Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Simon Meehan (MSc Sport Management and the Business of Football 2018)

The following blog is a transcript of a Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here

Hello, and welcome to the Birkbeck Inspires conversations with alumni podcast series, where we hear from former students and find out more about their time at Birkbeck. Birkbeck Inspires is the college’s free online events, activities and resources program, which has been designed to inspire learning, provoke thought and entertain and excite curious minds.

In today’s episode Kara McMahon from the Development and Alumni office interviews Simon Meehan who is Head of Publishing of Chelsea Football Club and who graduated from Birkbeck with an MSc in Sports Management and the Business of Football back in 2018.

Kara: We are so delighted that Simon Meehan, Birkbeck alumnus and current head of publishing at Chelsea Football Club has joined us to tell us his story. Simon graduated from Birkbeck in 2018 with his MSC in sport management and The Business of football and today Simon will share with us his Birkbeck story and give us some really interesting insights into his role at Chelsea. We will also touch on the impact of the pandemic on his work and the clubs of work in the community during this difficult time and we will end by asking Simon for his advice for our students who are looking to get into the football and sporting Industries. Simon thank you so much for joining me today.

Simon: Thank you for having me.

Kara: So I thought we would start with your time at Birkbeck, what was your journey like to get to Birkbeck and why did you decide to study with us and do your MSc in Sport Management of the Business of football.

Simon: I think there were a few reasons. The major one was that I was looking for a career change. I had essentially followed into a career in public affairs and in politics, entirely by chance rather than design and having studied History undergraduate I didn’t really have a professional path set out for me if you like and I had notions of being a Sports writer or Sports journalist, I’ve been writing for the student newspaper at Edinburgh University where I done my undergraduate degree; I’ve written for some websites but it never really turned into something that you know which was a professional career or looked like being one and so I guess with the skills set I had from history degree it also lends itself to some other potential career paths and actually by chance I ended up working in Edinburgh for the pharmaceutical company Pfizer doing external affairs and I just sort of landed in that role, and then from there (because it was an external affairs role obviously linked to the politics and the policy scene) it just continued, I went from there to the European parliament and from the European parliament I went to working at google and then I ended up working for a company called Tata which is big Indian conglomerate and could have done all this in the space of about thirteen or fourteen years without ever really questioning it. You know I hadn’t thought my initial thoughts thought process was Sports journalist but beyond that the career just let me in a completely different direction so after 13 to 14 years I kind of thought to myself well actually I’ve been doing this for a while and I don’t really think that I’m enjoying it now and so I’m so where do I go from here what do I do and so I started to think of my thought process was really quite simple it was what do I enjoy, what am I passionate about, you know, its football it’s always been a passion of mine from a very young age from playing at a young age and supporting obviously and so my thought process was well I like football why don’t I try and work on it, but I had absolutely no idea how I would do that because, first of all having studied history undergraduate then had a career in public affairs and politics, there is no real natural link in that world into the world of sport or into the world of football you don’t know where you know where to even start and so I started looking at various different courses I did a short course online in Football Management and Marketing and then that kind of prompted the idea that actually I do like the academic world in sport. And I like the academic application to sports and understanding more about it so I started to research Masters courses and then obviously Birkbeck was one of the 1st that I found and obviously it offered the range of different Masters courses that were all interesting to me and I kind of liked upon Sport Management of the Business of Football because I was very curious as to how football works as a business and as an industry and I thought well this seems perfect to me and that’s essentially how I chose Birkbeck and that course. It was really it’s kind of understanding more about it and to get that academic grounding at least even if I didn’t know exactly where I was going with it. So that’s how I got to Birkbeck it was a fantastic experience because it did give me the academic grounding, you know the different modules and sports economics, sports governance you know they all sports law it really gave me an overarching view how the industry worked at academic standpoint I actually really enjoyed going back and learning at the age of 36 or 37. And it was also, I should add as well, my interest in football went beyond playing it and beyond sporting I’ve always been fascinated by you know the history of it, having being a history student I’ve always been interested and fascinated by the history of football, the history of clubs, where they came from, the communities they come from, and how do they operate in those communities that evolved over the past hundred twenty-five hundred fifty years in some cases so I was a particular interested mine was understanding how clubs and the world football operates in the modern world with all of the history and I guess the extent to which clubs are actually institutions very old institutions still operating still functioning that way or whether they are now businesses and how they have adapted to the business needs but then on top of that how do they communicate with these fan bases that have been built over the years and years of decades and decades and how they do that through the all the different meanings in which we can now communicate with people so it was kind of there was a lot of different points let me thinking well if I go to Birkbeck and I studied this maybe I will understand this better at least that once I understand this better, I might be able to find my path within that industry within that world and that’s exactly what Birkbeck provided for me.

Kara: I think that really makes a lot of sense and I am really happy that you shared all of that with us. I think just from listening to your journey it’s so similar to a lot of our Birkbeck alumni who might have done one to create when they were 18 to 21, started working, fell into something, and then realized down the line after having been quite successful that they actually like to do something a bit different and so having Birkbeck give that option to study at outside of the 18 to 21 more traditional framework it really resonates with your story and I think a lot of our alumni will really connect with that and current students as well and I think the point about the role of football clubs in their communities is one that will get back to you later so it’s really great that you brought that up in and it’s clear from listening to you that you have such a coherent narrative from you know your interest in football at a young age and then being able to come back to that and now work in a role working a role where you are engaging with Chelsea fans and you’re able to kind of bring all of this to the light in your professional role I think is so exciting. Can I just ask as well, did you study full time at Birkbeck or were you studying part time and continuing to work?

Simon: I studied full time and continued to work and I was going to say, based on your previous point that actually a big part of the choice was that flexibility that you know first of all that you can study in the evenings I mean it’s pretty intense you know you’re going into a three-hour lecture having sometimes or in many cases had a full working day before that so it was no getting around that. But nonetheless the flexibility it was a hugely important factor for me because I wanted to continue working in the career that I was in while I discovered this other career and it just have transpired this is halfway through the Birkbeck degree I actually left my job, my full time job. Then I had a period where I was thinking about what to do and then ended up joining a football content start-up but it was absolutely clear that there was that flexibility so you could kind of shape the degree around the rest of your life if you like and the other thing that I felt was really good about the Birkbeck experience was that despite being a bit older than the students like, I didn’t feel like out of place like I didn’t feel that I was massively older than anyone else I didn’t feel that I was some sort of anomaly amongst the students because there were people in all different stages of their careers, there were people who were younger than me starting out, there were people who were older than me who coming towards the end of their careers, there were people who retired who simply wanted to study the subject for this for the sake of studying it and so I felt that once I got there and was in that environment I was fairly certain that I made absolutely the right choice and so was always it’s always a really good experience and I think the other thing is it was the first time that I had studied something that I was, well I studied history as an undergraduate because I loved history at school so that was a really good experience but I guess when you’re an undergraduate you’re always kind of thinking well what comes next and I think a little bit of angst about why I’m studying history so what does this mean you know what does this mean does this means I’m going to be a teacher you know that’s what people would ask me and you know, I would say I’m trying to get into sports journalism , but this time I felt much more relaxed about it because I was first of all studying to find out, you know, to actually learn to learn about football sport management, the business football and I was studying something that you know if you eat a passion and interests for years and years and years and still apply kind of academic rigor to that was great and so you know the whole thing was just a very good experience for me.

Kara: I completely emphasise with your being an undergraduate history student, I studied history at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, so I did also get a lot of those questions. But just going back to what you did while you were at Birkbeck, full time whilst working full time sounds absolutely exhausting and its really brave of you to take on and then you said that you then started working in football content and then how did you end up at Chelsea? What was your journey like between you know the middle of your studies at Birkbeck were you decided to leave your job to now being head of publishing at Chelsea Football Club?

Simon:  Well, it was quite tough so when I started I was still in my previous career I was still working full-time in a fairly Senior role in public affairs for Tata Group and halfway through the degree I decided to leave that job to really take the plunge partly because I decided that well actually I really enjoyed what I’m studying I really enjoyed the world that I’m learning about and that’s definitely where I want to be going after the made that decision mentally that’s what I wanted to do and sort of took the plunge in leaving my previous career it was it was purely by chance that I met a couple actually who created this content start-up that was very successful on Facebook in particular, we created sort of funny football videos if like and it done extremely well and then asked me to join them. So that was really I guess the first step in the path to where I am now because it was the first step from my previous career past the academic point where I could I was beginning to understand how the industry worked into an area where I felt well actually all of the skills that I have plus the academic grounding I’m getting can have a practical application even though it was a start-up it was completely unpaid it was just a you know it was more of an experience than anything else but you know I suddenly realized to actually well I have you know I have an interest in how football clubs communicate with their fans communicate with their audiences communicate with their communities you know it’s happening on social media, it’s happening on digital platforms is happening on mobile phones and here was a start-up which did that which existed to do that and so it really was you know it was a bit of a again to move by chance, but it set me into this career path that I’m on now so I was there for a few months I also did some work for a video production company that actually a friend of mine started and so again it was a bit of a stroke of luck but again it was about using new media to communicate with fans, to communicate about football we worked on some long-form documentary ideas for example we had some we did some work with a with a Premier League Club so that set me on the path and then I in must be about six months after graduating maybe a bit longer I actually found my first proper job if you like in the in the world of football again it was with a Sports content agency and so I interviewed with them and they took me on as head of content services so I was responsible for a team of video production, a team of writers, graphic designers and it was to be honest a bit of a step up for me because I hadn’t you know hadn’t had a formal role at that, I’ve been doing the start-up, I’ve been working in with the video production company but this really formalised it and suddenly I was in this content agency working with some fairly big clients to deliver them football content so it was really my first step in to that world that said right now you’re here, now you’re in it. And then I did that for a year , we did some really good things with clients in the football world and that set me up for the Chelsea position I interviewed for the Chelsea position about a year later and you know, obviously did well enough in the interview to land the job so I was very pleased but it wasn’t just because of the, you know the two years or so experience that I’ve been building up in the world of football content. It was also I think very much because I had that broad understanding of the football industry from Birkbeck from Masters and clearly my experience before that in public affairs and in corporate affairs was important, you know it was a big part of me getting that job so I was able to align all of these things and it meant that Chelsea were looking for somebody with that profile who I think they were looking for somebody who wasn’t necessarily deeply embedded in the football industry or been at clubs for a very long time they actually wanted a bit of a fresh perspective so that’s how I ended up there. 

Kara: And so what is your day to day like as Head of Publishing at Chelsea football club I realise that this probably has new ramifications during the pandemic but if you could give us some insight into your average day in your role that would be fantastic.

Simon: Well I think there isn’t really an average day I think there’s always quite a perspectival day I think it’s, I mean the role is, you know I’m Head of Publishing which is a bit of a , can seem a bit of a strange title but essentially it’s you know I’m responsible for what we publish on our owned and operated channel, on our website, on our app and on our social media channels and that means that you know the team that I have we the responsibility for the communication that we have with our fanbase , and with the audience worldwide I mean you know Chelsea is known almost everywhere and impacts on lots of people’s lives and so we do have a big responsibility but it means that the role is extremely varied because one day you can be communicating about changes that we might be making to the stadium you know and it can be as simple as were changing the entrance point at somewhere in the stadium, to announcing the signing of a major player as we did obviously a few times over the summer so it is a really, it is a very varied job and I think that’s obviously for me that’s one of the major attractions of it and why I do actually love it, it’s because you don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen on a given day, you can get a call from somebody and they’ll tell you that somethings happening and you know it’s our responsibility to make sure people that know about it and that its done the right way and everyone’s informed. So there isn’t really an average day as such I think it has been challenging to do a role like this in the current circumstances you know first of all I interviewed pre-lockdown and the actually joined in lockdown so a lot of it has been remote working obviously as everyone has but you know when you’re doing a communications function where so much of it is about I think human and personal interaction it has been quite difficult to do that from behind a computer screen and so you know I guess the most average thing that I do is be on a lot of video calls in the day like everyone else I’ve been lucky enough to get out and go to some of the games behind closed doors so that’s been a really kind of interesting experience and being in a stadium where there are no fans but a major stadium where I’ve been before with lots and lots of fans 42000 fans in the place and seeing it empty and it’s a slightly eery experience and also a fascinating one because you can suddenly hear all sorts of things you wouldn’t normally hear from the players and from the manager and so on but yeah, the whole experience very varied, very different month to month but obviously I think it would be interesting to see how it is when we hopefully get to get out of the current situation.

Kara: Yeah I think one of the things I was really curious about myself was your role was so much about community building and your long standing interest are in football and the community how have you in your role and how has Chelsea maintained its sense of community throughout this difficult time perhaps we can start with your role of Head of Publishing then we can talk about what the club has been doing actually.

Simon: Well I think one of the things when I was joining Chelsea, because it is such a famous name in the world of football and with that comes a lot of preconceptions. The image of Chelsea for me is a club that is hugely successful, particularly over the past 20 or so years, where they have won so much, they have got a winning mentality. Your kind of, especially if you are coming from outside the world of football, you do not necessarily know what that translates too in terms of the other stuff that they do. How are they as a business? How are they as an institution within their community. But also, what is it going to be like to work there, what is the environment like? And actually, because I was joining during lockdown, I joined at a time where the club was actually responding to the Covid-19 pandemic on its community and it was taking a lot of initiatives. So that to me when I was joining something that obviously immediately took a great source of pride in because the club was also doing things like, offering hotel rooms to NHS workers it was providing free meals to NHS work because it was also providing free meals to elderly and vulnerable people in the community Zoom calls between players the manager and people in the community as well delivering books to school children who no longer able to go to school sports and food banks and so was doing all of these things as I came in the club that I actually started a partnership with the domestic abuse charity Refuge, and so, one of the first tasks I had coming into the club was to support on that partnership and make sure that we communicated around that in the way that we should because what our aims were to A raise awareness about the domestic abuse pandemic which was essentially following the Covid-19 pandemic and we wanted to raise awareness and we wanted to raise funds and so we were asking our fans to contribute we did that through a Facebook campaign we did it by offering first of all fans credit on season tickets which they could either take the credit or they could donate to different charity partners one of which being Refuge and in fact we ended up raising I think a quarter of a million pounds through both of those initiatives which the owner then matched the club and the owner matched and therefore we were able to raise half a million pounds for Refuge for that campaign so that for me was a great source of pride because I hadn’t you know when you join a football club you don’t necessarily know that you’re going to be working on a campaign like that that’s something completely different and so I was tasked with helping on that from day one essentially.

Kara: Just out of interest what is the role of Chelsea historically in the community do you think that what they are doing now aligns with the work that they have done previously in their hundred plus years of existence.

Simon: You know I think so I think that what strikes me is that with football clubs I think with bigger football clubs you know if you think about the top 6 in the Premiere League or major clubs globally everyone is always so focused on football performance and what’s happening on the pitch and the champions league and the glamour and the big name players and I think that community work and work their respective foundations is sometimes from a media perspective a bit of an afterthought where people are not necessarily aware of these efforts and the things that are happening I feel quite strongly that football clubs should be part of their local community they are institutions as we said in the beginning of the podcast there are institutions have been around for hundred and twenty five, a hundred and fifty years in some cases in the case of Chelsea it’s almost a hundred and twenty years a hundred and fifteen years and so they are firmly part of these communities and yet we don’t really hear about that all that much and I think what Chelsea is doing now is something that they’ve been doing they have been doing for years and years and years the foundation has been going and supporting the local community and its coming to kind of its coming to the picture a lot more obviously since lockdown and just been this focus on how everybody is supporting each other I guess but you know it’s just the continuation of what they’ve been doing I should say that in other areas Chelsea has been a leisure I think in its community and the things like the say to no to anti-Semitism campaign which was launched two years ago to raise awareness about anti-Semitism both in the game and beyond is an example of that and so I think its firmly in the tradition of the club that it does it but it maybe doesn’t like a number of different clubs doesn’t always get the recognition for that and I think that one of the tasks that I have as head of publishing in the club is to bring that to the fore is to work with the foundation to make sure that we communicate and we tell that story of the other things that we do that aren’t just on the pitch

Kara: That is perfect. I think it will be really interesting for our current students and alumni to hear more about that especially given that Birkbeck is also so ingrained in our community and that the pandemic has also really impacted our students and staff and just coming back to current students I know that those studying sport Management in the Business of Football and just throughout Birkbeck would be so inspired to hear your story I mean within two years you’ve gone from Birkbeck student to head of publishing at Chelsea’s which is a real credit to your work and your background and what advice do you have for current students or prospective students who might be thinking about coming to study at Birkbeck.

Simon: I think the first piece of advice I would have is quite personal to me because I had already had no clue where I was going on this journey when I started studying at Birkbeck is because I knew I wanted to know more and I wanted to learn about the industry of football and I was looking for a bit of a path and I think the my first piece of advice would be say it’s okay you know if you are looking for a career in football and sports and you were going to study at Birkbeck to help yourself along that path then it’s perfectly fine and perfectly okay to not know where the angle is know where you’re going to end up because I think there’s always this picture around. Right. Set yourself the target. Make sure you get there but I’ve always felt like I don’t really know what the target is you know and so, I guess I’m very lucky in the sense that I’ve been doing events that I found what I wanted to be where I am is exactly where I want to be so that’s good but it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gone and had the experience it going to be going with an open mind going into these different classes in these different lectures and sort of thought I like you know I before starting I wouldn’t have thought that for example the module in Sports economics wouldn’t be my favourite because I’m not economically mind that I’m not really numbers minded you know I’m an art student you know originally and so but actually that was my favourite topic. You know, that was my favourite subject so I think the first piece of advice is it as it’s you know it’s okay not to know where you’re going to or where you you’re going to end up off and you will find it the second thing I say is also quite personal to me which is I would try and try different things you know I took a bit of a chance with the start-up I took a bit of a chance when I started working with a video production company and again this was, you know, having thought well work in you know that digital content, social media and I hadn’t thought that was where I was going to go but I took those experiences and actually helped me along the path as well so I think that you are able to take different experiences to try different things out then you absolutely should I think another important part is to build your network as much as possible because one of the things I did was I just started attending different events. And actually you know I was in a position where I was having still working full-time while being a Birkbeck at least initially you know I’m still earning a salary and therefore I was able to pay to go to various different events in the football world and start building a bit of the network in the world of football but I would definitely recommend that because I started to meet people and speak to the people and so I started to understand the industry a bit better some of the people I met them then I’m still in contact with now you know and so I think building a network, it’s hard work because you have to go out do it but I would definitely recommend it. Other bits of advice I think just keeping at it, persisting, plugging away I know that’s generic and its cliche but actually it’s quite true you have to kind of keep at it even if things don’t work out when I join the start-up it didn’t really work out so you know we were trying to make money out of it and we couldn’t so we didn’t and so you know we spent several months trying this and it didn’t work out and it’s okay.

Kara: Those are all great advice, and they are so practical and uplifting that I think that is what students would like to exactly hear just now. And it’s so great coming from you, who is in the industry already and, who knows that Birkbeck students work really hard in balancing all the different responsibilities that they have and the fact that we are able to offer for such excellent education in things you might not even except that you would like, like your Sports management module. I know that the sports management staff would be pleased to hear that from you. Thank you so much Simon for sharing your story with us, I know that our current Birkbeck students and alumni would be so thrilled to hear from you and so fascinating to hear about your career change to Birkbeck, your current role at Chelsea and your invaluable advice for students especially during this difficult time. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Charlotte House

Charlotte House studied on the MA in Arts Policy and Management course at Birkbeck. She is currently a Grants Manager at Paul Hamlyn Foundation, working on their Education and Learning through the Arts theme, which supports learning in and through the arts in education settings from Early Years to FE, and partnerships between arts/cultural organisations and schools. The theme focuses on enabling pupils, particularly those experiencing systemic inequality or disadvantage, to thrive through engagement with high quality, arts-based learning. Charlotte previously trained as a primary school teacher with Teach First and the Institute of Education. Her undergraduate degree was in Music and Charlotte started out her career in the classical music sector, working in Artist Management for 12 years. 

We speak to Charlotte about her time at Birkbeck, hearing about how it has played a vital part in where she is today and the advice she would give to current Birkbeck students.

Pictured: Charlotte House (credit Matt Clayton)

What motivated you to undertake a degree at Birkbeck?

I graduated from university with a BA degree in Music when I was 20. From there, I went straight into a full-time secretarial/administration role at a classical music agency (with extra weekend and evening work teaching fitness classes). I felt incredibly lucky to have found my role in classical music and was thoroughly enjoying it. At the same time, I was increasingly aware that my understanding of the arts sector was rather narrow and that my own life-experiences were not very broad either. As my first few years of full-time work passed by, the feelings of wanting to learn more and develop my perspectives grew. I have always enjoyed academic study and a friend spoke highly of her experience of doing a Diploma at Birkbeck. The MA course in Arts Policy and Management, which I could do over two years around my full-time job, just seemed like a fantastic next step. The fact that I could study part-time and still work full-time clinched it for me.

How did your time at Birkbeck play a part in where you are now?

Undoubtedly, my degree at Birkbeck has helped me to develop my career. Without that learning and those experiences, I would not have had the skills and expertise – nor the awareness or confidence – to go on to roles in the arts at Arts Council England and at Paul Hamlyn Foundation. The Masters degree has been helpful in practical and personal ways. Ten years after my degree at Birkbeck, I trained as a primary teacher with Teach First: a notoriously challenging and tough two-year experience. However, having combined full-time work with studying in the past gave me some confidence in myself.

What were the highlights of your time at Birkbeck?

There were plenty of highlights. The mix of modules I took as part of the MA were fantastic. I personally liked the combination of highly practical learning, such as modules in marketing, production and legal knowledge, which I could apply to my work right away; balanced with more research-based and academic learning in comparative cultural policy and critical theory. Having the opportunity to do research and write a dissertation was a source of great pleasure and interest for me. That left me with the feeling that one day I might even like to undertake PhD research… we will see! On the campus, the library was a brilliant resource. And on a personal level, I made two close friends whilst on the course, whose continuing friendship I value enormously.

What do you think is special about the Birkbeck community?

If I’m honest, I have not been a particularly active member of the alumni community. However, I love reading the BBK magazine whenever it drops on my doormat. I am always blown away by the breadth and quality of research coming out of Birkbeck. I certainly feel proud to have studied there. I always encourage anyone thinking of university study to consider Birkbeck, as my own experiences were so positive. The Birkbeck approach worked for me, as someone working full-time who still wanted to study. It was a privilege to be part of a community of students many of whom were also combining their studies with work (and other fascinating experiences). This mix contributed to the quality and richness of discussions in our classes.

What advice would you give to a Birkbeck student or recent graduate today?

To a current student, I might say, “If not now, then when?”. This has been a bit of a mantra for me recently anyway. But I would say it in order to encourage current students to take advantage of as much as possible during their courses at Birkbeck.

And finally, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been told?

I heard this in a podcast a few years ago and it is a bit of a cliché, but here it is anyway: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” I often find myself reminding myself of this principle, in work and personal life. Maybe it might resonate with others from the Birkbeck community who are studying, researching, working, and meeting caring and other commitments!

If you are interested in sharing your Birkbeck story, please email alumni@bbk.ac.uk.

Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Leslie Primo (BA History of Art 2004 and MA Renaissance Studies 2010)

Having spent over 20 years forging a career in the Art World, former Birkbeck student Leslie Primo has become a renowned art historian in the UK. He not only currently teaches Art History at Imperial College London, but is also a successful author and TV presenter.

Pictured: Former Birkbeck student Leslie Primo

Considering Leslie, aged 16, left school with barely any qualifications, it is quite the unexpected career trajectory.

In 2000, Leslie found himself working in the National Gallery shop in London. He always knew he wanted to study in the art world and was recommended Birkbeck by his colleagues at the gallery. He had previously furthered his interest in Art History by doing his own studies and his own reading, which was helped by the fact that before working at the National Gallery, he had also worked as a librarian.

As London’s only evening provider of degree courses, like so many other students at Birkbeck, the College was the only feasible option for him if he were to study at university. Leslie needed to keep his job at the National Gallery whilst studying. It was in fact Neil McGregor, the former director of the National Gallery at the time, who took an interest in Leslie studying at Birkbeck. He took him to the private library of the gallery to encourage his studies and would often ask Leslie how his degree was going. To this day, Neil is a huge source of inspiration for Leslie.

Leslie graduated from Birkbeck with a BA in History of Art in 2004, and later went on complete an MA in Renaissance Studies in 2010. Studying Art History in a city that is so rich in culture as London was a particular draw for Leslie. He would thoroughly that current and future Birkbeck students take advantage of having all the galleries and museums that are on your doorstep as it can really enhance your studies.

He also recalls how at Birkbeck he received a huge amount of support. It was in fact his tutor at the time, Professor Simon Shaw Miller, who came to realise that Leslie was almost certain to be dyslexic. The College helped Leslie to be diagnosed with dyslexia, and he was subsequently able to get additional support from Birkbeck’s disability office, including receiving full funding for his first computer at home. Acknowledging his dyslexia for the first time allowed Leslie to make sense of his school years and why he left the traditional education system with very few qualifications.

For Leslie, this is what makes Birkbeck so special. He recalls: “You might have dyslexia, or your might have childcare to deal with. Birkbeck however lives in the real world, not just the academic world. It is trying to help you at every junction to succeed.”

Leslie currently teaches Art History at Imperial. He is the first Art Historian to teach at the university which is often traditionally seen as a specialist for Science and Business. Whilst at Imperial College, he still will often promote Birkbeck, with at least half a dozen of his former students having gone on to do further study at Birkbeck.

Leslie is keen not just to share his passion and love of art through teaching. He is currently writing his book From Renaissance to Abolition: A New History of British Art, due to be published in 2023. He is also interested to be a visual presence that is different to the typical mainstream art historian and has taken to television work, recently featuring on Art at the BBC, in which he discussed the works of Michelangelo.  He will also begin presenting a new programme about JMW Turner on BBC4 later in 2020. 

Leslie’s career continues to flourish and it will be fascinating to see where his journey will take him to next.

Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Dr Mark Blacklock (MA Modern and Contemporary Literature 2007 & PhD English 2013)

The following blog is a transcript of a Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here

Hello! Welcome to the Birkbeck Inspires, conversations with alumni podcast series.

We will hear from former students and find out more about their time at Birkbeck. Birkbeck Inspires is the College’s free online events, activities and resources programme; which has been designed to inspire learning, promote thought and entertain and excite curious minds.

Mark Intro

Today’s episode features novelist and cultural historian Dr. Mark Blacklock and the interviewer is Charlotte Belson, from the Development and Alumni Team.

My name is Charlotte and I work here in the Development and Alumni team at Birkbeck, I’m delighted today to be joined by Dr. Mark Blacklock. So, Mark is a novelist and cultural historian, who is not only an alumnus here at Birkbeck, having studied his MA and PhD with us, but also now teaches on the MA Creative and Critical Writing course. So, Mark’s successful 2015 debut novel I’m Jack focuses on John Humble, or the Yorkshire Ripper hoaxer and his most recent novel, Hinton, which was published in April to strong critical reception focuses on another real-life figure, this time mathematician, Charles Howard.

Hello.

Hello.

Thank you for doing this podcast with us.

No, not at all, thank you for having me. Always nice to talk about Birkbeck, but also to be able to talk about my stuff as well. That’s a real treat.

Oh, great. On that note, before we move onto another, I wanted to hear more about your experience here at Birkbeck and your time here, if that’s ok.

Yeah, of course. I guess I’m still unusual in that I have come all the way through as a student. In 2005 my wife and I had our first daughter, and my wife was going to go back to work after her maternity leave. I was doing the childcare and because I thought that I was not going to have intellectual stimulation that I had from work (I’d been working as a freelance journalist), I thought I would go back to studying.

I had done an undergraduate degree in Japanese, which I finished in 1996, and I was not a very good undergraduate student, that has to be said; I got a third-class degree. There was an itch that I wanted to scratch, to prove myself that I could actually study, and I started to looking around. As I said, I was a journalist, I was writing professionally but I was also writing my own fiction and getting more interested in that. Obviously reading a lot, I started looking around at somewhere to study. The MA Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck caught my eye, just because of the way it was structured: thematically and periodically, and it looked really rigorous. I toyed with the idea of doing a creative writing course but then it felt slightly safer to be doing something with a syllabus to work through. I thought that it would probably be as useful for my writing and indeed that has proved to be the case.

It must have been hard work to have a daughter and studying at the same time.

Yes, well it was very rewarding. When you got real little ones, it’s pretty full on, but it’s very much a physical job looking after little kids, physical and emotional. Being able to go out at the end of the day, on a Wednesday, on a Thursday, and sit in a classroom with a Birkbeck cohort was brilliant, it was a perfect balance. There was a bit on negotiation as there always is to clear time to do essays. I think that that now gives me an insight, an understanding what it’s like for Birkbeck students. I particularly remember the first Christmas, Christmas is always hard, I always warn MA students about that, Christmas is hard, particularly if you’re full-time.

Tell me a bit, I hope that the fact you did your PhD with us meant that you enjoyed your MA, but tell me a bit about both, going onto your PhD and how you found your studies all the way through.

It was fantastic. I studied Japanese, and I was very interested in literature- there had been a literature component to the Japanese degree but I was no great shakes. In the first term I remember my first essay, I got a merit, I got 67, I remember being pretty disappointed because I worked so hard, I really thought I had read absolutely everything, and I really wanted to do well. And the two things that I got were some incredible, very useful and detailed feedback from the marker. And then I asked a friend, Henderson, to show me his essay, he got a quite high distinction, and it really opened my eyes, that there was this other way of approaching. He had a critical argument that he wanted to make, and he was doing research to support that. I just read everything from the reading list, and it was faithful, but it wasn’t stepping out and reaching for originality, which is what we are always trying to get from students doing MA level. I saw in his work how to do that, and it was very liberating, really exciting. It kicked off from there really. I never planned to do a PhD, but on my second optional essay I discovered this guy, Charles Howard Hinton, who I ended up working on a lot.  And the idea of higher-dimensional space, as it was constructed and moved around in the late Victorian period, and thought there might be something interesting to do there. At the same time, I was attending all the graduate lectures that they were having in the English Department at Birkbeck. I particularly remember Steve Connor and getting very sort of excited by the possibilities of theoretical approaches to the exchange between science and literature. And realised that there was maybe a theoretical model for looking at this material as well. So it just kind of grew as the MA went on. I loved it, it was great, it was fantastic to be able to propose a project within the department.

So nice to hear that you enjoyed it so much. Well, tell us about your PhD, and what you went on to focus on and how you found this experience.

Having heard Steve Connor, I think Roger Luckhurst suggested to me that Steve would be a good person to supervise this project. When I took it in its initial formation, it wasn’t really a very well-defined idea: I want to write about  the fourth dimension, and I think, I remember having a meeting with him, lasted about an hour, he kind of persuaded himself that it might be interesting over the course of the hour and I don’t think I did anything particularly interesting to persuade him, but it was really good fortune that he decided to take it on. Because, with that sort of experience PhD supervision I was constantly challenged to think about how to make the project something that could be interesting to a broader audience, he really encouraged me to think about it as a conversation into the field. But it was part of a conversation about knowledge, that was very useful, and again, the whole idea of it grew. It became about how ideas are a kind of history of an idea as it moves between mathematics, science, different kind of social groupings and then into how expanse was reimagined in cultural contexts. I was part-time, so I spent five years doing it, and it was great that it fitted around looking after the kids, by then there was another one, and another one on the way, so I could make it fit around everything.

It sounds absolutely amazing. Did you find your experience as a journalist helped, especially at PhD level, did it help with your research and PhD writing?

Yes very much. The thing about being a journalist is that you can’t be precious about your words, you just have to produce and that really is helpful in that professional discipline of just putting pen to paper regularly. That continues to inform my approach to writing. You don’t last very long as a journalist if you don’t take editing well, so it kind of fits quite well with the supervisory process. It’s ok if somebody says this isn’t working, this needs to change in this way, you’re used to getting stuff sent back and having to think again how to approach it.

It makes you open to criticism. Then you became teacher at Birkbeck, then the road changed again, tell me about that transition, and how it came about.

Yeah, so, in the English Department, when you are PhD student, I’m not sure if it is exactly the same now, I think Covid may have changed things, we had the opportunity to get experience teaching on the first year BA programme as graduate teaching assistants; which is really useful experience, I didn’t do it in my first two years, I think I did it in my years three and four over the PhD, which is probably best to get a bit of good chunk of research under my belt before starting to do it. And I had some teaching experience, some language teaching experience, so I knew how to make a lesson plan and how to approach teaching and prepare for teaching. But of course, a Birkbeck cohort is very different to standard cohort, in my first group I had people who had already published books, you have to be quite flexible in the room. But again, I really enjoyed that, because it was, I think possibly because it is a Birkbeck cohort, and we can speak more about what that is later, it is something that is unique to the college. And then, I did a brief post doc with Roger Luckhurst in the department and then a job came up, a three-year post, and I was one of two people who got straight into the deep end, managing an MA programme, teaching across the whole thing, you learn quickly and then also, take a professional qualification, which the college supports you to develop your practice, and one learns quickly. I think I’m a much better teacher than I was to begin with because now I’m more able to allow the kind of session to be co-produced in the room, it takes a while, I think in those early days, to sort of ensure that you are comfortable, you over-prepare and you try to make sure you are all over vast swathes of material and actually what works best in the room is to allow a group to work together towards an aim for each session, and I hope I’m better on doing that now.

Did you find that actually helped the whole process the fact that you had just come yourself from doing MA and then the PhD. Did you sort of find it easier to understand, as you said, what is a quite unique cohortat Birkbeck. Do you think that helped the whole process?

Yeah, Definitely. Familiarity with the specifics of the Birkbeck experience, that you’ve got people coming from jobs, families, work, life is going to figure large…it is a real advantage in the room as well, because you get some differing experiences, so yes, it’s grown-up, right? Regardless of the ages of the people participating, it’s a very grown-up learning experience.

As a student and as a teacher in Birkbeck, what’s been your best bits?

So, lots. On many occasions, when you experience, particularly MA students, out-stripping your knowledge and the expertise by some distance, that happens quite a lot at MA level, that’s really exciting. It’s weird, this is quite a Birkbeck thing, I was thinking about something the other day; I was teaching a student on the MA Cultural and Critical studies, and she was working part-time at Housman’s bookshop, and she emailed in the middle of the day to say that they just taken receipt of the offcuts of Professor Stuart Hall’s library. She knew that I was interested in Stuart Hall, the guy who developed of cultural studies in Britain and when he died, his widow Catherine Hall had gone through his library and sorted what would go for archive and what wasn’t need for archive. I got this email, my colleague Frank Joe Brooker was also interested, we ran over Housman’s, and raided this whole library and we got armfuls of books as much as we could afford and carry back, got them into the offices and went through all these books which were signed by Stuart Hall and annotated in the margins, which had arguments with Milton Friedman. This sort of thing could only happen at Birkbeck…we got there first, we got the tip off…those are the kind of students we have…I remember that as a very exciting day. But something that happens all the time is going to the pub after, particularly with MA students, after a session, the fact that you finish teaching at 9pm, you can go for a drink and talk about what you have just done in the session is great, and I always loved that.

An amazing example as well, I loved the books story. It shows, as you said, the diversity of people that we have here, more as peer on peer, sort of network sometimes.

Going on more to your writing, which of course is the sort of the dual side of the things I suppose. I would like to hear more about Hinton, what inspired you to write the story, and you already mention Hinton himself, it would be good to hear what was so intriguing about him.

So when I was right at the start of the PhD, I kind of disappeared down a side alley, that Steve Connor drew me out of, so that I should start thinking again, more about the history of the idea rather than this individual and the life, but I ended up spending about a week in the archives of UCL, the archives of the men’s and women’s club, this sort of a discussion group in the 1880’s and 1890’s, discussing the relations between the sexes.  I knew that some of them knew about this guy Hinton, and I wanted to find out what had happened, and I discovered this cache of letters that were gossiping about the fact he been convicted of bigamy. And it was this amazing archival moment, I think that people who research in archives often experience this, when suddenly you find that thing, the grouping of exchanges of information, which is exactly what you are looking for. As soon as I found it, I thought I want to do something with this narratively, it could be the heart of a kind of telling of this life, and I wanted to use the life. The theme that unites my both books, which I’m interested in, in fiction, and I think probably in my research as well, is the kind of approaches to the real, very broadly conceived, how we represent the real difference of modes of approach to it, and particularly how you then deal with all that sort of messy, real stuff, in representative media such as narrative fiction. And, so using documents is something I’ve done in I’m Jack and struck me as something I could  then locate the heart of the story about this guy’s life and construct it as it were a really elaborate frame around the real, elaborate fictional framework. At one point, I though about doing it just as a book in a box, that kind of BS Johnson unfortunate style thing; where the reader would come across the documents, as if they were found and recreate the experience of finding them in an archive, as is often the way with fine-minded ideas, the reality is that the box ended up being almost constructed out of words instead.

You mentioned I’m Jack as well and I see John Humble seems like quite a controversial figure. What inspired that story as well?

I’m interested in approaches to the real and he was a notorious hoaxer. I think I first encountered him reading David Peace, in the Red Riding Quarter. I think it is the second one that is focused on that period and interested in the fact that there was someone who sent three letters and then a recorded tape to police claiming responsibility for murders that were later discovered to have been committed by Peter Sutcliffe. And because the voice on the tape was distinctively Sunderland in dialect George Oldfield and the investigating officers shifted all of their attention to Sunderland for the best part of two years. And I grew up in Sunderland, I was really familiar with the dialect and really kind of interested in that, what’s going on with language there, they were really obsessing over small odd phrases and intonations, that struck me as a mediation of the real that’s going on there. Forensic attention to the materiality of language struck me as very parallel to what we do as literary critics and it struck me that he was quite like a producer of fiction himself. So, it seemed like a story, it had all the elements that I wanted for a vehicle for what I was interested in.

It sounds absolutely fascinating. With both books, how did you find the process of being published, was it really satisfying experience?

It’s interesting, you know, a lot of good fortune was involved; I was putting stuff up on a blog, and I got spotted by a young editor. This young editor is now the famous novelist Max Porter, but he read something on my blog and he said, do you want to meet? I realised it was a pitch meeting, so I pitched hard; and he saw something in the idea so, you know, it was good fortune, I think…, what I take away from it is that it is always worth putting stuff out into the wild, you know, I think the  blogging process is probably particular to that moment, that people were seeing things on blogs back then in 2013. But, there are similar fora available now. And yeah, in terms of actually getting published, it’s quite a fraught experience. It’s hugely exciting to get a book into the world and all the stuff that goes around it is pretty odd. I get thrown back onto the old post-structuralist idea that it’s no longer yours once it’s out there in the world.They are no longer your ideas, not your words anymore, it belongs to readers. It doesn’t quite work like that, because it becomes a product and you are expected to promote the product, and you want it to do well. This second time around, I think I enjoyed it probably more. I felt more anxious in the run up to it coming out, but now it’s out, that feels good.

Before we spoke, I was reading about Hinton and there are some fantastic reviews and critical responses to it, it must be really satisfying to have your work out there and to have such good feedback for it.

Well, it is really heartening that it gets noticed, to be honest, because that is the biggest fear literally for it not to be reviewed. It’s an exceedingly difficult environment at the moment; so many books are coming out and it is really heartening when people engage with it on its own terms and read it. That’s nice, you know. I don’t think anyone who publishes is ever entirely satisfied. I feel reasonably content at the moment.

Good, good. You’ve sort of mentioned a bit about the publishing experience, but you know, for your students and for anyone listening who wants to write their own novel and begin that process, do you have any advice or tips that would you give them?

Yes probably the key tips are the most-self-evident. I mean, it comes back a bit to that journalistic discipline, you know, just write. To get a book-length thing, you have to write a book-length number of words. So you just have to write it, you can’t put it off. I believe in sort of putting stuff out there. I was involved in various sort of DIY things when I was doing the MA, I was part of a writing group and self-publishing group and used to perform our stuff and that was great, you know, that was the closest I’ve ever got to being in a band and was really good. I kept finding ways to get work out -it is important to socialise it a bit.

I mean, especially at the moment during lock down, it is obviously so much harder to meet with people to have a discussion, do you have any sort of techniques that you use yourself, or that you would recommend to people who are struggling just to get that process going, especially when you are often on your own and locked in a room and there is not much interaction.

Yes, I do a session on this on the MA Creative and Critical course, on how to get pen to paper, you know, on those occasions when it doesn’t feel like it’s happening, what to do; brainstorm ideas and share them in the room. There are many different ways of prompting writing as there are writers. I think from some sort of obvious stuff like go for a walk or run, or do something different, have a cup of coffee. But the things that for me are absolutely key are reading and reading across registers, across, not just reading the type of stuff that you are going to write, but read different sort of forms of writings: documents, archival stuff, theory, non-fiction…fiction…. Just reading everything just kind of chewing it up and you know, similarly kind of taking in all kinds of cultural stuff as prompts and cues. You can respond to anything that comes in and offers an opportunity for response and can stimulate some kind of idea. And then, obviously, discussion, with whoever is available, these days, my children….as much as anybody else. I think that that’s it. Sometimes I’ve recommended using Brian Eno’s oblique strategies as well. These cards are prompts to creativity in the broad sense and they are literally oblique strategies like rip it up and start again, or whatever. Change a dial on something.

You mentioned reading, have you got authors that influenced your work? And do you have those key people who helped you?

Yes, I’m definitely quite obsessive and completist on certain things. In Sinclair, I’ve kind of gone to Sinclair for blurbs for both my books and I don’t think they would exist without his work. I read his first novel, White Chappell Scarlet Tracings, and they both in different ways spun out of that. My wife brought Alasdair Gray’s Unlikely Stories, Mostly into our marriage and that was a really wonderful present. I’ve been obsessed with Gray for 20 years now. Just a wonderful creative force. I don’t know if he is so well known in England as he is in Scotland, where they quite justly have him on school syllabuses. I’d recommend anyone to check out Alasdair Gray if they are not familiar with him.  And then there are people who I admire and I think how do they do that? Even as a critic. Deborah Levy is a bit like that for me. I know our colleague Julia interviewed Deborah Levy during Arts week and I think I was an early adopter on Swimming Home. I subscribed to And Other Stories when it came out and was pushing that on anyone to read it. Actually, it’s amazing, the very subtle gentle use of almost psychoanalytic archetypes in it is really brilliant, but not necessarily so inspirational, more in the sense that’s something I’d like to work out how that’s done, but wouldn’t necessarily try to do it. And then Ballard, I’m hoping to do an edited collection of JG Ballard nonfiction. if it gets it the go ahead, so I go back to Ballard’s stuff quite a lot for that sort of thing, for prompt, for inspiration. It’s a real clear-eyed vista of culture and history that it is exceedingly eye-opening.

I have to admit I haven’t come across them. I love Deborah Levy as well. I’ll have to look up Alasdair Gray. I have never come across him, so that’s a good tip. You mentioned the JG Ballard work that you are doing but have you got anything else on the horizon? Are you working on your next novel and what are your plans?

Yes I am. I’m working on the next novel. I’ve just thrown away ten thousand words that are not going to work and I’m going to try again on them. It’s prompted by a document rather than incorporating them this time, but it’s a contemporary, I suppose it’s perhaps a bit like a thriller. It’s this literary approach to that idea of an espionage story. I’ve been dreaming up John le Carre and something a little bit along those lines.

Exciting. Okay. Last question. I won’t keep you much longer, but just to sort of finish off the interview I would just love to hear a little bit for our alumni and anyone who is perhaps looking to come to Birkbeck. I’d love just to hear what you think makes Birkbeck special, what’s made you stay so involved with us?

It’s a completely unique environment, I think, I mentioned that cohort, I don’t think you will find a room of students like you find at Birkbeck at any other institution in the country. Because you come into that room, and there are all ages, all ethnicities, all religions, the range of nationalities, and it’s constantly surprising and wrong footing and up-lifting when hear what people have to say, you learn as much from the people in the room as people at the front of it. We are kind of inclusive in our bones, because  it’s just, you know, we just have to be like that as working people. And what has kept me there was a certain type of intellectual curiosity that I hadn’t encountered during my undergraduate degree; that idea that it’s not so much what you are looking at and I think we see this with our postgraduates, especially with the diversity of projects is insane. People are looking at all kinds of different cultural phenomenon, but it’s about, how do you think about it? It’s about that, that intellectually curious analytical and theoretically and historically informed approach. It’s a curiosity, I think, what drives it. That’s the real sort of radicalism at the heart of our approach.

That’s a great answer. And I think a great place to finish up our conversations. It was really interesting and thank you so much Mark and we look forward to seeing the next books coming out as well.

Oh great, well, I hope it does come out.

Sure it will.

Birkbeck Inspires Outro

Well, that’s the end of today’s podcast. We hope you enjoyed listening. Make sure you check out what else has Birkbeck Inspires has in store by visiting our website at bbk.ac.uk/Birkbeck-inspires

Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Thomas Wingate (MA Victorian Studies)

The following blog is a transcript of a Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here

In this episode of the podcast series we hear from Thomas Wingate who studied MA Victorian Studies at Birkbeck in 2002. In 2016 Thomas started an international school in Mexico City providing education to 350 pupils representing some 40 different nationalities.

In the podcast Thomas talks about his time at Birkbeck, the lessons he learned along the way in starting an international school on the other side of the world and the values he instils in the children he teaches.

B: Hi Tom. Thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you so much for joining Birkbeck Inspires which is a way of staying engaged with our students and alumni. We have been featuring stories of how our alumni have been helping others in various fields. You got in touch because you have a really incredible story about a school that you have started in Mexico City. Thank you for joining us, like I said, we would really love to hear a bit more about it. Obviously, you are a Birkbeck alumni and I would really like to hear more about you time here at Birkbeck.

TW: Well, thank you for having me. It is wonderful to speak with you. Thank you.

Well, I was in a situation in London where I was working. I was actually working in a school in north London and I always wanted to be a lifelong learner and I saw this course at Birkbeck that offered Victorian studies, a fusion of history and literature and, immodestly, I know that I know quite a lot about both but I didn’t really have my ducks in a row. I really wanted to look at the Nineteenth Century and get a kind of philosophical underpinning of that fantastic age. So, I popped off to Birkbeck and met a great guy, I am still in touch with him, now professor emeritus, Michael Slater and he interviewed me. I can remember the room and some of the questions because I got onto the course. As we know, I think, one of the wonders of Birkbeck is its ability to deal with mature students, students already working and the flexibility of those evening classes.

I was tired I must admit. I was doing on the days when I went to Birkbeck something like 54 tube stations  and this incredible journey on the Northern Line and back and travelling is a little tiring. Anyway, it was well worth it. I had a fantastic group of fellow students. One was a policeman, I remember. There was a lady there who was an expert in genealogy, which was always something that fascinated me. We had this wonderful room where we could sit round and really chew the fat  and go into some really fantastic themes. I now have from Birkbeck a particular fascination. I was always interested in him but I now have a fascination for Dickens. Michael Slater is a wonderful Dickens expert, as people may know from reading his biography of the author.

The classes were just terrific and I had the good fortune to live in Bayswater, so I could go from there to Birkbeck. I was a little tired. I would go home and get into my essay and reading and get stuck in the whole cycle at the end of the Northern Line. So, I have very fond memories of Senate House and the room near there that we used. People are very generous with their time. Not just Michael but the other professors who gave us such wonderful insights into an age that has really created much of modern life, much of modern Britain and much of modern thinking. I am forever grateful to them. It added to other qualifications I have managed to get from other universities, at Kent, at Leeds, Georgia State and Atlanta. It was really something that helped make me as a teacher.  I was working as well and travelling on the Northern Line which was a bit of a nightmare, as I say. Afterwards I worked at the City of London School so when I was doing the new masters in Victorian Studies that really helped my A ’level teaching at this wonderful school. So Birkbeck is right up there with my favourite London memories, it really is.

B: That is wonderful to hear as well as the fact that you were able to use the room to chew the fat with  lot of fellow students. The people who choose to go to Birkbeck have that real level of commitment. They go there and it is a real choice and they know it will have a long-lasting impact on them. It is amazing to hear you speak so fondly about your lecturers. Birkbeck has such a rich history and we are coming up to our 200th anniversary in 2023.

TW: Right, right.

B: And it is wonderful how it has impacted. Education is obviously  a crucial part of London as a city. It is great to hear you speak so fondly of it all.

TW: One of the effects actually of the Dickens component that I took, I think it was Michael’s last lecture before he became an emeritus fellow, is that it simulated me to make quite an interesting collection of Nineteenth Century documents which I am now of course sharing in our secondary school, using display cases to help stimulate the thinking of the children as they get older. So, I now have quite a good collection of things related to the life and death of Charles Dickens in particular, quite apart from some other things reflecting Nineteenth Century culture,  politics and literature. So it has been great fun to have this new hobby later on in my life.

B:  Absolutely, and the ability to share that knowledge that you got at Birkbeck, which incredibly gets me to my next question. A lot of Birkbeck alumni have gone on to achieve some incredible things. Hearing about your story, about starting a school on the western edge of Mexico City. I would absolutely love to hear about the Wingate School and what takes someone from studying at Birkbeck to starting a school in Mexico.

TW: I don’t want to sound too dramatic but perhaps I was kidnapped! What happened was I met this wonderful young Mexican lady in the days of my youth when I was at the University of Kent. I was doing my first degree, my undergraduate degree in English and History and the Theory of Art. I met Elena who was doing a Masters in Economics , on the battlements of Allington Castle. How about that? Quite Arthurian. Anyway, to cut a long story short we got married and we weren’t in England long as we wanted to raise our family in Mexico. So, what happened was that I went to Mexico. That was in the early 80s. Goodness. Elena had a very interesting and successful career in the Mexican diplomatic service and that took us all over the place but it also took us back to London where she was the trade commissioner. That’s how as a teacher of English, I was the sort of exportable component and that’s how I managed to do my teaching in London and also go back and study at a British University again, with Birkbeck That’s how I ended up back in Bayswater.

It’s been quite a roller-coaster, I wouldn’t recommend that path to many because you have to kind of stop and start. In education, as I say, you are sort of exportable. People do want someone who has some knowledge of the English language and English Literature as well perhaps and so it worked out very well. We have also been in Atlanta. I have been in Mexico City in a good international school several times as I come and go with Elena’s job. Then it came to pass that we are here and the moment, that fusion of what I thought was the right experience with a little bit of ‘the ready’. The finances, you know, you have to have that. I thought to myself I am not going to be looking over my shoulder at the age of 89 and saying ‘what if?’. Although to be honest, if I could wave a magic wand, it would have been great to have founded the school, the school we have, the Wingate School, twenty years ago and watch it develop even more. You have to make these choices in life. But here we are and we are starting our fifth academic year and it is terrific!

It has been very difficult getting building permits, overseeing construction, acquiring the staff, having the right team around you. It is all about the team. It’s not about one person saying I am going to found a school. You know you lead a team. You know I alluded to King Arthur a moment ago, you know it’s sitting around a round table, it’s not about the head of the table. You meet people in education who know more than you do and people who you know more than they do.  But you have got to be able to listen very carefully and if you have got that skill, much good will happen. And that is how we ended up on the western edge of Mexico City. I am now pretty well rooted here. I have a place in London but I am rooted here. We started just the other day online with the children, after some very intensive staff training and sharing of skills. So that’s the story. That’s how we got over here and eventually, with a big breath, said: ‘Right. Let’s do this!’. We have one crack at this thing we call life, I believe, and let’s do it well. Here we are!

B: Fantastic  As with the rest of the world we have watched things changing. We are now a few months in. I read a little about your evolution to online learning. As you said, you have started the academic year is it entirely online?

TW:  You have to play ball with the authorities here.  Well, I think you should do in any country. So here we have the Secretaria de Educacion Publica (SEP). and the SEP tells the private sector what to do in terms of calendars. In the private sector you can get back to them and say we are a British international school . We have 40 nationalities. We have 350 children on the school rolls this year. We have grown by 90, which in a pandemic is a real compliment to the work of the staff. So, the SEP rules on behalf of the government and the Ministry of Education. We have a traffic lights system. The trouble is – to be honest with you-  is that we have a federal traffic light, with the obvious colours but the federal government has actually slipped in an extra colour: it’s red-organge-yellow-green. Then you have the state authorities. We have 32 states here and there is sometimes a little friction between the state and the federal authority, in education anyway, and they say you can change back (to face to face teaching) when it is green. But nowhere is it green at the moment.

It’s very easy to be an armchair expert, isn’t it. You sit and watch the television and see various ministers make pronouncements and you think ‘why are they doing that? Why don’t you do this?’ Perhaps they see more than we do. Mexico is still in the grip of the pandemic, so we are online. Big plans are being made for when we go back. We very much hope it will be a hybrid model, particularly with classes that involve socialisation. The trouble is that when you talk to the children, as we have started to do, as we are online, some of them have been holed up in flats in the city for months. I mean that is going to have a tremendous psychological effect on children. Others have been swanning around. One child has gone off to his homeland. He was born in Copenhagen and he flits between Denmark and Sweden. We have children tuning in from Korea. As I say, we are a very international school. So, we pay great attention to that socialising part, therefore when they come back they can do some sports with social distancing.

We are very lucky now because we have expanded the school. We have doubled the space to over 6,000 sq m for both building and play areas and the like, things like basketball courts. We have added a field, we have a second field and we really want to see those children running around in those green areas. People think that Mexico City is wall- to-wall concrete but we are not. Here on the edge we have Swiss-style green areas. If you look at pictures of the city you can see that we have some really beautiful green areas with forests and valleys and in the centre we have got a wonderful park.

So, we are online now. I really want to get a hybrid as soon as we can. We have to wait for the authorities.

B: That sounds like an incredible journey Tom that you have been on to get to the school and it sounds like there’s a real need for it there. Having a Mexican wife, did it then feel like a natural move to set the school up in Mexico City?

TW: You have to have self-belief, don’t you? There’s something about if you have had the privilege of a good education, you have got to say ‘look, much has been given to me and I owe something’ and I owe something to this wonderful Mexican society that has given me so much. It is a fantastic land. It has problems, as everybody does. I look at the news. England has been guided, or not guided. I could get political! It looks a little messy at the moment in terms of  the pandemic.

So, anyway, here it is about reaching out and touching lives. I saw a need. There are many great schools in Mexico but what we have done is, we have a philosophy of education which re-emphasises values. So we have got a school here that has attracted quite a big slice of the diplomatic community’s families and international companies, who need a high quality English education because if they end up in Brazil or Moscow or Berlin, or somewhere, this common language, this English, apart from Chinese, is the world language. It is so useful, so exportable.

We want to teach – not great history courses, maths, or whatever – we want to teach great children. We want to form great ethical children so that wherever they go in the world, they do it to the best of their ability and it has a cascade effect on the people whom they come into contact with who will experience something very beneficial because they are in the presence of someone who is well-prepared, centred, confident and ethical.

We really need that, that ethical side. So we know a guy called Dr Thomas Lickona who is from New York University and he is one of the founders of the School of Character, so within our school we also have the school of character which is uniquely fused with the International Primary Curriculum and the younger version for the kinder (sic). We are growing  our secondary school. It gives use the opportunity to get the children to really understand what our school motto is: to strive, learn and serve. And that service part – to give back, is huge for us. So there’s one big rule for the school. I don’t have a directory of rules. I really don’t. It’s called respect. The children sign a document in the front of their agendas, the school diary, where they agree and I agree, and the parent and the teacher agree that ‘respect’ is the number one rule of the Wingate School. Concurrent with that is that our teachers are collegial. I really do insist on that. A great idea is duplicated, not diluted. So the collegial staff will a tremendous extra dimension to it. So then it is a school which has niche – I hate to say it – market. It sounds very business-like but it deals well with high quality education in English. We are not a bilingual school. It could expand, of course, but it is a 80 – 20 English and Spanish curriculum. We touch the international community. We touch a huge slice of the community here in Mexico City and we fuse the curriculum with values.

B: What we fetch out of education is incredibly important. I think what you are doing is trying to educate these students to go on to great success in life. Obviously, of course, with a strong understanding of Charles Dickens!

TW: Oh! I am known as a kind of  obsessed man about it. It comes into assemblies, with anecdotes about childhood and Dickens’ attitude to it and the importance of play. I’ve got a fund of stories for them. I have got to be very inventive about that and not bore them! But his philosophy is an influence, of course!

Int: Thank you so much. And in parting form one another. You have obviously had an incredible journey since leaving Birkbeck and it sounds like it really did have an impact on you. It would be really great if, perhaps, you could share a little piece of advice with our students and alumni who may have grand plans and are wondering how to take that first step into starting a life changing venture as you did? Is there something you would like to say to them?

TW Sure. I don’t want to sound flippant but find someone as good as Elena, my dear wife, in your life. It’s about the team in your life. You meet the great people in your life who inspire you, the great teachers at Birkbeck and they did, they inspired me. So be confident. You are getting a good education at Birkbeck. Use your talents in an aligned way. Line up your talents with an interest that you have, then you can take it further. Don’t do anything just for the job, just for the money. Sometimes I understand that we need to put bread on the table and we might have to do a job that we don’t particularly like. It’s happened to me in my now fairly long life. So seize the moment!

There are certain situations where you have got to say, ‘well give it a go!’. And look, heck! If it didn’t work, the sun comes up in the sky the next morning. Start over! Like, you know, Robert the Bruce and the cave, watching the spider coming down that thread and climbing to the top. He was in big trouble against the English at that time and the story goes that he reassessed his life and got to the top, went off and won a great victory.

Work with people who are like minded, people who support you and you can support them – and never give up! I hope I don’t sound that I’ve got to the top of the mountain. I’ve not. When you get to the top of the mountain you take a big breath and then you see there’s another mountain range ahead.

So, my last piece of advice, and Birkbeck has really underscored this as it was the reason it was founded, be a lifelong learner. Those things together is the advice I would give to people. Life is there for the seizing. Take calculated, well thought through challenges. There’s always an element of luck, I get it. It’s great to do something that you’re are really interested in with other people who are also really interested in it. I think if you follow that kind of line, good things can happen.

B: I think that what you are saying is very much the importance of teams and having people around you ho support you and finding common cause. Thank you so, so much Tom for coming on.

TW: Not at all.

B: It was really incredible to hear about the journey and incredible opportunities. I said at the start that we are featuring stories about alumni helping people in various fields. Your are helping to maintain a strong contingent of students  who are educated with the value of ‘respect’ which we also try and instil at Birkbeck as well and hopefully they will be lifelong learners too, just as you have with your students. So thank you very much for all you are doing. It’s been wonderful.

TW: That’s most kind of you. If I could make a warm ‘salut’ from  from Mexico City to all of the Mexican community at Birkbeck! I am sure they are all there and to all the other different nationalities there. This is a fascinating thing that you are doing. Greetings also to any professors of mine who are still there. I’m delighted to say hello to you and to thank you for all you have done for me.

B:Thanks Tom.TW: Thank you

Mentoring Pathways – why do alumni become mentors?

The Mentoring Pathways programme, which offers final-year undergraduate and postgraduate students the opportunity to be matched with a mentor, has been running for close to ten years. In this time, mentors have supported over 1000 students with their career aspirations as they look to graduate from the College.

Mentors are drawn from Birkbeck graduates and corporate partners working in a diverse range of professions and industries. But why do former Birkbeck students decide to mentor current students every year? We hear from two alumni who currently participate on the programme.

Kristin Dockar (Graduate Certificate in Systemic Practice (Child Focused) 2011)

Pictured: Kristin Dockar

I enjoy mentoring Birkbeck students as I believe I am making a difference to somebody. I am enabling and supporting to achieve end goals, remaining impartial, empowering, being a ‘sounding board’, sometimes being a ‘reality check’, and most importantly, developing a relationship of trust.

My motivation to become a mentor increased as I realised I could use the experiences I had gained over a long period of time in my career.

On joining the Birkbeck Mentoring Pathways programme, I received initial training which taught me to be mindful of the rules of engagement. Practical aspects such as where meetings would take place and how often, and discussions on exchanging email addresses and telephone numbers set the tone of the relationship. Discussions also took place around the purpose of being mentored and what outcomes could be aimed for. An important question to ask a prospective mentee is: “What do you want from a mentor?”

As a mentor I have always kept notes on meetings with dates and timelines included. I have also kept notes on what has been achieved and what ‘next steps’ are. This helps the mentee to set targets and achieve and finish tasks.

There are many do’s and don’ts to becoming a mentor, not least trying to tell someone ‘how I’ve done it’, The most necessary skill is the ability to listen actively and hear the stories behind the reason why this individual has decided to take on the daunting task of studying.

Last year I mentored a student taking a Masters’ degree in Policy Making. This student was interested in investigating the ‘hostile environment’ and the effect it can have on migrants to this country.

Because I have an extensive network of different professionals, I was able to link this student with a person working in Border Control in the Civil Service. He was able to provide advice on career opportunities shown on the Civil Service jobs website and give advice on writing a CV and Personal Statement, as well as advice on interview techniques linked to this career path.

I have also just finished mentoring another Birkbeck student studying for his Masters’ degree in Policy Making. Normally the programme would take place from November until June, but due to current circumstances, it has continued until the end of September this year which has worked well.

I have now signed up to the 2020/21 Mentoring Pathways programme and I can’t wait to get started.

Ken Gardiner (MSc Stratigraphy, 1989)

Pictured: Ken Gardiner

I studied at Birkbeck because I wished to further my education in geology beyond the initial BSc degree which I had obtained from the University of Southampton. So I decided to undertake a MSc Stratigraphy degree at Birkbeck. I could continue working in my job full-time living in the suburbs whilst undertaking the Stratigraphy course. Studying at Birkbeck allowed me to progress in my career as a geologist at Chevron to become a more senior member of a UK based independent oil and gas company.

I take part in the mentoring programme as I wish to contribute something back to Birkbeck as it helped me to build my full-time career in the oil and gas industry.  I also enjoy supporting young students who are looking to start or advance their careers.

What advice would I give to current Birkbeck students at this current time? Make sure you keep an open mind when looking at where you may wish to progress with your career and always have a checklist of where you feel your expertise and main strengths lie. Build your CV taking into account your education and work experience background to date and do not over embellish it.  Tailor your CV for each job application based on company research, and once you have several templates you’ll find you have a work in progress for each job application you make.

Amanda Flanaghan (Qualifying Law Degree 2019)

I never felt I really fitted in my first time around as an undergraduate at university some years ago, and therefore did not have the best experience. At Birkbeck, it enabled me to study at the same time as working, at postgraduate level, and meet some really great people who, like myself, valued the opportunity of studying and still remain close to me over a year since completing my studies. I really enjoyed being a student at Birkbeck: the course content, lectures and teaching style and I am inspired to attempt to eventually hopefully study an MPhil/PhD at Birkbeck. 

I was able to experience and live in a brilliant city, hold down part time work alongside gaining the opportunity to study on the LLM Qualifying Law Degree. The evening lectures meant I could have a good balance to fit in time for work and study which I really valued. The many libraries around the city (especially the 24 hour ones!) were useful to study at with people who I met on the course. For me it was a second chance at engaging fully in academic university life.

I take part in the Mentoring Pathways programme as I know that when I was studying for the LLM QLD, I valued how approachable and friendly our part time group was, along with the really valuable help and guidance I was lucky enough to receive from some lecturers and seminar tutors. Everyone was very helpful, and the course was very interesting. It was brilliant to be surrounded by people who were as inspired to be at university. It can be difficult to balance life with working and also studying and/or volunteering. I wanted to be able to give something, some of the experience and advice I had received to someone else coming up.

If you would like to become a mentor on this year’s programme, please complete this application form by Sunday 25 October.

Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Rick Payne (MSc Organizational Behaviour 2007) and Dr David Gamblin, Lecturer in Organizational Psychology

The following blog is a transcript of a Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here

Narrator:

Hello and welcome to the ‘Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni’ series, where we hear from former students and find out more about their time at Birkbeck. Birkbeck Inspires is the college’s free online events, activities and resources program, which has been designed to inspire learning, provoke thought and entertain and excite curious minds.

Today we hear from Dr David Gamblin, Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Organizational Psychology department and alumnus, Rick Payne, who interview each other to find out more about their fields of expertise and what brought both of them to Birkbeck.

Rick works at the Chartered Institute of Accountants in England and Wales and is also a mentor on Birkbeck’s Mentoring Pathways program. If you are interested in mentoring a current student in the upcoming academic year (just like Rick), please visit www.bbk.ac.uk/alumni/mentoring

Dr David Gamblin (David):

Hello, I’m Dr David Gamblin, I’m a Lecturer in the department of Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck and Program Director for the MSc Management Consultancy and Organisational Change. Today I’m really, really pleased to be joined by Rick Payne, Birkbeck Alumni from the MSc Organisational Behaviour and current Manager of Finance Direction, a thought-leadership program from the ICAEW.

Hello Rick.

Rick Payne (Rick):

Hi David.

David:

How are you doing today?

Rick:

Good, thank you. Glad it’s Friday but very well, thank you.

David:

Wonderful. So we’re going to do things slightly differently today in terms of some of the other alumni interviews. We’re going to start with me interviewing you and then flip it on its head and get into a bit of a discussion about decision making and uncertainty, which I’m very much looking forward to.

Rick:

Same.

David:

Wonderful. So to kick things off, Rick would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself and your current role.

Rick:

I got my first degree in Economics from Manchester, trained as a chartered accountant with KPMG, then spent 17 years in wholesale banking. Towards the end of that I got involved in organizational development and that’s what took me into Birkbeck and studying the degree we’ll talk about a bit later.

Currently I work at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW). I do practical applied Management Research, which involves talking to a lot of members and finding insights from them and putting it together in reports and presentations and getting those learnings out to other members. Hopefully through that we help people with their careers and we also help their businesses to be more successful.

David:

Super. Sounds like a really varied role with a good balance of research and practice. It sounds a lot like the Birkbeck model in the department of Organisational Psychology, that science-practitioner role. I wonder if you could tell me a bit more about what you did at Birkbeck and when that was?

Rick:

I did an MSc Organisational Behaviour, which is occupational psychology without the chartership at the end of it. And I studied at Birkbeck from 2004-2007. Organisation Behaviour covers topics like organizational change, training and development, selection and assessment, work and wellbeing – quite a broad range of anything to do with people and organisation.

David:

A lot of people who will have been studying at Birkbeck, the people listening will be able to empathize with this, will be working, studying at the same time, come from busy backgrounds, busy lives – I’m just wondering, how did you find it?

Rick:

It was quite strange for me as I was going through two changes at the same time so when I started studying I’d just left banking to start up as a coach and trainer. But I wanted a more rigorous training through the MSc. Trying to set up a business and do the readings and work with everything we had to through the course. They were complementary, they helped with both sides but it is quite a juggling act. I got really into the research side of the MSc and probably paid too much attention to that and too little attention to setting up as an independent consultant.

One of the things that is worth mentioning is at the time, there wasn’t a mentoring scheme at Birkbeck. I’m now involved with the Birkbeck Mentoring scheme and working with the people in the final years of their degrees. Some people really have to work hard to balance the two and set priorities and I think the mentoring program can help with that to make sure people stay focused on doing what they need to do and what’s most important for them. I’d highly recommend people make the most of the mentoring scheme. I’ve had a year off from doing it as I’ve already done four. I’ve applied again so hopefully I get accepted to take on another mentee.

David:

That would be great. I really do recommend people get involved with that and I’m sure a lot of alumni and people listening definitely relate to that difficulty in balancing the workload. It’s really nice to hear the synergy you found between studying, research and what you were putting into practice as well.

Rick:

It reminds me of a Professor at the time who was very interested in the word ‘stress’ and students would always say ‘it’s quite stressful juggling work and studying’ and he would say ‘what is stress? We need to be more precise with what it means’. He wanted students to be more specific about what it means. This was one of the good things about Birkbeck – having your ideas challenged.

David:

We talk about an induction in our department, about the Birkbeck approach, critical thinking, viewing a lot of the theory through a critical eye. I think now more than ever that has really come into play with a lot of the theories and frameworks being challenged as we go through lockdown and the pandemic. How well do the theories stand up? Are they predicting how people are feeling? Are there gaps in the literature that we need filling at some point? So really good to hear that critical perspective was taken when you were studying at Birkbeck.

How did you find it? Did you really enjoy it? Was it something that was difficult, getting into that frame of mind? Sometimes it’s a mix – some people find it very challenging and some people take to it very quickly.

Rick:

I think I did, it took a while. I remember being very disappointing with the mark I got for my first essay which I thought was fantastic. It got critique, constructive critique. It clicked in – I now sort of get it, what are the practical implications, what’s the rigor and the underlying thinking you need to put in, what is the academic side to this. I think that was quite difficult to get to grips with the importance of theory. Then you start to progress and realise you are using all sort of theories; we generalize about how the world works so it was difficult to start with but with the help of tutors you work through it and it becomes more natural. It’s certainly been helpful in my job. And I think it’s interesting just having this conversation, one of the things I really enjoyed studying is the different perspectives on organisations and ‘images of organisations’ which is a really good book. It looks at different metaphors and lenses we use.  Do we view organisations as machines or cultures or political arenas? It’s just occurred to me that maybe I should use those metaphors again and go through the implications of the pandemic and take on those lenses and see what conclusions it leads to.

David:

That’s a great point. My research background is around decision making so the number of metaphors that get used for the brain changes throughout time from the humors to more mechanical models and then famously the computer metaphor for the brain and now people are starting to challenge whether that is a particularly good metaphor or not. Is the brain really like a computer or is that leading us to make misconceptions about what the brain does and its purpose. So looking at metaphors is a really interesting one and trying not to get stuck in the same lens for a prolonged period of time without challenging it.

So that brings me on to the next question – what about studying organizational behavior has really helped you in your career, life, research and any of the roles you have taken since Birkbeck? Multiple-perspective and critical angle may be one – has it translated into what you do currently?

Rick:

Very much so. I don’t think I would have gotten the job I currently have, which I really enjoy, without having that Master’s degree in Organisational Behaviour. I think it gave me a uniqueness – it’s unusual to be qualified accountant with a degree in Organisational Behaviour. I was able to bring together both my business knowledge with that people side of things. As our members go through their careers, the technical side becomes, for many of them, less and less important, it’s more about leadership, building teams, building systems, developing strategies and so on.

Being able to bring all of that knowledge from the MSc and the ability to research things – so how do you take a question, pull it apart and start to come up with something that is maybe a bit more interesting than the standard approaches to that can be reached by the general consulting approaches. By having the knowledge that there are many ways of looking at questions, certainly has helped me in my role and hopefully produced some outputs which are a bit different to the normal stuff that comes out of organisations on business. Definitely has been fundamental to me being able to do my role at the ICAEW.

David:

Totally agree with the importance of conducting research properly – such an important skills and transferable skills to pick up on. It’s the reason our Research Methods module is one of the first one people do. It’s an important one to get into that frame of mind early on – how to conduct research and critique what other people have done to make sure it stands up to scrutiny, I think it is really important.

Really good and interesting to hear you are carrying on with the research in your current role. Are there any research projects you are working on at the moment or research findings you’d like to mention?

Rick:

I’m looking at the CFO strategy – it’s been quite a long-term project for various reasons. It involved interviewing a number of CFOs from different backgrounds. What was interesting was the difference between emergent strategy and planned strategy. The idea that strategies emerge from patterns and post-rationalisations vs the traditional view that you sit down and discuss what your strategy is going to be, map it out and plan it. It’s clear to everyone now that strategies can go out the window very quickly.

It’s also been about exploring the different roles the CFO plays in strategy so anything from orchestrating the process, adjudicating and allocating resources and how they can be quite creative and come up with new ideas and strategies.

David:

That’s really interesting. Where can we read any of this? Is it in-house to the ICAEW? Do you publish anywhere?

Rick:

This is all published and freely available to everyone – google “ICAEW CFO Strategy’ and you should get to the report. We tend to keep our thought-leadership work open to everybody so it should be findable. Previous work on finance business partnering, which has some interesting parallels with human resource partnering, where the concept came from – that’s been one of our most successful pieces.

David:

I’ll check this out after we wrap up today. It sounds really interesting; you hear about research done on people in leadership positions and about them acquiring new skills. From what you’re talking about in that people maybe shift onto soft skills; leadership, resource-allocation away from technical skills is also an element of stop doing certain things or even unlearning certain behaviors. I think that’s really, really interesting.

Rick:

So I guess we’re going to turn the tables a little bit and ask you about your time at Birkbeck and what you’ve enjoyed most?

David:

I’ve been at Birkbeck for just over a year and a half. I think Kate Mackenzie-Davey who’s just retired after 26 years at Birkbeck, you would have probably studied under Kate.

Rick:

Yes, I did indeed. Politics and Change – I remember it well.

David:

Super. So as Kate’s retiring this year, she said it best, ‘it’s the students that make it special’ and I wholeheartedly agreed with that. We get such a nice mix of students from different backgrounds, different work experience – it means they can bring all kinds of things to the table when we’re having discussions. We had a nice example over the summer in the module I taught with my colleague and co-convener, Dr Uracha Chatrakul Na Ayudhya on workplace health and safety. People from backgrounds such as the hospitality industry, greeting card companies, people in care homes, all of these different backgrounds bring different stories to the table, meant that we could have quite interesting discussions. Anything from an employee engagement program which can be a method of controlling your employees – is positivity part of professionalism? Should we have to force people to have to put on a happy face for example? Or where do discussions around diversity and equality fit into a subject like workplace health and safety?

I don’t think you get these kinds of discussions at other institutions whereas at Birkbeck it’s all of these backgrounds and experiences coming together which people can share with the group in a really critical and open-minded way. It’s the students that have made it such a special place to teach.

Rick:

I definitely echo that. As students, one of the great things is that we start of in class discussing an issue with each other in working groups with lecturers and then we would end up going down the pub continuing those discussions quite often. It was really quite fascinating, as you say, to discuss things with people from lots of different backgrounds and I’m sure some of my fellow students would say they have made some of their best friends through studying at Birkbeck, and I certainly keep in touch with a number of them to this day.

So in that spirit we thought we would try to re-create a discussion of an issue to give people a feel for what it’s like. At the ICAEW we are particularly interested in decision making under uncertainty, which is one of David’s areas of expertise.

David, maybe you could start off by exploring the main way in which people make decisions.

David:

In the 40s and 50s decision-making theory was in the hands of economists. They were responsible for a lot of normative decision-making models, which teach us how we should make decisions and optimum benchmarks. A lot of economists claimed that humans were rational beings, we evolved to be rational thinkers, the brain is essentially a machine for making rational judgements and that kind of thing.

One of the famous theories that stems from that is the expected value theory which tells us that to work out whether or not we go with an option we need to work out the expected value of that option; what it’s worth. To do that we would look at all of the different outcomes that could come about with a particular option, whether it’s investing in a new fund or it’s the decision to go for a picnic. You look at all the different outcomes that are possible and you take the probability of each one and multiple it by the value you’d get if that situation did occur and we sum all those products up and that gives us an expected value of each option. We then compare across each option to see which one will give us the highest value and in theory we go with that one. So it’s a very rational, very analytical process for decision making and it forms the basis for a lot of decisions made and trainings and workshops today to become a better decision maker, to become a better thinker. This is what you need to do, you need to structure your decision like this, generate a grid of possible decision outcomes.

Rick:

That certainly underlies a lot of accounting approaches to decision making and indeed some of the things I’ve been reading are still pushing that approach.

David:

Yeah, I think so. It’s a very popular and tempting one to use in a workshop or decision aid. I guess no surprises it’s still being taught. I suppose rightly or wrongly because stemming from that came Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky and they brought the heuristics and biases approach. And someone like Richard Taylor is seen as the father of behavioural economics, then Daniel Kahneman is probably seen as the Godfather of that movement. He really challenged that normative approach by economists such as expected value theory and said is that really how people make decisions? Are we really rational thinkers? Is the brain a rational machine? Their line of research exposed a number of systemic errors or predictably patterns in error that people make in decisions. From that Kahneman proposed two different types of decision making – type 1 is intuitive, quick, fast, low-cost kind of decision making and type 2 is the analytical, effortful, more rule-based, process-based decision making that is more similar to normative theories proposed by economists.

So he split it down the middle and said we’ve got a lot of these areas that people make when their decision-making and their line of research has identified a lot of heuristics and biases that people had and as well as dual process theory that might be two different systems Kahneman called it, the intuitive and analytical. There is some debate about whether there’s actually two systems or where it’s like a continuum with analytical and intuition at either end of the scale.

Probably a big thing coming from that line of work is this idea that intuition shouldn’t be trusted because it leads to a lot of errors in contrast to that Gary Klein came along with a naturalistic decision making program of research that said we’ve got a lot of experts out there, we’ve got a lot of people in the military, doctors, we got firefighters, people that work in incredibly challenging situations that have to make snap judgements under pressure and they are able to do a really good job of it actually. How do they do that if Kahneman said people make lots of intuitive errors. So Klein research challenged that notion but also the way Kahneman’s heuristics and biases approach was quite lab-based starting to look at people in the real world bringing in a bit more observational data and saying want are people actually? How come they’re so good at decision-making? So those would be the three or four big stereotypes of decision-making. You’ve got the very very rational economic model, you’ve got Kahneman’s type of biases that intuition that leads to a lot of errors, and you’ve got Klein’s version which lead to a very very accurate and amazing insights a lot of the time.

Rick:

Yeah, I think it’s really interesting to reflect on the different ways and think about ourselves and how we how we make decisions. And given these different approaches maybe you could talk a bit about the pros and cons of the different approaches and what you do to make the most of things?

David:

Yeah so I’ll go through each one as they’ve each got lots of pros and cons, sometimes which can be the opposite of each other. Starting with the normative approach which is the economic model, the idea of expected value theory, this very very process driven, working with probabilities – the pros is it provides optimum benchmarks for outcomes. So if you can do it and you’ve got the data and you can get these probability judgements from, I guess, a lot of historical data that you can use, then it should be providing you the optimum outcome, that should be the correct solution as economists would say.

The con is people don’t really think like this, this is very difficult for people to do and as a result a lot of trainings around expected value theory and economic model end up failing in the long term. People walk away thinking that they’ve learnt this and they can do it but in the end it becomes very unnatural, very difficult for people to do and they end up falling back on things like intuition and sometimes they do that without even realizing they’re not doing the economic solution anymore.

Rick:

Does that relate to the idea of you know what decision you want to make based on your heuristic and then you back it up by some spurious numbers and rational expected value calculation.

David:

Yeah, definitely it’s absolutely true people will think they’re doing something like an expected value theory. They are plotting the grid, collecting the data but little biases sneak in there all the time, so things like confirmation bias and you see people find and tweak the probability and the values in this grid to make sure the solution churns out the thing they wanted it to in the first place. So it’s not a silver bullet getting people to make decisions in this way. There is still a lot of heuristics and biases, sort of ghosts in the machine that are very hard to get rid of.

Yeah and there’s a whole host of research that people really struggle with putting it into practice. People are not particularly good at following probability rules so you’ll find circumstances where people’s probability don’t sum up to one, when there can’t be more outcomes from there are in terms of probability – it should all add up to 100%.

We get things in the research like errors of transitivity and preference reversals. One of my favourites is the idea that a credit surcharge and a cash discount are essentially the same thing. There are different prices for using cash and/or your card but when you describe a transaction using these different frames, it can have different results. People find it more persuasive if you can say there’s a credit surcharge on this transaction. They then avoid it and pay cash. If you tell people there is a cash discount on this, they are not as convinced and might just be happy enough going along with the card. People are quite happy to forego a discount but they are not happy if they think they are going to be penalised for something.

It’s little things like that, which when you plot it out in a rational economic model like expected value theory it shouldn’t make a difference. They are basically saying the same thing. But when you find people doing it in the real world you get these little little reversals.  

Intuition in Kahneman’s mind is very fast, it’s very low cost. Some researchers say it has no cost whatsoever, it cost absolutely nothing in terms of cognitive resource. We should be able to do it no matter how busy we are. Others will say not nothing, but a low low cost.

A lot of the time it is good enough. It gets us from A to B. We’re using these intuitions, these heuristics to get by. And we make a lot of our decision based on it. Things like opting for the default a lot of the time would be a kind of low-cost intuitive rule which a lot of the time works. We take our default route home, we don’t sit there and analyse every single possible coffee and what the probability is that it give us a certain level of satisfaction. We go with that default, that gut feel.

The con is that it leads to a lot of biases which I guess we’ll talk about in a bit. Things like overconfidence in anchoring biases, framing effects. So although it’s low cost and a lot of the time it’s good enough, it is the one that leads biases and errors.

In terms of analytical thinking, it would just be the reverse of the type one really. Analytical thinking can be more accurate, it tends to give us a good benchmarks but the con is it slow, it’s effortful and it’s a very very costly in terms of cognitive resource. There is not a lot that you can do while doing a complex bit of analysis, it takes a lot of a lot of brain power.

And then the other side of that would be the Gary Klein approach talking about expertise and expert intuition. It’s like reversing again in that the pro is that it can result in incredibly accurate decisions in very very difficult situations like emergency room or under fire from an enemy in a military scenario. People can come up with amazing solutions to problems using their intuition.

The downside of it, the con, is that requires extensive experience in order to get to that point where you can rely on your expert intuition. And it’s not just experience in terms of time in the role but it needs to be a kind environment. So it can’t be too noisy, you can’t have too many confounding variables at play, you can’t have a lot of spurious correlation. You need to be quite kind and quite clean and you’re getting nice good timely feedback.

So those would be the pros and cons of the different ones. I suppose quite similar.

Rick:

Given those, what advice arises out of that to help people to make better decisions?

David:

Its’s the big question again. I’ve tried to stick to a few here but this is a huge field of work but it’s still ongoing to how do we conquer this because in some aspects the heuristics and biases are fairly new.

I’ve got a few points I will mention. The first would be awareness is really really important. Awareness of the different types of biases, the different types of heuristics we use, the different traps and pitfalls that we might fall into. So I suppose everyone listening, go and have a read of Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ would be a good start.

That’s a really good example of a lifetime’s amount of research that has gone into the pitfall and traps people fall into and what to be aware of. I think it’s a good starting point because it may not make you a perfect decision maker but what it’s going to do is highlight areas where you need to be extra careful, for you exercise a little bit of extra caution. So little things that you can do if you feel like you’re falling into an area where a bias could sneak in.

So you can do things like reframing the information. For example, the credit surcharge, if someone’s telling you that there’s a credit surcharge you can reframe that question and say would I reach the same decision if I thought of this as a cash discount? The same thing if you are in a supermarket and see sausages marked-up 80% meat, think in your head, ok what if that sticker said 20% non-meat? Would that change your mind about how delicious those sausages are going to be? If so you might be falling into a trap of a bias.

So try reframing information, trying to take the outside view. We’re very good at making decisions based on information is presented to us, so we can see right in front of us. We are very good at making decisions based on what’s right in front of our eyes but not so good at making decisions or drawing illusions from what’s missing. So trying to take a step back, trying to look at the outside view and finding useful reference classes so people who’ve been in similar situations – what did they do? Did they succeed? Did they fail? How similar are they to me? How similar is their situation to what I’m going through at the minute?

We should do this automatically in novel situations, for example things that are very very new to us. We can almost feel ourselves slipping back into that analytical mode of thinking. So imagine driving your car and you’re on a bit of unfamiliar road, an unfamiliar junction. You find yourself going into analytic mode and any conversation that you’re holding with a passenger sort of pauses and you draw that extra attention or resources into figuring out where you are. But what about routine ones, routes that you always take? You tend not to think too much, tend not to process too much about what’s going on and you can happily hold a conversation with other people in the car because you’re not using up too much energy and effort on the drive.

So it’s those kind of novel situations where people are reverting back to intuition whereby accidents can occur, just being extra careful that we’re not falling into a trap of one of these heuristics and biases. Ok – maybe I can analyse this a little bit more, reframe the question, take the outside view.

Rick:

That’s really helpful. I think we can take a lot about like the idea of the sausages in particular, and practicing one things like that.

Finally, people are currently making lots of decisions under uncertainty but also a lot of pressure. I know that’s another area you’ve looked at – taking decisions when you’re under a lot of pressure. Is there anything in particular you’d mentioned there just to wrap up with?

David:

I would say I’ll go back to your professor from earlier you were talking about who maybe didn’t like the word stress. I think we can be maybe specific and try and challenge what we’re thinking about stress because sometimes pressure is a good thing and sometimes adding pressure helps.

So adding pressure can increase the effort we put. For example, increasing accountability, transparency or incentives can add pressure and it can increase effort. There are certain scenarios where increased effort can result in better decision making and performance, but not always. Because when we talk about stress and anxiety, it’s a different matter. As I mentioned when driving the car, we’ve got this limited pool of potential resource we can either spend it analysing the route or we can hold a conversation. Trying to separate that attention on different tasks is quite an important thing because if we start drawing attention away from the tasks we’re trying to complete we end up making mistakes.

So there are a lot of downsides to this. We can fall into the trap of making lapses and slips, forgetting things, applying the wrong rule. A lot of the time this is unintentional, there can be times when it is intentional. These are known as violations in the taxonomy of human error. Increasing the pressure and making a very pressurised situation can increase a number of violations people make as well. Trying to do things sneakily, take shortcuts, flaunt the rules in order to maybe get home on time. If you’re an auditor, maybe we’re not going to check that final invoice back to the debtor’s ledger. So that’s the kind of violation people might be making on purpose.

What do we do about it?

There are two general approaches. One would be an individual approach and one would be a systems approach. I guess the ICAEW’s exams is a useful example. I didn’t do all of mine but I got through to the professional stage and I’ll tell you it’s a very difficult set of questions and it’s a very strict time limit under a fair bit of pressure. I suppose there’s a reason why the pass mark is 55% not 90% or 95% to pass. It’s a highly pressurised environment, you’ve got to expect errors with a lot of stress, difficult questions and a time limit. People are going to make errors.

So the systems approaches is all about that. We are human, we’ve got to expect error. So if there’s anything that we can do to focus on the system rather than the individual and say can we engineer things in the environment to make it a bit easier for people. An exam example would be reducing the difficulty of the question, removing the time limit, adding people that can help or adding resources and machines to help us.

The individual approach on the other hand would focus on the individual and would say what can we do with this person to reduce their stress. We can do things like mindfulness to reduce the impact of stress or we can reduce the demand tasks have through repetition and practice. The more and more you do something, the easier it becomes.

For a comprehensive answer, you have to do a bit of both. Focusing only on the individual is a little bit unfair as it puts the blame on them. There are skills we can equip them with to reduce the demand of what they are doing. Overall I think we need to look at the systems approach, which I think a lot of auditors would appreciate.

The final tip would be in terms of decision making and the systems approach would be not just focussing on outcomes when we’re looking at our decision making. We are living in a very uncertain world, a very noisy world, there are a lot of times when outcomes are positive but have resulted from chance and sometimes a very system and decision-making process went into it. And vice versa a lot of good decision-making might go on in the background which leads to a bad outcome, which could be chance. So I need to tell the auditors out there the importance of controls testing and focusing on assistant not just the outcome as there is a lot of chance and a lot of noise going on.

Rick:

Thank you, that’s really helpful and we do urge people to review their processes because we sometimes, we’re just on to the next problem, on to the next issue without reviewing how can we do things better, what have we learnt.

So David from my perspective and what we’re doing at ICAEW that’s been really helpful and I’m sure our members and audience will get some valuable tips and hopefully will follow up on some of those ideas.

Thank you very much.

David:

My pleasure. It’s been really enjoyable to have someone to talk to about that all of these different bits of theory and research.

Thank you very much.

Narrator:

That’s the end of today’s podcast. We hope you enjoyed listening. Make sure you check out what else Birkbeck Inspires has in store at the website www.bbk.ac.uk/birkbeck-inspires

Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Dr Eva DuBose

Eva studied for her Graduate Certificate, MA and PhD in History of Art at Birkbeck, spanning a period of nearly 10 years. Her thesis is being submitted later this year and focuses on the significance and context of late medieval art and architecture in Swedish Parish Churches.

Pictured: Dr Eva DuBose

What encouraged you to attend Birkbeck?

Through a long and successful career in banking, I had always held an aspiration to study a subject in the humanities. An opportunity to explore this ambition further arose when my husband and I decided to start a consultancy business together.

My initial attempt at a few lifelong learning courses at other institutions did not provide the level of academic rigour that I was looking for.  On the recommendation of friends who had already studied at Birkbeck, I was attracted by the wide range of courses on offer at the College.  I came for an initial interview in the Department of History of Art and immediately felt that it could offer the level and flexibility of study that I wanted. Hence, following completion of the excellent Graduate Certificate programme in History of Art, I decided to continue with an MA. It was during the MA programme that the pursuit of late medieval art and architecture in Northern Europe and Sweden started in earnest. Those studies subsequently developed into my doctoral project and now my PhD marks the crowning achievement of my studies at Birkbeck.

How did it feel studying again?

Being a mature student free from outside pressure has been incredibly rewarding. Of course, my chosen academic path has not been without challenges, but the opportunity to study purely for the pursuit of knowledge and critical thinking has been a privilege.

Tell us about your PhD and what inspired you to continue your studies.

The subject of my doctoral project is late medieval art and architecture manifested in parish churches around Lake Mälaren in central Sweden. As a Swedish national, Birkbeck offered me the opportunity to bring this unique material to a wider academic audience. A central strand of my research concerns the interrelationship between architecture and image and their function in contemporary liturgical and devotional contexts. In so doing, my thesis argues that the mode of viewing and the expectation of the audience become critical tools for their interpretation.

Congratulations on completing this year! What are your next steps? 

My plans are still work in progress. I have some small amendments to make before my final thesis hand-in, then, as a first step, I aim to investigate channels and sources of funding for possible publication whether as a monograph or in detailed essays. Longer term this may involve giving papers at conferences and organising academic visits to monuments included in my research.

What advice would you give to someone considering beginning a PhD?

Be passionate about your research subject matter! Remember that the PhD process can be all consuming at times and be prepared for setbacks along the route. The relationship with your supervisor is key to a successful and rewarding project. You will also need a support network of peers and friends to share in the experience

What have you enjoyed most during your time at Birkbeck?

Throughout my studies at Birkbeck I have encountered many inspirational tutors who have greatly stimulated and encouraged me along my academic path. Moreover, the diversity of the students adds interesting dimensions to the scholarly debate both in terms of approach to the discipline as well as previous experience and age. Interacting with students in their early 30s and students in their 70s has been very stimulating. I think Birkbeck is wonderful to offer opportunities for anybody who wants to take up part-time studies with its very wide and flexible range of programmes.

Birkbeck Inspires: Conversations with Alumni – Cynthia Chisom Umezulike

Cynthia Chisom Umezulike is an international human rights lawyer and associate lecturer in law. She is also the Policy Director and Co-chair of Hon. Justice Innocent Umezulike Foundation and recently completed her PhD in law at Birkbeck. In this blog she talks to us about her experiences of studying at Birkbeck.

·   How was your experience doing your PhD at Birkbeck?

At Birkbeck, I gained excellent time management techniques, problem-solving capacity, research information management and value-based competence in fulfilling complex tasks. My PhD supervisor, Prof Bill Bowring continuously challenged my writing and reasoning in pushing the boundaries of critical thinking to make a significant contribution to knowledge. Prof Bowring’s high impact contribution to my overall academic performance is a testament to the overall outcome of my thesis, which Gilchrist Trust Award especially noted as one of the most outstanding PhD thesis across Birkbeck, University of London. 

·   What were the benefits of doing a PhD?

Completing the PhD degree at Birkbeck, has equipped me with the fundamental competence and cognitive skills to make an immediate positive impression in advancing identified core values and objectives. Obtaining a PhD degree has provided an extensive range of career opportunities, and I am now able to compete in senior-level positions successfully. 

·   How did being at Birkbeck benefit your career?

I began my leadership and advocacy training at Birkbeck- awaking my passion and commitment for teaching, digital mobilization and activism, advocacy and human development. I have since independently founded two thriving NGO’s dedicated to advancing socio-economic and cultural rights while working as a human rights and policy director in a third sector organisation. Also, I currently teach foundation and undergraduate Criminal Law, Constitutional and Administrative Law courses at Birkbeck.

·   Why did you choose Birkbeck over other universities?

Birkbeck provided a conducive and vibrant environment for learning and conducting research. The quality of staff and independent program initiatives upholds Birkbeck’s long commitment to producing high performing doctoral candidates. 

·   How did you find the Birkbeck experience overall?

My overall experience at Birkbeck was very positive and has shaped my drive to maintain excellence in conducting high impact research and producing value-based results. I credit my strong academic background, especially the PhD process at Birkbeck for not only developing my critical analytical skills but also instilling the values of hard work, consistency, patience and perseverance. 

Birkbeck on University Challenge

Birkbeck’s University Challenge team stormed to victory in the first round of this year’s series. The programme aired on 10th August, with Birkbeck students facing the University of Reading. They secured a place in the next round with an impressive 295 points to Reading’s 50. Here, we catch up with the contestants Jonathan Willams (MA Classics), Joshua Mutio (MSc Politics, Philosophy and Economics), Jonathan Taylor (MSc Environment and Sustainability) and Nicky Clarke (PhD Early Modern History) on Birkbeck student life and their hopes for the next round… 

Pictured: This year’s Birkbeck University Challenge Team

Why did you choose to study at Birkbeck? 

Nicky: I did my MA here because I really liked the Early Modern History course and I also liked the idea that I wouldn’t necessarily be the oldest student in the room! 

Jonathan W: I’ve been interested in Classics since my schooldays, and I revived that interest by starting to study Latin and Greek in earnest a few years ago.  I took A-levels in both languages last year and wanted to carry on my studies so Birkbeck was the natural choice.  It has a great reputation in the subject, and it’s the perfect place to study if you want to maintain a career whilst studying.  It’s also close to where I live. 

Joshua: It meant I could study whilst keeping my full-time job as an analyst at NHS England. Plus, Birkbeck was the only university offering my preferred course for evening study, so it was a perfect match. 

Jonathan T: I chose Birkbeck because the course looked very good, and because the approach (part time, evening classes etc.) fitted well with other commitments. 

 What made you apply for University Challenge? 

Jonathan W: I’ve always enjoyed quizzing and am part of a regular pub quiz team. I saw the trials were on at the start of the year, and I thought, “why not? It should be fun!” 

Nicky: I didn’t get the chance to do it many moons ago as an undergraduate so I thought it would be fun to try this time around. 

Joshua: My hopes weren’t high, but I felt I had nothing to lose by auditioning. I‘ve always wanted to have something in common with Stephen Fry, too! 

Jonathan T: I applied for fun! 

What was your strategy ahead of the first round? 

Jonathan W: I think we wanted to cover as many subject areas as we could, so we each chose ones to swot up on.  I plumped for physics and chemistry, which seemed like a good idea at the time.  Not so much now…! 

Joshua: I’m not sure we had one… besides answering as many questions as possible, preferably correctly. 

Nicky: We practiced regularly. 

Jonathan T: Our strategy before the first round included several evenings of practice, we are doing the same now.   

What is Jeremy Paxman like? 

Joshua: A gent.  

Jonathan W: Very charming.  He even offered to show us the way to the studio from the stage door. 

Nicky: Pretty good making at teams feel less nervous. 

Have you filmed any further rounds? Can you give us an idea of how things go…? 

Joshua: Our next match is filmed in a few weeks, but we’ll be sworn to secrecy. 

Nicky: We have only recorded round one. The schedule has been disrupted by Covid and we don’t record again until September. 

What’s life been like since the programme aired? 

Jonathan W: I’ve had lots of lovely messages from people I haven’t been in touch with for ages, so that has been nice. 

Nicky: Much the same as before, though several old friends have said they nearly fell off their sofas when they saw me. 

Joshua: There were some articles about me in the tabloids, and Greg James spoke about me on Radio 1, which was all a bit bonkers. Besides that, totally ordinary. 

Jonathan T: Since the programme aired a surprising number of people have been in touch. It gets one of the largest audiences on BBC2 (around 2 million). 

Do you think that you can go all the way to the final? 

Nicky: To borrow a well-known sporting analogy, we are taking it one game at a time. 

Jonathan W: Absolutely! We’re certainly going to give it our best shot. 

Jonathan T: Too early to say how far we might go, the questions get tougher as the rounds proceed, and teams get quicker on the buzzer. 

Joshua: If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that anything can happen… 

The team will appear in the next round in September 2020, we wish them the best of luck!