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What’s it like studying Liberal Arts at Durham?

What is Liberal Arts?

Durham’s Liberal Arts degree is interdisciplinary at its heart and has granted me plenty of choice for navigating through my undergraduate studies. The programme strikes a harmonious balance between breadth of module options and depth, allowing for specialism in and between chosen disciplines. High on the list for me when applying for Liberal Arts was definitely the opportunity to, in effect, design my own degree. I have studied modules that have spoken to my specific interests but also challenged how I see the world, which was especially true during my year abroad in Canada. From studying Middle Eastern politics to Korean history, my four years on the Liberal Arts programme has materialised into much more than I could have asked for, providing intellectual stimulation and cultural enrichment.

In my first year, I came to really appreciate the breadth of the course as I studied modules in History, Philosophy and Politics. I had no prior background in Philosophy but found a reassuring segue to it through a module called the History and Philosophy of Science, bringing a natural overlap of the two disciplines. Although I dropped philosophy in my remaining years, the skills I learnt through it stuck with me.

It is no surprise that the first term of university requires adaptation, but this is a constant with Liberal Arts. I found myself shifting gears of thinking for each of my selected disciplines but also drawing unique lines of enquiry between them. As no two Liberal Arts students would be found with the same module combinations, independence of thought is particularly encouraged through this programme. For example, the ideas I’m able to bring to my seminar discussions often have an interdisciplinary tint to them. No wonder Liberal Arts students are so well-rounded, which has caused some single honour students I have spoken to, to wish they had known about the programme before applying.

Studying all over Durham

The route to the History Department

Since academic departments and buildings are distributed throughout the city, studying different disciplines means you get to know Durham’s geography pretty well. The School of Government and International Relations is near the hill colleges whilst the History Department is more centrally located, being on the Bailey. Most Liberal Arts students will certainly come to know (and hopefully love) Elvet Riverside, once in-person teaching returns, as the home of their lectures and seminars. Though my favourite has got to be the Pemberton Lecture Rooms, which sits beside the Cathedral in Palace Green, and makes me feel really studious. One of the history lectures I had there, on Constructing Identities in Early Modern England, nurtured my interest in gender history, which became a core theme of my final year dissertation.

Year abroad

I spent my third year abroad at the University of British Columbia (UBC), where I made many trips to Tim Hortons (a popular Canadian café), layered up for the SNOWY winter (dipping to -25 degrees Celsius!), celebrated Thanksgiving and hiked up Knox Mountain. But let’s not forget my less finer moments, like losing my phone at the airport and only realising it was gone when I boarded the plane. Fortunately, I was reunited with it in the end.

When I was applying for Liberal Arts and I saw the year abroad option, seventeen-year-old me could not see myself living in a different country on the other side of the world. However, studying Liberal Arts at Durham became a crucial stepping stone in altering my perspective. The challenges I faced at Durham proved that I could end up better and stronger because of them. Therefore, I could not rid myself of this once in a lifetime opportunity that would guarantee self-growth and cultural immersion.

Me at UBC, Okanagan Campus

Of course, my degree could not prepare me for some of the new challenges I faced, but it did give me a sense of familiarity with the Canadian education system, where Liberal Arts degrees, and majors and minors, are the norm. Moreover, I believe studying Liberal Arts aided my year abroad application because it allowed me to demonstrate confidence for adapting to disciplines that I had not taken before. Alongside History, Politics and International Relations, I studied Art History whilst at UBC. This was my most interactive class, and despite it being three hours long on a Wednesday evening, there was never a dull moment. Added to my bucket list is now a goal to see in real life the art and architecture I learnt about. My experiences in Canada left me with heightened intellectual curiosity, which I used to charge through my dissertation upon my return to Durham in fourth year.

Renaissance Europe in a Global Context, Art History notes

Final year and the pandemic

Like many, I spent my final year through a pandemic so most of my classes have been online. Nonetheless, I was lucky enough to have in-person seminars during Michaelmas term for a fascinating module called the Biopolitics of Security. This International Relations class debated how states govern populations through measures, such as isolation or quarantine, justified as necessary to sustain life, which is very pertinent in our global situation. I have been able to use some of the theories I learnt in this class, primarily Foucault’s Governmentality, to inform ideas of how European missionaries have sought to ‘clothe’ and reform the colonial subject. My IR module thus provided useful interpretations for a history module I studied on religion in Africa.

Some Library loans from final year

As well as a thought-provoking degree, Liberal Arts holds a thriving student committee, which I have had the honour of being a part of in my second year and final year. I was first involved as a History Student Representative, voicing the thoughts of Liberal Arts students taking history modules to the respective departments. In my final year, I became co-chair of the Committee, where I have been consulted on interesting academic developments that are continuing to improve our programme. 

I hope you have had a small taste of what it’s like studying Liberal Arts at Durham, which for me has been an immensely fulfilling four years.

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Vinisha Patel

Hi, I’m Vinisha, a final year Liberal Arts student and a member of Grey College. Within Liberal Arts, I specialise in History, Politics and International Relations. I am involved in the Liberal Arts Student Committee and have been the student voice for the programme on Open Days. In my free time, I am a blogger for a startup, Luvyum, which campaigns for food sustainability and was founded in Durham.
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