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Work - HIS00145H

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Tom Johnson
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24

Module summary

In this module 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 workshops, human beings have been engaged in different forms of labour, and very rarely under conditions of their choosing. This module 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 organised 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, mineral mining in the global south and sex work. Along the way we will also be looking at how thinkers and activists have sought to reimagine, resist or abolish work. We will be bringing our respective expertise 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 period
A Semester 1 2023-24

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

Module content

Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1, then a 1-hour plenary/lecture and a 2-hour seminar in each of weeks 2-4, 6-8 and 10-11 of the semester. Weeks 5 & 9 are Reading and Writing Weeks (RAW). Students prepare for and participate in eight 1-hour plenaries/lectures and eight 2-hour seminars in all.

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

  1. What is Work?
  2. Wage Labour
  3. Slavery
  4. Peasants and Serfdom
  5. Housework and Childcare
  6. Globalised Work
  7. Strikes and Workplace Resistance
  8. Sex Work and Emotional Labour


Task Length % of module mark
Online Exam -less than 24hrs (Centrally scheduled)
Open Exam - Work
5 hours 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

For formative assessment work, students will produce an essay plan relating to the themes and issues of the module.

For summative assessment students will complete an Open Exam in the assessment period.


Task Length % of module mark
Online Exam -less than 24hrs (Centrally scheduled)
Open Exam - Work
5 hours 100

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive written feedback, which may be supplemented by the tutor giving some oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss their feedback 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 25 working days of the submission. For semester 1 assessments, the tutor will be available during student hours of the following semester for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For semester 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:

  • Silvia Federici, ‘Precarious Labour: A Feminist Viewpoint’, Variant, 37 (2010).
  • Jane Whittle, ‘A critique of approaches to 'domestic work': women, work and the preindustrial economy’, Past and Present, 243:1 (2019), 35-70.
  • Sharmila Rudrappa, “Reproducing Dystopia: The Politics of Transnational Surrogacy in India, 2002-2015,” Critical Sociology, 44 (2018).

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.