education

Top Tips for New University Students: From a Soon to be Second Year History Student

University is hard, and it’s hard to know how to prepare for it. To help, here are my top tips for new students. I made these tips from lessons I learnt from my first-year experience.

1. Know how much money you have.

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I know this sounds simple but it is very important. Before coming to university, I would advise every student to have a conversation with their parents or guardians about how much money the student has with their maintenance loan and whether their parents can give support financially on top of that.

Remember, every student’s situation is different.

Also, make sure you remember to do your student finance at the end of each year, you don’t want to get to 2nd year and have no money: Student Finance England

 

2. Use social media

Before I came to university, I joined the University’s Fresher’s Page: University of Northampton New Students. This meant I could ask questions to staff members easily and also meant I found other people doing a history degree.

We created a Facebook group chat of every history student we found so we could get to know each other a bit.

Social media can also be used to get to know the history department, such as following lectures on Twitter or by reading posts on this history blog. Here is a link to the Fresher’s group for this year University of Northampton Freshers Facebook Page

 

3. Write lists

If you’re moving to go to university and are living in halls, lists are essential when packing. Before I moved, I walked around my parents’ kitchen writing down any utensils that I thought might be useful.

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Even if you’re staying at home while you’re studying, make a list of stationary you might need, documents you need to print out for enrollment and what you need to do before classes start.

Asking parents or friends to help with this can make it less daunting, and means they can suggest items which you may not have thought of.

 

4. Get involved in Welcome Week

Welcome week is your first week at university after enrollment, and you’ll be given a welcome week timetable for history students. Welcome Week includes activities where you can meet other people on the course and the lecturers.

You will also be visited by students in other year groups and those from the History Society.

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Welcome Week is also when university led activities such as Fresher’s Fest and the society fair are held. Welcome week really helps you get used to university and makes classes less scary, so I would definitely make the most of it. Here’s what was on offer in my year: Guide to Welcome Week

 

5. Classes themselves

TV and movies paint a picture of university which is confusing, and I had no idea what classes were going to be like. This isn’t really a top tip, but a clarification.

Seminars are like A Level classes, there is work set which has to be done before the class and it is a group discussion.

Lectures are much more formal, as it is where lecturers teach you the content for the seminar the following week. It’s in lectures that notes are important.

Our university is moving towards more blended types of learning where the distinction between lectures and seminars are less obvious, but there will always be times to listen and times to interact.

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Note taking can differ from module to module, depending on the style of a lecturer’s presentation, the assessment type or how comfortable you are on the topic. You will find how you best make notes with, but the History Society will be holding events to help students with this throughout the year.

 

6. Weird Feelings

Stressed student holding books, anxious, anticipation of finals

To finish up this blog post, I’m going to list some of the stages and feelings I’ve had during my first year. This means that you know that if you have them, they’re normal:

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Am I ready for this? This was the week before university, when I was wondering if I was ready to move out or if I was ready to have adult responsibilities like buying toilet paper.
Where am I? Who is this? What is this? Campus is huge and it feels different to how it does on open days. Luckily, there’s a map on the Northampton app if you need it. This year, we’ll all be lost as it’s a new campus so don’t worry.
This feels like a school trip. I genuinely thought that university felt like a school residential trip for about 2 months. There’s no real explanation for this, it’s just kind of an odd feeling.
Wait I’m going home again? I had this when I went home for the Christmas break, when I had to adjust to human sleeping hours and not having the library on my doorstep. The first holiday at home is the hardest, and your relationship will change with your family if you live away from home. (Don’t worry though, it happens to everyone).
Okay I think I’m getting the hang of this. This is when you feel like you know the way to class, you know how to write an essay and you know how to adult. Everything is good.
I can’t… I just can’t deal with exams. They come around quicker than you think, and I made the mistaken of not having good notes. Revise little and often, get help from your lectures and please remember to turn up to them.
Now what? First year finishes after exams (unless you do resits) so you now have 4 months to kill. Have fun with it!

Good luck to all new university students and if you’re coming to study history at Northampton, see you in the next academic year.

Emma Tyler, BA Hons History Student, University of Northampton

History Dissertations: Top Tips for Students

We’ve finished our most recent dissertation cycle here at Northampton. The marking is done and the results have been released. It seems a useful time to reflect as I prepare meetings to discuss projects with students for next year.

We’ve had some great results, some fascinating dissertations, some of them first class. As the convenor of our dissertation module and a supervisor I have the pleasure of seeing individual projects through to completion as well as seeing the ‘whole picture.’ I’m the first to see the overall results which is very exciting!

Seeing students excel in their dissertations is among the most rewarding parts of my job. The dissertation is the culmination of their studies, where they test all the skills they have acquired and really think deeply about the subject in the context of a detailed research project. It is when they truly become ‘historians.’

Some of the results are publishable and some do get published and that is tremendously satisfying for us and the students.

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Students also really enjoy the process overall. We are consistently told by students near the end of their studies (often at graduation) that it was their favourite experience at university. They get to focus on their specific interests, develop their own ideas.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that it isn’t hard work, difficult and stressful. Developing high quality research and making it worthy of good rewards is all of these things.

So here is a brief description of what a dissertation is and some tips for succeeding with the dissertation and having a good experience – some dissertation do’s and dont’s that we communicate to our students at the start of the process.

Every project is different and only you and your supervisor know precisely what you should be doing from one point to another but these guidelines generally apply to most dissertations. This is a longer blog than I usually write but there’s a lot to get through!

What is a Dissertation?

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A history dissertation is a written study (Most universities specify around 10,000 words) of a specific historical topic/theme/person/event.

It forms a significant part of the third year of an undergraduate degree (many universities, including us, double weight them so they count for two modules).

It should be based around a series of primary sources (the volume and type depends on the project) and should include a comprehensive review of the existing historical literature (this is usually done in the introduction).

Dissertations are not ‘taught’ in the way that other modules are – they are individual projects supervised by academic members of staff.

We provide whole group guidance for our third years in four sessions across the academic year (some other institutions do this, some don’t). But in the main your experience will involve one-on-one supervisions.

A dissertation is not a long essay and it is not a source analysis.

Unlike essays the argument of the dissertation must be based around and driven by primary sources and the secondary sources (the books, articles etc) are used to contextualize and help you interpret the findings from the primary sources.

Unlike source analyses the sources must be used to build the overall argument – merely commenting on their content is not enough. Your footnotes in the main chapters should mainly be to your primary sources – this is why we call them ‘primary.’

Some universities (including ours) build in other assignments to the dissertation module (we have a Viva which forms 10% of the overall grade). These are important staging posts towards the final product. But the showpiece is always the written dissertation and that’s the piece of work you’ll have on your bookshelf after the deed is done.

Do’s and Don’ts

1. Choosing the Topic: Picking a topic is subject to a range of different factors: In short it must be interesting to you, feasible in the time (1 year) and space (10,000 words) you have, possible with regards to primary source material and worthy of study.

DO pick a topic you are interested in, DON’T pick something because it seems easy. You will be studying this topic for a whole year and it will be really tiresome if it’s something that doesn’t really interest you.

DO take time thinking about your topic and speak to your prospective supervisor in detail about this (probably in several different meetings). DO read around the subject. DON’T rush this – if you change your mind midway through the project it will almost definitely impact negatively on the outcome (are you listening Brexiteers?)

Ask yourself a series of questions. What period of history am I interested in? Am I a political, military, social, cultural or economic historian? What particular themes have I enjoyed on my modules, is there anything I particularly enjoyed (think of the assignments you have done).

There’s no problem starting with quite a broad topic then narrowing this down as you scope the project (see below).

But the topic needs to be worthy of study in the sense that there needs to be a rationale, it needs to be something that is of interest to others and some importance, not just interesting to you. In the introduction you’ll need to justify the topic, why are you studying it and what the importance of it is.

2. Scoping the topic: DO scope your project carefully before deciding on it and DON’T stick stubbornly to your beloved subject if it becomes clear it can’t be done.

Are the primary sources available and can you use them? If they are written in a foreign language will you be able to read them? Is there much more that can be said about the topic? Can the project be done in one year and can it be given sufficient justice in 10,000 words? – (a new history of the Second World War is probably not feasible, neither is a new history of the Industrial Revolution).

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The final product will be only four times the length of this blog (we exclude footnotes and bibliography) so what at first seems a daunting volume of writing will soon become quite a restrictive format.

Work spent early on planning and researching the project (as opposed to researching the subject) will be some of the most valuable time you’ll spend on it.

3. Organising your work: DO start work early. DON’T leave it until the beginning of the third year. You’ll have a very busy and hectic final year anyway, so don’t make it even more stressful.

Make sure you start the project over the summer between the second and third year. Engage with any preparation modules in the second year – ours is called ‘Research Skills in History.’

Over the summer get some reading done, get to the archives and start thinking about a structure – very valuable time, especially if an unexpected personal or family issue means you have to take some time off in the third year.

You need to take a break from your studies, that is important, but there should be time for work too.

DO work consistently on the project at an even pace, DON’T work in ‘fits and starts.’  Try to work on the dissertation each week so you remain ‘in contact’ with the research.

Successful academic research requires us to create a space in our minds that is devoted to the project – it becomes part of us (not physically of course but that’s how it feels). A few weeks away will distance you from the project and you’ll need to spend several days (or more) ‘getting back into it.’

As academics with teaching and admin to take care of as well as research we’re all well aware of that. I’m looking forward to getting my teeth into my new project on the history of emotions over the summer.

4. Supervisions: DO go to meetings with your supervisor and DON’T ‘bury your head in the sand’. Missing meetings (often because targets have not been met or little work has been done) will annoy your supervisor and if you make a habit of doing this will leave you flying solo with the project.

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Academics require years of training and experience to manage their own projects – the simple truth is students (undergrads and postgrads) need supervision because they lack that experience.

Make sure you pay attention in supervisions and take notes for future reference. Try to stick to any plans and timetables agreed – its best to be realistic when setting these. Above all be honest, supervisors can’t help if they don’t have the full picture.

5. The Reading: DO think about what you need from your reading. You need three main things:

1. The main debates and arguments in your topic area – these are generally found in the introductions of books and articles.

2. The wider context within which your topic sits – this means finding reading dealing more widely with your period and topic so DON’T merely read the small number of books on the history of shoemaking in nineteenth century Northampton if that is your subject. Read about be wider history of that industry and the wider economic history of Britain in that period.

3. Some background and factual details with some examples.

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Often students focus on number 3 and neglect the first two. You’re expected to distill and synthesize this material for the literature review in the introduction and to contextualize and compare your findings from the primary sources in the main chapters. Think about this as you read and take notes.

This means the best way is always to read the literature and study the sources in tandem. DON’T do one first then the other. You want the primary and  secondary sources to have a productive conversation with each other.

More generally you should use your reading to familiarise yourself with your period/country/locale. As L. P. Hartley wisely said ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’: L. P. Hartley ‘The Go-Betweens’. You will be a traveler in that foreign place (be it nineteenth century Britain or early modern France etc) so equip yourself with knowledge about the language, culture, politics and habits of that place, even if you’re not a social or cultural historian.

We all know how disorientating it can be in a new place and even if you’ve made visits there before in your modules this will be a much longer and important trip. A good textbook is a wise investment for this purpose, ask your supervisor to recommend a ‘goodun’.

6. Analysing the primary sources: This will be the really fun stuff and is often fascinating and rewarding. DO spend time with your sources, get to know them well, understand their quirks and foibles. Your relationship with the sources should be deep and meaningful, not a brief flirtation. Dissertations require more than a ‘quick look’ at the source material.

It takes a lot of time to read and thoroughly analyse sources, even online ones or visual sources so DON’T under-estimate this in your planning. You’ll understand them more fully if you have a little bit of reading under your belt but you should get to the sources ASAP.

Take a look at this excerpt from an early eighteenth century manuscript letter. How long might it take you to get through a long series of this type of document? What kinds of knowledge and practical skills might you need to use these types of sources? Not all sources will involve the same kinds of skills and knowledge, but all of them will require decoding and careful analysis.

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More than anything else the best dissertations are often expressions of the deep knowledge that students have of their sources as windows on the period and area they are studying. If you find previously unstudied sources you stand a chance of finding something truly original but you might also find a novel way of interpreting well known sources.

7. The writing process: DO start writing early and DON’T leave this until the end. As soon as you have some ideas and some material from the sources get on with some writing and send it to your supervisor once drafted.

Start with an easier element of the project and this need not be the introduction (these are often best left until the end of the process). Dissertations need to be drafted, redrafted, redrafted again (possibly several times more) and copy edited before the final read through and submission.

Early writing will expose any weaknesses in the research plan, give you a good idea of what you can fit into 10,000 words, show you the gaps in your knowledge, gaps in your reading and any flaws in technical aspects of your writing remaining into the third year.

If you think that you work best under pressure with coursework, close to the deadlines, this won’t work for the dissertation. In any case you’ve probably not fulfilled your potential with the other coursework you’ve approached in this way.

8. Developing the argument: DO take time to really think about your project and the argument, DON’T rush to pull the trigger on this. What are the central debates and arguments in your topic area? What are the sources as a whole telling you about it?

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This may be quite complex, a series of primary sources rarely give us a linear and simple narrative picture. Accept these nuances and acknowledge them.

What is the wider significance of your topic and findings? DO make the most of your work but DON’T be tempted to overstate the significance of your conclusions and simply dismiss all other research in your area.

Conclusions and arguments should be calibrated to the scope of the sources and the length of the study. Historical research is about building on the previous work done, not dismissing it all and starting again.

9. Staying calm: DON’T Panic and DO work through problems.

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You will encounter problems, bumps in the road. This is inevitable in a project that lasts a whole year and involves so much work.

If you encounter a problem, either intellectual or practical, speak to your supervisor ASAP. They will have encountered this problem before and are best equipped to help you deal with it.

If you are suffering from stress and anxiety tell your supervisor, they may recommend that you see a counselor. There is no shame in this, its a stressful period in your life so access all the assistance you need to get through it.

The cycles of academic life are one of the things I love about the job – Seeing new students arrive, watching their knowledge and skills develop and seeing their work come to fruition in the dissertation and then graduate – it mirrors my own research cycle: Starting a research project, beginning the writing process, seeing the publication come to completion.

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There’s a very pleasing symmetry to it all. I look forward, as ever, to next year’s dissertations. There will be frustrations but there’ll also be some fascinating work and, as ever, some real gems.

Good luck with your projects! Whatever the results don’t be too hard on yourself, if you gave it your best shot that’s all anyone can ask.

Mark Rothery, Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century History

 

Kelmarsh Hall and the Heritage of Country Houses

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I recently made a visit, with my colleague, Dr Caroline Nielsen, to Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire. Kelmarsh was built in the 1730s to a Palladian design by Francis Smith with the architect James Gibbs for the Hanbury family. The Hall retains many of its original features and 1000 acres of the original estate, including working farms. It has been interpreted by the present guardians, the Kelmarsh Trust, in a sensitive, innovative and intelligent manner.

The aims of the Trust are to preserve the buildings and estates and to educate the public about country houses and the natural environment. This is a tricky balance, both preserving but also interesting young people in what these sites represent. Country houses need to survive, but retain the authenticity that underpins the unique experience that they can offer.

Guided tours of houses can be quite dull and boring for youngsters (and some adults!). Children generally want to move in different directions on their own timescale and explore spaces on their own terms. I’ve visited lots of country houses over the years and seen a lot of stressed parents. The Trust, and their education officer, Tiffany Brownell, have thought about this and done an excellent job.

Servants Hall

Lots of attention has been paid to the ‘below stairs’ areas of the House: http://www.kelmarsh.com/BelowStairsLaundry.aspx. There are reconstructions of the laundry, the servants’ quarters (including a 3D projection of a servant explaining his daily routine), a wine cellar, a brewery, a bell system and the servants’ stairs. The gendering of these spaces is emphasized, such as the specifically female space of the laundry.

Country houses pay more attention to these working spaces nowadays, quite rightly. As my research with Jon Stobart has shown the aristocracy spent far more of their income on the day-to-day running of their houses than they did on the more glitzy objects on show upstairs: Consumption and the Country House. So there is an intellectual rationale for showing the areas of houses where the servants did their work. Tours of the downstairs areas of the house begin on 1 April 2018.

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The main house upstairs is an elegant series of rooms, from the Hall to the Salon, the Chinese Room, the Dining Room, the Library and the Ballroom. There is much more sense of space and ease to these areas.

The Trust has chosen to focus on the story of Nancy Lancaster and her choices, in the twentieth century, of wall colour and decoration, drawing on her connections to the society decorators Colefax and Fowler. So the story we are presented with at Kelmarsh is layered and complex, but so too is the history of these houses. Choosing where to focus the attention of visitors is a result of a number of different priorities.

Dining Room

The most exciting things going on Kelmarsh are their education projects using the story of the house, and they are telling an uncensored and honest one. No happy chappy servants and benevolent aristocracy here, just the truth about the hard work servants did to keep the house running and, ultimately, help preserve it for us.

The journey from the dark areas downstairs, treated to only partial glimpses of the landscapes around the house, to the light sweeping views upstairs is a reminder of the different lives led by masters and servants.

A new learning centre has been installed in the old coach house, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Here school visits allow children to explore history with a hands-on and fun approach to learning. They ‘work’ in the laundry and explore the house and the natural environment.

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Future plans include projects focused on Premium Plus A Level students in the local area. The aim is to educate these students about the heritage of their local area and add value to their learning more generally, to show them, for example, the opportunities that Universities can offer them.

Kelmarsh Hall and the Department of History at the University of Northampton are planning a collaborative project with four schools for the academic year 2018-19. After an introductory visit to the schools, the students will visit Kelmarsh Hall for a day of learning activities, using the excellent facilities the Hall has there.

The project then moves to the University’s Waterside Campus: http://hellowaterside.northampton.ac.uk/. The students will get a flavour of Higher Education with a workshop on the history and heritage of country houses. They will take a heritage tour of the city centre, beginning at the ‘engine shed’ site on campus, and finishing with a lunch on campus.

There are also plans for history students from the University to take up work placements at Kelmarsh as part of the History Department’s ‘Research Skills’ module and for a programme of student volunteers helping at the Hall during vacations.

These are important initiatives not only for the younger generation but also for the survival of the country house as heritage. After all none of the stock-in-trade consumers of country house visiting, the ones often annoyed by the presence of children, are getting any younger. Cream teas are not really a sustainable economic model. Kelmarsh Trust is showing what the future model should look like.

To find out more about Kelmarsh Hall and the activities on offer there email the Education Officer, Tiffany Brownell at learning@kelmarsh.org.uk or visit the website: http://www.kelmarsh.com/

Watch this blog space for updates on the ongoing projects…

Dr Mark Rothey: Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century History