Does Queen Mary’s History Department Stifle Dissertation Creativity?

For many of us, the culmination of our time at university is the writing of our dissertations. Everything builds up to it. Although the prospect of spending a gruelling amount of hours in the library and writing 10,000(ish) words is quite daunting, the fact that we get to choose our subject area and thesis is actually exciting.

Growing up, my impression was that you could literally write about anything; your disso doesn’t even need to be obviously connected to your degree. And for most subjects, this is true, my housemate is studying a Geography BA, and for his, he is investigating the gentrification of music venues. This system is great because it means after 15 years of education you can finally really get stuck into something you’re passionate about. There must be a strong sense of pride that the entire thing is your brainchild. No one can tell you what you have to write about.

Or so I thought.

It turns out, Queen Mary’s History Department does not follow the trend of the student concocting a research paper and then being assigned an advisor who has either direct or indirect knowledge of the topic. For instance, my Geography housemate has just been assigned an advisor who is a fellow cultural Geographer.

Instead, we are given twenty special subjects. We then select one, and during it, we carry out the usual amount of assessments and then do our dissertation based on the subject.

In theory, this shouldn’t constrict students too much. Surely these twenty topics cover a variety of periods, events and themes?

I wish.

Instead, fourteen of these choices are solely about the 20th century and basically only cover the World Wars. The other six are about everything before then; seems fair. Furthermore, the options available to us, although interesting, are very specific. For instance, my first choice was centred around the letters of a 15th-century merchant family from Norwich. Not to nerd out, but so much weird, wonderful and outright warped stuff happened before the modern era. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Civil War, our first female queens, the bubonic plague, I could go on.

Moreover, because there has to be a minimum of seven people per subject, only three are actually running. This meant many, including myself, didn’t get their first or second choice. So not only am I being given my topic, it’s not even one I particularly want to do. And some amazing advisors aren’t able to run their subject.

I get it; us medievalists are a rare and odd breed of historian, so obviously I understand the majority of our choices will come from the modern era. However, although we may be few, it seems unfair for us, and our medievalist professors, to be offered such limited options.

Whenever I tell students from different schools of learning and universities they look completely confused, and usually respond with ‘oh that’s w*nk’, when I explain History doesn’t let us pick what we write about and the fact that nearly three quarters relate to one century.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, we spend £27k and three years on our degrees.

If people across the UK can write dissertations on memes, Love Island and Beyonce, along with QM History Department running a module in third year entitled ‘Video Games: History, Culture and Representation from Pac-Man to Pokémon’, why can’t they let its medievalist buffs delve into what they find interesting?

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