What is History? Methods and Debates

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Timothy Hochstrasser SAR 2.14


This course is available on the BA in History, BSc in Government and History, BSc in International Relations and History and BSc in Politics and History. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit. This course is available with permission to General Course students.

HY241 is available to General Course students starting in the Michaelmas Term ONLY in 2020/21.

Course content

What is history? How and for what purposes do we study the past? What kinds of debates and controversies result from historical study? The purpose of this course is to provide undergraduate students with an introduction to these important issues. We will discuss the history of history from ancient times to the present and how it has changed as an intellectual pursuit over the years. We will think about different types of history – for example, international history, intellectual history, social history, economic history, cultural history or the history of religion – and we will discern their different concerns and priorities. We will analyse some of the most important themes in modern historical study: empires and colonialism, war and conflict, nationalism. We will outline different ideological frameworks for conducting historical research, for example Marxism, postmodernism, and gender studies. We will debate some of the key philosophical questions surrounding historical research: for example, how historians determine facts, and whether or not historical study can ever be truly objective? Finally, we will look at different ways of presenting the past, from traditional history books to museums and TV history. The course is highly recommended for students who may wish to continue studying history beyond batchelors level.


Seminars will consist of a blend of campus and online teaching.

There will be a reading week in the Michaelmas and the Lent terms.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce 1 essay in the MT and 1 essay in the LT.

There will also be a mock exam.

Indicative reading

A full reading list will be provided at the start of the course but will include the following introductory surveys: Berger, Feldner and Passmore, Writing History; D Cannadine (Ed), What is History now?; L Jordanova, History in Practice; R Evans, In Defence of History; J Tosh, The Pursuit of the Past; M Bloch, The Historian's Craft; R G Collingwood, The Idea of History; T. Garton Ash, The File.


Exam (80%, duration: 3 hours) in the summer exam period.
Class participation (20%) in the MT and LT.

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2020/21 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the situation of students in attendance on campus and those studying online during the early part of the academic year. For assessment, this may involve changes to mode of delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: International History

Total students 2019/20: 10

Average class size 2019/20: 10

Capped 2019/20: Yes (30)

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information