do I really want to spend more time working on X subject after covering it at A-Level?
  • Will this module offer me the best learning experience either in terms of what it covers or how it approaches the material?
  • Is there a module out there that while covering a time period I’m relatively comfortable with comes at it from a way that is new for me?
  • How does X module fit with what I have to cover in the core courses? Will there be a lot of repetition and will this be useful or could it get quite dull?

Whatever you do, don’t be fooled into thinking that a module will be easier or you will have to do less work for it because you’ve covered the material at A-Level. For one thing, as we discussed in our previous post, we ‘do’ history very differently at university so it’s extremely unlikely that coming back to a familiar topic will decrease the amount of preparation you have to do. What’s more, because of this difference in how we teach and our expectations of you, sometimes studying your A-Level material at degree level can cause problems because it can be hard to break out of your old way of thinking about topics, or writing essays in a certain way. Studying history at university will require you to develop how you think about issues and how you analyse them. Ideas that have been the cornerstone of your approach at A-Level, such as producing ‘balanced’ essays or thinking about sources in terms of bias or reliability, are ones that are going to be radically overhauled once you start your degree, and as such it is very unwise to try and rehash A-Level knowledge for a degree level context. To be blunt, if you produce work that is largely based on what you did at A-Level and that uses the frameworks that you were taught at school, your marks are going to suffer. Stick with what you’ve done before because you are genuinely interested in the subject, not because you think you’ll be able to cruise through the module and therefore have more beer drinking time – believe me, it doesn’t work that way!

So if you’re going to discount the parts of history that you’ve done before, how do you decide what to do now? The key thing to remember here is that for most institutions, the marks from your first year do not count towards your degree and this should take some of the pressure off you when it comes to trying things that are unfamiliar. It doesn’t really matter whether you pick something that ultimately you find too tricky or just don’t engage with. Yes your marks may be a little lower than what you had hoped for, but you’ve tried it, it hasn’t worked out and then when it comes to the second and third year and it does count, you know to stay away from modules on the economic impact of high medieval field systems or whatever it may be. To paraphrase Lord Alfred Tennyson, tis better to have tried and not really enjoyed than never to have tried at all. Also don’t forget that the skills you develop, even on courses that you’ve detested, are transferrable and will undoubtedly come in use at a later point in your studies.

Take a look at any material the department has sent you or browse the departmental website. Find out as much as you can about the modules available – are they all assessed in the same way or do some make you present through the medium of interpretative dance and shadow puppets? Is that something you’d be comfortable with? What topics are covered in the seminars? Some modules may have fantastically sexy titles and a really dull sounding seminar schedules – try not to be seduced by titles alone! Think about approaches to history that you really enjoy: interested in the history of the lower social orders, then look for modules with a social bent; want to use more literary or visual sources in how you analyse the past, then plump for a module that is more culturally orientated; if you know that statistics and economic history makes you want to gouge your own eyes out with a spoon, then stay away from that course on ‘Trade and the Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century’. If you have no real preference about what period of history you study or any clear idea about what approaches interests you the most, then the world is your oyster – pick whatever you think you will find the most intellectually rewarding course.

At this point you will be flying a little blind because you have no prior knowledge of the tutor who is running the course, and this can make a big difference to how much you enjoy the module, but you can find out some information about staff members on profile pages. If they list their research interests as relating to print culture and communication, it’s a safe bet that you will have to deal with print culture and communication at some point in the module even if that’s not its focus – it’s useful to have a heads up on these kind of things. Don’t sign up for a module though just because it is led by a big name or a Professor So-and-So; every tutor will be an expert in their field, but some will be further down the career track than others, and it is often the case that the staff who have recently finished their PhDs are more up to speed with the trends relating to that particular subject, and also have clearer memories of what it was like to be a student, meaning that their modules and their teaching can be fresher and more innovative.

The relationship that you will develop with the staff and how this may impact on what you choose to study is probably the factor that will change the most as your time in the department progresses. Chances are that at some point you will find yourself signing up for some modules or steering clear of others based to some extent on the person who is running the course. There is nothing wrong with that and we shouldn’t underestimate the impact that an enthusiastic and dedicated tutor can have on your enjoyment of a module, even if the topic is at first glance something that you wouldn’t ordinarily go for, but personality should not be the primary consideration in how you choose what to study. Remember that you must be responsible for your own learning and an affection for your tutor or their skills as an educator will only get you so far.

Of course, thinking about these kinds of issues is all well and good, but you know what they say about best laid plans and it’s important to acknowledge and accept that you are unlikely to get your first pick for every module every year. Space on courses is finite, as are the resources that support them, from the tutors themselves to the books in the library, and for this reason most institutions will cap the number of students that can enrol on any given module; how high this cap is will vary significantly from place to place and depend on the type of module as well.

For this reason, it is important that a) you’re organised so that you aren’t submitting all your paperwork at the last moment as these things are commonly ‘first come, first served’ and b) you don’t have your heart set on one specific module but are prepared  to study the topics that were second or even third on your wishlist. Don’t let this throw you, but make sure that initially all the modules you select are ones that you would be happy to study and that you go into modules with an open mind, prepared to make the most of them, even if you are a little disappointed not to be doing something else – you may be pleasantly surprised! Chances are that modules of a similar nature or scope will be offered in other years so don’t feel too disheartened if you don’t get on that dream course in the first year. Who knows, by the time the second year rolls around, your idea of the dream course may have changed dramatically anyway, thanks in part to the modules that you ended up taking.

It’s also important to bear in mind that the modules that were advertised in the prospectus may not be the ones that are offer when you arrive; staff leave, new people arrive, degree programmes change and tutors may want to mix up their teaching a little to keep it up to date or to reflect their latest research project and all of these factors can change what is offered year on year. Again, don’t be thrown by this – it’s something that you will encounter throughout your degree.

Lastly, when thinking about module choices, it is a fact that for most institutions the modern history modules are the ones that have the highest demand. This is often a hangover from A-Levels where students either gravitate towards what is familiar or shy away from other periods, particularly medieval history, because it seems weird or looks like hard work. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t pick modern modules because you’re likely to face stiff competition for a place but do bear this in mind when making your selection. Thinking more broadly about what your first year at university is for and having a willingness to try new things – academically speaking, of course – may mean that not only you stand more chance of getting onto the modules that are at the top of your list, but that your first year is more rewarding for it.

Final Thoughts:

Much of what I’ve talked about here has been in the context of starting out on your degree, but the general ideas of approaching core courses with an open mind, not being afraid of the new, and giving serious consideration to the content and assessment of any given module rather than making reflex reactions that take you back to what is familiar, are applicable across the entirety of your degree.  As far as the first year is concerned, my best advice would be to see this as a year of intellectual experimentation: some experiences will blow your mind, others will leave you reaching for the aspirin but, as the saying goes, you live and learn.

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2 thoughts on “Pick and Mix: Thinking About Modules

  1. Thank you for taking the time to write this! It’s really great advice and is making me look forward to studying history at Exeter even more!

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