Durham University: Rebecca Maxfield, Who Is Taking a Joint Honours Course in English Literature and History at St Mary's College, Shares Her Experiences

By Maxfield, Rebecca | History Review, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Durham University: Rebecca Maxfield, Who Is Taking a Joint Honours Course in English Literature and History at St Mary's College, Shares Her Experiences


Maxfield, Rebecca, History Review


Studying history at Durham--England's third oldest university--is a unique experience combining the traditional elements of a collegiate system with university-wide teaching from staff in the forefront of their fields. The city itself, although small, is steeped in culture and reminders of times past. Most noticeably, the skyline is dominated by the magnificent castle and Norman cathedral, and the cobbled streets are full of charm as they wind their way up the hill to Palace Green, the elegant square between these two architectural treasures. Both ends of an undergraduate's degree course take place under the auspices of these outstanding structures: those entering the establishment are formally welcomed in a Matriculation ceremony in the Cathedral, where most return a few years later to receive their degrees at Congregation. Many of the other significant buildings on or near Palace Green accommodate academic faculties or services--the History Department is situated on the North Bailey--providing a first rate environment in which to study. In some ways, it seems that Durham has shunned modernity, though a youthful atmosphere is created by the high proportion of students, for whom the city becomes a second home.

History Degrees

History can be studied as a single honours degree or as part of a joint or combined honours programme. All three options are very flexible and allow students to pursue their own interests whilst ensuring familiarity with the chief chronological phases in both British and European history. Every single honours undergraduate will learn about aspects of life in the Mediaeval, Early Modern and Late Modern periods, whereas these restrictions are relaxed where there is inter-disciplinary cross-over. Areas of study range from anthropology, religion and culture to economics, politics and diplomacy; the department caters for even the most unusual tastes. In the final year, indepth investigation is offered in the form of a Special Subject and a Dissertation.

Generally, each module has a weekly lecture, regular group seminars and individual essay discussions with a tutor, culminating in a summer examination. Most term-time essays contribute to the year's overall result; the nature of some topics means that assessment is entirely based upon--more substantial--pieces of individual coursework.

Since contact hours with members of staff are relatively few, there is a lot of emphasis on independent study. Whilst lectures give the main events of a particular period and a brief guide to the historiography, essay topics are much more specific and require a fair amount of private reading. Although it is possible to forgo food, drink and entertainment in order to reel off a couple of thousand words, run down to the department just minutes before the deadline and still get a reasonable mark, students are advised that each essay should involve at least 20 hours of preparatory work. It has been discovered that tutors are less than enthusiastic about a bibliography displaying only one book! In addition to the lengthy process of writing essays, it is necessary to read articles for seminars and summarise them for the rest of the group. All this brings us to the point that studying history at Durham is not easy! Despite having perhaps only six hours of formal tuition a week, work encroaches significantly into students'--misleadingly titled--'free time'. Self-discipline is, therefore, a key lesson learnt from undertaking such a multi-faceted degree, though many students often find it disconcerting after the busy and mechanical timetable of school.

Yet do not be deceived: it is not all work and no play. For historically-minded people all over the university, the student-run History Society has much to offer. Not only is there the opportunity to attend interesting informal lectures, but also trips which range from visits to cultural sites in Edinburgh and York to walks along Hadrian's Wall and other places of interest across the north of England. …

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