Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Hold onto your HATs


My undergraduate and colleagues haven’t seen much of me this week, because I’ve been locked away in my room marking the History Admission Test (the HAT), which applicants sat in their schools at the start of the month.


Mi'kmaq woman, Nova Scotia, 1859
Photo by Paul-Emile Miot

This year the test paper had an eighteenth-century theme. The first question was (as usual) a comprehension exercise, in which candidates were presented with an extract from a historical monograph – a discussion of how social policy was made in Hanoverian England, through the interaction of Parliament, local officials and an emerging public sphere. This text, as it happens, was taken from a new book, Inferior Politics, written by my Somerville colleague Joanna Innes, so this year’s HAT has a distinctly Somervillian flavour. The second passage – where applicants must appraise a source – was an 18C French missionary’s account of a ceremony he witnessed among the Mi’kmaq Indians of eastern Canada. Its centrepiece is an arresting, bloodthirsty speech by an elder female of the tribe. Same period, but a world away from Jo’s polite, provincial lawmakers. (The HAT paper with mark scheme will in due course be published here: http://www.history.ox.ac.uk/prosundergrad/applying/hat_introduction.htm).


The HAT has quickly become something of an Oxford institution. Our current undergraduates remember the HAT papers they sat with a mixture of apparent affection and terror, and can still recall the fine details of the passages years later. It certainly seems a more imaginative, challenging and useful exercise than the old Oxford entrance exam which I sat in the 1990s, which was basically a mock (and surrogate) A-Level.

I’ve been marking the HAT for some six years now, and I’m always impressed by the rigour of the marking operation. The process is very much akin to the way we mark History Finals papers – dozens of Oxford tutors beavering away at their desks, working to strict deadlines with papers piled up in front of them, meticulous double-marking, and couriers on bicycles shipping batches of scripts between college lodges and the Faculty building (this week, in freezing fog). The candidates invest a huge amount of intellectual effort, time and emotional energy in sitting the HAT; it is only fair that we, as Oxford tutors, do the same when reading what they have written.

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