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