It has been a while since I wrote my last reflective piece and since I have just finished my first year at the University of Exeter I feel like now is a good time to look back at what worked, what didn’t work, and my hopes for the coming year.
As I alluded to during the conclusion of “The Lessons of Life” I thought that getting an unconditional offer to one of the best universities in the UK was nothing short of divine intervention. I had been working very hard through the Open University in the run-up to the UCAS application deadline but if you were to have told me that Exeter would have been the university which would not only consider my application but outright accept me then and there I would have told you to get your head checked. In the window between the UCAS deadline and the start of term I began feverishly making sure that everything was in place so that my transition to my new lifestyle would go off with as few hitches as possible.
I decided to arrive at my accommodation a fortnight before my lectures and seminars were due to start. When I arrived in the town that would serve as my temporary home for the next three years I got my walking shoes on and familiarized myself with the place. The first thing that struck me about Exeter was the architecture, and for some reason I kept getting flashbacks of my stay in Rome. Exeter is a historically significant town when it comes to English history, with its’ greatest claim to fame arguably being that William of Orange made his first base of operations here on the 9th of November 1688 during his campaign against James II. It’s just bizarre seeing modern shopping outlets situated below buildings which have clearly been there for quite some time, an odd mesh of the old and new perhaps.
Term began with a death-defyingly dull workshop on “employability” which was meant to introduce new students of all disciplines to the ways of networking and utilizing social media to further their employment prospects. Personally I felt the entire exercise to be completely redundant since I already had a fair few jobs under my belt and I’m certain I was not the only one. I think that my patience with the workshop reached its’ limit when we were instructed to build a skyscraper out of toilet rolls and sellotape as a group. What on earth was that meant to achieve you may ask? I have no idea, but I know that I walked out shortly afterwards..
Soon enough my lectures and seminars began. I would be studying four modules each term: three mandatory and one optional which I chose before I arrived. The mandatory modules were The Medieval World, The Modern World, and the History Foundation. The optional module I would be taking in the first term was The First Day of the Somme and the one I would be taking in the second term was The Vikings: Image and Reality. The lectures, the overwhelming majority of them anyway, were very engaging but there were still a handful where I nodded off now and then. Looking back I don’t think that was down to the subject matter, more like the lecturers just were not all that engaging. I think that the two most engaging lecturers, those who really cared about their subjects and really made it show, were Dr. Levi Roach and Dr. Tim Rees – who lectured for Medieval and Modern respectively.
As far as the structure of the modules and the ways in which they were assessed I preferred, by a wide margin, the way that the conventional modules were run. I’m not detracting anything from the content of the “Sources and Skills” modules as they are known but they really need to be assessed better. The problem with the sources and skills modules was that one was expected to complete a 500-550 word source analysis each week, cramming as much minute detail into that word limit as possible. That, for me, goes against everything studying History is about. I would much rather do fewer larger essays which actually give me breathing space to analyze one source or even multiple sources in better detail. I do not work well with tight limitations and sadly it showed in my results. In those modules I only managed between 50-60%, never going any higher and sometimes going lower. In comparison to my other modules, modules where I had much more space and liberty to work my results were staggeringly higher, many of these essays can be found on this blog actually if you ever want to go read them. Not everything went swimmingly well with the conventional modules though, the Foundation course in particular featured a group essay and presentation which I would honestly rather forget.
Of course it wasn’t all just writing and reading. Through my seminars and through my extra-curricular activities I found a nice small group of like-minded friends who I met up with on a regular basis. Michael, Andrew, Arthur, Ciaran, and William were all history students like myself – and all were great company to unwind with. Exeter has a handful of decent hangouts but our favorite by far had to be “The Old Firehouse”. This bar/restaurant got owes its’ namesake to the fact that it was once-upon-a-time a fire house. What it lacks in namesake originality it makes up for with content. In addition to great local brews the Fire House often has live bands playing and pizzas that have to be seen to be believed. The fact that the place is open until the early hours of the morning doesn’t hurt either. Another place that I would come to consider a haunt was Timepiece, a place which styled itself as “A Wine Bar Nightclub”… eh? Wrap your head around that one for a moment.
Timepiece is an odd place, even for a nightclub. The ground floor resembles a bar stuck in a time warp with old fashioned signs and clearly dated pictures dotted around the place. The floor above consists of a nightclub/dance floor which resembles something from a meth-induced trip… but also has old western films playing on large screens. It’s just bizarre, completely bizarre. I’ve never been much of a party animal, in fact I think I’ve been the complete opposite. I don’t shy away from places like Timepiece but unlike the majority of my fellow students it’s not exactly high on my list of go-to places. Still, if the crowd is going I’m more than happy to go with!
Asides from going out with my friends I found myself getting into a number of societies this year. Michael and myself went to the debates hosted by Exeter’s “DebSoc”. These debates often brought in speakers from outside the student body and were at times riveting to watch. Every debate had it’s memorable moments but I think that the best one of the bunch was when the house discussed the rise of China on the world stage. Hearing the input from the sea of exchange students in the audience, all too eager to eviscerate misconceptions, was quite something. Another highlight from the DebSoc this year was when the society itself held a mock-presidential debate when the 2012 election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was upon us. The fellow portraying Romney was clearly having a blast with his role: hamming it up to the maximum and testing everyone’s poker faces.
This brings me to what has been both my highest point and my lowest low this year. During this year I have gotten into writing articles for the student paper “Exepose”, something that has become an extension of what I write for you all here on WordPress. I’ve gotten to know some people who are truly passionate about their interests, the two outgoing “games” column editors Marcus and Johnathan especially, who go out of their way to try involve people in the running of the paper. When I heard that the paper would be holding elections for the new batch of student editors I was eager to throw my hat into the ring, a decision that in hindsight I would regret dearly. As you might have gathered already I’m not the greatest public speaker, it’s always been something of a paradox with me: I’m an eloquent writer but when it comes to putting writing in spoken words I more often than not fall to pieces. This time was no exception. I had gone over what I would say to the voting audience over and over beforehand but just standing there… with all those eyes on me… it was almost as if a veil had dropped and the words just wouldn’t come. Unsurprisingly I lost out on the post that I ran for, a post that a number of the outgoing editors had urged me to run for. That entire episode was a savage blow to my self-esteem and I don’t think I’ve recovered from it. To have something that was once a source of enjoyment and pride be turned into something that makes me cringe and feel embarrassed whenever I think about it.. that hurt a lot… and it still does. I haven’t written a solid article for the paper since then, and my desire to continue trying is fading fast.
I’ll have to see what the next year brings as far as Exepose goes. I should note that I am hoping to work under Andrew and Arthur and help them with the running of “The Historian”, an academic journal where history students can submit articles for others to read. I really hope I can contribute to their efforts as I think they’re doing the right thing in maintaining the journal.
Historically I’ve never been too good at exams either so when I found out that I would be sitting “Seen Exams” this year I was over-the-moon. A seen exam is an examination where students select questions from a list released online weeks before the actual paper is written. On that same note however the examiners expect students to have a considerable grasp of the subjects they are writing about and the marking standards are rightfully set high. I decided to play to what I felt my strengths were and consequentially achieved roughly the marks I set out for. Again, my written assignments handed in during the year were leagues ahead of my exam papers but I cannot contest the importance of written exams at university level. If I want to achieve the ever-elusive “First” mark next year I’m going to have to bring my A-Game to my written assignments so hopefully my examination marks won’t drag my overall mark down.
Overall I’m satisfied with what I have achieved during my first year at the University of Exeter. I’ve managed to establish myself there, I’ve managed to find a group of really decent friends, I’ve managed to break the ice with several societies that I will be rejoining next year, and I’m set to become a student mentor when I return to the university in September. I really could not have envisioned myself being a mentor a few months ago, especially when I was feeling so down when things were not going well. But really, it is experiences like those as well as the ones that I remember fondly that I feel will be the making of me in the long run. If my own experiences can help me guide others, new students younger than myself who need guidance, then it’s all been worth it.
I return to the University of Exeter on the 9th of September to start my student mentor training and to prepare for what is sure to be an arduous year of academia. This year my focus in history converges on the early modern/modern world (1600-present), the area that was easily my strongest suit this year.
Wow, that was longer than I intended it to be.