History

What makes the Cambridge History course so special?

The combination of range and flexibility, both chronologically and geographically. It is possible to study almost any aspect of British history from 380 A.D. onwards; European history from 776 B.C. to the present; American history, World history and the history of political thought. To get a sense of the range of history and historians at Cambridge, and to find out more about what happens here, take a look at the History Faculty homepage: https://www.hist.cam.ac.uk/

The History Faculty is currently engaged in reshaping the History degree. From 2022 (i.e. for students applying in summer/autumn 2021, there will be a new degree structure with freshly designed course options. These are not all publicly available, but the below outline gives a flavour of this. For more details as they become available, and for reflections by current students on what they relish about Cambridge, please visit https://www.hist.cam.ac.uk/undergraduate-study

From 2022:

First years (Part IA) will take two ‘outline’ papers covering wide periods from the past: ‘The Global Eighteenth Century’, for instance, or ‘The Making of Modern Britain, 1750 to the present’. They will also take a historical sources option and a historical skills course, as well as receiving some introductory instruction in historical thinking through college classes.

Year 2 (Part IB) will involve two ‘topics’ papers, a research project, and a further paper in the historical skills strand.

The final year (Part II) provides for advanced topics papers, a ‘special subject’ based around intensive classes focused on a particular set of historical sources, and the option, if you wish, to pursue a particular interest through researching and writing your own dissertation.

The Cambridge system of supervisions allows students to discuss their ideas (normally individually) with specialist researchers within Cambridge. Lectures provide further opportunities to hear ‘cutting edge’ scholars reflecting on past literature and forthcoming research. As well as lectures for each paper, there are also public lectures and seminars throughout the year around Cambridge given by visiting scholars from around the world.

Why choose Newnham for History?

Newnham has a long tradition of valuing teaching as an integral part of College life. Its current Fellows continue to uphold the ideals of their forebears in taking teaching seriously and seeking the most effective teaching methods for an individual’s style of learning. Newnham was one of the pioneers of the supervision mode of teaching, still the mainstay of any historian’s degree, and an important element of the Director of Studies’ job is securing the best supervisors for students.

The wide range of topics taught by the current History Fellows and Lecturers (see below) offers advantages to students not only for their supervised papers, but also for Historical Argument and Practice classes. Those classes, organised into a systematic programme, provide an important chance for each cohort of students to exchange ideas, experiences, and share what they have discovered in their own particular papers. Contact across year groups is fostered not only informally but also (for example) by an afternoon of presentations by third year students on their dissertations.

The provision of public lectures at a University level is complemented by College lectures on formal occasions, and by ‘pudding seminars’, in which students and Fellows share their ideas and current research more informally.

Newnham historians benefit from the excellent resources provided by the College as well as the University. The College runs an unusually well-stocked undergraduate library. Whilst this provides a quiet working environment both inside and outside term time, historians at Newnham live within minutes of the Faculty and from the University Library, a copyright library.

First year History students at Newnham have the opportunity to develop language skills through classes in French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Latin, among others. A student in any year may take advantage of the presence of a Royal Literary Fund Fellow in College who provides assistance with writing skills outside the formal confines of supervisions.

How many students take History at Newnham and what options do they choose?

Our intake is approximately six to eight undergraduates per year (circa eighteen to twenty-four in total), although these are occasionally augmented with American students taking a year abroad. There are also up to around a dozen Newnham postgraduates working in History at any one time. Undergraduate options range across time, space, and genres of history: students benefit from the advice of their peers as well as their Director of Studies in shaping their path through the papers on offer.

How will I be taught at Newnham?

The structure of teaching is determined by the subject, not the College. In History, the main teaching derives from weekly supervisions arranged by the Director of Studies. Lectures, too, are a vital part of a student’s learning. There are also small-group seminars/classes, some of them in college and others organized by the History Faculty. First-year students at Newnham also enjoy weekly language classes funded by the College.

Can you tell me more about the History Fellows and Lecturers?

For information on the current teaching staff and Fellows for History, please visit our teaching webpages.

What jobs do Newnham History students go on to do?

A very wide range. History equips students with a wide range of transferrable skills – reading, thinking, writing and speaking – which are highly prized by employers. Previous students have gone on to posts in accountancy, investment banking, personnel management, publishing, journalism, teaching, social work, and the civil service. Some work in academia, either in research or academic administration. The current Principal of Newnham read History here as an undergraduate, and her predecessor read History at Bristol before switching to Medicine.

Are there any A-level subjects that are particularly useful?

A student does not have to take History at A-level in order to read it at university, but an applicant who has not taken History would naturally be expected to account for this, and offer positive reasons for their choice of course. Students previously admitted have combined History with other essay-based subjects or mathematics or natural sciences.

Can I take a gap year?

Yes – but you don’t have to. Many students find the experience which a gap year offers highly beneficial for their personal development and broadening their horizons. However, it is equally justifiable for a student eager to begin their course not to seek a gap year. Reasonably firm plans, with valid justifications, are most important.

How should I prepare for interview at Newnham?

Although applicants cannot pre-prepare material for Newnham (or Cambridge) History interviews, there are ways in which they can help themselves. Don’t forget to re-read  and refresh your memory of the personal statement you wrote for your UCAS application. Make sure that you remember the written schoolwork you submit, and come prepared to range widely around and beyond it. (Keeping copies of the personal statement and submitted work, and reading them through before arriving for the interview, is advisable!) An interviewee should be prepared to explore their ideas in more depth, and to have them questioned and challenged; intellectual flexibility is sought as well as interest backed up by evidence of further reading. Discussion is likely to broaden beyond history to the other subjects studied and relevant extra-curricular activities.

More information regarding written work requirements can be found at: https://newn.cam.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduates/how-to-apply/

Is there an Admissions Assessment for History?

Yes – all applicants are required to take an at-interview written assessment for History which will consist of writing a response to a provided text.

Where can I find out more?

The History Faculty website has more information about the course. The History Subject Overview on the ‘My HE+’ website also provides information and resources for exploring your subject.

The Student Life section of the Newnham College website gives information about living and learning at Newnham.

Recommended Reading?

Reading is fundamental to historical study. There are no prescribed texts for interviewees or offer-holders: rather, we would encourage you to pursue and develop your own interests. Questions at interview may revolve around what you have read, either around your courses or in your own time. One useful overview of different types of historical study is Ulinka Rublack (ed.), A Concise Companion to History (2011). But feel free to range widely: biographies, historical surveys, local history, historical novels, micro-studies…  Toby Green’s A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution (2019), or Carlo Ginzburg’s micro-study The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (1980), or Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (1992), or David Cannadine’s Victorious Century: the United Kingdom, 1800-1906 (2017) might all provide places to start. You can consult the Faculty’s Part I papers here for the paper’s reading lists https://www.hist.cam.ac.uk/undergraduate/hist-tripos/part-i/part-i-papers-current. They also contain references to handbooks which often have recommended reading sections.

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