In strong belief that my CV and career prospects would be enhanced by the study of two subjects at degree level, I applied to the University of Leeds in 2010 for the course QV31: English and History. The course has been much harder than I expected. While filling out my UCAS application years ago I envisioned that the degree would make me a rounded and balanced intellectual who wears tweed jackets with elbow patches and corduroy jeans. I hoped that the two subjects would be so cleverly intertwined that I could sit in Starbucks and make nuanced observations of every theorist, author, text and event relevant to the ensuing witty repartee. While I like to think that some of the above qualities apply in at least a diluted form (I got corduroy jeans for Christmas) in reality I have found myself stretched, challenged, and worked to the academic bone. I’m often so exhausted after revision periods and essay submission dates that if anyone even mentions academia they will not receive a kindly response, I don’t venture anywhere near Starbucks for syrupy overpriced coffees and I have to spend a couple of extra hours in Edward Boyle to draw my two degree subjects together: they are nuanced observations I have to go out and find myself.
So after differentiating between the noble decision to take the joint degree and actually making the effort for it, I’ve come to write this article in defence of my decision. Along with realising how hard it actually is, I have come to find over the last 18 months that the majority of students chastise joint degrees, particularly ones within the realm of humanities, very harshly. My degree may not have the most contact hours or be the most vocational, but I believe back in 2010 I did make the right decision, because there are a plethora of reasons why in 2015 I will be leaving Leeds with my CV and career prospects significantly enhanced.
The hardest thing about studying English and History is that it requires an engagement with two skill sets. I first began to understand the differences more clearly this term when I had an English exam revision seminar next to a History one. On asking the question ‘Do we write a plan?’ in my English seminar, we were greeted with the following response: ‘Never, ever write a plan. If you write a paragraph plan I’ll just read that instead of your essay.’ When probed as to how we were supposed to have any element of structure to our exam answers without a plan, we were told: ‘Just jot down a few ideas and a couple of authors who correspond to the question, then write your answer and allow it to go with the flow.’ Having been rigorously trained during all my years in education thus far to write a plan as soon as I open exam papers, this news did not go down well. I then went to my history seminar and before anyone even had the chance to ask, my seminar tutor said, ‘You only have one hour for each question, but we strongly advise that you spend AT LEAST twenty minutes planning.’ English requires me to demonstrate the ability to freely associate ideas expressed in a myriad of literature, while maintaining my own creative writing style. With this in mind I proceeded to criticise past exam scripts in my history seminar for their spelling errors, muddled syntax and excessive introduction only to find that the answer gained a 68 for it’s in depth focus upon false dichotomies and sustained analysis of historiography.
It was at this point that I returned home frustrated that there wasn’t more consistency within my degree. But in understanding the differences between my two subjects and the operating centres that they require me to switch on and off, I hope that in my January exams I’ll be able to manipulate the two to my advantage.
Both subjects require me to make judgments. Judgments of literature, of events, of individuals, of texts, of human behaviour, of media and so on. In English, not only should I never judge a book by its cover, but I shouldn’t judge a book by another book either. Of course I am required to make distinctions between texts and cultivate discussions between works of literature, but I should never judge if one text is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the next, no matter how much I have a personal distaste for it. I can criticise a text for the extent to which it corresponds to or contests against its context and the themes that it explores in comparison to other texts, but never could I cast my own personal judgment down upon a text without having my rationale seriously questioned, because if it’s not a worthy text, it just won’t be on the course.
Conversely, History is all about making personal judgments. The transition from GCSE to degree level sees a gradual increase in the importance of engaging with secondary literature, to the point that if I don’t have my own opinion on an event and its controversial issues, I’m pretty much screwed. Not only this but it is essential that I’ve read the relevant historiography and compared one against another. History has no time for creative free associations and will only listen up and give me recognition for analysis and judgment of the evidence that’s in front of me. English, on the other hand, with regards to my upcoming exam, is impartial as to my analysis of secondary literature. It’s an optional extra.
The differences between my two subjects have manifested themselves within the teaching style and characters found in each department. The English department at Leeds is situated within a row of small terraced houses. I first walked into my seminar room this semester and was met with a very homely set up. About eight of us sit with our notepads on our laps in a circle of chairs arranged around my tutor’s desk. He’s got an oversized armchair and his favourite lampshade from home, and many pictures of his family dotted around the room. The conversation flows freely and my tutor often jumps out of his armchair to grab his old, tattered edition of Shakespeare’s Richard III to make comparisons between monarchs. He’s got a whole wall of books and he knows exactly where each book is located. Sometimes he jumps up to perform parts of Etherege’s The Man Of Mode, holding the book in his hand he’ll jump from side to side while acting out two parts.
In my History seminars, the tone is far more focused. There’s at least one gaping silence in each seminar, plagued by nerves that someone will give a wrong answer or picked to speak upon Hazel Carby’s critique of club women when they totally forgot to do the set reading. Sometimes an interesting debate arises and it can get extremely heated. All my seminar tutor has to do is mediate between the two and ask all the right questions. Then suddenly she brings out a scorching piece of evidence that pulls the argument one way or the other and everyone’s looking at you for your retaliation. Going into a History seminar without having done the set reading, and having your own personal opinion upon it is like walking onto the battlefield with a gun and no ammunition.
There have been many moments over the past 18 months when I’ve cursed the day I took a joint honours degree. Back then I had no idea that the two departments don’t convene at all in putting the degree together. But that’s what I’ve come to love about English and History, the fact that I can pick my own modules tailored to my interests and get to grips with two teaching styles, two departments and two groups of academics. It’s also why I chose to study in Leeds in the first place. Try typing ‘Joint Honours Degrees’ into Google and see what comes up. From now on, when I approach a new era of History I can’t help but research the texts written at the time. When I’m given a new text in English, I make the effort to find out its historical context. English and History isn’t just any degree, it’s a way of thinking, and a way of seeing the world.