The most distinctive feature of our teaching in the Department of History, at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, is that we seek to train our students to be historians, not merely to be students of history.
The distinction we make here is between historians who actively engage in exploring and interpreting the past and those who passively consume historical knowledge. Our students wish not just to be told what happened, or even why it happened; they want to investigate themselves what happened in the past, and why.
This, therefore, is the guiding principle in our teaching. Real historians are united by their passion to explore the past, through both the writings of other historians (secondary sources) and the material produced by those we study (primary sources). But historians are bound also by their recognition of the importance of communicating their findings to others. They do this both because it helps them refine their own ideas and because it is through the effective communication of new research that historical debates are advanced. At Bristol, undergraduate students can and do participate in original research and analysis, and in the communication of their findings to others.
Thus we expect all our students, throughout their studies, to think of themselves as historians in the making. Although only a few of our students will end up as professional historians, we believe this is worthwhile. This is, first, because we are convinced that an emphasis on the active pursuit of historical knowledge produces a much richer and much more rewarding learning experience for our undergraduates. Beyond this, however, the intellectual skills and independence of thought developed in undertaking historical research, together with the skills our students acquire in communicating their ideas to others, serve them well in their future lives and careers.
Our teaching philosophy means that our undergraduate degree programme is not just an unconnected set of units on different historical subjects. Rather, it is an integrated training programme that is designed to equip our students with the knowledge, technical tools and intellectual training that they need to think and act like historians.
Historians develop their skills by conducting research and communicating their ideas. While lectures can be useful tools for introducing students to new topics, it is the time spent in libraries and archives, or using online resources, that is most important when it comes to developing active research skills. And it is the time students spend in discussing their work, writing up their findings and preparing and giving presentations (whether individually or in groups of like-minded colleagues) that hones their communication skills.
This means that a significant proportion of our teaching from the first year onwards is delivered through small research-orientated seminar groups and one-to-one research supervision. Such sessions, alongside their work with historical sources and the ample opportunities that we provide for students to discuss their ideas informally in staff ‘office hours’, represent the key elements of our undergraduate programmes.
Over the course of the degree the proportion of time spent by students in small group and one-to-one tutorials increases, as students become more confident and better able to conduct their research on primary sources. The culmination of this process comes in the final year, when our students write a 10,000-word dissertation based on extensive engagement with both secondary and primary sources. The quality of these dissertations is often extremely high, with the best making a genuine contribution to the advancement of research in their chosen field.