History of Art Department, Life, University of York
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Question and Answers

Q: “Hi, I’m a first year studying History of Art at York and wondered if you had any useful advice for the course. I’ve got an exam for Encounters with the Material Object in January – how did you prepare for this and manage your time in the first year and what would you do differently if you could go back? Thanks!”

Q: “Hi there! I’ve just started studying HoA at York and wondered whether you could give me any advice about the first year, how to do well in exams and any techniques to improve my reading and note taking? Thanks”

(These questions are very similar so I’ll answer them in one go!)

My advice would be – try to be as open-minded as you can to all the different things you explore, whether that be particular theories (which I remember studying in first year), or particular time periods. By being open-minded, this allows you not only to appreciate different things that you might have somewhat ignored or not given much enthusiasm to; and also you test the water to see what you like and are potentially interested in.  Before coming to York I didn’t really like the Medieval period – now I am obsessed! I can’t get enough of the Middle Ages, and I think by being open-minded to various areas in art history this has allowed me to truly see what I enjoy.

With regards to workload and managing your time, this varies from person to person. I like to try to get as much of the work done as early as possible, making sure that I read all the required key texts first, and then if there is time read the supplementary texts. Whilst the reason you are here at Uni is primarily to pursue a course you’re interested in, and sadly this means doing work; try to enjoy your time here too! I wouldn’t overly stress too much, because when you stress you’ll find it harder to complete and focus on your work. If you find some work more difficult than others, move onto something else and come back to it later. In moments like these, I often try to tackle the reading/work/etc in smaller chunks. That way you’re not getting bored, but you’re doing enough to feel like you’re making progress.

I can’t really remember much from Encounters with the Material Object, and I’m not gonna lie but I found the exam hard at the time. If like me, you’ve never studied history of art before, this exam may seem somewhat daunting. To prepare for it, I went through all my notes from my lectures and seminars, and combined them all into master documents. If I remember rightly (it has probably changed somewhat since I took it) you would have looked at ‘encountering’ different mediums and materials, so for these I made sheets which explored encountering these different mediums through all the information provided in my lectures and seminars. One thing I would have done differently in this exam is I would have been more interpretive. By this I mean, not just learning generic answers, but really questioning ‘how’ you encounter the material object – thinking about context, location, viewer perception (subjective/objectivity) and the object in question. Examiners are really open to your own interpretations, not just providing what you think is the right answer – in fact, I think they prefer the former.

Exams are incredibly daunting, and I know that even the thought of one gets me a little nervous! What ever the outcome, as long as you have tried your best, revised, and thought outside of the box – that’s all anyone can ask of you.

Ah note-taking techniques. To be honest, my way of note taking is probably not the best as everyone studies differently. What I personally do, is read through the text – highlighter and pen at the ready! – and just go through it. Then, I write-up my notes that I’ve written about the texts onto my laptop. Typing my notes up on my computer is completely subjective, and I know many people who prefer handwritten notes. Over time I have just found typing much easier for me – easier to access my notes and add any more information. With regards to reading, many people find it handy to read the text, make notes on it, and then compile an A4 page which summaries the text – main ideas, key themes, arguments and quotes etc. With note-taking I think this is a really subjective part of learning that you will constantly be changing and altering depending on your style. How I took notes now is completely different to when I was in first year, but it’s what you’re comfortable with. One book that I bought before starting my degree was ‘How to Write Art History’ (you can buy it here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Write-History-Anne-DAlleva/dp/1856696952) I can imagine some of the tutors squirming at the thought of such a book, but I has a section within which details effective ways of note taking – might be worth the purchase.

I’m not too sure what I would change in first year if I went back. I’d like to say something on the lines of ‘work harder’, but anyone that actually knows me will know how hard I work! What I find interesting about reflecting on my first year is how I have changed, especially academically. My interests and tastes have changed, and some of the texts we read back in first year which made no sense to me then do now. If you’re finding it hard, I would say don’t panic. I was in your shoes at the time, and I seem to have come out of it ok! I probably would have spoken to my supervisor more – supervisors are great people. They can offer you some of invaluable advice. If you feel like you’re finding stuff hard etc, go and see them.

But for now, plod along and enjoy your time. Enjoy looking and experiencing art. History of Art is truly an enriching and fascinating subject, you’re very lucky to be studying it!



Roisin Astell received a First Class Honours in History of Art at the University of York (2014), under the supervision of Dr Emanuele Lugli. After spending a year learning French in Paris, Roisin then completed an MSt. in Medieval Studies at the University of Oxford (2016), where she was supervised by Professor Gervase Rosser and Professor Martin Kauffmann. In 2017, Roisin was awarded a CHASE AHRC studentship as a doctoral candidate at the University of Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, under the supervision of Dr Emily Guerry.

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