Friday Special: My Favourite History Modules at University
Welcome to another Friday Special! If you’re new to my blogs, I post content twice a month that explains more of my personal journey through education. This Friday, I thought I’d talk about some of my favourite modules I took during my undergraduate history degree. For some background, modules are essentially small sub-topics that earn you credits, which are points that determine your overall result at the end of your degree. Optional modules are those that you choose, and you’ll have a certain amount you can select from each year, depending on how your university structures the course. One of the main things at Reading that convinced me to study there was the choice of optional modules, as I wanted to study a variety of subject areas after a rather USSR-heavy A Level course. I gradually specialised my optional modules around women’s history, but I thought I’d evaluate some of my most enjoyable modules today.
I took this module in Autumn semester of my first year, so it was one of my first experiences of university teaching. It covered femininity and masculinity in the Victorian era, encompassing definitions of childhood, womanhood and the roles of gender in society. The module was my first venture into social theory, but I picked it mainly because of my interest in Victorian society. The class was mainly female, and I’m happy to say that I met the majority of my best friends during those classes, so I have a lot to thank this module for. The lecturer was amazing, and I ended up taking all of her optional modules after this one, as she created such a fantastic atmosphere in the class, without there being any significant pressure.
My favourite part of the module was actually the assessment, as we had the choice between a traditional essay, or an exploration of our individual family trees. I chose the second option, as I’d never had the opportunity to research much into my family history, so it seemed a really interesting way to connect me with my heritage. I used Ancestry.com for the majority of my research, and was lucky enough to visit the gravesite of the generation of my mum’s family that I was focusing on for my coursework when I visited my childhood home in the North of England. This module sparked my love for women’s history, even if I eventually moved into the 1920s and away from Victorian England, as it provided me with a firm foundation of societal expectations in modern Britain. Also, I carried on with my family tree, and have traced my family back to the 1700s so far!
[[ This is a picture of my maternal family, c.1905. Looking into my family was a fantastic part of university]]
The Making of Modern Britain
This was a group-taught module, meaning that the seminars were taught by several lecturers who researched various aspects of post-1700s Britain. I really liked this approach, as every lecturer had a different teaching style which made the classes and reading really varied. We started off with Chartism, all the way up to 1945, covering the development of society along the way. It was what I would describe as a “long and thin” module as it covered a long time period in a relatively short amount of time, and the seminars were fast paced to say the least. It was engaging and fun, especially as I knew a lot of people in the group to socialise with.
I wrote my essay on women of science in the 1800s, which was a fascinating topic to research. I investigated the lives of Ada Lovelace and Mary Anning, exploring how their lives were shaped by societal attitudes towards women practicing science. It linked well to my previous teaching on social theory, but also challenged me to learn about the history of science, a topic that I’d never previously touched. Getting a great mark on this essay was also a fantastic boost for me, as the subject had really challenged my ability to research a topic completely from scratch and write a coherent piece of coursework.
Another second-year module, this was taught by the same lecturer as my module on Victorian Childhood. Again, the seminars were engaging and friendly, and we had the opportunity to submit a formative piece of work, in the form of a scrapbook that detailed the life of an influential woman. I chose Emily Davies, who helped to found a women’s-only college at the University of Cambridge, and championed women’s access to higher education. Even though it didn’t count towards my mark for the module, it was a fun piece to create and helped to alleviate some of the stress of researching for other essays. I wrote my coursework piece on female education in the 1800s, which challenged me to explore social theory and perception on a new level, and definitely made me feel very privileged to have had the education I’ve had over the years!
The module focused on influential women of the period, the backlash they faced from society and why they were so controversial. I particularly enjoyed Annie Besant’s story, and used the information that I learnt during the module and applied it to a study of Victorian autobiographies the following year, in which I was required to read and reflect on her autobiography for an essay.
Pirates of the Caribbean
On my course, I was required to select at least one medieval or early-modern module when picking my options for my second year. By then, I’d decided that I was more interested in modern women’s history, so I took this module as I’d heard good things about the lecturer. I wasn’t disappointed, and I really enjoyed learning about the birth of piracy, all the way up until the modern day. The module was so popular that the group was split into two classes, and I had a great time in every seminar. We had small group presentations to complete which were really chilled out, but made sure that everyone contributed to seminars each week. That was important to me, as I was going through a period of becoming a little self-conscious that I was contributing too much in seminars, at the risk of developing a poor reputation. I soon got over it and decided that I didn’t care one bit, but it was a phase regardless, and this module helped me out enormously.
For an area of history that I’d previously never studied, the required reading was accessible, and it wasn’t too much of a hassle to revise for the exam. We were plagued by university strikes, so I did lose a bit of teaching, but I still felt like I got a lot out of the module. I ended up doing really well, and really enjoyed writing an essay on James I and his approach to piracy, despite never having a prior interest in the British monarchy.
Battleaxes to Benchwarmers
This was my favourite module of my university experience, so I thought I’d mention it last. During my third year, we had two optional modules alongside a compulsory one and a dissertation, so I was really busy. The classes also took place in the Spring semester, which was the most stressful part of the year, but honestly, those seminars were my safe space. The module focused on the first female MPs to be elected in Britain, starting with Nancy Astor’s election in 1919, with discussions on the interwar period and political development for women. The class was small, and I felt like everyone was engaged with the topic, which made it much easier to motivate myself during a stressful time.
We were also treated with a visit to UK Parliament, and got the opportunity to meet MP Rachel Reeves, sit in the gallery of the House of Commons and tour the House of Lords. It was a fantastic experience, and I’ve been lucky enough to go back since to work on Astor 100 projects. I wrote my essay on some of the laws passed during the interwar period, which was my first taste of discussing political history. Working with limited secondary evidence was difficult, but I enjoyed the research process more than I thought, and I was satisfied with the outcome. This module is also responsible for pushing me into political history, resulting in my MA dissertation over a year later! I consider myself really lucky to have been able to sit this module, as numbers were extremely limited and it was highly sought after.
Overall, you can probably detect a trend of women’s history in my favourites, which is probably unsurprising considering my postgraduate research interests. I will mention that I didn’t get my first choice of optional modules each time, which can happen, depending on how your university organises its selection process. Even though I was unable to study some of the things that I wanted to, it resulted in me studying modules that I ended up enjoying more than I thought, including the history of medicine in India and the history of the Labour movement in Britain. Everything happens for a reason, and there may be the opportunity to join a waiting list for modules you weren’t able to join in case anyone decides to switch. I never ended up switching modules, but if you attend the first few classes and decide that you can’t imagine a semester of that module, change as soon as you can to make sure you can catch up with the content that you’ve missed. I’ll be writing a more detailed guide of how to choose optional modules later this summer, so I’ll go into more detail about the process at a later date.