For those of you who have just started at university, the last few weeks have probably been a bit of a whirlwind, and just when you’ve got to a point when you’re settling in, finding your way around your new town or campus and have figured out where the best place is to get a fulfilling (if not particularly nutritious) snack for your post-night out walk home, we expect you to begin doing some work. As a History student, the bulk of your teaching will be done through seminars and as this type of class will form the backbone of your entire degree, getting your head around both how they are meant to function and how you can best prepare for them is crucial.
As Sara pointed out in our last post on what exactly a seminar is, there are really no hard or fast rules and you will come across a wide variety of different styles of seminar teaching during your degree. Some tutors use group work extensively, some will make use of various technologies, some love student presentations, some may be more old school and run each session as a two hour discussion of the major issues; chances are that within each module you will encounter slightly different formats as the tutor tailors what you do to the subject and tries to make sessions remain fresh. However, whatever the style of the seminar, the substance remains the same – we are looking for a willingness to participate, to share your ideas and interpretations, to listen with respect to other people’s contributions and to discuss points of disagreement with consideration for your classmates’ own points of view. Like most things in life, the more you put into your seminars, the more reward you will gain from them – coming to class to sit there and hope that you will be able to make up for your own lack of preparation through the hard work of others, or the knowledge of your tutor is bad form. You mustn’t just sit there lapping up the insights of others, you must be willing to contribute some of your own!
So, term’s getting underway, and hopefully you’re starting to feel a bit settled, if you’re new to university, or are getting back into the swing of things, if you’re an old hand at this. No matter what stage you’re at – fresher or finalist, undergrad or postgrad – you will no doubt be confronted with a seminar at some point in your learning career. This post will explain what a seminar is, and what you should expect from them – and it should be of use to both undergrads and postgrads. In other posts, I’ll look at how you should prepare and contribute to a seminar so that both you and your fellow students benefit.
What is a seminar?
Put all thoughts of business seminars you might have seen in American sit-coms or movies out of your mind. We’re not in motivational-speaker-land here. A university seminar is a small, discussion-based class, made up of a small sub-section of the whole class. There will be a tutor who is there to lead discussion, but students are expected to do most of the talking, because they will have been given preparation work to do for the session. Finally, a seminar typically focuses on a small-ish, discrete section of the course.
So far on HEHistoryHub, we’ve focused mainly on undergraduate history students, freshers in particular. But they’re not the only ones starting out on degrees at this time of year, of course. Universities also welcome their new postgraduate students at this time of year – those doing taught degrees (Masters, or MLitts if you’re in Scotland) as well as those doing research degrees. Studying at postgraduate level throws up a whole new set of challenges, so we’ll be looking at studying history at postgraduate level on HEHistoryHub too. Today, I’d just like to go over some of the main differences between undergraduate degrees and masters degrees, in particular the things that seem to throw new MA students for a bit of a loop.
As the wise man Forrest Gump once stated ‘life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get’ and as it is with life, so it is with reading lists.
Now in an ideal world, exactly what you need to read for each seminar would be clearly marked, possibly even rated so that you know what is key, what is recommended and what is there in case you happen to be awake at 3.47 the morning before class and can’t get back to sleep. Chances are that when you open your reading list at the start of the semester this is not what you’re going to find, because as we pointed out to you in our post on lectures, the thing you have to keep in mind is that all tutors will do things slightly differently, and probably have slightly different expectations of what they require from you in return.
At the very least a tutor will expect you to come to class having read a sample of the material that is available, to have thought about it (not just copied out chunks of it) and to be prepared to share your thoughts on the issues that were raised by what you read – these could be questions, problems, links between concepts, things that seem to contradict each other, what we can learn about the same topic by using a different source base and so on. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to this issue of how to prepare for your seminars another time. What we want to see from you in a seminar is that you have gained sufficient knowledge to be able to engage with the ideas that are central to the topic that is being discussed, and the gateway to obtaining this knowledge is your reading list.
In my previous post, I explained what a lecture is, why we still use lectures to teach history, and what you should expect when you turn up to class. In this post, I’ll go through some practical ways of getting the most from your lectures – whether you need to show up at all, how to prepare, what to do in the lecture theatre and how to stop everything leaving your head the minute the lecturer stops talking…
Your first choice is whether or not you’re going to turn up – if the lecture is at 9 am after the big student club night, on the far side of town/campus, it’s raining and you’re just not sure you’re that bothered. You’re not sure what the lecture’s on today. You can catch up from someone else or using VLE support…
Well, yes, you can, but there are several reasons for making the effort to go to that lecture:
Term’s probably underway or about to be underway for most history students now, so it is a good time to think about the ways in which you’re taught at university. For history students, lectures are probably the most obvious form of teaching you encounter. But what are they and why do we do them? Should we even be doing them, and should you be attending? In this post, I’ll try to break down the reasons for the lecture, then a follow-up post later in the week will look at some techniques for getting the most from lectures.
In my last post, I talked about some of the things you might want to consider when making your module selections but picking modules run by the History department is not your only option. Increasingly History departments are encouraging students to take a certain number of credits outside the department, on what are commonly called elective modules. Generally, this will be a range of modules from the humanities and social sciences that are seen as having intellectual merit and relevance to a History student. In some cases this may also include psychology and geography courses, as well as the more obvious candidates of politics, English, philosophy, theology, archaeology, and languages. The range of modules and the number of credits that you can elect to take outside of History will vary, but for most institutions this will be an option that is open to you every year. Those of you who are already on combined honours degrees may find that your choice is a bit more limited as you are already having to meet the requirements of two departments, but this shouldn’t preclude you from taking some credits externally.
One of the things we are keen to stress on HE History Hub is where history at university differs from history at school. A good example of this is how your history department is staffed, and how it fits in with the wider university. Because teaching is only part of what goes on at a university, there are loads of bits of the university machine that you might not get to experience first-hand. If you’re in a medium to large sized department, you probably won’t be taught by anything like all of the staff on the books. Nonetheless, getting to know who is who is a good way of settling in, discovering your new surroundings, and broadening your understanding of history. Most departments will have a section of their website dedicated to their staff, their research interests and teaching – take the time to browse this before you arrive, so you have some idea of who does what.
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.
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.