Why I’m Studying A History Degree

Term two of second year has gotten off to a great start. I’m so glad to be back in the buzz of university life, have a schedule of basketball practices and Exeposé meetings to structure my week around and get stuck back into my degree. I was thrilled with how well received my One Second Everyday video was when it was shared on Exeter’s official Facebook page; 276 likes, 37 shares and over 5,000 views and counting! Looking back on it has made me realise how much fun I had last term – and how important it is to make the most of daily things; the walk to campus on a beautiful day, or weekend pancakes with my housemates. I will definitely be keeping it up for 2016, and now that I know the ropes of making a good compilation hopefully this one will be better than ever!

HistoryToday though, I thought I’d make a post on a more academic vein than I usually prefer to opt for. There’s no doubt that university life involves so much more than the degree, but it’s also important to appreciate we’re only here because of our degree. The UCAS applications and A levels weren’t for the purpose of having fun at societies and learning the pros and cons of independent living; ultimately we’re here to study our chosen discipline. Through the pain of 8:30 lectures and the stress of deadlines however, sometimes I find it’s easy to lose sight of why I chose History, so in this post I thought I’d look back and consolidate some of the reasons why, despite how much I resent it some days, I chose History – and why I have no regrets about doing so.

  • I had a wonderful History teacher. I feel no shame in the slightest in saying that my fabulous A level teacher at school was a huge influence in me deciding to pursue history. Impossibly clever, terrifyingly witty and generally very entertaining, she would conduct whole lessons on the ins and outs of the French Revolution without referring to any notes or plans. She’d done an undergrad and then a PhD (with her thesis being on Medieval gambling and horse racing) and there’s no doubt a little piece of me wanted to be like her; knowledgeable about seemingly everything, and able to win the respect of all who met her. I was far from the only one – of the students who took A Level history I reckon at least 4/5 went on to do a History degree, and will largely in debt their decision to her.
  • History is essentially stories. As a child, I loved having my story book read to me each night. The reason I learnt to properly read at all was because 7 year old me thought we were progressing too slowly through Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, so I started to read ahead. At school I loved English for the same reason, but the more I studied history the more I realised it offers the most fundamental stories of humanity. Since the beginning we have been telling tales of our ancestors, and the myths surrounding them, and to look back at history now – at not only the ‘truth’ of the past but also how people remember it or have told it since then, is to keep up this ancient tradition.
  • The past teaches us about the future. To quote George Santayana on a gobbit that I’m fairly sure appeared in 80% of all History personal statements: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It might be cliché, but it’s true. People who say history isn’t relevant to the modern day infuriate me, as no matter whatever political decision or social crisis we’re facing we’ve probably already dealt with a comparable situation in the past. I remember learning about the Wall Street Crash at the time of the 2008 recession and our teacher pointing out all the similarities in the situation. Looking back at how humanity has acted in the past (and the benefits and flaws of those methods) are key to being informed on taking such decisions in the present and future. Remembering this is an important one for me, as sometimes I worry that there’s ‘no point’ to my degree. The very reason I didn’t choose English (not to down on the subject) was because I thought I’d probably end up having a post-modernist existential crisis several times a week – History has thankfully saved me from these!
  • It’s insanely interesting. Out of our house, I’m pretty sure I could bank on being the one to get away with talking about what I’m studying at the moment without boring my housemates to tears. Unlike Economics, English or Physics, you can guarantee there will be a part of history people will find interesting. History is everywhere you look, on every holiday you go on, in every town you visit. There are certainly less interesting aspects, but as a subject I find that from Charlemagne to Hiroshima most of the time I get drawn into my assigned reading through sheer natural interest.
  • There’s so much to study; and you get to choose. This leads on from my previous point; no matter what you find interesting there’s definitely some way you can adapt your degree in order to study exactly that. Compulsory modules in first year provide a grounding knowledge, but from second year onwards the options when choosing specialist modules are huge; last term my friend studied William of Orange and the Stuarts, and this term she’s learning African-American History, from the Slave Trade to Obama.
  • It incorporates lots of other disciplines. I’m sure there are those who would argue this is true for a lot of subjects, but to give an example; first year essay questions ranged from analysing the impact of famine (Science), assessing religious fundamentalism in the modern day (International Relations and Theology) and looking at economic factors for European expansion (Economics).  Whatever your strengths or interests, History caters for those and you can head down the path which best suits you. In some ways I feel I’ve learnt more about religion, science and literature than I ever would have if I’d done a subject specific degree. No matter the discipline, the history of said subject is covered at some point.
  • You learn important transferable skills. Here it comes; the inevitably ‘career utility’ justifications. But again, it’s true – a History degree is far more than just learning about history. It equips you with highly regarded transferable skills that will be valued in almost every workplace. As listed on the Careers section on Exeter’s website, a History degree will teach you:

o   Communication skills, both written and oral
o   Critical reasoning and analytical skills, including problem solving and creative            thinking
o   Research skills such as disseminating and collating information
o   Construct persuasive arguments and question assumptions by selecting and            ordering relevant evidence
o   Work in groups, accommodating different ideas and reaching agreements
o   Think objectively and approach problems with an open mind

(These might sound generic but that’s sort of the point – History degrees teach important and flexible skills you can apply everywhere.)

  • It’s a valuable degree. From Salaman Rushdie and Jonathan Ross to Sacha Baron Cohen and Gordon Brown – History graduates have gone on to do all manner of things. But whether you’re interested in media, politics, journalism, MI5 or education, a good degree in History is certainly going to put you in a great position. It’s appreciated that History is academically challenging but also provides the transferable skills already mentioned and a strong cultural understanding for the world we live in.

(If anyone reading this is thinking about choosing to study a History degree at Exeter and has any questions, feel free to email me at tb397@exeter.ac.uk)

Things I’ve Achieved in First Year

The library is packed to the rafters with harassed looking students in various states of dress, the Market Place is selling post-its, pens and vodka at discount prices, and everywhere you go people are talking wistfully about the holidays.

Yep. It’s that time of year.tumblr_no3aattKfk1s7fm11o1_1280

Currently most of the student population is slap-bang in the middle of revising for exams, so of course I find myself spending my afternoon writing a blog post instead of memorising essay plans. Obviously.

Coming to the end of first year with increasingly terrifying rapidity, it’s reached the point now where I feel able to look back on the whole experience and see just how far I’ve come. September feels like a lifetime ago – so much has happened since then, the awesome and the atrocious, I’ve learnt so much (although judging by the state of my revision you wouldn’t know it) and I feel like I’ve grown up a lot too.

In the vein of this somewhat cheesy nostalgia, I’ve decided to compile a list of 10 things I think I’ve achieved this year. Especially during exam season it’s easy to get hung up on final year averages as a gauge of ‘how well you’ve done’, but I think especially in first year there are a lot of other challenges to get over beside the academic; and no matter how small these ‘achievements’ might be, I think they deserve a little recognition:

1. Survived Freshers’ Week

It was just as intimidating arriving to a campus of complete strangers as I feared it would be, but through all awkward introductions, over-priced Freshers’ events and hideous flu, I made it through without a single homesick breakdown.

2. Lived Off Something Other Than Beans On Toast

Self-catered and I have had a love/hate relationship of sorts, but over the last term especially it’s gotten much easier to throw edible meals together. No longer do we avidly stick to student recipe books, bemoaning not having that clearly vital piece of student kitchen equipment; a lemon squeezer, or spend ridiculous amounts on Dominoes ‘discounts’. Instead, I’m actually now reasonably capable of constructing a variety of meals for the week and not suffering from vitamin deficiency.

3. Lived Away From Home For 3 Months Straight

I was always a little worried about being away from home for such extended periods of time, but no matter how tough it might seem at first – time really is a healer. It’s amazing how much easier it’s gotten to be away from my family, and no one was more surprised than me when after a month-holiday over Easter, I was actually desperate to get back to Exeter. ‘Home’ home will always be where my family is, but I feel like I’ve officially adopted Devon as my ‘uni home’ too.

4. Written An Essay On A Topic I Previously Knew Absolutely Nothing About With A Bibliography Of 18 Bookstumblr_naaw572FBO1ry1izso1_500

I now know so much more about the Great Irish Famine than I thought humanely possible. I guess this is a standard part of university life for humanities students, but my goodness it’s a long way from the standard expected at A level. The independent research was intimidating at first, but it’s also hugely satisfying to become a mini-expert on an obscure topic of your choosing, and after scouring the library for all and any books that could possibly help you out, submit an essay you’ve spent 2 weeks constructing.

5. Managed To Get A 3 And A Half Hour Train From Leicester To Exeter With 2 Ridiculously Over-Packed Suitcases, A Rucksack Full Of History Textbooks And A Guitar

I think this one speaks for itself as an admirable achievement.

6. Kept On Going

This one has been particularly important for me, even though it’s taken me a while to recognise it as an ‘achievement’ as such. To cut a long story short, when things got tough and I thought that maybe university wasn’t for me, I sought out all the support I could and managed to stick it out. I’m really grateful for that now looking back, and am proud of myself for keeping my head above water when it was all getting a little overwhelming.

7. Was An Adult-y Adulttumblr_nn83pohkGL1rmegquo1_1280

Aside from feeding myself, independent living has also brought a number of other jobs I’d never even really thought twice about that I’ve had to get to grips with as an ‘adult’. A non-exhaustive list of these includes: booking my own doctors’ appointment, making weekly shopping lists, going to the Bank for Serious Conversations, making restaurant reservations over the phone, picking up prescriptions, sending relatives Birthday cards (as opposed to signing the family card) and buying my own loo bleach.

8. Didn’t Miss A Seminar

I am pretty proud of this one. Arguably 9am lectures are very tempting to miss when you can catch up online at a more reasonable hour, but if I’m honest I’m quite happy to turn up to be spoken at for an hour. It doesn’t exactly require much effort, aside from making notes. Seminars however, are a different ordeal entirely; intensive 2 hour sessions which require reading and preparation and, horror of horrors, interaction. Far more daunting, and unfortunately far more essential to attend.

9. Found A House For Second Year

Some might not class this as an achievement seeing as all first years have to find themselves accommodation, but seeing as this was without a doubt the MOST stressful aspect of first year for me, I can’t not include it. Dozens of house-viewings and depressing phone conversations with various landlords (“Oh, so sorry, that one went 10 minutes ago”) later, I am in fact not living in a cardboard box in September, and frankly that’s all I really care about.

10. Made Friends

thumb_IMG_3714_1024 2Spending 7 years with the same group of people at secondary school, it was more intimidating than I thought having to suddenly branch out and make new connections all over again at university. It was like being 11 years old again and having that whole ‘first day at school’ feeling, except we’re all supposedly infinitely wiser and cooler now that we’re over 18. Fortunately, I’ve found a pretty great bunch of people who I’ve met in all kinds of situations throughout first year and I’m grateful to all of them for putting up with me and making me laugh on a daily basis.

An Internal Library Monologue

(I spend far more time in the library than I’d anticipated before coming to university, but then again, I’m fairly sure a good 60% of that time is not spent productively. Instead, I’m usually either distracted, procrastinating or just completely losing my train of thought staring out the window. Below is an all too realistic account of where I my brain usually ends up when I’m meant to be getting on top of 500 word source analyses.)

• Right. Time for my 5 minute-ly ‘let’s stare out of the window’ break. Those last two sentences have earned me this much at least; I mean, I used the word ‘poignantly’ and ‘exacerbated’. Maybe if I prop my chin on my hand I’ll look thoughtful and philosophical as opposed to deathly bored.

• *Looks up potentially useful book in the library catalogue* 936.70?? You’re kidding, I’m not climbing two flights of stairs for that. I’ll do without.

• *Looks up other potentially useful book* Express collection? Lord no, I can Google that section of the book – I can’t deal with anymore stressful deadlines in my life right now…

• …Though, that being said, I could do with an AMT vanilla milkshake. Meh, I might as well – the walk will do me good.

• That is genuinely the third rainbow I have seen today – and it’s a double one. Wow. Better add it to the snap-chat story. I don’t want people to miss out on this.

• How can that be the time. Oh my goddd.

• Ok that’s it – lunch is being moved forward to 11:30am. I literally cannot survive until midday.

• I can hear that that guy is listening to Eminem through his headphones from 5 seats away. Maybe if I glare pointedly at the back of his head he’ll get the message and turn it down.

• Time for a ‘lets-fill-up-the-already-half-full-water-bottle’ break.

• Urgh, my back is killing me. You think with the sweeping Forum ceiling and fancy light fittings in DH1 the Uni could have at least invested in some ergonomic chairs. I wonder if anyone would think I’m weird if I did some yoga. That would be a productive use of my time.

• I want to check Facebook but I know that the people behind me can see my screen and will 100% judge me, so BBC news it is.

• Please don’t judge me fellow-library-goers, I am genuinely researching this essay on religious fundamentalism, not planning on joining ISIS.

• … How did I end up on YouTube watching babies eating lemons/vine compilations/cat videos? I literally have no idea how Googling the Temporary Relief Act of 1847 led me here.

• Sure, new neighbour, feel free to sit down in the seat right next to me so that I have to move my books despite the fact there are literally thousands of other seats free.

• *Spies surreptitiously on what the person next to me is doing* *sees equations* *recoils in horror* Am I ever grateful I’m not doing Economics. Yknow, this essay doesn’t look so bad anymore.