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Applying for joint honours English and History on my UCAS form in 2010 I had this in mind. But along the way I’ve found studying joint honours has been anything but simple. Employability is one thing, but the decision to study joint honours should not be taken solely in consideration of your CV. A JH student needs to match their openness to interdisciplinary study with double the passion, patience and perseverance required to study a single honours degree.
One of the first hurdles a JH student has to overcome is getting to grips with logistics. Working with two academic departments can result in clashing deadlines, twice the staff and double the feedback sessions. Rafe Hallett, Director of Induction in History at the University of Leeds, commented: “The first six months of study can be more of a struggle, as the JH student adapts to the demands of two communities and two discourses of knowledge. They can sometimes feel stuck in limbo between two ‘homes’ and feel envious of the apparent simplicity of SH students’ timetables, contexts and communities.” Hayley Reid, a Classics and English student from the University of Leeds found dividing her time and attention between two schools was more trouble than it’s worth: “It was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made at university. I’ve chosen to focus more on the English side of things, but my parent school is Classics. I feel like I’m floating in some sort of subject limbo where I’m neither an English student or a Classics student.”
At a deeper level, JH students must also deal with two ways of thinking and two methods of learning. For me, the stark differences between English and History are manifested within the teaching style and characters found in each department. The English department at Leeds is situated on a row of small terraced houses. Walking into my seminars, I take a seat in a circle of chairs. Eight of us sit with our notepads on our laps and engage in free-flowing, spontaneous discourse about the set reading. My tutor will jump out of his armchair to search for his old, tattered version of Shakespeare’s Richard III to draw comparisons and encourage inter-textual thought. He once performed a whole scene from Etherege’s ‘The Man of Mode’, holding the book in his hand, jumping from side to side while acting out two parts. Conversely, I’ll head to my history seminars to engage in intense, regulated debate in a bare classroom- no bookcases, no armchairs and no digressions. Debates between historians can become incredibly heated, as not only are we trained to cultivate judgments of the past, but we learn how to assert them in a concise, convincing and intellectual manner.
Although studying a JH degree can seem like extra hassle, taking on two subjects at university level does work for some. Phillippa Watts from the University of Leeds, a French and History graduate with first class honours, enthused: “Studying a language was particularly useful as it meant I had access to more journals and sources compared to single honours students. I got to study two subjects that I’m passionate about, and have written a really interesting dissertation that bridges the gapbetween the two.” Andrea Major, a History tutor from the University of Leeds suggested that a JH degree does offer students this greater degree of continuity: “I have had JH students in History and English Literature who have tended towards ‘wider world’ modules in History who have paired that with post-colonial literature modules on the English side. They compliment each other extremely well, and as a result these students have found that work on one side of their degree has benefitted work on the other.”
Since employers consistently emphasise the need for graduates to be flexible, adaptable and creative in professional contexts, JH students are in a strong position in relation to employability. The ability to oscillate between two subjects is beneficial to a multiplicity of job applications, and in return for twice the hard work, JH students are rewarded with twice the number of career options available in comparison to single honours students.
The primary reason anyone should opt for a joint honours degree is because they have genuine passion for two subjects, and are open to seeing how they fit together. After all, a single honours student wouldn’t choose a degree they’re only 50% passionate about, so by the same token, students shouldn’t opt for JH just to add another string to their bow. Studying JH is not just an academic choice, it’s a way of life that defines your experience of university.
This article has also been published on the Guardian’s ‘Blogging Students’ website at: http://www.theguardian.com/education/mortarboard/2013/sep/02/joint-honours-degrees-double-the-trouble