Undergraduate History Curriculum Reform

Overview

In June 2015 after nearly three years of discussion, the History Faculty voted by a two-thirds majority to accept a package of reforms to its curriculum. Since then the Faculty has been working towards the implementation of these changes.

The theme of these reforms is DIVERSIFICATION, which takes three broad forms:

1)    The geographical scope of an Oxford History degree will be enlarged

 2)    A new type of paper has been proposed which will enable specific themes to be followed over longer periods

 3) Modes of assessment will be diversified. It is expected that the second year module ‘History of the British Isles’ will be examined by a take-away examination in the second year

Reforms 1) and 2) are scheduled for implementation for History students starting in 2017. Reform 3) in which the assessment of the History of the British Isles in Finals will be switched from a timed exam to a take-away examination is of a smaller scale. As such, it is expected that this change will be implemented for the cohort of 2016.

Map included in the Theatrum in 1592

Map included in the Theatrum in 1592. Based on Mercator's 21-sheet map of 1569, with amendments by Ortelius to 1587, in Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, English edition as The Theatre of the Whole World, London 1606. © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Impetus for reform

The motivation behind a review of the curriculum was driven by three main forces.

  • The way in which people write history is continuously changing, as such the way in which history is taught at Oxford must also respond to these developments. Alongside this academic rationale, enlarging the geographical scope of the undergraduate History degree was driven by student demand. Student surveys carried out by the department highlighted that students felt that there were not enough opportunities to study history outside of Europe. It was suggested that this call is in line with students seeking to achieve a greater understanding of the globalised world in which they live.
  •  The information gathered from student surveys highlighted that the majority of students felt that the current History syllabus did not provide sufficient coverage on topics such as non-European history nor on themes such as gender.  The addition of a new type of paper will allow for certain themes such as gender, slavery and family structures to be studied across different periods of history and will cover various societies around the world.
  • The change of assessment for the History of the British Isles paper, from a timed exam to a take- home exam was motivated by a desire amongst staff and students to diversify the way in which students are assessed. This course in particular showed one of the largest gender gaps in results between women and men. As women and men perform more equally in submitted work it was proposed that a take- out exam with questions similar that in a timed exam should be implemented. Students will have nine days to complete three essays after term has ended. Student surveys carried out on this proposal overwhelmingly supported this idea. Students voted for a second-year assessment, and decisively against a post-vacation submission and in favour of an end-of-term one. The effect on the teaching of this paper will be minimal. It is hoped because this is a smaller scale reform this can be implemented more easily than the other two reforms to the History undergraduate syllabus outlined

Map source, Luis Teixeira, 1592 for map of Japan

Map source, Luis Teixeira, 1592 for map of Japan, in Abraham Ortelius, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum,English edition as The Theatre of the Whole World, London 1606.
© Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Reform process

Consultations on these reforms took place through various channels. Student representatives in Undergraduate Studies Committee meetings, representatives from the Undergraduate Historians’ Assembly and in Undergraduate Joint Consultative Committees were involved in discussions regarding these changes and the direction these changes could take. Students were surveyed to gather their views on the current syllabus. Approximately 200 students responded to the surveys. The information gathered from discussions with these bodies was presented to the History Faculty Board.

The Faculty Board, members of the OUSU and those from the University Race Equality group were also involved in these consultations.

Challenges

The consultative and reformative process has continued for some years and the reforms proposed are yet to be entirely agreed upon. However, this lengthy process has been necessary in order to ensure everyone within the History Faculty is on-board with these changes. In the History Faculty, there was a spectrum of attitudes towards changing the Undergraduate History curriculum. It was therefore important that everyone within the Faculty had the opportunity to discuss possible options and contribute to the design of what they would be teaching.

In offering a broader historical outlook, creating a greater number of positions within the Faculty to teach these additional courses will have to be balanced with the number of posts available for subjects the History Faculty is currently very strong in, for example British history.

Opportunities

In widening the global outlook of the Undergraduate History course, the History Department may be able to capitalise on the existing teaching and resources presently provided by other departments. For example, the Oriental Studies Department already has the resources to teach a course on pre-modern Chinese history. Fostering greater inter-departmental connections could facilitate the broadening of the curriculum, but may be difficult in the context of Oxford’s degree and employment structures; one way forward is suggested by recent appointments held partly in History and partly in Area Studies.

The History Faculty is drawing inspiration for the structure of the new global and themed papers from a successful course it presently teaches which promotes a global understanding of historical change. ‘Eurasian Empires 1450-1800’, which has been running for the last two years, has been popular amongst undergraduate students. This course examines empires in what is now Latin America, China, India, South-East Asia, Iran, Turkey and the Arab world and considers links in trade connecting different parts of the world and the interconnectedness of regions’ histories as well as parallels in political and religious developments.

 In the future, it is hoped the Faculty can build on teaching courses which promote greater understanding of other regions’ history through the history of connectedness to focusing on the study of regions and continents in a stand-alone way.