Accessibility statement

Work & Labour - HIS00117H

« Back to module search

  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Tom Johnson
  • Credit value: 40 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2020-21

Module summary

In this course we will be looking at the history of one of the most frustrating, revealing and inscrutable aspects of what it means to be human: work. Individually and collectively, in fields and in factories, in kitchens and in universities, human beings have been engaged in different forms of labour, and very rarely under conditions of their choosing. This course will introduce students to some of the most important conceptual questions concerning the history of work. Why have historical societies defined labour in such different ways? How has work been implicated in the construction of gendered and racialized power? How have workers organized themselves to exercise autonomy over their labour? And what can the past tell us about the possibilities of an automated future?

We will draw on historical case studies of particular types of work, including but not limited to medieval serfdom, Caribbean slavery, modern assembly-lines, Congolese cobalt mining and Victorian sex work. Along the way we will also be looking at how thinkers and activists have sought to reimagine, resist or abolish work. This course will be co-taught by Tom Johnson, a medievalist, and Sam Wetherell, an historian of twentieth-century Britain (we will both be present for every seminar). We will be bringing our respective experience to bear on more than a thousand years of history, and introducing students to some of the most radical and cutting edge historical and theoretical scholarship in the field.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Autumn Term 2020-21 to Spring Term 2020-21

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To introduce students to the practice of comparative history;
  • To enable students to acquire skills and understanding of that practice by studying a particular topic or theme; and
  • To enable students to reflect on the possibilities and difficulties involved in comparative history

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Grasp the key approaches and challenges involved in comparative history;
  • Understand a range of aspects of the topic or theme which they have studied;
  • Be able to use and evaluate comparative approaches to that topic or theme; and
  • Have learned to discuss and write about comparative history
  • Have developed skills in group work

Module content

Teaching Programme

Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1 of the autumn term, and a 3-hour seminar in weeks 2-5 and 7-9 of the autumn term and weeks 2-5 and 7-10 of the spring term. Both the autumn and spring terms include a reading week for final year students and so there will be no teaching in week 6. Students prepare for and participate in fifteen three-hour seminars.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

What is Work?                  

Wage Labour and Class                 

Craft and Autonomy

Reproductive labour



The Assembly Line

Wages for Housework

Unemployment and Precarity

Strikes and Work Refusal

Emotional Labour

The Global Working Class


Sex Work

Human Capital

Postwork imaginaries


Task Length % of module mark
Online Exam
Work and Labour
N/A 67
University - project
N/A 33

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

For procedural work, the students will make group presentations towards the end of the autumn term.

For summative assessment students will complete a 4,000-word group project due in week 6 of the spring term -- this will account for 33% of the final mark. They will then also take a 2,000-word 24-hour open exam during the common assessment period in the summer term, usually released at 11:00 on day 1 and submitted at 11:00 on day 2. The open exam will be worth 67% of the final mark.


Task Length % of module mark
Online Exam
Work and Labour
N/A 67
University - project
N/A 33

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive feedback that will include comments and a mark. If this takes the form of live feedback in class it will be supported by a written comment sheet.

All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their procedural work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

Anne Wiener, ‘Uncanny Valley’, n+1 (2016) []

Silvia Federici, ‘Precarious Labour: A Feminist Viewpoint’, Variant, 37 (2010) []

Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism’, Monthly Review,  (1998) []

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.