Plans to reform the undergraduate History syllabus are entering into their final phase, with mixed responses from the student body.
The proposed reforms will see three major changes to the existing syllabus for History and Joint Schools. There will first be a requirement for all students to take one ‘World History’ paper during their degree; the menu of British and General History papers for finalists will be reduced to make way for ‘Theme’ papers, which examine a concept over a long period of time; the British History finals paper will be assessed by three submitted essays, rather than an exam.
Dr Benjamin Thompson, Coordinator for Undergraduate History, told Cherwell that the reforms would give “more diversity, thematically and geographically”. He continued, “The study of history changes all the time, as more history is made and new generations study it, and the curriculum has to refl ect that without following fashion…cautiously and slowly.”
In his view, the challenge is to “try to get the balance between core British history, with its wonderfully diverse history and sources, and more places in the world: to give undergraduates a chance to study Ottomans, Middle East, Native Americans and so on.”
Another aim of the changes is to address a gap in Finals performance between men and women in History. Catrin Prior, co-President of the Undergraduate History Assembly (UHA), informed Cherwell that, “Men consistently outperform women in history exams, for reasons no one is sure of.” She is confident that the proposed reforms will help “rectify the gender gap”, by making the syllabus less male-orientated and bringing in coursework for the paper with the greatest disparity in performance, British History.
She noted that, “Our statistics show that men and women perform similarly in coursework and dissertations, this module will be assessed in three essays rather than in one big exam. Hopefully this will go some way in ensuring that men and women have an equal opportunity to achieve a first at Oxford.”
Both Prior and Dr Thompson stressed that the proposals reflected student sentiment expressed in surveys and the UHA. Prior explained, “The results from the UHA’s surveys, and from general points raised in our meetings, have definitely gone into the faculty’s efforts to reform the syllabus and we’re extremely happy with some of the changes.”
Some students, however, seem apprehensive about the changes. One second-year historian thought the change to coursework “seems like a wonderful way to ruin Trinity for historians”, while a joint-schools student suggested it would, come Finals exams, “penalise joint school students who already take a lot more Finals exams than the historians”. There was also worry that the new ‘World History’ and ‘Theme’ papers were broad brush strokes and may not do the topics justice.
Asked about these concerns, Dr Thompson acknowledged that the balancing of detail and breadth in a History curriculum was “always a struggle”, but insisted that “[he doesn’t] think we’re giving up on detailed papers.” Dr. Thompson also had sympathy with students troubled by the potential workload, but laughed that, “Nobody said studying History at Oxford was easy!”
These proposals come at a time when a number of History and Politics students appear unhappy with recent changes to their syllabus. From the start of last academic year, first and second-year Politics students have been required to attend statistics classes at the ‘Qstep’ statistical analysis laboratory, but some History and Politics students feel this change has left them at a disadvantage.
One second-year History and Politics student complained to Cherwell, “The feeling amongst ‘HPol’ students is that the statistics module has been hoisted upon us and requires mathematical skills that many of us simply do not have.” Another explained that “We are expected to do the same syllabus as the PPEists in spite of the fact that most of us have a humanities background, whereas most PPEists have done A-Level Maths”; the same student said, “it seems like the department has just stuck two fingers up” to History and Politics students.
Professor Andrew Eggers, Associate Professor of Quantitative Methods in Comparative Government, defended the statistical elements of the course, arguing that, “We think this is useful at Oxford but it is definitely useful in lots of careers students might be considering. At the very least we want students to not be intimidated by numbers.
“I understand that students less inclined toward stats might feel slightly more lost in our labs, but we don’t assume any background so it should be accessible for everyone. Also (and perhaps more importantly), the point of these new lectures and labs is to help students deal with quantitative material that was already being assigned for their Prelims and core Politics papers, so we hope that if anything this helps students with less stats background than their peers.”
Nonetheless, support among many History and Politics students for the statistics requirements appeared to be fading rapidly. One message on the History and Politics Facebook page reported, “I know two people who dropped Politics altogether because of it”, while another student reports “widespread resentment”, especially from History and Politics students with a background in humanities.