personal university

I’ve been planning to write about this for months now, but every time I’ve thought “I’ll just wait until…”. Well, now seems to be as good a time as any.

Around the end of last year I started reading A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn. It’s been a while since I’d read much history, and this gave some interesting insights, both in terms of the explicitly leftist perspective and, at a more theoretical level, the idea that history is inherently political and cannot ever be ‘neutral’. That inspired me to start reading more history and thinking about history, society, and politics more deeply.

In the new year I started a Coursera course, studying modern world history. Although it was partly just out of interest, I also started to consider the possibility of returning to university part-time, and I wanted to see if I could actually remain focussed on something for an entire term — in the past, losing interest has been a major hindrance when studying. The later stages of the course were a bit of a drag, which I think is at least partly because I’m not so interested in the history of the late twentieth century. But anyway, I managed to complete it, with distinction (although don’t read too much into this: the assessment was entirely by means of multiple choice questions).

Part-way through the term, I began looking around for opportunities for more formal study. My first port of call was the Open University, since I’d tried studying with them before (an introductory maths module, last year). However, their history syllabus was rather uninspiring; the first-year module was one shared between all their humanities, covering art history, philosophy, music, religious studies, and literature as well as history. I didn’t really trust myself to remain motivated through a module that covered so many things outside my primary area of interest. Beyond that, the second- and third-year module options were fairly inflexible; I’d effectively have almost no choice in which modules to take. I also considered other degrees, for example an ‘open’ degree or one in International Studies, which would allow me to combine some history modules with modules in the social sciences; however, in the end I decided to try something else.

I’d seen adverts for Birkbeck on the tube, and was aware of a few people who’d studied there. The turning point, though, was learning that the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm had taught there for many years. After some consideration, I enrolled on a module about the English Civil Wars. (Unlike most Birkbeck modules, this one was in the morning; I ended up taking a half-day off once a week for the duration.) It seemed like a sensible first module, as not only did it cover a period that I’d studied previously (at GCSE level), but it covered various issues that I hoped would be applicable to other modules, in terms of historiography.

Anyway I received my assignment result and feedback this morning; at 63%, there’s room for improvement, but it’s better than I was expecting. If I’m to continue, I’ll need to work on my study habits, particularly in terms of not leaving the essay quite so late (I submitted online two minutes before the deadline), but also improving my research skills and focus.

So, the question is, what do I do next? I’d considered this throughout the course. One early plan was the Politics, Philosophy, and History degree; I eventually rejected this because I’m relatively uninterested in philosophy, and although politics is interesting it would be too narrowly-focused. My next plan, therefore, was to do a Social Sciences degree, with a strong focus in History. I went so far as to apply, was invited to interview, and was eventually offered a place on this course, but eventually decided against it. Firstly, though I’m still interested in sociology and intend to study some more, a lot of the interesting topics (such as social inequalities and diversities) would be unavailable until the second or third (out of four) years. Secondly, the scheduling meant that although the social science course expected students to enrol in one module per term, three terms a year, the history department expected two modules per term, two term a year, and I was concerned this would make it life unnecessarily difficult. In the end, I returned to my original plan: a Certificate of Higher Education in History (equivalent to the first year of an undergraduate degree, taken over 2–4 years). Then, if all goes well, I’ll continue on to the BA History course.

I haven’t yet made specific plans as to what to study next; a module on medieval Europe looks good to begin with, though, since until now most of my study has focused on more recent periods. I’m not sure if I feel ready to study two modules per term yet, which would be the norm for most of the course but would require me to schedule carefully; since I studied my first module during the day, I haven’t had to have both a lecture and study time in the evening, so two lectures plus study time feels like a larger jump. If I do decide to study two, I may choose Latin as the second; if only one, then I’ll hopefully start a second halfway through the year instead; one on the Byzantine empire looks interesting. I have a few months to make the decision, though.