"The tripos desperately needs to work out exactly what it wants to be."Simon Lock

My first year was complete academic pandemonium. I’ll admit that much of it was self-made, but the lack of direction from the Faculty of HSPS certainly contributed to the chaos. The combination of three departments – Archaeology and Anthropology, Politics and International Studies, and Sociology – means there is little centralisation.

Supervisions are arranged on an ad hoc basis among supervisors who don’t communicate with one another. Four sets of supervisions on four papers all occur at the same time, adding up to between twenty-four and thirty-two essays a year. In other arts courses, students have one essay a week, giving them the time to read, plan and write. First year HSPS was quite the opposite. Most writing was done in a sugar-induced delirium. Reading was minimal. Marx was Sparknotes.

HSPS attempts to draw together multiple departments without fully integrating them, often giving the impression that each department operates as an autonomous entity, and is affiliated with HSPS in name only. The argument for separating Archaeology arises as an issue of visibility, and is one that I do not dispute. However, it is worth taking note of the fact that the old Politics, Psychology and Sociology Tripos was always oversubscribed compared to Archaeology and Anthropology. In its final year, 2012, the Archaeology and Anthropology Tripos received 140 applications to PPS’s 669. They made 78 and 134 offers respectively.

Separating out Archaeology to help create a “focused core” for the paper, as stated in a previous Varsity article, makes even less sense. Studying both Social and Biological Anthropology, it seems clear to me that Archaeology massively overlaps with these streams. Considering that the old Archaeology and Anthropology Tripos was only retired at the grand old age of 100, it seems clear that the university once agreed, too. This is why the distinction seems arbitrary; why does Archaeology get to detach itself from HSPS, and should other papers, such as Sociology (arguably the most heavily oversubscribed) get their own triposes too?

A quick UCAS search shows that only 12 universities offer joint honours social science courses in three or more subjects. In this way, especially considering its status, Cambridge is a pioneer of a more flexible model of higher education. HSPS stands at a midpoint between the American Liberal Arts curricula and otherwise more restrictive single-track courses. It allows room, but not too much. There is thankfully no maths requirement, but I can still combine Assyriology with International Relations, if I so wish. It is the jackpot for the indecisive. It is multidisciplinary; as your understanding grows, ideas and concepts become transferable from one area to another.

But ultimately, it seems clear to me that an institution as rigid as Cambridge just isn’t ready for such a flexible model. Application numbers show that the interest is there, but in its current form, HSPS is the wastebasket of the social sciences.

Borrowing papers extends far and wide, from Education to Philosophy of Science. Theoretically, we can do and be anything. As a concept, that sounds great. But in practice, unmanageable workloads, lecture clashes and illegal combinations of modules show that the problems come from within.

The tripos desperately needs to work out exactly what it wants to be. Crucially, it needs to do this in relation to other courses already on offer – the proposed History and Politics Tripos would be an important one to consider. The new Archaeology Tripos is a just one more symptom of the current lack of direction that is unfortuntely characterising the course.

Yet rather than giving up so soon into the course’s conception, it may be worthwhile for the faculty to consider investing in centralising the course, by introducing one faculty building and designated coordinators. Instead of working to improve the existing HSPS model, it would seem that officials have simply taken the current teething problems for gospel, used the current intake of HSPS students as guinea-pigs, and effectively decided to give up and call it quits.

Single-track courses are not the answer. The answer lies in making a firm decision about what the course aims to be and implementing that. To work, this needs to be done in combination with an organisational overhaul, and better forums for communication between departments.

The course needs to fully embrace its boldness. The combination of human, social and political is not out of the question, but HSPS, please, define your terms, frame your argument, and be clear about where you stand.

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