My student days

Four historians revisit their university experiences and offer their advice to those studying or considering undertaking a degree in history Interviews by Ellie Cawthorne

A group of students celebrate their graduation in Cardiff

Dan Jones

What did you most enjoy about studying for a history degree?

Advertisement

I loved the freedom. I went to Cambridge, and the system there allows you to pick and choose your own topics of study, which opens up almost limitless possibilities for those who wish to roam free. And as a discipline, I found history to be agreeably self-directed. Not much time was mandated for snoring in lectures, classrooms or the lab: the degree proceeded through hours of solo reading, thinking and essay-writing, culminating in an intense, 60-minute weekly supervision where a brilliant academic either patted you on the head or outlined your areas of grotesque stupidity. Usually the latter in my case, but it suited me.

Which historian most inspired you during your time as a student?

The great medievalists Christine Carpenter and Helen Castor taught me about the Middle Ages. David Starkey was a virtuoso supervisor who didn’t just instruct me about the Tudors, but sent me away to read essayists like George Orwell and to ‘learn how to write’. I’m still learning, but that was a lesson I took deeply to heart and which has stayed with me a long time.

If you could give your student self a piece of advice, what would it be?

Learn more languages – it becomes much harder as you get older. But my student self was a bolshy little hardhead and I thought I knew best. So I would never have listened to life advice, not even from my future self, whom I would have thought decadent and corrupted by maturity. I was always for learning the hard way.

If you could go back to being a student, what historical areas would you like the chance to study?

I am fascinated at the moment by the American Civil War, and rather wish I had paid more attention to it earlier in life. Perhaps it didn’t seem so relevant back in the late 1990s. But actually, I am still a student in many ways, and am picking it up just fine. No regrets.

Dan Jones’s latest book The Templars: The Rise and Fall of God’s Holy Warriors (Head of Zeus) is out now


Hannah Greig

What did you most enjoy about studying for a history degree?

The dissertation. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might be suited to a career in research and academia until I spent a day in the National Archives. I remember having to sharpen the pencil I was using over and over again as I scribbled pages of notes from 19th-century documents. I’m still happiest in an archive, leafing through manuscripts, trying to follow clues to the past.

Which historian most inspired you during your time as a student?

I took a second year undergraduate course with the brilliant Professor Pamela Sharpe. She first introduced me to gender history and later made me aware of the possibility that there might be career paths for me other than law and accountancy (which is what most of my peers went on to next). I don’t think I have ever taken the time to thank her properly, but I have certainly always felt deeply indebted to her.

If you could give your student self a piece of advice, what would it be?

Speak up. You’ll discover that you are thinking something that is worth saying.

If you could go back to being a student, what historical areas would you like the chance to study?

Medieval history and ancient history. All of my student training was focused on British, European and global history post-1600. But it turns out quite a lot happened in the world before then!

Dr Hannah Greig lectures at the University of York and is a historical advisor on the BBC drama series Poldark


Ian Kershaw

What did you most enjoy about studying for a history degree?

It was a wonderful experience to immerse myself in so many fascinating aspects of the past and to be able to benefit from exploring them with marvellous tutors who were experts in their fields. Tackling in-depth topics that particularly interested me was most rewarding of all.

Which historian most inspired you during your time as a student?

Dom David Knowles. Of all the subject areas that I studied at Liverpool, medieval monasticism interested me most. I devoured it with unremitting fascination. I had unbounded admiration for the magisterial works of Dom David, especially his Monastic Order in England and his further three volumes on The Religious Orders in England. These are still today some of my most treasured books.

If you could give your student self a piece of advice, what would it be?

Follow your interests, and read as widely as possible, beyond course reading lists. Engage as actively as you can, take every chance to discuss topics with fellow students and tutors, and learn how to develop an enquiring, critical approach and an engaging style of writing.

If you could go back to being a student, what historical areas would you like the chance to study?

Above all, I would want to study in depth St Bernard and the Early Cistercian Order, the age of papal reform in the 11th and 12th centuries, and the English church in the central and later Middle Ages.

Ian Kershaw is the author of several books on 20th-century Europe and a leading biographer of Adolf Hitler


Joann Fletcher

What did you most enjoy about studying for a history degree?

I studied ancient history and Egyptology for my first degree at UCL (University College London) between 1984 and 1987, and being able to ‘immerse’ myself in ancient Egypt every day was a wonderful experience. Not only were we taught by some inspirational lecturers, we had constant access to both the Edwards Library and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. So for the first time I was actually allowed to handle Egyptian artefacts and not just look at them through glass cases. This was a real privilege which only increased my lifelong passion for museums.

Which historian most inspired you during your time as a student?

Two people: the late Egyptologist Dr David Dixon taught me so much about the Egyptian environment and how its ancient inhabitants were able to adapt so well to their very particular surroundings; and John Romer’s books and TV programmes made ancient Egypt immediately accessible to everyone – he was a breath of fresh air in what could still be an elitist and stuffy subject.

If you could give your student self a piece of advice, what would it be?

I’d certainly tell my 18-year-old self not to feel so overawed, and to believe in my own abilities!

If you could go back to being a student, what historical areas would you like the chance to study?

Just more of the same. One year of Ptolemaic Egypt wasn’t enough for me – I’d have happily studied this subject area for the full three years of the degree. It’s such an overlooked period of Egypt’s history, yet it had such an enormous impact on both the people and the landscape, really opening Egypt up to the rest of the ancient world. And of course it includes the great Cleopatra, whose reign alone merits far more study.

Advertisement

Joann Fletcher is visiting professor at the University of York. Her latest book, The Story of Egypt, is published by Hodder & Stoughton