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College Teaching


Your supervisor is responsible for directing your work for each paper so that, if you work steadily, you will be equipped to tackle the examination paper. She or he sets you reading and an essay title each week, and is usually a specialist in the field of your paper. Do not be afraid to suggest possible topics yourself, if you have any particular interests (though you should be aware that there may be good reasons against studying them).

You will normally have seven or eight supervisions per term, either individually or in very small groups. They last for one hour. You must write an essay for each one, and should submit it in advance so that the supervisor can make written comments on it. Essay titles are often taken from past exam papers, which you can find on the website.

A supervision is intended to clarify, focus and extend the work which you have done. It is a conversation, based on what you have written, in which you will be asked to articulate your ideas. Do not be deferential, but relaxed; this is not an inquisition. The supervisor will discuss and assess the merit of your essay. He or she will relate it to other aspects of the topic, and will expect you to do so too, so you will need to read as widely as possible. At the end of the hour you should have a broader understanding of the topic. But you should not expect everything to be “slotted into place”. A good supervisor often stresses the limits to the historian‘s knowledge, the variety of valid historiographical approaches to the topics, and the problems involved in reaching a clear-cut understanding of it. Expect some of your assumptions to be challenged, even undermined.

The supervision should be tailored to your needs so, to this end, it helps if you take the initiative and have your own agenda. Ask questions about anything in the reading which you have not understood. A supervision is not a lecture. But do not feel embarrassed to take brief notes on what the supervisor says - you may not remember it otherwise. It is very important to collect your thoughts immediately after the supervision ends and commit them to paper.

Your supervisor should also advise you on attending lectures, which will supplement your understanding and define the scope of the paper further. Always ask about this, if the supervisor does not. And remember to refer to lecture notes when preparing your essays; they will often be extremely useful.

Your supervision will normally take place at a regular and agreed time each week, and you must attend. Many colleges now charge undergraduates for supervisions missed without good cause.

The Essay

The purpose of your weekly essay is to accustom you to distilling your reading into a clear, concise yet rounded argument in answer to a specific and pointed question. You will be assessed on the plausibility and coherence of what you write, and on the breadth of understanding which you display. The art of essay-writing is not learned easily or quickly. It requires a good deal of regular practice. Do not despair if it takes time to improve; you have nearly two years before Part I.

The essay title will be a question, or a statement for comment, and you should argue a case in response. Scrutinise the question carefully, check its meaning with your supervisor if in doubt, and take note of phrasing and slant. Key words usually need careful and early definition, to give focus.

In terms of scope, it is appropriate to be wide-ranging, but not diffuse. If you decide to concentrate on one dimension or approach, try to indicate briefly why you have rejected other possible ones. Often you will find the books you read disagreeing with each other. If so, it will improve your essay if you practise evaluating the significance of these disagreements for the question you are addressing. Be sure to make your own views apparent throughout - not just in the conclusion. List books you have read at the end of your essay.

Always take time to gather your thoughts before writing. Make a full and careful plan, organised by paragraph. Each paragraph should address the question directly and forward the development of your answer. It can help to experiment with ordering the component parts of an essay until you see how to present the argument fluently and persuasively. If you are having difficulty in planning your essays, show your plan as well as your essay to your supervisor.

When writing, do not waffle. Each paragraph should elaborate a central point and support it with well-chosen evidence. Do not weigh your essay down with facts for their own sake; an essay is not a summary of a week’s reading, and you should treat it as an argument first and foremost, rather than an opportunity to display all that you know. Make sure to discuss the evidence in enough detail to give your argument weight. Including well-described case studies, but only those which support your argument, is an important part of the art of essay writing. Remember that being concise is also an art, and one you would do well to master to stand you in good stead for Tripos examinations.

Some of your supervisors may specify a particular essay format. If they do not, try to aim at producing an essay of between 1,800 and 2,500 words. Most students prefer to write on a computer and, often, supervisors will be happy to receive the essay as an email attachment. If you do this, be sure that you do not lose the art of writing consecutive prose sentences fluently and quickly, because this is how you will be tested in Tripos. Some supervisors or Directors of Studies encourage their students to write at least some of their essays by hand. Even if you do not do this, please take steps to ensure that you do not lose the ability to write by hand, as most students will be required to do this in examinations. And if you cannot read your supervisor’s comments on your work - or understand them - don’t be afraid to ask for an explanation.

Always re-read your essay before submitting it, to see if you have argued your case as clearly as you can. History is a literary art. Do not be surprised if supervisors devote a lot of time to the structure and style of your essays. Be prepared for corrections to syntax and spelling.

You are encouraged to discuss essay-writing technique with your supervisor or Director of Studies.

Useful paperback books on academic writing include:

  • Gordon Taylor, The Student's Writing Guide for the Arts and Social Sciences (Cambridge, 1989)
  • William Zinsser, On Writing Well: an Informal Guide to Writing Non-fiction (30th anniversary edn., New York, 2006)
  • Nigel Fabb & Alan Durant, How to Write Essays, Dissertations and Theses in Literary Studies (1993)
  • Jacques Barzun and H.F. Graff, The Modern Researcher (6th edn., 2003)

Reading and note-taking

Your essay will be based on reading and digesting a number of books and articles. Usually your supervisor will give you a list, and will go through it giving further details about individual items. If he or she does not advise you on the most useful introductory literature, ask where you should start the week’s reading. By all means read beyond the suggested items. Consolidated reading lists for the Part I papers are available on the website.

You will normally start with outline or survey books. They are designed for you, and you should read the relevant parts of them right through. It is helpful to re-read surveys when revising each paper, in order to refresh your memory and to remind yourself of the broader framework for the topic. They are also the most useful books to buy.

Other books and articles will offer more advanced or specialised discussions. Remember that such sources may not be written primarily for you, so be discriminating; do not feel you need to read all of them from cover to cover. But you must try to gain a sense of the overall argument, and to use your ingenuity in finding your way to the material which will be relevant to you.

Start on this by reading and noting the introductory and concluding sections. Reviews of books often offer a useful pointer to their argument (and flaws): they are easily found on the internet using Google or JSTOR. But summaries are not enough. You also need to consult the text at length, in order to deepen your understanding of the work and extend the range of examples drawn from it.

Start by using the table of contents and the index as a guide. Make notes on each work on separate pieces of paper or in different computer files, since you may wish to reorder them later. It can help to copy out significant sentences, but you will engage with the argument more if you rephrase it in your own words. Any worthwhile book or article will have a distinctive argument. Before moving to the next item, stand back and summarise the whole work in two or three sentences. What did it say? What sources did it use? Did it open up a new approach? Try to be critical. And remember that you are making notes for two purposes. You are collecting information, which you will then be synthesising in your essay. But the notes will also assist your examination revision. You are preparing a large topic on which a number of questions might be asked in Tripos, from different angles. Hence it is important to consult past examination papers. If you limit yourself too much while taking notes, your exam revision might suffer. If you do not have time to read an article or chapter which looks useful for the topic, return to it in the vacation or in revision. When it comes to the exam, being able to revise from notes taken during the supervision, as well as from the essay and your lecture notes, will provide the most rounded understanding of the topic; however, it is extremely valuable to broaden your reading beyond the sources you have covered for the supervision essay.

Planning your workload

No one will tell you how to plan your working day. Learning self-discipline and organisation is one of the major tasks of the university student. But it is reasonable to expect you to work 37-43 hours a week during term-time. Such work includes lectures, supervisions, seminars, and independent study. In general, especially in Part I, you will have one supervision a week, in addition to several hours of lectures, seminars, and college classes. In Part II, you will have weekly meetings of Special Subjects in addition to supervisions, lectures, and classes in Specified Subject(s) and dissertations. You are also expected to work over the breaks between terms, as these periods are ideal for further reading, note-taking, and consolidation of material.

The Easter Term of your second year should be dedicated to revision. Your Director of Studies will normally encourage you to attend revision supervisions, and will also give you advice about planning your work at this point. It is essential to practice writing timed essays in revision; for this, it is simplest to use questions from past Tripos papers.  Prelim to Part I exams are taken after Easter in the first year. This is a valuable practice examination, for which you should prepare in depth during the Easter vacation. 

It is essential to remember that you are a full-time student, though you may be in Cambridge itself for less than half of the year. Obviously you should relax and develop other skills in part of your vacations. But you must also go over the work of the previous term. You will find that a review of your book and lecture notes, combined with some extra reading, will greatly help your understanding of individual topics and their interconnections. You should also lay some groundwork for the following term‘s work, by reading some general surveys. A rule of thumb for the vacation period is to spend one week resting or on holiday, and to divide the remaining time between reviewing the most recent paper you have covered, preparing for the paper to be studied in the following term, and/or revising individual topics, as your workload demands. Being organised is one of the most important routes to success in Tripos.  

Theoretical matters

Tripos is more than the sum of its parts, and performing well depends on reading broadly and, to some extent, reflecting on the theoretical issues which underpin historical narrative and analysis. A Historical Argument and Practice paper is obligatory both in the first-year Preliminary examination, and at Part II. Historical Argument and Practice is not a supervised paper, so the responsibility for preparing for these examinations is primarily your own. It is also generally valuable to set your work for individual Tripos papers in a broader context, by reading about historical methodology and related disciplines of interest to you, such as literature, history of art, political philosophy and Third World development. Although you will take the initiative on Historical Argument and Practice, your college should also arrange year-group classes and the Faculty offers a full programme of lectures. Take advantage also of other discussion opportunities, such as college History Societies, whose meetings are often advertised on Faculty circulars or noticeboards.


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