Hi! I am Jack, a second year historian, and I am here to give you the low-down on doing a degree in a Humanities subject at Merton.
This is an incredible college where you can flourish academically, learning so much about yourself and your subject, make incredible friends, and take up some really incredible opportunities, all whilst living in a stunning space over 750 years old.
I can offer a flavour of what it is like to study not only History, but also (fairly) similar subjects like English, Modern Languages, Classics and the like, and, hopefully, give a bit of advice. Firstly, there is no such thing as the 'perfect' student, as everyone approaches work in a different way. Therefore, you will discover what works best for you here, and this will be a combination of trying things out for yourself, making mistakes, and taking advice from friends, those from the years above (like me!) and tutors. Don’t be scared of your fellow students, we are all equally as nervous, and equally as talented. Look at the other Mertonians on your course as friends and as people here to offer mutual support, rather than competition.
Now on to the specifics: I typically have 4-5 hours of contact a week, comprising of a few lectures and one, maybe two, tutorials (standard for historians). So although other Humanities subjects will have more contact than this, we are all similar in the sense that we have far less time supervised than the average lab-bound scientist, though it's important to note that there is no divide between arts and science students, we all socialise together. This is both a blessing and a curse: the opportunity to structure your own day can open up the opportunity to fit in your work around lots of other fun commitments, but beware the perils of procrastination!
It is likely that at some point in your first year, a long night and much of the subsequent morning will be spent frantically producing an essay. The infamous 'essay crisis' afflicts every student at some point, and with some moral support from friends, a stockpile of indulgent food and a bit of creativity, the deadline is more often than not met. However, it's important not to rely upon this method too often, therefore I would recommend learning to plan in specific times in the week where you want to do your reading, and leave yourself, especially in first term, a good 24 hours for just writing.
In terms of actually getting through the books, it's worth noting too that reading lists are often scarier on paper and dealing with them over the course of a tutorial cycle is doable. The way to 'read' 8-10 books a week is not by meticulously studying a book line by line, but through finding articles which express what's going on in a shorter and more concise way, finding a good textbook that can give you a lot of the 'facts', as well as developing the art of skim reading, using book reviews and reading introductions and conclusions. These skills come with practice, everyone is learning just like you.
Most importantly, never be afraid to ask your tutor for support. They devised your reading list for a reason, and can always suggest positive ways to tackle it. Similarly, if you are having a bad week, most tutors will be willing to give you an extension and will be kind and considerate if something has gone wrong. Nevertheless, as far as possible, deadlines are set for a reason so try your best to meet them. Oxford courses are designed to be challenging, and thus they will stretch you intellectually, but also at times emotionally and physically. Merton has an excellent welfare provision where academic and pastoral support can be sought. However, most, if not all, of the time the workload is manageable so revel in the opportunities you have to engage in really interesting material and stretch your intellectual horizons!
Studying at Oxford is undoubtedly very different to any academic experience any has had before. This massive change can seem daunting at times, but the transition to degree-level work is a great opportunity as well as a challenge. It’s the chance to explore your subject from so many different angles and perspectives, to see your subject’s breadth in a way that is impossible at school, and then later in your degree hone in on areas of interest your probably didn’t even consider or knew existed when you were a fresher.
Finally, your degree is one (big) part of your wider Merton experience. Get involved in sport, student politics, drama, or whatever it is that interests you. These opportunities will complement your degree, and make your time here more enjoyable.
Second Year Historian