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The Unscheduled Life of a History Student

Sophia Henderson writes how few contact hours and a total lack of structure make the Oxford history degree isolating and difficult for students.

I round the corner. The door is in sight. I make awkward eye contact with the person coming the other way down the path and it takes approximately three tries for me to get through the barrier with my Bod card. It’s another day in my life as a History student: I’m in the Rad Cam.

Taking yourself on a study date to the library every single day is a staple in the life of a historian at Oxford. In fact, it might be the only staple. I’m a second year and this term I have two contact hours. One lecture, one tute. And they’re on the same day. It may seem like a dream, but the lack of contact hours we get as History students can make our degrees more difficult.

I can lay in until 10:30 if I want to, but starting the day off with literally nothing to do except read for the same essay you’ll be doing every day for the entire week is both daunting and demoralising.

Oxford is always intense, and balanced with hours upon hours of time spent by yourself reading books at a limited revolving selection of study spaces, the term is over before you know it and all you can remember from it is all the time you spent staring at the same pages over and over, hoping the words would just enter your brain.

Having this little contact time takes a toll on your mental health. Many students are already anxiety-ridden; this makes being left entirely to your own devices for eight weeks particularly difficult. There’s a reason why History students are often found panic-writing their essay after having an entire week to do it, and it’s not because we’re lazy.

It becomes easier than ever to isolate yourself. Your non-historian friends are out for most of the day getting the most out of the £9,250 a year they spend on their degree. Your day isn’t neatly arranged; there’s nothing to fit your lunch or snack breaks around and there’s nobody to encourage you to keep reading a little longer.

I knew before I came to Oxford that I’d be doing an essay or maybe two a week, and that, as History is more of an independent degree, most of my time would be spent reading. Still, I thought I’d have things to go to. Nobody tells you that you’ll only get one hour of academic interaction a week.

Of course, the tutorial system is unparalleled. In Trinity, I was lucky enough to be given one and a half hour long tutes, one-to-one. It was amazing to be able to focus so much on my individual work and I got so much out of such a personalised and focused approach. History, though, is about discussion, and I missed out on interacting with my peers in an academic setting.

History at Oxford is great because of just how much choice there is available to you from the beginning. An individualised approach can be greatly beneficial, especially when studying for more in-depth ‘optional’ or ‘further’ subject papers. Still, there must be a way to balance this.

Perhaps the History Faculty is struggling, but there is no doubt that Oxford has enough money to be able to provide their students with more contact time. We do already help fund STEM. Only recently has studying world history become a course requirement, and undergraduates still have to study one British history paper in first year and another in second year.

In comparison to other top universities, the selection is dismal. Sometimes, even European history papers fail to venture further than France. I love History and becoming a historian is constantly rewarding and fulfilling. However, I can’t help thinking History as an undergraduate degree has become an afterthought.

It may be what Oxford historians have done for centuries, but I can’t help but feel I could be doing a lot more academically with my time than spending hours freezing in the Rad Cam.

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