‘The MA in History’ or ‘Why I love it!’

By Dr Linda Risso (Director of the MA in History)

As far as administrative jobs in the academic world are concerned, being MA director is certainly the best. It allows me to meet students from very different backgrounds and with a very diverse range of aims and expectations. I work with colleagues from across the Faculty and I am continuously pushed out of my comfort zone as I have to engage with different methodologies, projects and sources. It is a vibrant and exciting role.

Our MA in History was launched in October 2012 through the merging of existing programmes, like the MA(Res) in Modern History, the one in Early Modern History and one in Franco-British History. The reasons behind this merger were two-fold. First, we wanted to make the best use of our staff resources and to minimise paperwork. Second, and most importantly, we wanted to make sure that our students had the most satisfying learning experience we could offer. The new MA programme allowed them to be in close contact with the MA Director and to specialise in their area of interest.

The new MA in History covers Early Modern and Modern History. The title is broad and unspecific and I do receive many queries from puzzled potential applicants who want to know more about what they would be studying at Reading. The vagueness of the title is intentional. We are not prescriptive. We want our students to specialise in what they are passionate about. The crucial point is that students often do not know what they are interested in when they apply! They discover their passion once they join us and take part in our seminars, conferences and workshops.

As MA Director, I meet my students regularly to discuss what they are doing and what they enjoy. I invite them to look into areas they had not considered before and let their passions take them further. If they have reached a stalemate, I suggest what the next step might be and I offer alternatives. I want them to open their minds to the new and unknown.

Our MA students do not have a personal tutor and, as MA Director, I am in the privileged position of being their first point of call. This is a highly rewarding role and I thoroughly enjoy it!

It is incredible to see how students change during their time as MA students. They literally seem to transform under my own eyes. They become more confident, more interested in what they are doing and more excited about what they do not know yet. Of course, I do not take any merit for it. It is all due to the possibility of studying one year longer, of focusing on fewer, more in-depth topics and of meeting doctoral researchers and members of staff on a daily basis. All this helps them see themselves in all their potential. You can almost see the light switching on in their eyes!

Interestingly enough, the MA year (or years for those who register on a part-time or modular basis) seems to bring its fruits for years after graduation. I have many students keeping in touch. They let me know about their career progress and come back for advice or simply for a chat.

As I said, it is the best job around here!

……AND NOW TAKE A LOOK AT SOME OF OUR STUDENTS SAY……

Nicholas Haigh:

For me the strength of this course was dispelling misconceptions. One of the first exercises we were set was to draw our preconceptions of the buildings and staff at archives, museums and libraries. Naturally we all fell into our predestined trap; archives covered in cobwebs, shattered remnants of Grecian wine jugs guarded in class counters, and that woman behind the counter older than the relics themselves telling you to shhhhh. But through the course I have forged a new respect for both the depth and variety of the collection housed at MERL, but also for new ways of looking at history and techniques of research.

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Despite having used MERL extensively across last summer as part of my dissertation, one of the highlights of the course for me was the tour around premises, covering the archives, library and the object collection. Discussing misconceptions above, I came into this year thinking I had a pretty good grasp of where things were in the museum, but left realising I had seen but a fraction of it before the course. The objects storage was particularly fascinating, and I was particularly impressed by the ratio between the depth and variety of the collection and how accessible and visible it appeared. Entire walls would be covered with agricultural tools, each with their own labels, a feat of organisation while being itself quite aesthetically striking. Likewise the archives and rare book collection struck me as both an organisation triumph, the air temperature is for example regulated to stop decay, while being struck by the age and diversity of many of the sources.

Being actually able to handle the objects and rare books was perhaps my favourite part of the course as it fully opened my eyes to a world of history that lives beyond the parameter of books at the library. Being able to pick up and examine items allows you to gain a sense of factors such as texture and weight, while allowing you to look for markings or clues in order to fully understand the purpose and use of the object. Similarly when we looked at the accession files for the objects it was interesting that they each had a file, most filled with a neat bundle of documents or photographs relating to the objects use, its previous owner and how it was acquired. This really made me respect that each object had its own story to tell, whether it be on the scale of a combine harvester, or as small as a comb.

Harriet Evans:

Despite having previous experience at other Archives and Museums, the module has allowed me to make comparison of these institutions, and the great variety that can be achieved between individual institutions. The organisation of these establishments is vast and complex and the treatment of every document and object is meticulous and protected. A level of effort that can only to be understood when standing among stacks of books that are one of a kind. The network of volunteers that you meet when entering such places are supported by a wealth of expertise and knowledge behind the scenes. Our initial assumptions about the Libraries, Museum and Archives are most definitely misguided.

We have witnessed every form of source storage from books, objects, photographs and documents, in all those hidden back channels. I was surprised to learn how much was involved in the preservation and maintenance of these objects. There are so many ways to interpret objects and documents especially when there is little evidence or research that has accompanied the subject.

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MERL have given us the opportunity to handle objects and discuss amongst ourselves the purposes of these objects. It has been an incredibly informative module and has shown us the real practicalities and physicality of our subject. Being able hold history, and leaf through a book that is 600 years old is a feeling unlike any other. Being able to appreciate the binding and artworks of these publications is something, not every student has the opportunity to do. We are extremely fortunate to be able to have this prospect.

This module has added to my previous experiences, alongside increasing my appreciation of those who work in these institutions, it has also maintain the desire to pursue a career in this sector, imparting knowledge to others in the community, similarly to the way we have been taught in this module.

Note: Harriet and Nick are enrolled as full-time students on our MA in History. Their comments relate to our module on Historical Skills and Resources, which we run in cooperation with the Museum of English Rural Life.

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