A History Degree for the C21st

Dr Caitríona Beaumont, London Southbank University


In September 2017 the School of Law and Social Sciences, London South Bank University (LSBU), launched four undergraduate history degree programmes: BA (Hons) History, BA (Hons) History with Politics, BA (Hons) History with Sociology and BA (Hons) History with Criminology. These new degrees sit alongside our Criminology, Sociology, Politics and International Relations undergraduate degrees. Here I focus on the BA (Hons) History Degree as the ‘history with’ modules draw from this core degree.

The responsibility for developing the new history degree fell to myself and Lisa Pine, the two historians in the School, working closely with our Head of Division, Adrian Budd. We also consulted with colleagues in our Division, particularly sociologists Shaminder Takhar and Elaine Bauer, reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of our courses. The task took up much of the academic year 2015/16 as we worked on the concept for the degree, course structure, modules and assessment methods, as well as drafting the many documents required to validate a new university course.

Arduous as this undertaking was the opportunity to create an entirely new history degree was incredibly exciting, and one we embraced wholeheartedly.

The first and most important decision we made was to link the history degree to our School’s overarching objective: to provide excellent teaching and undertake high-quality research on themes relating to social justice and global responsibility. This decision enabled us to align the degree with the School’s Research Centre for Social Justice and Global Responsibility and to identify its unique selling point. In a crowded London HE market, it was imperative that our degree offered something different to prospective students. We were confident we could create a degree relevant to students, whose daily lives are shaped by the political, social and economic uncertainties of the twenty first century.

The next step was to identify sub-themes to highlight what was original and exciting about our history degree. As a historian of female activism, I was keen the degree had, at its core, the concept of activism and how different forms of activism can ‘make change happen’. In the context of the women’s suffrage centenary #vote100, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and environmental movements, this spotlight on activism felt particularly appropriate. Modules on ‘Revolutions, Wars and the Making of the Modern World’, ‘American History/American Cinema’, and ‘Politics and Protest’, for instance, foreground the histories, strategies and significance of political and social movements.

Our focus on the history of activism extends to the idea of ‘active history’.  Charlotte Clements, our Course Director, is keen that students become active historians from the ‘get-go’ and see themselves as activists in the study of history. At induction, archivist Ruth MacLeod brings samples from the LSBU archive for students to handle and we have had fun looking at copies of the LSBU Students’ Union magazine, recording the highs and lows of student life in the 1960s and 1970s. Year 1  modules ‘Historical Sources and Methods’ and ‘Historical Practice and Research’ get students out and about visiting cultural institutions: the National Maritime Museum, the Black Cultural Archive, Bishopsgate Institute, Autograph ABP, Imperial War Museum, the Women’s Library at the LSE, and the London Metropolitan Archive. Links with these organisations are also useful in developing work experience opportunities for students as they progress through the degree.

A second sub-theme of our degree is diversity. Drawing on Lisa’s research on the gendered impact of the Nazi Holocaust and the gendered experience of genocide, we have developed modules on ‘Life and Times in Nazi Germany’, ‘Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity’ and ‘Suffrage to Citizenship: female activism in the twentieth century’, that document and analyse the diversity of gendered experiences. We were determined that diversity should not be limited to specific modules. Instead, women’s history, gender difference, queer history, race and ethnicity feature prominently throughout our degree programme.

As a university proud of its diverse student community and with a 51% (2017/18) Black, Minority Ethnic (BME) student body, we ensured that our new degree would be inclusive of a wide range of human histories and not limited to white, male, straight and Eurocentric experiences. Our core Year 1 module ‘Industry, Empire and Society’, taught by Katie Donington, uses new imperial history frameworks to introduce students to the mutually constitutive nature of British and empire histories. In the Year 2 module ‘20th Century London: A History of the Metropolis’ students consider the history of London as a multicultural metropolis including the African, Asian and Caribbean presences which stem directly from Britain’s role as an imperial power. In the final year students take ‘Black History: Concepts and Debates’, an in-depth exploration of Black Britain during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Students are required to interrogate what is meant by Black British history and consider why the histories of race and ethnicity continue to be under-represented in school and university curriculums, as highlighted in the Royal Historical Society’s Race, Ethnicity & Equality Report (2018).

Developing our new History Degree at LSBU has been a challenging but rewarding experience. With a small team we have had to limit our offer to modern and contemporary history (1750s to the end of the twentieth century). However the team is convinced that teaching history through the lens of social justice, global responsibility, activism and diversity is not only appropriate but also essential in the twenty first century. We provide our graduates with a life-long understanding of how change happens, why history matters and how important it is to know about the histories of the many, and not just the few.

About the Author: 

Dr Caitríona Beaumont is Associate Professor in Social History and Director of Research for the School of Law and Social Sciences, London South Bank University, UK. She is a historian of female activism, movements and voluntary action in twentieth century Ireland and Britain. Her latest book is Housewives and Citizens: Domesticity and the Women’s Movement in England, 1928-1964 (Manchester University Press, 2015).

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