Changing cities and the meaning of beauty

Dr Daniele D’Alvia, Module Convener in Comparative Law, delves into his thoughts on how cities and communities are changing and with this explores the concept of beauty.

Dr Daniele D’Alvia

In 2019, I agreed with Professor Anne Wagner, Professor of Legal Semiotics at Lille University, to write about the relative and absolute meanings of beauty in relation to cities. I wrote about the beauty of cities, mentioning the sentence of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Russian novelist, “Beauty shall save the world”. A sentence that today becomes – as I affirmed in 2019 – ‘a necessity and a new way to see the world’ especially in the face of political transformation, environmental changes or catastrophes.

As a Birkbeck Ronnie Warrington scholar and a passionate reader of Oscar Wilde, I shall write on the meanings of beauty. Beauty cannot be seen as an absolute, fixed concept. Indeed, I firmly believe that beauty must be interpreted as relative and susceptible to change to become the expression of a new transformation that can turn the actual signs of imperfection and political change into a new beautiful meaning. The ‘imperfect’ past or present can, indeed, vanish in front of crowded streets of protesters that today march side by side with people of different religions, races, and sexual orientations. This because the new future shall start to become the new present of an evolved and transformed vision of cities as well as of communities.

In this light, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement this year as well as the political demonstrations and protests in Minsk, Belarus, represent the necessity of seeing the world differently. As I have affirmed in 2019 ‘beauty becomes a necessity’. That same necessity to re-invent the world in front of the violence and dictatorship has given new meanings and interpretations to cities.

Minsk has shown the world that people are now asking to become more aligned with democratic concepts of equality and freedom. The flower-bearing women protesting in Minsk in August in response to the police violence inflicted on Belarusians represents the new meaning of beauty of the silenced innocents. Additionally, the removal of statues that symbolised colonial power becomes the symptom of a transformation of cities towards new ideals of inclusion, diversity, and tolerance. Indeed, it seems that nowadays the concept of beauty must be relative and open to change, rather than absolute and fixed, because it is inside the same ‘relativity’ that we can identify the meaning of change and revolution.

It is with discussions and the debating of our own views and opinions that we can change the world. Everything that is perceived as absolute and fixed can only absolutely destroy. The relativity of ideas, the doctrine that knowledge, truth and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, is the key to progress and equality. Indeed, I firmly believe that each real revolution starts within ourselves and we need to open ourselves to thinking beyond our own self-interests and boundaries.

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Student life in the time of COVID-19

As the new academic year commences soon on 5 October, this blog summarises the current public health advice and information to remind students what they need to know before the university term starts.  

Birkbeck's main building, Torrington Square

Birkbeck’s main building, Torrington Square

Protect yourself, your university and the wider community remember ‘Hands. Face. Space’.

  • Wash your hands regularly 
  • The College has adopted a 1M+ approach to social distancing in circulation areas across the estate. This means that people should maintain a two-metre distance, as far as is reasonably possible whilst in buildings but, with the mitigation of face coverings, it is possible for people to be in closer proximity, for example when passing each other in corridors. However, when people are in rooms for prolonged periods, such as in a classroom, the Library or shared office space, then a 2M social distance should be maintained. This will be supported by laying out furniture, such as classroom desks or library study spaces with two metre spacing
  • We require that everyone wears a face covering whilst inside Birkbeck buildings
  • Get a test and self-isolate if you develop symptoms 
  • Use the NHS Test and Trace app

Whether you’re a new or returning student you’ll no doubt have lots of questions or concerns about how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact your student life. Whether you are already based in London or moving to the city, you’ll need to know what actions you should take to keep yourself safe but also fellow students, university staff and the local community. This blog summarises the important public health advice and information to remind you of what you need to know before the university term starts.   

Public health basics  

You’ve probably been looking forward to starting or returning to university, your friends but it’s essential to keep the public health basics front of mind and always remember ‘Hands. Face. Space’. 

Your ‘household’ will consist of your family or flatmates that you share your home with or if you are living in university halls your halls of residence will let you know what makes up your household. 

Follow the student guidance and booking process for visiting the Birkbeck libraryWe will have very limited on-campus classes and events in the autumn term, but this is under constant review and we will update you as plans change.

The College has adopted a 1M+ approach to social distancing in circulation areas across the estate. This means that people should maintain a two-metre distance, as far as is reasonably possible whilst in buildings but, with the mitigation of face coverings, it is possible for people to be in closer proximity, for example when passing each other in corridors. However, when people are in rooms for prolonged periods, such as in a classroom, the Library or shared office space, then a 2M social distance should be maintained. This will be supported by laying out furniture, such as classroom desks or library study spaces with two metre spacing. We require that everyone wears a face covering whilst inside Birkbeck buildings.

To stay safe while travelling try to avoid car sharing and using public transport at peak times. Walk or cycle when it’s possible and safe to do so. These basics will help protect you, university life and local residents, especially those that are more vulnerable. 

If you’re a student in the clinically extremely vulnerable group, having previously been shielding, and you have a particular health concern you should seek medical advice.

Moving to your university home 

Be sure to follow the government’s latest advice on coronavirus. London is not currently listed as an area with additional restrictions, but if you’re coming from Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, remember that the rules and restrictions are different to those in England. It’s also a good idea to get up to speed on the overall advice on staying safe outside your home and find out your new local council so you can keep uptodate on local guidance.  

If you’re an international student coming to the UK from abroad, make sure you provide your journey and contact details before you travel to the UK and you know whether you need to self-isolate for 14 days when you arrive, and read the guidance on entering the UK safely.  

International travel restrictions and local restrictions can change quickly and without much warning so be sure to keep an eye on the latest guidance while making your travel plans.

What to do if you need to self-isolate 

If you test positive for coronavirus while at university, the rules on self-isolation remain the same. You must self-isolate for 10 days and follow NHS guidance. Your other close contacts that will be informed by NHS Test and Trace if they should self-isolate. 

If you’re living in university accommodation where someone in your ‘household’ (as set out by the accommodation management team) has symptoms of coronavirus or tests positive you must let the management team know. 

Wherever you live, you should self-report on My Birkbeck so the university can offer any extra support you might need for your course 

NHS Test and Trace 

Make sure the university has your latest personal details to ensure the NHS Test and Trace can get in touch if they need to – you can update your personal details on you’re MyBirkbeck profile. 

If you or anyone you’ve had close contact with test positive for coronavirus, you’ll be contacted by NHS Test and Trace and asked to self-isolate. If you are contacted, you will be asked to provide them with information they’ll need to help stop the spread of the virus. 

The NHS Test and Trace app is part of the national effort to get us back doing the things we love and every person who downloads the app will be helping in the fight against coronavirus. The app will help you to report symptoms, order a coronavirus test, check in to venues by scanning a QR code and help the NHS trace those who may have coronavirus. The app will do all this while protecting your identity and data security. The app will be available shortly so do the right thing and download it and encourage your student household and friends to do likewise.

Got symptoms – get a test 

Make sure you are clear about the symptoms of coronavirus and when you should get a test. If you have any of the following symptoms you should get a test: 

  • a high temperature 
  • a new, continuous cough 
  • a loss of, or change to, your sense of smell or taste

You can book a test on line at GOV.UK at https://www.gov.uk/get-coronavirus-test or by phoning NHS 119.

If you have a confirmed case of COVID-19, you can self-report on your MyBirkbeck profile.

Be mindful of your mental health 

Recent months haven’t been fun or easy for anyone not least of all students. The new online resource at Student Space has a variety of useful mental health and wellbeing materials that can support you. Public Health England has also published general guidance on mental health and wellbeing during COVID-19.

Your role is crucial 

By following the guidance on washing your hands; keeping your distance; not socialising with more than 6 people; wearing a face covering; using the NHS Test and Trace app, self-isolating and getting a test if you have symptoms you are helping to save lives. Respecting the rules will keep you, your friends and family healthy, and your university town a safe and enjoyable place to live. 

We will continue to post updated on Birkbeck’s coronavirus information page, and in the weekly email to students.  

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Blended learning: Improving access to higher education

Dr James Hammond, Reader in Geophysics, shares his thoughts on online learning, reflecting on his experiences of delivering both face-to-face and online teaching in Birkbeck’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

The ongoing pandemic means that new university students are weighing up the impacts of a sudden move to online learning. Many are understandably concerned that this will negatively impact their university experience, reducing their ability to learn and engage with other students and faculty. However, my experience delivering both face-to-face and online education in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences is that for a significant number of people, the opposite may be true. An online platform offers more access, and indeed for some, their only access to higher education. This can allow students to study for a certificate, degree, Masters or PhD built around their complicated lifestyle rather than having to fit their lifestyle around a university degree.

‘Traditional’ Birkbeck students

For almost 200 years courses at Birkbeck have been delivered in the evening, allowing those who work full time in the day to study part time, making higher education affordable and more accessible. When describing Birkbeck to colleagues at other universities, we are often asked to describe our students. This is not an easy task. Each one of our students is unique with a story to tell. At Birkbeck, we teach everyone, from students straight from school, carers who need to be at home during the day, those looking to change career or gain further qualifications, to retirees curious to learn more about the world, and many more. Each one of these students has challenges and responsibilities that affect their ability to complete a degree. Rising to Birkbeck’s mission of making education accessible to all these people is a challenge, but it is what makes the College truly special.

Fitting a degree around your lifestyle

Within the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences we have been making efforts to understand our students and make our courses more accessible. While evening teaching allows those close to London to take advantage of our courses, it does not help those outside London who seek higher education, but for who traditional university is not an option. To combat this, in the late 1990’s we decided to embrace distance learning, making our courses available to students at home as well as in London. In the early days this involved posting out boxes of CD’s with all our material, but today we use a state-of-the-art online platform that allows our students to live stream lectures, join in class discussions and practical sessions from home and chat to lecturers one-to-one. Students can ‘view’ a microscope image from their offices, conduct research projects from their lounge and present their results to leading researchers from their bedrooms. All lectures are recorded and made available offline, meaning they can be watched at a later date to suit the student.

Our ethos in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences is to make our degrees flexible and each student is free to choose how they participate. Many attend each class in person in London, more combine a mixture of face-to-face and distance learning, so called ‘blended learning’.  This allows students with shift work or caring responsibilities to participate, or students who can come to London once a week, once a month or in many cases not at all to complete a University of London degree.

Blended learning is here to stay in our Department

While we all hope that we can soon get back to our classrooms, delivering in person teaching to those who choose to come to London, we in Earth and Planetary Sciences will continue to develop new and innovative ways for distance learners from all over the UK and the world to join our unique community at Birkbeck and share the College’s 200 year vision of making education accessible for everyone.

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New (and not so new) perspectives about humour and management

Juan Dávila, BA Global Politics and International Relations alumnus (returning to Birkbeck to undertake an LLM in the next academic year), discusses resilience, virtual socialisation and productivity in these challenging times.

In the last decades much had been written about the relationship between humour and good management. Still, considering the current global pandemic crisis originated with COVID-19, it is necessary to revisit a few key concepts that help us to contribute to the preservation of the right spirit and motivation in our organisations. After all, institutions, either seeking profit or not, are human constructions, and human nature is and has always been resilient.

Having said this, hundreds of thousands of original videos were produced in the last months, proving that self-isolation can be positively a time of self-discovery, where humour is a crucial element to enhance mental health and to deal with constant mediatic bombarding. Like Roberto Benigni in ‘La vita è bella’, people use their creativity and imagination under the worse circumstances.

Furthermore, a beneficial link between laughter and the boost of the immunological system had been traced as a result in scientific studies, since when we laugh our body produces substances like endorphins, adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine that helps to relax our muscles and potentiate a feeling on mindfulness.

Once again, institutions, profit and non-profit, have in the last months made radical efforts to adapt their operations to the new circumstances affecting all type of practices and routines. Stress and anxiety are common symptoms that can later change the core of the organisation if they are not dealt with collectively. The challenges are indeed enormous, but also opportunities to be embraced.

But how can we apply humour to motivate our work environment? Like in any human interaction, speakers and listeners produce and exchange verbal and non-verbal communication. The effectiveness of communication is the base to reach mutual understanding. In that context, humour is an exciting tool to be used organically. Our difference with previous generations is that in times of social distance, much of our daily interaction is done online through devices that can, fortunately, allow us to retransmit image and voice in real-time.

In terms of effective communication, being funny is always about taking risks, considering the timing and other people points of view—also, project confidence and intellectual agility. Co-workers can eventually feel stimulated to work with someone that knows how de-dramatise the complexity of some operations. But, inappropriate jokes and remarks can undoubtedly cause the contrary effect and can eventually evidence incompetency. In any case, teamwork and good peer feedback are encouraged to safeguard fluent and effective communication, that at the end impact on the work environment.

When the dog is barking, or a child is crying in the middle of an urgent conference call, some things are indeed beyond our control. We have all been in similar situations. In these circumstances, a laugh can help to humanise these kinds of situations. It is essential to always take into consideration that the best humour is still coming from laughing about ourselves. In this context, leaders with a sense of humour are more approachable, helping to build up trust and boost the morale of the team.

Simple team building dynamics can also motivate people and encourage productivity. Here some tips and ideas:

  • If you want to keep your privacy at home, make sure that you use a professional virtual background. You can have a few of them to change accordingly to the situation.
  • You can all agree to wear a particular colour or dress code to attend a meeting. For example: ‘Red on Tuesday, and Green on Fridays’
  • Celebrate small steps or achievements is also a way to show appreciation to your colleagues.
  • Sharing ideas about what to do during social distance can also help to motivate people.
  • When working with colleagues in different time zones, it is vital to empathise. It could be the beginning or the end of the day for them
  • Also, working with people using different languages, it is crucial to formulate ideas and questions using simple vocabulary to facilitate understanding.

Moreover, being positive will not guarantee to succeed, but being negative will ensure that you will not. So, let us be the reason why someone smiles today.

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How long do we need to wait to acknowledge that black people are no longer our slaves?

Following the death of George Floyd in America on 25 May 2020, Dr Carmen Fracchia, Reader in Hispanic Art History, talks about art, slavery and what it means for modern society.

Isidro de Villoldo, The Miracle of the Black Leg, 1547: © Museo Nacional de Escultura, Valladolid, Spain.

The deliberate public torture and murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, a former police officer in Minneapolis, on 25 May 2020 and the indifference to the black man’s pain shown by his killer and three police officers, Thomas K. Lane, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng, immediately brought to my mind the most violent image of The Miracle of the Black Leg, made by the sculptor Isidro de Villoldo, in 1547 in Valladolid (Spain), then the royal seat of the most powerful Iberian empire in the Western world. In this small wooden panel, a mutilated African man lies on the floor while screaming with pain, following the removal of his left leg to have it grafted onto the patient by St Damian, while his brother St Cosmas is taking the sick man’s pulse and examining his urine in a vessel. This horrific scene takes place in a sumptuous setting, where there is a lavish application of the New World gold that was still readily available. The wealth that is exuded here is in stark contrast to the violence of the African amputee lying, in agony, on the ground. The ensuing horror of this image is amplified by the indifference shown by the white figures in the room towards the amputee’s excruciating sacrifice. Medieval legends of saintly healers, who perform miracles of body reparation, were written to counteract the revulsion felt at the fragmentation or dismemberment of bodies for political or scientific purposes that had become common in Western Europe at the end of the thirteenth century with the legalization of dissection practices in European centres and the public exhibition of body parts from criminals, associated with the practice of judicial punishments.

The narrative of the Valladolid image deviates from the three known legends (Greek, Latin, and Catalan) that inform the visual representation of this miracle enacted by SS. Cosmas and Damian, although the Latin legend is closest to it:

Felix, the eighth pope after S. Gregory, did do make a noble church at Rome of the saints Cosmo and Damian, and there was a man which served devoutly the holy martyrs in that church, who a canker had consumed all his thigh. And as he slept, the holy martyrs Cosmo and Damian, appeared to him their devout servant, bringing with them an instrument and ointment of whom that one said to that other: Where shall we have flesh when we have cut away the rotten flesh to fill the void place? Then that other said to him: There is an Ethiopian that this day is buried in the churchyard of S. Peter ad Vincula, which is yet fresh, let us bear this thither, and take we out of that morian’s flesh and fill this place withal. And so they fetched the thigh of the sick man and so changed that one for that other. And when the sick man awoke and felt no pain, he put forth his hand and felt his leg without hurt, and then took a candle, and saw well that it was not his thigh, but that it was another. And when he was well come to himself, he sprang out of his bed for joy, and recounted to all the people how it was happed to him, and that which he had seen in his sleep, and how he was healed. And they sent hastily to the tomb of the dead man, and found the thigh of him cut off, and that other thigh in the tomb instead of his. Then let us pray unto these holy martyrs to be our succour and help in all our hurts, blechures and sores, and that by their merits after this life we may come to everlasting bliss in heaven. Amen.

Jacobus of Voragine collected the Latin legend of the miraculous transplantation of the black leg in ‘The Lives of Saint Cosmas and Damian’ in his book The Golden Legend or Lives of Saints (1275), the most widely circulated stories of saints in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. In this Valladolid image, the first obvious departure from this legend is that the mutilated ‘Ethiopian’ is not a corpse from a cemetery, but an in vivo Afro-Hispanic man whose leg has been amputated whilst he is alive. It is impossible to grasp this violent image if we do not take into account the backdrop of the abolition of ‘Indian’ slavery in the New World in 1542 and the emergence there of a new system of slavery with the enslavement, capture, and export to the Americas of Africans, a trade that was directly promoted by the Crown and the Cardinal Inquisitor Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, but also by Bartolomé de Las Casas. The latter expresses pastoral concern only about Native Americans and actively contributes to the export of black slaves to New Spain in the years between 1516 and 1543, an action that he came to regret (1545–7), some time before the end of the famous Valladolid debate with Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda about the soul of the Native Americans (1550–1). This horrific imagery is symbolic of not only the process of colonization in the Spanish empire, but above all the appropriation of the black body and the violence of slavery, the paradoxical emergence of the commodified domestic Christian Afro-Hispanic slave, and the encounter with free Christian European subjects. The shocking thing is that the worth of the black mutilated man is defined vis-à-vis his total subordination to his white master. To be a black person in imperial Spain, between the last quarter of the fifteenth century until the end of the eighteenth century meant to be a chattel, a piece of property, to be hired, bought and sold as a precious commodity at auctions; to become objects of material exchange: traded to save the donor’s soul, gifts, dowry, and, heritage; money to pay debts, to settle accounts in lieu of mortgages, and rents. To be a black person meant to be owned by a slave master and to suffer punishment at any sign of rebellion against this complete dehumanization in a society where the word ‘black’ and the physical appearance of blackness were signifiers of the specific social condition of slavery. Besides, to be a black person also meant to become a strategic resource for the colonization of the New World.

Africans and their descendants anywhere in the globe do not need to learn from us that the institution of slavery is a crime against humanity. They had experienced the dehumanisation process inherent in the workings of slavery every day, every hour, every minute, every second of their lives for the last five centuries. The killing of Mr Floyd shows that we are still stuck in the effects of the transatlantic slavery, originally institutionalized by the Iberian empire that was partly responsible for the presence of approximately two million slaves living in the Iberian Peninsula and islands during the early modern period.

The problem is not the African diaspora. The problem is our attitude toward the Other, in this case towards Africans and their descendants. We need to change our attitude and to become more aware of their history and of their secular sacrifice to their master. We never experienced the lack of total freedom, the nature of total subordination to a master. And we never allowed Africans to be totally free. They could become freed women and freed men which is not the same as free women and free men. The deliberate killings of black people systematically show that we still consider Africans and their descent as our slaves. We believe in their sense of inferiority and we still demand their unconditional services to us because thanks to us they became ‘human’ and ‘civilised’. We still demand their total sacrifice of their life, talents, and contributions to our societies as their obligations towards us, because they owe us their wellbeing, their freedom, education, and, careers. After all, they are now civilised because we rescued them from being wild, barbarians and pagans. We taught them how to become Christians. They should be thankful for these opportunities we gave them in life, so much so that if we need their leg to heal our body, we’ll take it with no consultation. If we need their life to achieve our aims, we take them. The evidence is the death of George Floyd. How long will it take for us to believe that the African diaspora in the Americas and in Europe are no longer our slaves?

Perhaps we could learn from another Spanish image: the portrait of the enslaved painter Juan de Pareja (c.1606, Antequera, Málaga–c.1670, Madrid), by his celebrated master, Diego Velázquez, court painter to Philip IV, King of Spain, which was made (1649) and exhibited to great acclaim in Rome during the Jubilee year of 1650, before Velázquez emancipated Pareja in Rome on 23 November 1650. In his half-length portrait, Velázquez’s slave is seen looking directly at the viewer, holding his right arm across his waist and standing against an undefined brown-and-black back- ground. Pareja is portrayed as a Spanish gentleman wearing a dark grey velvet doublet and coat with an exclusive white lace collar from Flanders, ‘forbidden in Spain to free men and shunned by Philip IV, who favoured austere dress’. In this extant portrait, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the sitter is the sole figure and his powerful gaze totally dominates the canvas and engages the viewer.

In his Juan de Pareja, Velázquez comes to elaborate the emergence of the slave subject in Hapsburg Spain. The court painter acknowledges and expresses the inner life of his slave by depicting his ‘thinking mind’ and the ‘perturbations of his soul’. Thus, Velázquez endows Pareja with his own humanity: his slave has an equal gaze to that of his viewers. The powerful sitter of this extraordinary portrait is not depicted as a subordinate subject as the sacrificial Ethiopian victim of the Miracle of the Black Leg. The slave Pareja is shown as a free subject even before his emancipation. Velázquez’s adoption and adaptation of the restrictive genre of portraiture to include his slave magnifies the effect of Pareja’s sense of humanity and worth. The depiction of a mestizo/mulato slave in a portrait defamiliarizes the essence of this genre and produces a dislocation in the viewer’s mind. Juan de Pareja transcends the hegemonic norm in imperial Spain and could only be regarded as oxymoronic. Velázquez’s powerful depiction of his slave provides the conceptual scaffolding and the form that Pareja uses in his own self-portrait as a freed slave and in the depiction of the emancipatory slave subject in his painting The Calling of Saint Matthew, produced for the Hapsburg court, one year after his master’s death in 1660, and now at the Museo del Prado (Madrid, only recently shown to the public).

The freedman Pareja managed to forge a career as a painter at the Spanish Court. The whereabouts of almost 20 out of the 30 paintings by the artist recently identified are still unknown, such as portraits of unidentified subjects and religious paintings. However, Pareja’s surviving works that are signed and dated are in the following museums: Museo del Prado and the Lázaro Galdiano Foundation, in Madrid; Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia; Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia, Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida.

We urgently need to recover the often hidden, invisible histories of the African diaspora and of their cultural contributions made to European and American societies. We can celebrate blackness as in this extract from the extraordinary poem, The Song of a Freedman (1700) by an anonymous Afro-Hispanic freedman, discovered in 1993:

I am black
Guinea is my homeland Black my body
and black my soul,
and black too
all my lineage,
my glory is to be black,
and I make celebration of it.

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Tips for enhancing your career possibilities during COVID-19

Birkbeck Futures explore different ways to help job searching during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As companies continue to navigate the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, you may be among the growing number of workers who have lost their jobs as a result. This is a challenging situation at the best of times, let alone during a global pandemic, but your job search and career opportunities can continue. Embracing some alternative approaches will help to enhance your future possibilities, while providing an opportunity to explore different options.

These tips will support you with your job search and help you navigate your career journey during this time.

Consider your current priority

  • If your priority is to gain short term income, explore the industries that are continuing to hire at this time. Rather than put pressure on yourself to find the perfect role now, if you need a short-term solution consider checking what is available and possible for you.
  • Examples of industries that are recruiting include delivery services, supermarkets, online learning platforms (tutoring children out of school), remote working / communication platforms, among others. While it may be a necessity, view this as an opportunity as well as a temporary option for now. Every new experience brings new skills and new people into our life that may result in unexpected future opportunities.
  • Birkbeck is continuing to provide weekly updates to students and you can also gain support through our student services. Further information on support available during this time.

Embrace online networking

  • You may already be active on LinkedIn and this is one of many platforms that brings a wealth of opportunities to connect with others in your field. Joining groups, contributing to discussions and reaching out to people in your profession are great ways of building your network.
  • Not only will this develop new and existing connections, it will help to boost your visibility to others in your industry who may have job opportunities in the future. While many companies are pausing recruitment, they will be hiring again in the future and making connections now will enhance your opportunities when they do.
  • The vast majority of jobs are not advertised online and rely on referrals and connections. This has been the case for many years, so it has never been more beneficial to start networking – the results may not be immediate in terms of landing a job straight away, but it will continue to help at every stage of your career.
  • You can find out more about using LinkedIn with these resources on the Online Careers Portal.

Become familiar with online communication tools

  • Once you start to connect with groups and individuals through LinkedIn or other online platforms, take advantage of the opportunity to arrange a call with connections (also now often referred to as a ‘virtual coffee’….). This is a great chance to ask them questions about their career, any tips they may have for you and even just to build rapport with them. With most people working from home, you’re much more likely to get more ‘yes’ answers to your requests than previously.
  • The most popular tool for online calls is Skype. If you don’t have an account, consider setting up a free account or suggest a phone call instead.
  • If you’re not used to doing video calls, practice with friends or family to start getting used to it and to build your confidence ahead of calls with connections. If you’re in an interview process, you will very likely be invited to a video interview, so this is also worth investing some time to make these calls as successful as possible.
  • For tips on video interviews read this article.

Develop your skills

  • There are many articles now about ways to upskill during lockdown and things that you could do, but exploring what would be beneficial for you is certainly a worthwhile exercise. Reflect on the type of job you want and consider the skills that often come up in the job descriptions you may have read. Are there any areas you’d like to be more competent in? This could be technical expertise or soft skills.
  • As a Birkbeck student, you have access to LinkedIn Learning which has a range of online courses across various topics that you can complete. You can also add your completed courses to your LinkedIn profile, enabling others to see your updated skills.
  • Other online learning platforms are offering free trials or complimentary content, so depending on the areas you’re keen to develop, search for relevant courses that you can access.
  • Birkbeck’s Online Careers Portal also has a range of resources to develop your skills, as well as tools to enhance your CV and work on your interview technique. The next tip has more information on this.

Use Birkbeck Futures’ online resources

Birkbeck Futures, which includes your Careers, Enterprise and Talent services, is here to support you remotely in various ways. As a Birkbeck student, you have access to various online resources to support you in your job search as well as to develop your career further:

  • Access to your Online Careers Portal via your My BBK Profile.
    You can access the Online Careers Portal via your My BBK Profile, clicking the ‘Careers and Employability’ section on the homepage. Alternatively you can log in directly – enter your Birkbeck username and password to access the following:
  1. Live chat service with a Careers Adviser during the careers drop-in hours: Monday – Thursday 4pm – 6pm, Fridays 3pm – 5pm
  2. Instant CV feedback via the CV360 tool
  3. Book a 1:1 with a Careers Consultant for more comprehensive career support
  4. Receive the weekly careers newsletter with news, updates and relevant resources
  5. Access articles, videos and activities to develop your skills
  • Access to Birkbeck Talent, your in-house recruitment service.
    We are posting live roles on the Talent portal, also accessible via your My BBK Profile. There are some paid remote-working internships, as well as other live roles. You can search for roles, upload your CV and apply for roles online, as well as contacting the talent team for support.
  • Follow us on our social channels for latest updates on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, where we post new roles, details of all remote workshops and events as well as our employer insight podcast series.

Contact us: employability@bbk.ac.uk | talent@bbk.ac.uk

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Building on personal identity to help overcome adversity

Sreeja, daughter of one of our Professors, aged 13, explores how we can focus on ‘diversifying our identities’ during this challenging COVID-19 period.

Orchid

Throughout this testing COVID-19 period, I want to help those of you, struggling like me with productivity, anxiety, uncertainty or simply paradoxical boredom. I thought I’d explain how to overcome this difficult mindset and extract the best out of adversity. This blog will detail the significance of diversifying our identity, spending quality family time and understanding comfort in the uncomfortable. I will be introducing a new concept called ‘Diversification of Identity,’ which I have found to help myself and others immensely.

The idea of diversifying our identity is built on an economical concept mentioned by Tim Ferriss; ‘It’s always smart to diversify your investments. That way if one of them goes south, you don’t lose everything.’ This same principal applies to our own identity, if one has been engrossed in something that has now been taken away from them – perhaps their regular job, a project or a hobby that they currently cannot undertake. They might be finding it difficult to come to terms with it, which is possibly a sign that they need to expand the basis to their sense of self.

For example, my father’s wet lab-based research for new antibiotics against tuberculosis is currently compromised. Essentially, wet-lab-research consists of interactive lab procedures, where you perform various experiments in order to reinforce research; however, at present this is not possible for his team to approach. Although my father is deeply riveted by this form of research, we, as a family, are not allowing this to affect our mind and wellbeing and we are participating in alternative pastimes (see figure 1).

This is a time when it is paramount to maintain gratitude as a daily practise. To appreciate the family members who remain with you regardless of the problems you encounter, those who unconditionally offer you love and affection, even during trying times. Our family has taken this opportunity to utilise our interests, such as cooking and baking, photography, gardening and writing, and do them together. Not only is this entertaining, but it gives time to develop bonds, communication skills and mutual respect amongst family members. During this period, we aim to act upon this knowledge and take advantage of the new-found time that is in on our hands.

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COVID-19 in prisons – a major public health risk

Catherine Heard, Director of the World Prison Research Programme at the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck, discusses the impact of COVID-19 on prison populations.

Prison

The coronavirus pandemic presents formidable challenges for prisons worldwide – challenges they will struggle to meet, with potentially grave consequences for the health of prisoners, prison staff, their families, and all of us.

This is a fast-moving situation: since the outbreak was declared a pandemic on 12 March, prisoners and prison staff have tested positive in several European countries, and prisoners have died in England and France. These cases will only be the tip of the iceberg globally. With prison health systems in so many parts of the world struggling to provide even basic healthcare, many sick prisoners and prison staff will not have been tested. Overcrowded and under-resourced prisons offer the perfect conditions for the rapid spread of any contagious disease, including COVID-19, within and beyond their confines.

Last year, we published a report examining the effects of failed penal policies through the lens of health. We showed that well over 60% of countries have overcrowded prison systems (based on information held on our World Prison Brief database). Our research included evidence from ten diverse jurisdictions across five continents. Prisoners spoke of extreme overcrowding (for example, 60 men sharing cells built for 20 in Brazil); inadequate medical treatment, with too few doctors to deal even with routine health issues let alone serious disease outbreaks; constant hunger; lack of fresh air and exercise; shared buckets instead of toilets; not enough fresh water or soap; having to eat while seated on the toilet due to lack of space in a shared cell.

These are the realities of prisons across the world. They provide important context for the World Health Organisation’s warning that global efforts to tackle the spread of the disease may fail without proper attention to infection control inside prisons.

How have prison systems around the world responded to the pandemic? Many prison authorities – including in England & Wales – have suspended visits to prisoners, and cancelled temporary release schemes. In Columbia, Brazil, India, Italy, Romania and Lebanon, prisoners have rioted at these measures and in protest at the life-threatening conditions in which they are being held. Prisoner deaths, escapes and widespread violence have been reported.

More recently, some governments have responded by releasing prisoners: in Turkey, legislation was passed to release 100,000 of the country’s roughly 286,000 prisoners; similar steps have been taken in Iran and are under consideration in the United States, Canada and Ireland. In England and Wales, the government has so far declined to do this, despite the severe challenges already facing our overcrowded prison estate.

Now, detailed guidance from WHO, running to 32 pages, should leave no government in doubt about the serious risks presented by the virus, and how to tackle them. It states: ‘The risk of rapidly increasing transmission of the disease within prisons or other places of detention is likely to have an amplifying effect on the epidemic, swiftly multiplying the number of people affected.’ It calls for ‘strong infection prevention and control measures, adequate testing, treatment and care’ and provides detail on what this means in practice.

The parlous state in which prisons find themselves throughout the world today will make it difficult for them to follow the guidance, as they lack the resources – human, material, and financial – with which to do so. Even before the pandemic they were struggling to provide basic sanitation and healthcare for those in their care, as our research has shown.

COVID-19 provides the clearest illustration yet that prison health is public health. It is more important than ever for our governments and prison administrations to abide by the principle, enshrined in international law, that prisoners have an equal right to health and healthcare. Realistically, the only way that most countries could afford to meet this obligation is by first reducing their use of incarceration. This means ruling out custody for less serious, non-violent offending; and reversing the recent growth in the length of prison sentences.

It also means cutting substantially the use of pre-trial detention.  In America, thousands of the country’s nearly half a million pre-trial detainees are in jail for no better reason than that they cannot afford bail – although senator Kamala Harris has called for this to end.

No one should be remanded in custody unless absolutely necessary. But, of the more than three million people in pre-trial detention across the world, a large proportion are there purely because they cannot afford bail, or their country’s courts are hopelessly backlogged (a situation that will only worsen as courts around the world are forced to stop hearing all but the most urgent matters because of the current health emergency). On 2 April, we will release the latest global data on pre-trial prisoner numbers. It will reveal a significant upward trend, and should provide a wake-up call for governments the world over.

All news items and other sources referred to in this piece can be accessed via a dedicated COVID-19 page on ICPR’s World Prison Brief database: https://www.prisonstudies.org/news/news-covid-19-and-prisons

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How Birkbeck has helped me achieve three of my biggest dreams

Faranak Pourzamanie attended the recent Certificate Holder Celebration, after completing a Certificate of Higher Education in Management. Faranak is now studying BSc Management with Accountancy and Finance at Birkbeck, and explains how Birkbeck has changed her life.

Faranak Pourzamanie

As a completely new student to the UK’s education system, Birkbeck has given me the great opportunity of achieving not one, but in fact three, of my biggest dreams.

Firstly, I was able to enter university through Birkbeck’s Certificate of Higher Education in Management. I came to the UK with my family and had no qualifications, and I was reluctant to spend extra years at college to get into university. After two frustrating years of applying to different universities, my friend introduced me to Birkbeck and told me to apply for their Certificate of Higher Education in Management. I was hopeless, but I didn’t give up and applied. I was elated when Birkbeck accepted my application and gave me the opportunity to “jump” to higher education. Even though academic study wasn’t that easy, I had great support from the College which helped me achieve my Certificate of Higher Education.

Secondly, another dream of mine was to open my own business. Studying at Birkbeck gave me the opportunity to partake in the Pioneer programme, which introduced me to resources and people who have started their entrepreneurial journey. Listening to a number of guest speakers at Birkbeck events also really inspired me to set up my business. The Pioneer programme really helped me shape my business idea and make it happen. I have now started my online business selling saffron, and I’m applying the knowledge I have from the programme as well as getting help and advice from people I met through the programme.

Lastly, the final dream was getting a job while studying at university. Networking with one of the guest speakers after a lecture allowed me to know more about working in the corporate world. This individual has trusted me by putting me in front of the right people, which has opened the doors to the beginning of my career.

In conclusion, one small step to Birkbeck has given me so much in such a short time. I’m so happy that I had the College’s help in my life journey so far. Soon I will be graduating from my undergraduate degree at Birkbeck, BSc Management with Accountancy and Finance, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Certificate Holder Celebration

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Tackling climate change head on

Professor Gabriel Waksman, Professor of Structural Molecular Biology, shares how he has set up a charity dedicated to funding carbon mitigation projects that aim to restore native forest habitats.

Since becoming a scientist, I have had the great joy of globe-trotting all over the world from conferences to review panels, from seminars abroad to lecturing at foreign institutions. Such extensive travelling was useful to promote my research, tell people about our latest discoveries, and exchange ideas with fellow scientists in my field. It also provided me the opportunity to publicise the achievements of the research institute I founded in 2003 and directed until October last year, the joint UCL/Birkbeck Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology.

However, I came to realise how dreadful my carbon footprint had become. Like many of us, my awareness of human-made global warming caused by CO2 emissions has increased over the years and recently it passed a threshold where I felt I needed to proactively address this issue. There is no doubt that government intervention is going to be crucial in solving the climate crisis, but I wondered how we, academics, could take individual responsibility for our carbon emissions. We must obviously reduce our travelling: we do travel far too much. But attending conferences and sharing our results prior to publication is an essential lubricant of science: it makes it work more smoothly and more rapidly. I suspect that, in the foreseeable future, academics will continue to travel to conferences.

If conference travel is here to stay (albeit at a reduced rate), what can we do to offset our carbon emissions? There are many ways to do so but I was attracted to the approach of native tree-planting. Trees are excellent carbon fixers and, in my opinion, there is nothing more beautiful than a native woodland. Native afforestation increases biodiversity and restores degraded ecosystems. Also, it was important to me to plant trees in the UK, and not necessarily abroad as many afforestation projects do. Tree-planting sites in the UK are easily verifiable because they are easily accessible. They are also subjected to the Woodland Carbon Code, a set of stringent governmental rules.

I therefore set up a charity called ‘All Things Small and Green’ and a website where academics can compute their carbon emissions, convert them into trees (2-4 trees per metric tonnes of carbon), and add these trees to groves we have set up with Trees For Life, our tree-planting partner. We created a Scientists’ Grove, and Academics’ Grove, even a Friends’ Grove, and finally our first Conference Grove.

I find the idea of a ‘grove’ extremely attractive. Any institutions can create their own grove and ask their members to contribute trees to it to offset their carbon emissions. I hope we can create a ‘Birkbeck Grove’ where everyone at Birkbeck will be able to contribute trees. Birkbeck has made tremendous efforts in reducing its carbon footprint and last week organised its own ‘climate learning week’, that included a vegetarian day and an opportunity for students and staff to bring in their bikes for an appointment with Cycle Republic. But the effort must continue and address the issue of carbon emissions caused by academic travel. In that respect, the latest initiative by Wellcome is important and will spur all institutions on to tackle the issue effectively.

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