Tag Archives: History

10 ways you know you’re a final year arts student

19 Dec

Freshers’ week lasts forever…right?

I’ve made it halfway through my final year as a BA English and History student, and there’ve been many painful moments of realisation over the last few months. Despite my best attempts to keep the work-play mix in checks and balances, as I slump to the library for another daily grind I find myself lamenting the slow and painful death of my social life. Perhaps the saving grace stopping me from going completely mad is the fact that my course-mates seem to be going through the same thing. So here are ten symptoms well known to those battling through the final year of their arts degree:

You know exactly what you want to do after you graduate…just kidding
You’re really glad you chose an arts degree, because they have the best possible reputation for post-graduate employment, and you don’t know which job offer to accept next September. See you in Costa Coffee, future baristas.



Your social life has become that of an ageing bohemian
I never thought I’d go to a cheese and wine night until I was in my 30s, but arts students hold them regularly as a happy medium between a night on the town and a night on the sofa. Good food, great alcohol, even better company and none of the annoyances of jostling about in a sweaty nightclub with a bunch of strangers. It’s pretty em-mental. Sorry.



Someone just recalled the one library book you need over the Christmas holidays, and it caused you to have had an existential meltdown

But that’s the one book…what do they need it for…I can’t write my essay now…may as well not do it…why did I choose this degree…life is pointless.



You’ve finally given in to using a backpack daily

Remember that canvas tote bag that you used to use all the time? No, you probably don’t, because you ditched it in September when it became heavy enough to use as a hammer throw. Now you’ve succumbed to using your Roxy rucksack to carry your books to the library. Mum always did say something about comfort over style…


You’ve been studying so hard you forget which words are real- and invent your own

Last week, at the end of an eight hour library stint, I used the word ‘premacy’ in my essay, to discover that it is not a word, other than being the name for a Mazda minivan. Primacy is a word, as is pre-eminence, but premacy is definitely not a real word.

The Mazda Premacy is delightful but not what I need right now

You’re buying lined paper at an abnormal speed

I swear I bought a new pukka pad last week and I’m already making notes on scrap paper. Where did it go?!



You worry about your argument in your daily life

Not arguments with real people, oh no. But the argument you’re meant to be having with all of the scholars you’re citing in your latest essay. Is my argument strong enough? Should I side with Winthrop or Koritansky? What is the meaning of all this?

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You get the best ideas when you aren’t studying and write them all in your phone
No matter how long you spend in the library, you’ll get the best ideas for your work when you spend some time away from it. Then a ray of brilliance shines down on your thought process, and you’re on the toilet, or out with friends. Who are you texting? Myself, actually…


Your sense of humour revolves around ironic socio-cultural references

This probably explains the cheese and wine nights. Where else will we fit in?

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You have dissertation complaint stand-offs with your course-mates

All discussions about final year projects have become a tirade of one-upmanship to vie for pity: I’ve only written 200 words. Yeah? I haven’t even decided on my title. Urgh.

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Despite starting to smell like a library, you wouldn’t have spent your degree any other way than exploring the wonderful, fascinating, inspiring and challenging world of the humanities. Let’s face it, maths was never an option.



What Does it Take to Study a Joint Honours Degree?

22 Aug

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

You’re a hard worker. You’re conscientious, engaged and smart. You never skipped classes at school. You got the results you needed for university. You had the best three years of your life and graduated with a 2:1. But nowadays, climbing the education ladder is just not enough. With competition for graduate jobs fierce as ever, students are looking for more ways to stand out from the crowd and enhance their CVs before they don the mortarboard.

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.

Four things I wouldn’t study abroad without

8 Jun

I applied for a place on the University of Leeds study abroad programme back in October. Since receiving the acceptance letter (and finding out where South Carolina is actually located) I have been making numerous preparations for my Appalachian adventure. I’ve been inundated with forms asking me to provide proof of medical history, family history, academic history and employment history: pretty much the entire history of me. As I moved out of my second year university digs, what should have been a series of temporary goodbyes became a highly emotional leaving process. But only since exams had finished and I moved home for summer did I really feel like I had crossed the Rubicon. I’m going. Leaving. Packing my life into a couple of suitcases. It’s not a distant gap-year-holiday any more but a real process that is logistically and emotionally demanding.

            I was recently asked to compile a list of four things I wouldn’t study abroad without. Everyone will take a camera, a journal, a novel, a token from home, their passport, and so on. So I chose to answer the question in an unconventional way, in keeping with my passion for the study of English and History. Here’s my answer. It’s a compilation of four lessons from history and literature that will be at the forefront of my mind while exploring the American South.

 Mary Wollstonecraft: expect the unexpected

In 1796 independent and iconic travel writer Mary Wollstonecraft mused: ‘Travellers who require that every nation should resemble their native country had better stay at home.’ I couldn’t have put it better myself. I’ll be landing in South Carolina in anticipation that my year abroad will push me far beyond my comfort zone and will relish the challenge of accepting a completely different lifestyle.

Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’: take sensible shoes

The devil may wear Prada but the study abroad student wears sensible shoes with pride. One thing I learnt from my trip to Costa Rica was that sturdy, multi-functional ‘Jesus sandals’ as we called them, may be downright ugly but they are an absolute godsend (excuse the pun). If only Austen’s Louisa Musgrove had worn a decent pair of trekking sandals on that fateful day she fell from the promenade. I’ll be packing mine so that I’m ready for anything, from mountain climbing to walks on the beach.

British Politics: fly the flag

Studying British politics this semester brought me closer to the intricate history of my country and taught me that there’s nothing wrong with a bit of patriotism (sometimes). For use as a fancy dress item, a poster for my dorm or a photo prop I’m taking a union Jack flag as a token of British heritage and will be painting it with the university emblem for that extra bit of flair. I hope to return with a star-spangled banner.

 Martin Luther King: go with a dream

This iconic phrase needs no introduction. My black politics module showed me the importance of having a vision. Gaining a place on the study abroad programme was once my biggest dream and now it’s become a reality. It’s time to stretch myself further and have new aims and goals for my time in the states. Learning a new sport, seeing the White House and gaining journalistic work experience with an American publication are just a few of the dreams I hope to turn into reality in 2013.

On Living To One’s Self

4 Apr

On reading William Hazlitt’s 1812 philosophical essay ‘On Living to One’s Self’ recently, it occurred to me that what he had to say over two centuries ago has great relevance within today’s postmodern world.

Hazlitt’s instructive and persuasive article proposes to its readers a way of living that consists entirely of living to one’s self. Hazlitt asserted that by living a detached, contemplative and somewhat secluded lifestyle an individual will experience all the benefits of life, free from the intrusive pressures of society. 

Of course Hazlitt’s piece is not entirely transferable to the world we live in today. He suggested:

‘He who lives wisely to himself and to his own heart, looks at the busy world through the loop-holes of retreat, and does not want to mingle in the fray.’

But in my eyes, one can live wisely while engaging with the world. As an English student I understand how tempting it must be to retreat to a scholastic and literary world and to immerse oneself in books. But as a history student I also understand the importance of cultivating my own opinion through active participation, engagement and debate. Learning about the past becomes null and void if it is reduced purely to reading and accumulation of facts. Lessons from the past must be judged, compared and contrasted with the present in order to enrich our understanding of things as they are. The true mark of a great historian is someone who learns about the past and uses this knowledge for a multiplicity of life lessons. Unlike Hazlitt, who ‘lived in a world of contemplation, not of action’ (his own words) historians take pride in mingling in the fray: in jumping enthusiastically into the debate.

In writing this blog entry I raise issue with Hazlitt by doing exactly what he wrote against: engaging and acting.

Now discontinuities aside, ‘On Living to One’s Self’ is an astounding essay that showed me a different perspective on life and on living. It is a perfect example of the way in which my joint honours degree combines literature and history in a way that forces me to think about the world we live in now. Here is a selection of the best bits from Hazlitt’s work, and why I think they still have things to teach us today.

‘He does not fret himself to death with trying to be what he is not. He relishes an author’s style without thinking of turning author.’

How many times have you heard girls say things along the lines of ‘I wish I had her stomach!’ or ‘I WANT her shoes!’? Hazlitt would be turning in his grave if he knew the envious and destructive nature of youth culture and the media as it is today. We would be a much happier society if we learnt to embrace contentedness: that’s being exactly who we are without feeling the need to adjust to fit in, without the constant assessment of ourselves in light of how we may or may not be perceived. Hazlitt preached the art of detached appreciation: acknowledging what other people have or do without immediately wanting it for ourselves. Being happy cannot be bought: it is a learning process, and it is a skill. There will always be more money, more clothes, more cars, better jobs, better food, better holidays and so on. The true test of living to one’s self is learning to be content with what is enough, and what makes you truly happy. The real test of living to one’s self is learning when to stop.

‘He does not survey the objects of nature as they are in themselves, but looks asquint at them to see whether he cannot make them instruments of his ambition.’

On living to the prerequisite standards of society one’s views of life become increasingly subjected and distorted. We understand, and even care less about those around us and become obsessed with personal gain: ‘what’s in it for me?’

There is not a more mean, stupid, dastardly, pitiful, selfish, spiteful, envious, ungrateful animal than the Public. It is the greatest of cowards, for it is afraid of itself.’

As far as this quote goes, it seems not much has changed since 1812. In fact, the state of the public has got worse. Sociologist Alain De Botton contemplated postmodern society: ‘Locked away in our private cocoons, our chief way of imagining what other people are like has become the media’ Instead of actually going outside and living, we sit indoors watching television, scrolling through our mind-numbing Facebook newsfeeds, Twitter updates and Instagram photos, the list (unfortunately) goes on. Social media has become one of the most used and probably least accurate tools for judging other people and the world outside of our own. The public is undeniably afraid of itself because the public is afraid of what the public may or may not say. The only answer left then, if one is to live to one’s self, is learning not to care.

The idea of what the public will think prevents the public from ever thinking at all, and acts as a spell on the exercise of private judgment.’

I watched a Derren Brown programme a few months ago that set up a social experiment to test the dynamics of group behavior. It proved that given the chance, while individuals were masked within the muddy waters of group identity, Brown’s audience went so far as wishing pain and suffering upon an unknown individual. To me, this sounds familiar to the audition stages of popular talent contests like X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. (The latest winner of Britain’s Got Talent was a dog, which doesn’t say much about the caliber of our national standards) A panel of pretentious B-list celebrity judges faces a stage with the ability to facilitate or deny a contestant’s path to fame. The decision-making process is immingled with the seemingly raucous audience who pander to sob stories, contestants who are strikingly old or young, funny contestants and those who they would simply like to crawl into bed with. Unfavourable contestants are mocked, humiliated, chewed up and spat out not only in front of a large crowd but eventually on national Saturday night television. Irrespective of talent these shows are confirmation enough that society is a self-cleansing, self-vindicating machine that as Hazlitt suggested, casts a spell on private judgment because Simon, Louis or Cheryl are there to do that for us.

Given the progression of technology and social media in post-modern society I am unwilling to suggest that Hazlitt’s essay in its entirety is applicable to the world today. Social media and television do have fantastic and astonishing benefits. But I think that to answer the question ‘How do I live to myself in the world today?’ one must consider a moderated Hazlitt. It requires balance and discipline to avoid becoming preoccupied by what society wants and if we aren’t careful, we run the risk of becoming the public’s next self-directed project of uniformity.

*If you enjoyed the impassioned rant against TV talent contests, watch Charlie Brooker’s episode of Black Mirror ’15 Million Merits’, a major inspiration for this blog entry.


Joint Honours Degrees: A Defence

29 Dec

            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. 


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