collage with pictures of Jacob, Jagyoseni, Ciara and Hope

An interview with the OUHS committee 2022

The editorial team at OHR caught up with several members of the Hilary 2022 committee of Oxford University History Society to talk all things history. Introducing Ciara (President), Jagyoseni (President Elect), Jacob (Secretary) and Hope (Social Secretary).

How did you get involved with OUHS?
Hope: I saw that there was a History Society on Facebook! 

Ciara: I first became interested in OUHS during my first term at Oxford. It was Michaelmas 2020 during Covid and not much was happening in terms of socialising and doing exciting things outside of my studies. I attended most of the OUHS talks that term mainly because I was bored but became really interested in the History Society and decided to apply to join the committee.

Jagyoseni: This is honestly one of the only societies that I wanted to join ever since coming to Oxford (because of the really interesting talks and events arranged by the society). I started as the secretary of the society in my first term in Oxford and now am the president elect.

Jacob: I stumbled across one of OUHS’ events back in the Michaelmas of my first year, while I was studying remotely from home – Professor Sugata Bose discussing the Indian constitution. I’d never engaged with that history before, so the joy of discovering something new (and the chance to engage firsthand with eminent scholars) was a big draw. But I was also just keen to see what my fellow history students were like and enjoyed getting up to!

What drew you to your role?
Hope: After a year and a half of virtual events, in-person socials were still quite a novelty to me! I feel like we’re all still emerging from (and sometimes going back into) the social weirdness of lockdowns and no social contact and socials are pretty important for sanity. Adding history to the mix was great fun! 

Ciara: After serving as Marketing Director for two terms I decided to go for President and was lucky enough to be elected at our hustings. I was really excited to get more involved with heading the society up and helping us move back into in-person events. Putting together our term card has been so exciting as President, I’ve been able to invite historians I really admire and organise events on topics and themes I’m passionate about. Heading up such an amazing committee has been brilliant too!

What’s your favourite period of history?
Ciara: I’m fascinated by colonial histories and how ideas of race, gender, migration and diaspora are shaped by imperialism. It comes from a very personal place, as I’ve always been curious about my family history having grown up in a big interracial Indian-Irish-British family. I could not ponder my personal family history however without arriving at colonialism and the shadows it continues to cast over the world today. Talking to my grandparents about their experience of Partition in India and coming to the U.K. in the 1960s really underlined just how important and relevant colonial histories are to the world we live in today.

Jacob: I’m definitely more of a modernist, and tend towards issues in cultural and social history. Whilst I tend to focus on Europe and the Mediterranean, I’m currently doing a paper on Mexican history. I knew very little about any of that just a few weeks back, but it’s proved to be one of the most rewarding subjects I’ve studied in my degree so far!

Which historical individual do you find the most interesting?
Ciara: This is a really hard (but excellent!) question. There are so many I find interesting, where to start! I’m fascinated by anti-colonial revolutionaries like Michael Collins and James Connolly and the manner in which Connolly in particularly combined anti-colonialism with socialist politics. Being from Manchester, Sylvia Pankhurst is something of a local hero of mine, as a suffragist, anti-colonialist and socialist. I was lucky enough to volunteer at the Pankhurst Centre, the house where Sylvia lived along with her relatives in Manchester. The story of Kitty Kirkpatrick has always fascinated me- she was the daughter of a British East India Company official and an Indian noblewoman, born in the early 19th century. She grew up in a culturally and religiously mixed world (one which I strongly relate to!) and navigated the strange experience that is being of mixed heritage – feeling like you’re not one thing or another and feeling like you don’t quite fit in anywhere. The British-Indian trade unionist and activist, Jayaben Desai also inspired and interests me.

Hope: Very tough but possibly Thomas Cromwell.

Jagyoseni: I find Mahatma Gandhi to be the most interesting, for his impact, his vast body of work but most importantly for the critique on him.

Jacob: That’s a tough one – it changes regularly! Right now, I’d probably go with John Reed, the American war correspondent and political activist. He lived a brief, remarkable life, and his accounts of the Mexican and Russian Revolutions are fascinating historical documents. They are also pioneering frontline reporting, and provide food for thought on questions of impartiality versus political commitment in the media today.

In an ideal world, what would the history ‘scene’ at Oxford look like?

Ciara: The History scene at Oxford would be diverse, inclusive and student led. Organisations like OUHS and OHR do such important work in giving students a voice and a space within the exciting but just world of history. It is my hope that OUHS will continue to grow.

Hope: Far less British and European history, far less solitariness, far more direct confrontation of how embedded racism, colonialism and slavery are in History, Britain and Oxford, more opportunities for undergrads to chat about history without being dominated by those from private schools.

Looking at inclusivity, how do you think history at Oxford does?
Hope: As my previous answer suggests, I don’t think Oxford’s doing great! Specifically, many of the reading lists are very white, male and European and are at tutors’ discretion so whilst some tutors are doing amazing work with inclusivity, others haven’t updated their reading lists for 20 years. The tutorial system is more familiar to those from private/elite schools and values a culture of babbling and rhetoric that too often sets idiots up to become Prime Minister… Tutors aren’t always sensitive to issues including racism, and more generally often don’t consider how studying certain historical topics impact some people more than others.

Jagyoseni: I joined Oxford as a PhD student and I think from my limited perspective, at my level it is doing great.

Ciara: Unfortunately I am well aware that the history scene at Oxford is not yet nearly as diverse and inclusive as it should be. As a history student from an ethnic minority background this is something I felt very conscious of from freshers week. The opportunity to study what have been termed ‘diverse’ histories is absolutely vital and it should be a requirement not an option.

Jacob: I think there are some encouraging developments – the introduction of new optional subjects and lecture series more directly tackling the histories of marginalised people and places, and revisions to the syllabi of long-running European & World papers, for instance. I’ve also seen that students are also leading the way through various fora by questioning the artificial barriers that proliferate within academia, and challenging assertions that certain types of history can only be applied to particular parts of the globe. And, crucially, by listening to both people from less represented – and misrepresented – communities and asking them how they feel their histories could be defined or interpreted differently.

Is history at Oxford inclusive, in your view? Why/why not? (How) do you think the faculty should change?
Hope: Instead of requiring students to do 2 British, 2 European and one ‘World’ paper, they should require us to do three ‘World’, one European and no British papers. And they should expel people who’ve been accused of inappropriate behaviour and harassment, rather than letting them hide away in offices. 

Ciara: There’s definitely excellent work already under way but still a significant way to go. I know the History Faculty’s Race Equality Action Group (REAG) is doing amazing work, asking hard questions of the faculty and students and I’ve had the honour of being involved with REAG and the Steering Group. There’s also so many incredible academics connected to the Department who are clearly committed to making the history we study more inclusive and representative, which is great and absolutely vital if there is to be any change in the future. This is also something that absolutely cannot wait – difficult conversations and important decisions have to be taken now.

History students are quite isolated – what is the best way to combat this, in your opinion?
Hope: More of a culture of lighthearted discussion about history that doesn’t alienate certain students! More opportunities to meet other students, eg through different college pairings for tutorials and classes.

Ciara: I joined OUHS precisely for that reason. I was lonely, isolated and spent a lot of time sitting on my own in my room, that was why I decided to attend OUHS talks she eventually join the committee. I think OUHS and the community we have are so important in making us feel connected and giving us a sense of togetherness. I’ve found friends and camaraderie in OUHS and I hope other students do too.

How do we make history more representative without tokenization?
Hope: Diversify the top tiers of the History Faculty and prestigious positions in History. Integrate racial lens into all reading and topics. Use Gender: A Useful Tool of Historical Analysis. Use Queer Theory. Normalise these versions of reading.

Ciara: This is a great question and something we need to think about. One of the most amazing things I’ve ever been involved in (and anyone who knows me will be well aware that I go ok about this all the time) is the Our Shared Cultural Heritage Young Collective (OSCH for short!) at the Manchester Museum. It’s a radical group for young people, particularly of South Asian heritage, to take control of the narrative surrounding the telling of South Asian and British South Asian Histories in museums and Heritage spaces. I first got involved in OSCH during the first ever South Asian Heritage Month in 2020, when I had the privilege of running my own online exhibition in partnership with OSCH and the Manchester museum. Since then I’ve worked on a number of projects with the Collective and I’m just about to start working on a new online exhibition led by young people, on histories in Manchester. It’s an incredible model for the heritage sector and, I believe for history and the way we interact with histories more generally. Never once has OSCH ever felt tokenisation or uncomfortable, I and many of the other young people involved feel genuinely valued and empowered. I think OSCH can be a great example for us as we look to make history more inclusive and ‘diverse’ without the tokenism.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted OUHS? What good/bad has arisen for history students as a result of the pandemic?
Ciara: OUHS reacted and responded to the pandemic in many innovative ways. My first term at Oxford was during the second lockdowns and one of the peaks of the pandemic, but OUHS continued to deliver thoughtful and interesting talks and content. I think as a society we’ve really missed having in person socials and speakers – this is something we’re thankfully beginning to get back to this term. But the pandemic has also shown us how it’s possible to connect with historians and history-lovers around the world. We’re looking forward to hosting incredible international historians based across the world this term, from the US to Pakistan to right here in Oxford. The pandemic really showed how effective remote talks and events could be. Now as we hopefully transition to a world without Covid (hopefully!) I’m looking forward to combining remote and in person events and hopefully learning all we’ve learned in the past few terms to deliver an even more engaging term for our members and community.

What part of being on the OUHS committee are you most looking forward to this term?
Hope; Talking to lovely people who love history.

Ciara: I’m so excited to host so many historians I really admire and to discuss and highlight historical topics and themes I’m passionate about. It will also be brilliant to get back to in-person events, including hosting speakers in-person, which will be so interesting! This term we’re also hosting some of our first socials since the pandemic and it will be so lovely to get back to seeing fellow historians and chatting about all things history. We’ve got some brilliant collaborations lined up too – including with OHR!

What is the future of OUHS, in your opinion?
Jacob: It’s a vibrant one! There are multiple ways for new people to get involved each term – joining as committee members, contributing to the journal, or attending our weekly speaker events. All are great ways to meet people and engage with history in a more creative, relaxed and interdisciplinary way, which I think is what OUHS is and should be about. And I should also mention that this term, we’ve launched a new weekly social event: Beers and Yesteryears!

Jagyoseni: We have so many new events planned now that things are slowly hopefully getting back to normal. The future is as exciting as ever. We are really looking forward to more collaborations with other societies, institutions and individuals.

Ciara: I hope the Society continues to grow and go from strength to strength. Hopefully we’ll be able to move to more in person events and create more of a community over the next few months. I hope we continue to host work renowned historians and thought-provoking talks and events.

Hope: I hope it can become as big as Law Soc!

What would you say to anyone wanting to get involved with OUHS?
Hope: Come to our socials! Every Wednesday 8pm at Magdalen! And come to our speaker events!

Ciara: Do it! I actually first applied to join the OUHS Committee on an impulse. I didn’t think I had much of a chance getting elected, seeing as I was a fresher (who had been at Oxford for one very Covid-ridden term!) I’ve made excellent friends as part of OUHS and definitely become more confident. It’s well worth just having a go and applying!

A huge thank you to Ciara, Hope, Jagyoseni and Jacob for their time. You can find out more about the Oxford University History Society via their website, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.