What makes the Cambridge History course so special?

The combination of range and flexibility, both chronologically and geographically. Beyond the minimal requirements (papers in British political, British socio-economic, and European history; and at least one falling before 1750), a student can choose to pursue a historical sub-discipline across time, or sample a range of different approaches to a single time period. Many choose to move beyond the types of history previously available to them by taking papers in the history of political thought or World History – or both. The Themes and Sources paper in Part I and the Special Subject in Part II complement a cycle of weekly essays through being assessed by longer coursework essays on a targeted set of primary sources. Finalists frequently enjoy the opportunity to write an article-length (15,000-word) dissertation, the choice of topic for which is entirely free.

Such advantages of the course are increased by the Cambridge system of supervisions, by which students can discuss their ideas (normally individually) with specialist researchers within Cambridge. Lectures provide further opportunity to hear leading scholars who work at the ‘cutting edge’ reflecting on past literature and forthcoming research. Such occasions are provided both in the annual lectures for each paper, and public lecture series, which attract prominent scholars from outside Cambridge.

Why choose Newnham for History?

Newnham has a long tradition of valuing teaching as an integral part of College life. Its current Fellows continue to uphold the ideals of their forbears in taking teaching seriously and seeking the most effective teaching methods for an individual’s style of learning. Newnham was one of the pioneers of the supervision mode of teaching, still the mainstay of any historian’s degree, and an important element of the Director of Studies’ job is securing the best supervisors for students.

The wide range of topics taught by the current History Fellows and Lecturers (see below) offers advantages to students not only for their supervised papers, but also for Historical Argument and Practice classes. Those classes, organised into a systematic programme, provide an important chance for each cohort of students to exchange ideas, experiences, and share what they have discovered in their own particular papers. Contact across year groups is fostered not only informally but also (for example) by an afternoon of presentations by third year students on their dissertations.

The provision of public lectures at a University level is complemented by College lectures on formal occasions, and by ‘pudding seminars’, in which students and Fellows share their ideas and current research more informally.

Newnham historians benefit from the excellent resources provided by the College as well as the University. The College runs an unusually well-stocked undergraduate library. Whilst this provides a quiet working environment both inside and outside term time, historians at Newnham live within minutes of the Faculty and from the University Library, a copyright library.
First year History students at Newnham have the opportunity to develop language skills through classes in French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Latin, among others. They take University ‘preliminary’ exams, which provide a chance to practice exam techniques in a formative rather than summative context. A student in any year may take advantage of the presence of a Royal Literary Fund Fellow in College who provides assistance with writing skills outside the formal confines of supervisions.

How many students take History at Newnham and what options do they choose?

Approximately six to eight per year (circa eighteen to twenty-four in total), although these are occasionally augmented with American students taking a year abroad. There are perhaps half a dozen Newnham postgraduates working in History at any one time. The choice of options varies across time, space, and genres of history – and students benefit from the advice of their peers as well as their Director of Studies in shaping their path through the papers on offer.

How will I be taught at Newnham?

The structure of teaching is determined by the subject not the College. In History, the main teaching derives from weekly supervisions, on one paper per term, arranged by the Director of Studies. Lectures are a vital part of a student’s learning, and attendance at them is strongly encouraged.

However, there are exceptions to this pattern. Themes and Sources (in part I) and the Special Subject (in part II), the two source-based papers, are taught by means of Faculty classes rather than supervisions. Historical Argument and Practice (in both parts of the Tripos) is taught in College classes, either fortnightly (in the first and third years) or termly (in the second), in the first two terms of each year. First-year students at Newnham also enjoy weekly language classes funded by the College.

Can you tell me more about the History Fellows and Lecturers?
  • Dr Janine Maegraith (Director of Studies, Part I) is a historian of early modern central Europe focusing on social history, consumption, and gender differences in legal cultures.
  • Dr Gabriela Ramos (Director of Studies, Part II) is a historian of Latin America, specialising in the cultural, religious, and social history of the Andes.
  • Dr Duncan Needham (Special Supervisor) is an economic and political historian, specialising in twentieth-century Britain.
  • Dr Kate Fleet (Director of the Skilliter Centre) specialises in Ottoman economic and social history, and the economic history of the eastern Mediterranean in the early modern period.
  • Dr Elise Burton (Research Fellow) researches Middle Eastern Studies and Integrative Biology specialising in evolutionary genetics.
  • Dr Cécile Bushidi (Research Fellow) is a historian of Africa, focusing on debates on Africa’s transition from colonialism to independence and the role of performance in shaping discourse on identity politics.
  • Dr Gill Sutherland (Fellow Emerita) currently specialises in the social and political history of education, and the position of women, mainly in the British Isles after 1750.

You can find more information on special supervisors in History here.

What jobs do Newnham History students go on to do?

A very wide range – utilising the nature of their subject. Previous students have gone on to posts in accountancy, investment banking, personnel management, publishing, journalism, teaching, social work, and the civil service. Some work in academia, either in research or academic administration. The past Principal of Newnham read History here as an undergraduate, and the current Principal read History at Bristol before switching to Medicine.

Are there any A-level subjects that are particularly useful?

A student does not have to take History at A-Level in order to read it at university, but an applicant who has not taken History would naturally be expected to account for this, and offer positive reasons for her choice of course. Students previously admitted have combined History with other essay-based subjects or mathematics or natural sciences.

Can I take a gap year?

Yes – but you don’t have to. Many students find the experience which a gap year offers highly beneficial for their personal development and broadening their horizons. However, it is equally justifiable for a student eager to begin her course not to seek a gap year. Reasonably firm plans, with valid justifications, are most important.

How should I prepare for interview at Newnham?

All applicants are required to take the pre-interview written assessment for History at an authorised centre local to them (for a lot of applicants, this will be their school/college).

Although applicants cannot pre-prepare material for Newnham (or Cambridge) History interviews, there are ways in which they can help themselves. Key to this is handling the process before coming to interview: careful thought about the content of the personal statement on the UCAS form, and judicious selection of samples of written work. Keeping copies of the personal statement and submitted work, and reading them through before arriving for the interview, is advisable. An interviewee should be prepared to explore her ideas in more depth, and to have them questioned and challenged; intellectual flexibility is sought as well as interest backed up by evidence of further reading. Discussion is likely to broaden beyond history to the other subjects she is studying and her relevant extra-curricular activities.

Where can I find out more?

The History Faculty website has more information about the course. The Student Life section of this website gives information about living and learning at Newnham.

The History Subject Overview on the ‘My HE+’ website also provides information and resources for exploring your subject.

You are welcome to email the Director of Studies in History, via the Admissions Office, if you have further questions.

Recommended reading

Reading is fundamental to historical study and it is best you make your own informed decisions on which books to read and explore the breadth of the subject. You can begin with overviews to different approaches such as Ulinka Rublack (ed.), A Concise Companion to History, Oxford 2011 or David Cannadine (ed.), What is History Now, Basingstoke, 2000. Or you can read general histories.

For primary and secondary source exercises, sample lectures, and interviews with historians reflecting on their work see the Faculty website. You can consult the Faculty’s Part I papers for the paper’s reading lists. They also contain references to handbooks which often have recommended reading sections.

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