History is a large and flourishing subject at Fitzwilliam. About eight men and women are admitted to read the subject each year, there thus being about twenty-four History undergraduates at any one time. In recent years History has ranked as a strong subject academically within the college. Most candidates earn either a good Upper Second or a First in their final exams.
In Part I of the Tripos, taken after two years, undergraduates are examined in six papers. One, "Historical Themes and Sources" is examined by a long essay (approximately 5,000 words) submitted during the second year. The remainder of the Part I examination consists of five 3-hour papers sat at the end of the second year. These papers are selected from about twenty covering British, European, North American and 'Third World' history, usually in periods of 200-500 years; there are also options in political thought, one of the strengths of the Cambridge History Tripos. In total the timespan of Part I is very long, candidates being able to study (if they want) both Ancient Greece and the twentieth century, taking in medieval political thought on the way. Two British history papers -one political, one economic & social - need to be taken from the five available periods. But other constraints are very few, and the History syllabus at Cambridge is remarkably open and unprescriptive. The only chronological requirement is that at some point in the three years students must take one European paper and one paper falling mainly before and another after 1750. Undergraduates are able to construct their own course - so that of the several hundred who take history in Cambridge in any one year, only a handful will make the same selection as somebody else. Such freedom places a large responsibility on undergraduates and is one reason why Cambridge is looking for students who are strongly self-motivated and capable of taking control of their own learning.
Most history in Part I is outline and 'broad sweep' in nature. In Part II there are some opportunities to take papers of the same character (particularly in the field of extra-European history) but the strength of Part II is the opportunity it gives for work in depth with original sources - notably in the Special Subjects, but also in focusing on a limited theme or question, such as 'Death in the Middle Ages'. A very wide choice is again available - with up to forty options on offer each year. Undergraduates may also choose to write a dissertation instead of an unseen paper, and it is the policy at Fitzwilliam to encourage this option, since students find that undertaking a piece of original research is often the most enjoyable part of the course.
At Cambridge history teaching consists of lectures provided by the university and supervisions provided by each college for its own members. This pattern stresses learning rather than teaching. Lectures are voluntary, and although supervisions are compulsory they usually only occupy an hour a week. Most of an undergraduate's time is necessarily spent alone working on the current essay. Even for energetic and self-reliant students there is a risk of intellectual loneliness, and at Fitzwilliam we attempt to guard against it in several ways, and to encourage co-operative learning and group discussion. All first year undergraduates meet together in their first term for general discussion of historical method and broad historical themes (which is also useful preparation for the Historical Argument and Practice examination taken in the third term). For other papers undergraduates are supervised in ones or twos, by Fitzwilliam fellows where their specialisms are involved or by colleagues from other colleges. The Director of Studies, who arranges the supervisions, is always on hand to offer help and advice.
In other words the college tries to create a happy alliance of individual and group learning, and 'in college' and external teaching. This variety of experience helps to create a strong esprit de corps among Fitzwilliam history students.
Students admitted to read history at Fitzwilliam will usually have taken it at A2, with of course several other subjects. Often these are humanities subjects, but they might also include economics, maths or science. As the study of history itself changes, these subjects increasingly complement it and we welcome the wide intellectual background of Fitzwilliam historians. The ability to read a foreign language is highly desirable and first year tuition is available to those who wish to improve their skills. Most importantly, we also look for intense and enthusiastic commitment to historical study, and a desire to put it first in the undergraduate years. However well they are taught, Cambridge undergraduates need to be autonomous and self-motivating. A typical offer at Fitzwilliam College is A*AA at A level (or equivalent qualification) but we try to be as flexible as possible where appropriate.
Life after Cambridge
Some Fitzwilliam graduates continue their historical studies and become professional historians at university and elsewhere, or become teachers of history in schools, enthusing a new generation. But it is generally acknowledged that the skills imparted by a history degree - the ability to absorb evidence and construct a compelling argument (or spot the weaknesses in someone else's argument) - are in high demand in many other fields. Many historians become lawyers, or go into business and banking. Others enter the media or arts. What they all share is an ability to think and express those thoughts effectively and persuasively.
Director of Studies
Dr Rosemary Horrox, British medieval history.