The Practice of History (HIH-237) is a compulsory second year history module at Swansea University which aims to prepare students for their dissertation with a group presentation on primary sources and project essay. Prior to my second year, this was probably the module I was looking forward to the most. This excited mainly stemmed from the unknown; what would it be like to do real historical research with primary sources? How would I cope with the ‘mini dissertation’ project essay? Would this module help me decide on my dissertation topic? and my biggest question, which seminar should I choose?
Like the first year module, Making History (HIH-122), all students attend the same core lectures but the seminars are a choice of subjects and periods. I was hoping for something on crime as I’d like to do my dissertation on capital punishment. A few days before the start of term the seminar options appeared on Blackboard. There were 17 options covering everything from medieval to modern history including; ‘Archaeology for Historians’, ‘History of Christmas’, ‘War Reporting’, and ‘Twentieth Century Cities’. Immediately I spotted ‘Crime, Policing and Punishment’ but as a medievalist I was also drawn to ‘Chronicles and Narratives in the Central Middle Ages.’ The main question for me was now; do I pick the topic that interests me, or the period?
After a couple of days of going back and fore I decided to go with my gut instinct and pick the Crime opinion. During the first seminar I became nervous as I realised that I could pick something that interested me but the first task was a group project and then the essay should come from that. However, I need not have worried as the lecturer assigned the groups by enquiring if anyone had an idea and then asking who would like to join that group. My hand went straight up and to my surprise (I realise capital punishment isn’t for everyone) two people immediately volunteered to join my group.
The unique part of this module was the trips local archives such as West Glamorgan and Richard Burton to see which resources they held. It was helpful to visit the archives for the first time as a seminar group. The first assessment was a group presentation on sources a historian could use to research your chosen topic. Explaining sources proved much less terrifying than presenting historical events to an expert in that period. The presentation provided a great foundation for the essay providing an awareness of the sources and their limitations.
The essay gave me the opportunity to work directly with primary sources, conducting my own research rather than relying on the work of other historians. I ended up sticking to my topic but surprised myself in terms of location and period. I had never been drawn to local or modern history but my essay ended up being on the lives of the men hanged in Swansea prison 1858-1928. Thanks to this module I now have a much clearer idea for my dissertation and some of the skills necessary to produce it.