Vacation Reading and Revision Notes

These notes are intended chiefly for first years coming to the end of their first term. A Word document can be downloaded here.

It is a pompous Oxford cliché that the period between terms is ‘a vacation, not a holiday’. Yet it contains an important element of truth. You are, of course, entitled to a good break after your efforts this term, and it is important that you come back in January refreshed and recharged. However, vacations at Oxford are very long, and they provide an important opportunity to extend and consolidate your work. They also offer a chance to prepare for ‘Collections’ next term, an internal exam sat at the end of 0th week. These notes are intended to help you plan your vacation reading and to help you prepare for Collections.

The Vacation provides an invaluable opportunity to broaden and deepen your knowledge, without the constant pressure of essay deadlines. It allows you to think across the different topics you have studied, and to explore material that does not directly address any single essay topic. In this respect, it plays a crucial role in meeting the central intellectual challenge of the outline papers: moving from having seven topics you know something about to being scholars of the period as a whole. The reading you do over the vacation can be some of the most rewarding and intellectually elevating of the entire degree, so use it wisely!

Do not, however, over-estimate what you can do! There is no point carting home boxfuls of books that you will not read. The Christmas vacation runs for six weeks, including 0th week. Allowing for a good break and the need to prepare for your next papers, you are unlikely to spend more than two and a half weeks on revision. So it is much better to take five or six books which you read and note thoroughly than to send lorries hurtling fruitlessly down Turl Street.

Consolidation and Further Reading

First, you should spend a few days going back over your notes from the term. Make sure they are clear and well-organised, and try to identify any gaps where further reading is necessary. Look out especially for important items on the reading lists that you could not get hold of at the time, or for anything your tutors have suggested in their essay comments. You should look, in particular, for journal articles that will expand and deepen your knowledge – remember that you can access Oxford’s on-line journals from your computer at home.

Secondly, pick out a couple of large thematic works – the kind of thing it’s hard to find time for during term. It’s particularly good if they cut across different topics, or offer a perspective you’ve not thought of. Good examples for British VI include:

B. Porter, Critics of Empire (1968/2008)
H. McLeod, Religion and Society in England, 1850-1914 (1996)
J. Parry, The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government (1993) [the best political overview]
J. Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit: A Social History of Britain, 1870-1914 (1993)
J. Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2001) [speaks to lots of topics]
K. Gleadle, Borderline Citizens: Women, Gender and Political Culture in Britain (2009)
A. Jackson, Ireland, 1798-1998 OR The Two Unions: Ireland, Scotland and the Survival of the United Kingdom, 1707-2007.
M. Cragoe, Culture, Politics and National Identity in Wales, 1832-1886 (2004)

Biographies can be great for getting into the mindset of a period, and provide a useful narrative spine. Good examples include Colin Matthew on Gladstone, Frank Turner on Newman and Robert Blake on Disraeli. The on-line Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, available via SOLO, is a treasure trove, and is particularly good for women in the 19th century, who still tend to lack book-length treatments. Reading about people like Harriet Martineau, Lady Palmerston, Josephine Butler, Annie Besant and so on is a great way to think about the different roles women could play in 19th century society.

Finally, I’m a great believer in fiction and poetry as a historical source. Reading Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Tennyson, the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope and so on will really enrich your understanding of the period – not to mention providing elevating conversation at the dinner table.

What to do with your reading:

As always, your reading should be active, not passive. Think about how what you are reading feeds into your tutorial topics, and – above all – think about the connections between your different essays. Sometimes these are obvious, for example between ‘Empire’ and ‘Ireland’, or ‘Chartism’ and ‘the Rise of Labour’. Sometimes they are less obvious, but no less important for that. What did the Chartists think of the empire? Were there gender differences in attitudes towards the Irish question? Given that contemporaries often talked of ‘the religion of socialism’, should we treat socialism as part of religious history? If so, how might that affect the way we think about secularisation? Asking questions like this will give purpose to your reading, enrich your analysis and help to bring your various topics closer together.

Preparing for Collections:

Collections are internal college exams sat at the beginning of each term. You only sit a collection when you have completed the paper: first years will not have a Historiography collection until Trinity term.

Collections do not count towards your degree, but they provide a useful staging post. They give you experience of the kind of papers you will sit for Prelims in the summer, and allow us to assess whether your tutorial work is producing the performance you deserve in examination. So take them seriously – and revise for them thoroughly – but do not get into a panic about them. No one is going to be sent home if you don’t get the marks you deserve; we will simply try to identify what has gone wrong, so that we can put it right. We do not want you starting the term haggard and stressed!

You will be set a past exam paper, so your first port of call should be the on-line database of past papers OXAM. You can find this here. You are required to answer three questions in three hours. The level of choice can be quite intimidating, but remember that you only have to find three that you are capable of answering!

Some tips:
Spend the same amount of time on each essay. Examiners will severely penalise short final essays; you will always lose more marks on an under-length essay than you will gain on a longer one.
Take time to plan. This requires guts when the person next to you is scribbling away from the kick-off, but your essay will be much better for it. A shorter, well planned essay will always score more highly than ten pages of disordered raving.
Only write on subjects you know about. The question on music or crime may look fascinating, but there will almost certainly be a specialist literature on the subject of which you are unaware. Of course, you should be imaginative about how you can apply your knowledge: you could, for example, use your reading on Chartism to answer a question about working class culture, or your work on sexuality to answer a question about moral codes. But you should always be writing from a strong basis of knowledge and understanding.
Read the question at least twice… Under exam pressure, it’s very easy to misread a question and charge off down the wrong track. I did this in one of my Finals exams, and had to execute a rather nasty three-point-turn when I noticed the error. It’s a good idea to write out the question, to make sure you’ve got it right.
Answer the question set! This sounds obvious, but failure to do so is probably the most common reason why students underperform in exams. If, for example, the question asks whether imperial sentiment grew across the period, do not simply download a pre-prepared essay on whether Britain was an imperial society. Spend a good ten minutes thinking about precisely what the question is asking you to do, and how you can use your knowledge to address it.

How much stuff do you need to memorise?

An examination is not meant to be a test of memory: you will receive no credit for simply stuffing the page with facts and figures. Examiners are much more interested in your powers of analysis – your capacity to make an argument in response to the precise question they have set – than in your powers of recall. However, an argument is always made stronger when supported by evidence. So don’t try to memorise the phone book, but do look out for compelling pieces of evidence that support your ideas. If you want to argue that Chartism declined because of a fall in women’s support, look for a useful fact or statistic that will support that. If you want to argue that religious toleration increased over the period, think about some examples you could offer that would support that claim. But always remember that the argument must come first.

You do NOT need to footnote exam essays!

Doing essay plans:

A good revision exercise is to take an exam question and give yourself fifteen minutes to plan an answer. Try to plan a clear structure, with a strong conclusion at the end. Then go back over your notes, looking for any approaches you might have missed and – especially – for evidence you could use to support your ideas. When you’ve done this, add them to your plan and reorganise it if necessary.

Oxford exams are slightly different to the ones you will have sat at A-Level, and it is likely to take you a little time to get used to them. Collections offer valuable experience in this respect, so give them your best shot. We look forward to seeing what you produce!

Robert Saunders (updated 2012)