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Human, Social and Political Sciences (HSPS) at Cambridge

Nancy is a 1st year HSPS undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge. She comes from a state sixth form college in West Yorkshire and is really passionate about making Oxbridge more accessible. She is the HSPS undergraduate representative in the Cambridge Student Union. In her spare time writes articles for a blog about access and has a role on the committee for a mental health charity.

1. What is your course and where do you study it?

I study Human, Social and Political Sciences at Trinity College Cambridge.

2. What does your course entail?

In the first year of HSPS you take 4 papers. These can be the four base papers (Politics 1, Politics 2, Social Anthropology and Sociology) or you can take three of these and borrow a paper from subjects like psychology or archeology. In second year you decide what you’d like to specialise in so it’s recommended that you pick the papers you’d like to do next year. For example, if I wanted to do politics in second year I would most likely need to do both Politics 1 and Politics 2. The lecturers and supervisors do not expect you to have any previous knowledge about the topics so please do not stress about never having read the Communist Manifesto or Leviathan, most people haven’t when they arrive.

POL1: POL1 in first year is about the modern state and its alternatives. The set texts that we learn about in first year range from being the foundations of our modern political state, to criticisms of it and ‘better alternatives’. You follow the growth of the political state through history starting with Hobbes’ Leviathan which is the most difficult book you read that year, simply because it was the first of its kind.
Some example essay questions I have been set in this paper include:

POL2: POL2 explores international order, conflict and justice. Global International Politics is explored from its foundations to as recent as 2016. Many of the topics discussed in this paper are ongoing in International Relations in 2021 which makes it an extremely interesting paper to take. You are taught not to take things at face value. What we are told about the beginning of International Relations is perhaps misguided and this is explored towards the end of the paper. Topics such as Climate Change, Terrorism and the Cold War are all explored in this paper.

SAN1: Social Anthropology is often the subject most students have never encountered or even heard of. The lecturers recognise this and so the first year of this paper is exploring the basics of the discipline. Social Anthropology addresses the really big question – what does it mean to be human? – by taking as its subject matter the full range of human social and cultural diversity. It is very different from the other papers as you explore Ethnographies (detailed observation and analysis of society). There are many ways to conduct this analysis which are all explored and evaluated throughout the year. This paper is really valuable because the origins of Anthropology are rather problematic in that there were claims of Eurocentric views and seeing the other as ‘inferior’. Early anthropological language where those that were written about were labeled ‘primitive’,’savage’ or ‘barbaric’ are studied in this paper but in a critical and modern way. This paper constantly evaluates and reflects upon Anthropology and how modern Anthropology has developed.

SOC1: Sociology in the first term is about core sociological concepts and concerns. It’s explored through the lens and critical engagement of Marx, Weber, Durkheim and Du Bois. In Lent (second term) these foundations are built on whereby these ideas are applied to modern societies in the realms of; nationalism, citizenship, the media, class, race and gender. Again, this paper is starting from scratch, no prior knowledge required.

Timetable & Workload
In first year we have 7 lectures a week. 2 POL1,POL2 and SAN1 then 1 SOC1. I’m not sure what it usually is in a non-COVID year as the online nature of the lectures has probably changed the schedule.
Workloads are pretty consistent across colleges with students doing on average 2 essays a week therefore there’s usually 2 supervisions a week. The departments communicate really well with each other to make sure there’s no essay build up in one week.

At the end of first year we do one 3 hour exam for each paper.
In each paper we write 3 essays from a selection of questions and we can pick which questions we answer.

3. What is your favourite part of the course?

This course, for me, is almost perfect. In terms of the ideas explored and topics we study I couldn’t ask for anything better. The connections between the 4 base papers (which is what I’ve done) are not explicit but as the terms go on you can see how each discipline interacts with one another to form many different perspectives of the same topics. The lecturers have really made an effort with the online lecture format. It’s not what anyone wanted to happen this year however even without the face-to-face teaching I’m still finding the content really interesting which I think shows how good this course is.

4. What would you improve about the course?

Obviously as an essay subject you’re expected to do A LOT of reading and work, which is sometimes overwhelming. A con of the course would be the almost endless amount of reading on offer. Your supervisor sets you reading lists for each essay but its important to remember that there’s also pre-reading for some lectures that some lecturers will expect you to have done.

5. What do you plan to do after you graduate?

I’m not 100% sure what I want to do once I graduate. I know I love this course but I’m not sure if I want to stay in Academia. Perhaps I’ll have a look into NGOs or Diplomacy but for now I’m just taking life as it comes and enjoying my subject.

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