Author Archives: Olivia

How to manage your studies during the festive period

Balancing studying and having fun over the Christmas break is a challenge! In this blog, three student ambassadors, Becca Aveson, Cecilia Danielsson and Shweta Menon, share their tips on how to enjoy Christmas whilst staying on top of your studies.  

Becca Aveson, MA Museum Cultures student 

Becca Aveson

One thing I like to try and do is give myself some mini targets and goals to reach each day that I study. This helps me overcome the holiday fatigue and pressures and puts less stress on me if I feel I am not working to my potential. My usual go-to is writing a bullet point list of things to do for that day, for uni, my job or any other tasks, including; reading and research, household chores, or work on ongoing projects like my dissertation(!).  

Don’t try to do too much in the day focus on one assignment, and then look at what you need to do for that. As you go through your list, set yourself some goals and rewards – such as after reading a chapter of a textbook, have a chat with someone you live with or have a coffee and a mince pie – or whatever makes you feel happy! This way you won’t feel as though you’ve missed out on any festivities, and when it comes to the various social gatherings you attend you won’t feel that pressure to be studying and you can enjoy yourself! 

Cecilia Danielsson, BA Linguistics and Language student   

Cecilia Danielsson

Studying during Christmas arrives with greater distractions, making it harder to focus and get assignments over the finishing line. However, Christmas introduces frivolity and fun and means we can decorate our study areas. I’d recommend putting up a miniature Christmas tree on your desk and finding fresher stimuli for mind maps, such as using Christmassy colours, like red and green. You could also put some Christmas music on in the background and lightly scented candles whilst you are studying. The festive period provides a time for reflection on the year gone by; use it to celebrate your achievements so far and have a wonderful Christmas break!  

Shweta Menon, BSc Marketing student 

Shweta Menon’s festive decorations

  1. It’s the most wonderful time of the year to SCHEDULE 

Plan how you are going to study and spend time with friends and family. Ask your family and friends what they’ve planned out over the festive period and set aside a couple of hours in the week for your social activities. Share your study schedule with them so they know when you won’t be available. Give yourself some zero-study days such as Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve – these days you must switch off completely and soak in all the festivities! 

  1. Santa Claus is coming to the coffee shop 

Studying at home with festivities around can be quite a distraction so try finding a cosy coffee shop or library where you can focus and get your studies done effectively. 

  1. All I want for Christmas is someone to help me…

Seek support from your friends at university. They are in the same boat as you. Make study groups with your friends for revision, sharing notes and assignments. 

  1. Have yourself a merry little Christmas 

Lastly be too hard on yourself. Take time out to enjoy the festivities and refresh your mind because: “All work and no play can make Jack a dull boy!” 

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Abusing Antibiotics: The Unknown Phenomenon

This week, 18 to 24 November, marks World Antimicrobial Awareness Week, and this year’s theme is ‘Spread Awareness, Stop Resistance’. In this blog, Professor Sanjib Bhakta, Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Biochemistry, discusses the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on antimicrobial resistance, why this is so alarming, and how research at Birkbeck is making a difference.

Headshot of Professor Sanjib Bhakta

Professor Sanjib Bhakta

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is an alarming global crisis which inevitably arose alongside the ground-breaking discovery of antibiotics and its subsequent use to save billions of human and animal lives. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused a redirection of resources worldwide to fight the coronavirus. Naturally, this has meant resources such as Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) to fight antibiotic resistance have been disrupted.

COVID-19 has affected AMR rates and research dramatically in the last 18 months. There have been changes in availability of staff to research, treat and screen for AMR pathogens (disease-causing germs) leading to under-reporting of AMR cases. There has also been an increase of broad-spectrum antibiotic prescription, at least in some parts of the world due to possible bacterial co-infection and clinical presentation of cases, which has led to increased selection pressure on pathogens. As well as this, the introduction of disinfectant overuse could be driving mutation and increasing AMR rates. Despite reduced exposure due to COVID-19 measures, other factors have meant that AMR rates have increased. In order to stop this rise, better stewardship for antibiotic use need to be implemented.

Tackling the rise of antimicrobial resistance is central to our multidisciplinary research at the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology (ISMB) Mycobacteria Research Laboratory and for our national and international collaborative partners. We investigate metabolism in order to address antimicrobial drug resistance in tuberculosis (TB); tackling this challenge by discovering novel antibiotic-leads and repurposing over-the-counter painkillers to cure TB and other non-tubercular mycobacterial (NTM) infections.

We have paid special attention to the study of the cell-walls of World Health Organisation (WHO)-priority bacteria in an ongoing ASEM-DUO fellowship exchange programme between the Indian Institute of Technology – India and Birkbeck, University of London, as cell-walls are an important site for attack by antibiotics such as penicillin. This inter-institutional collaboration between the UK and India continues to build a strong international research programme to tackle AMR and accelerate the development of new and effective treatment options.

Parallel to our lab-based research endeavours, we have integrated interdisciplinary approaches to tackle antimicrobial drug resistance in superbugs in partnership with ‘Joi Hok’, a community TB awareness programme in West Bengal, India. In this award-winning Microbiology Society Outreach Prize project, we have raised awareness of TB and antibiotic resistance with school children, their families, and local communities, through traditional storytelling, folk art, painting, and music.

To mark World Antimicrobial Awareness Week 2021 at Birkbeck, we have organised a student-led public-awareness presentation, an international students’ experience event and a research webinar series where we will be brainstorming the significance of interdisciplinary initiatives and strategies to tackle AMR.

If the current trend continues, there will be more than 10 million preventable deaths every year by 2050. Therefore, we must take every possible measure against antibiotic resistance in infectious diseases, now rather than later, before this major global health challenge goes beyond our capacity to control.

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A day in the life of a commuter

Valentina Vlasich, BA Film and Media with Foundation Year student, commutes from Milton Keynes for her work and lectures at Birkbeck. In this blog, she offers advice to other students commuting and explains why living outside of London is the perfect solution for her.

The streets of Bloomsbury, London

Bloomsbury, London

Commuting to university, a total nightmare according to some. A waste of time according to others. But living in the heart of London can be expensive, so many of us don’t have any other option but to commute. The issue, I believe, is that there are many misconceptions about commuting. For instance, that you can’t have a social life, that you must spend hours on a train or that you won´t have a true university experience if you do it. All of this, according to my experience, is not true. So let me give you some tips on how to make the best use of your day and money, and show you what a typical day looks like for me, a commuter in my first year of university.

My day starts in Milton Keynes. I try to get up as early as possible to fit in my workout routine and get ready. If I have the time in the morning I also catch up on lectures and take notes for my next class. When the time comes to go to the train station, I cycle there which takes me 10 minutes, and I usually take the train at noon, which gets me to London in about 40 minutes. A great tip for commuters who take the train is to check out the National Rail Railcards, which reduce your travel costs by a substantial amount. For example, I bought the railcard for 16 to 25-year-olds, which cost £70 and it saves me a third on rail fares for the next three years. Another hack is to get on trains that are off-peak or super-off-peak because they are cheaper, you can check this out on the Trainline website. When I arrive at Euston Station it’s only a 10-minute walk to my work which is at Birkbeck. After that, I usually have about two to three hours before my classes begin at 6pm.

So, what do I do in my spare time in London? Well, a lot of things, but my top recommendations, which aren’t far away from Birkbeck, are the following: the British Museum, which is just around the corner; Chinatown, which is a great area to enjoy a variety of food; and, if you don’t mind a little walk, Southbank has a great vintage book market that I love. Sometimes, when I have a lot of time to spare, I plan my day and visit a Picturehouse cinema or a theatre in Soho with a friend. And for those lazy days, I just grab a coffee and sit in Russell Square reading a book (it’s also a good park to have an outside workout). After that, I head to my classes.

Most of my classes are three hours long, so when I finish it’s already dark outside. Sometimes I head straight to Euston Station and go home, other times I stay for a while in London and go to a pub with my friends. There are also many nightclubs in London to check out. However, when it is one of those days when I go home earlier, I tend to take advantage of my time on the train and complete homework.

As you can see, commuting isn’t the end of the world. It even helps me make the most out of London because not living there makes it more exciting to visit. It also forces me to have a more established routine and helps me make the most out of my day. Therefore, from one student to another, I wouldn’t worry too much about commuting, it is part of the experience. Just enjoy your years at university and make the most out of every situation.

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“If you’re considering a career change, I would say go for it – shifting your focus can reignite motivation”

Simon Hayes, Birkbeck Politics PhD student, recently successfully defended his PhD thesis and has since been offered his dream job. In this blog, Simon reveals how undergoing a career change in his early thirties, from being an audio engineer in London to completing a PhD in Politics at Birkbeck, was the best decision he could have made.

Simon Hayes

What was your path to Birkbeck? Why did you undergo a career change from being an audio engineer to studying global politics?

My path to Birkbeck began after a move to London from Canada in 2002 – the initial purpose for this relocation was the aspiration to work as an audio engineer in the music industry. Eventually, I managed to land a job at Mayfair Recording Studios near Camden Town where I stayed for six years. This was an incredible experience: not only was the studio host to the rising talent of that time, but many of the bands and artists I had grown up with would also frequent. By 2009, falling music industry budgets saw Mayfair (and other studios like it) close for good. After a stint of freelance work and a string of unpleasant temporary employments, I decided to focus my energy onto another pursuit.

The idea of studying did not cross my mind: I was 32, I had not been to university, and I was uncertain about whether I could perform in an academic environment. However, whilst travelling to work one day, I saw a tube advertisement for Birkbeck. I went to an open day and decided to study global politics and international relations; shortly after, I met with the programme convener who helped shed light not only on life at Birkbeck, but also the possible educational pathways I could pursue.

I was relieved to find out that Birkbeck offered Certificate of Higher Education programmes and that I did not need to commit to a whole degree; in fact, I did not even need to complete the certificate because the option of taking individual modules was also available. This is exactly what I did: my first module was ‘The Study of Politics’ – an introductory course which, in addition to covering basic concepts such as ‘the state’; ‘sovereignty’ and ‘the international’, also taught us key skills including efficient note taking, essay structure and writing a bibliography. While this served as a necessary first step that would facilitate my future learning, the experience felt revelatory: it wasn’t just that I was learning new things, but it was changing how I thought and viewed the world.

From thereon in I was hooked, I enrolled on further modules in order to complete the certificate and after doing so, went on to complete the full degree graduating with a first-class honours three years later. After spending twelve months completing a Master’s in global politics at the London School of Economics, I returned to Birkbeck in 2017 where I have recently successfully defended my PhD thesis.

What are your main hobbies and passions in life? Where does your interest in global politics and human rights come from?

Although my main hobby and passion in life has been music, the events that took place in the first decade of the 2000s (e.g. September 11 attacks, the war on terror, the Iraq War and the financial crash of 2008) really began to spark my interest in global politics. Throughout my studies, these interests intensified not only because I was engaged with theories and concepts that helped explain these global dynamics; but also because I was sharing this experience with a diverse group of Birkbeck students, some of whom were able to offer first-hand accounts of the issues and places being discussed; for example, Rohingya refugees, individuals from Kosovo who had fled in the 1990s, and former members of the Peshmerga.

As time went on, my research interests became more concentrated, primarily as a result of a module I took on European integration. Here, I developed an enthusiasm for the study of regional and global institutions (e.g. the EU and the UN); I would later fuse this with my passion for workers’ rights to form the basis of my PhD thesis which assessed the impact of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

What are your aspirations for the future? What would you say to people thinking about a career change?

I am interested in research positions within organisations that have a social welfare focus – primarily governmental or public institutions either at the local, national or international levels. I have recently been offered employment with a local authority as an analyst looking at the socio-economic factors driving health outcomes. This will, I imagine, be a challenging role with the potential to make some positive difference and as such, is an exciting opportunity and one that I owe in part to the Talent team at Birkbeck Futures – a service which assists students in their career development.

When contemplating life changing decisions like a career change, especially when it is later in life, it is normal to feel apprehensive and to worry about all of the reasons why it might be too much of a risk. But if you are feeling as though things are stagnating and thinking of such a move, I would say go for it – shifting focus can reignite motivation, especially if it is something you feel passionate towards. This in-turn helps produce the outcomes you are aiming for whether they are career oriented or for reasons of self-development.

I feel Birkbeck is an incredibly important institution that can facilitate this process for individuals in varied and even challenging circumstances. I am grateful to have had the Birkbeck experience and thankful that such an institution exists, I hope to stay connected to it for years to come.

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Horns and a tail – Satan’s ticket to stardom?

Tom Graham, English and Humanities PhD student, is researching the long and complex genealogy of Satan as it relates to contemporary culture and politics. In this blog, Tom looks at how Satan’s horns and tail may have helped him go mainstream.

If you fancy dressing up this Halloween, you can order these devilish accoutrements on Amazon:

Wearing a bow tie is not particularly associated with the Devil, but sporting horns and a reptilian tail most certainly is. Why?

We might assume that the reptilian aspect connects us directly to Genesis where the serpent first tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. But in fact, Genesis does not at all equate the serpent with Satan or anything demonic. It’s just a talking snake that thinks Eve should be a little disobedient. Why does it think this and where did it learn to talk? Genesis doesn’t tell us, but in the second century the Christian philosopher Justin Martyr cleared up the mystery a little by identifying the snake as Satan himself. Over a thousand years later, Martin Luther ascribed to the Satan-snake a definite motive: having been thrown out of Heaven, he was seeking revenge by spoiling God’s ultimate creation, through introducing sin into humankind.

There is, then, a long association of the Devil with snakes. But what about horns? From the earliest centuries of Christianity right through to the Middle Ages, images of pagan gods were adapted and converted into images of the Devil. This process included importing attributes such as horns. In this representation of the Celtic god Cernunnos, we find both horns (his name literally means “the horned one”) and a very fine snake:

Cernunnos was a god of wild things and wild places, the very opposite of culture and human civilization. Thus, his uncivilized traits leant themselves to Satan, the arch enemy of the divine order of creation. The snake, having become permanently linked in the Christian imagination to one of Satan’s many guises, could be readily incorporated into the Devil’s anatomy as a reptilian tail. As for the horns, they remind us that Satan, like Cernunnos, might choose to adopt a seemingly human appearance, but that’s just for show; at heart, he remains a wild thing; uncivilized, unpredictable and dangerous.

What we see playing out here in the long process of development undergone by the form and image of Satan, is a strong sense of Satan moving fluidly between human and animal forms – or, as is often the case, settling on an uneasy mixture of the two.

William Blake depicts the Devil as a human/animal hybrid

For St Anthony, who was subject to prolonged and repeated attacks by demonic forces when he lived as a hermit, the Devil took not only the form of a serpent but also (amongst other things) a seductive woman. Freudians will at once pounce on the coming together of phallic and libidinal imagery, but since St Anthony died precisely 1,500 years before Freud was born, we must be mindful of psychological readings that belong to an earlier period in history. What we can say, however, is that the Devil’s ability to freely mix-and-match human and animal attributes allows him to slip readily from the elite heights of theology to the common currency of folklore. This is because folklorists who seek to categorize types of folk tales have discovered that no meaningful system of classification can be established in terms of the characters of the stories; exactly the same story can be told with human or animal protagonists since, in folklore (as in demonology), the two are freely interchangeable.[1] Satan, with his inter-species shape-shifting between human and animal, fits right into this pattern.

I believe that although Satanic attributes such as horns and tail were developed by Christian philosophers – i.e. by an intellectual elite – the fluidity of human/animal attributes allowed the conceptualization of Satan to enter more freely into the popular imagination – as we see today when horns and tails are sold online as Halloween novelties. These horns and tail have, I argue, played a part in saving the Devil from languishing in dusty theological obscurity by helping him achieve vitality and renewal in the narrative structures of folklore, native storytelling, and popular culture.

The Devil – instant “brand recognition” across eight hundred years of reinvention and reformatting

[1] Simon J. Bronner (ed.) (2007) The Meaning of Folklore, USA: Utah State University Press, p.103.

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The Exorcist movie: who is the demon?

In this blog, Tom Graham, English and Humanities PhD student, examines the movie, The Exorcist, and delves into the meaning behind the demonic possession of 12-year-old Regan.

If you haven’t seen the classic 1973 movie The Exorcist (and if not, why not?), then SPOILER ALERT. The film centres around the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl called Regan. During the course of her possession, she speaks in multiple demonic voices, levitates, famously vomits impossible quantities of green goo at the exorcising priests, and – just as famously – slowly rotates her head a full 360º.

The demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl called Regan in movie, The Exorcist

Dramatic as it is in the movie, the head-spinning scene has often been criticized for straining credibility since, by all the laws of human anatomy, Regan’s neck would break and her head would fall off. Which, of course, it doesn’t.

But I believe the head-spinning scene can be justified if we more fully identify the nature of the demon that has possessed Regan.

So, who is the demon? The film never names him, but his identity is in no doubt. In the opening scenes, we see an archaeological site in Iraq, where Father Merrin – the priest who will later lead the rite of exorcism on Regan – has an ominous encounter with the statue of an ancient Mesopotamian demon. Later, the image of this same statue will briefly appear thousands of miles away in the US during the exorcism itself. The implication is clear: this statue represents the demonic entity that has possessed Regan.

The statue depicts Pazuzu, perhaps the most fearsome of all the ancient Sumerian demons. He was associated (as were most demons at this time) with disease and illness. It is not quite accurate to say that the Sumerians believed that demons cause illness as such; rather, they regarded the symptoms of disease as the physical manifestation of the demon. Nausea, skin rashes, fever, aches and pains, swellings, tumours – these things were regarded as the actual embodiment and reality of the demon itself. A sufferer could describe a demon as “clothing itself” in his or her body in the form of disease.[1]

In keeping with Pazuzu’s Sumerian origins, then, we can consider Regan’s symptoms as the physical manifestations of as aspects of the demon. Indeed, there is a moment in the film when, after a long period of increasingly severe symptoms of possession, Regan’s voice and personality are both suddenly completely replaced by those of the demon. This moment is marked by Regan’s eyes turning white and (perhaps in anticipation of the later head-spinning) her throat swelling unnaturally.

But we might now say that, in Sumerian terms, these are not Regan’s eyes and throat anymore. They are Pazuzu’s eyes and throat, just as the personality and voice that were once Regan’s are now the personality and voice of Pazuzu. After all, the demon does not cause the symptoms of possession, the demon is the symptoms of possession.

So, if we continue to follow this line of thought, we can say that it is not Regan’s head that turns 360º but Pazuzu’s. We can’t complain that Regan’s neck would break because it isn’t Regan’s neck at all. It (more or less) looks like Regan’s neck and head, and after she is freed from the state of possession they will once again belong to her – but at that moment both the head and the neck are in fact Pazuzu’s. A human cannot, of course, spin her head right round, but evidently a demon can, and what we are witnessing is a demon spinning its head, not a human. By such logic, the head-spinning scene may be regarded as credible (at least, credible in the world of a film that posits the possibility of demonic possession).

“Possession”, then, must not be thought of here as some sort of spiritual hijacking, whereby one’s soul is overpowered by invading entities who take control of the body until driven out again by exorcism. Rather, we should think of it as a state wherein the human body becomes the malleable clay by which a demonic entity brings itself into physical existence. A lump of clay on a potter’s wheel both is and is not the pot that can be made from it. The lump and the pot are both the same stuff and substance, and yet they are different entities, not least because the pot has qualities (such as holding water) that the lump of clay does not. Similarly, during possession, human and demon both consist of the same stuff and substance, and yet the demonic manifestation has qualities – such as head-spinning – that the lump of human clay does not.

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[1] From Ludlul bel nemeqi, written circa 1500 BCE, Mesopotamia.

 

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How do we experience Satan?

Tom Graham, English and Humanities PhD student, is researching the long and complex genealogy of Satan and the history of Satanic evil. In this blog, Tom delves into how Satan is conceptualised.

Tom Graham

Exploring the genealogy of Satan requires me to pore over a great many theological and philosophical treatises on the subjects of demons, hell, the nature of evil, and so on. What emerges from this line of study are many different intellectually conceptualized images of Satan. But intellectually conceptualizing Satan strips him of the gut-punching terror and dark, dangerous glamour that so defines him. We cannot merely know what Satan is, we must feel what Satan is, otherwise he loses that which makes him what he is.

In contrast, then, to the intellectually conceptualized Satan of theology and philosophy, I am also concerned with the viscerally experienced Satan that we find in folklore, in the common imagination, in pop culture, and perhaps even in nightmares and fears about the dark. This is Satan as he extravagantly appears in movies, in video games, in various sub-genres of rock music, and perhaps even in the knowingly ironic ceremonies and iconography of modern-day Satanic temples.

I see this viscerally experienced Satan beautifully manifested in those cruel (but admittedly sometimes funny) YouTube pranks where an unsuspecting dupe is encouraged to play (or rather, believe that they are playing) a simple computer game whereby they must guide a dot through a maze without touching the walls; the victim’s face draws closer to the screen as they concentrate intently upon the game – and then, after a few silent minutes, there is a terrible scream and the mutilated face of the demonically possessed child in The Exorcist suddenly fills the screen. The victim’s reaction – which can be extreme and result in genuine tears and trauma – embodies what I am talking about when I describe a viscerally experienced Satan. Maybe those poor duped YouTube victims show us how we really ought to react to the concept of ultimate evil – not by conceptualizing it in theological and philosophical terms, but by screaming and hurling ourselves out of our chair.

And yet, at the same time, this viscerally experienced Satan has in no small part been formed and developed by the intellectual conceptualizations of the very theologians and philosophers who (I believe) fail to capture and express the emotionally experienced aspect of Satan that is (I also believe) essential to his nature. There is, then, an intriguing and complex dialectic relationship at work between the “intellectual Satan” and the “visceral Satan”.

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Returning to campus

Fraser Keir, Academic Registrar at Birkbeck, reflects on how life has changed since the start of the pandemic, and urges people to be kind and considerate of others as many students and staff return to campus next Monday 4 October for the start of the autumn term.

The past 18 months have been a roller coaster for everyone in the Birkbeck community, myself included. Overnight Microsoft Teams became our new best friend and the gateway to keeping in touch with colleagues, friends and family. I clapped for our NHS heros and learned the value of an hours walk when you were only allowed an hours walk a day. For those in hospitals and care homes every second was precious, and for many people they lived day by day as the virus ravaged communities. We were all living, praying and hoping the worst would not come. As the fragility of life and the power of viruses came to the fore so awakened our compassion for others and the importance and value we place on the NHS and keyworkers, many of whom are students at Birkbeck. Jobs and roles that we may not have considered that critical in the past became essential – carers, lorry drivers, supermarket workers, nurses and cleaners to name but a few. Seeing empty shelves highlighted the inter-connectedness of our society and the just-in-time nature of how we consume. When things got really tricky during lockdown I only had admiration for the people keeping our country running whilst trying to look after kids, the oldies and often in home circumstances that were not always conducive to work, study and home schooling. I didn’t take a drive to Barnard Castle during lockdown but following the rules and being a rule keeper as well as being a university rule maker really became important to me as someone who works in the public sector. Having colleagues and students trust you are doing the right thing by them was both humbling and a heavy burden in equal measures.

Altering the way school pupils and university students were assessed and examined was one of the most fascinating aspects of the lockdowns. Some pupils and students loved online learning and some didn’t. What we do now know is that there are options to the traditional 2 or 3 hour closed books exams that work and these options can create a more inclusive learning environment by taking out some of the ‘exam hall anxiety’. Learners can learn from the comfort of their own homes and academic standards can be maintained by careful assessment design. There is much we can learn and benefit from continuing to support elements of digital learning and assessment.

It was through higher education and our scientific community that hope emerged. Issues that would previously have taken years to implement happened almost overnight – lockdown, furlough and, of course, a vaccine roll-out. We learned that we could be agile and do things differently. For many of us, productivity increased whilst working at home and not having to travel 10 hours a week on public transport. Coming out of this phase of the pandemic I’m going to retain some of the benefits of this experience and work flexibly as are many of my colleagues in Registry Services and across the College. Personally I feel that a good home/work life balance makes us all more productive.

As I start to attend meetings back in Bloomsbury, l continue to take a cautious approach to coronavirus. Why? Part of it is me trying to be a good neighbour to others in clinically or emotionally vulnerable situations. Part of it is me wanting to avoid contracting COVID-19. My hope is care and compassion will continue into the future and a focus on mental health is only a good thing. So, I’m now double jabbed. Thanks to Oxford AstraZeneca I can say I’m an Oxford lad as well as an alumnus of Aberdeen and the Open Universities. I’ve also had my flu vaccine and will take a booster shot for COVID-19 when they become available and I’m eligible to have one. I’m happy to wear a mask on campus even if its uncomfortable. I don’t like wearing masks but it’s my personal contribution to the health and safety of a wonderful 12,000 strong Birkbeck community. I’ll keep washing my hands and I’ll give people space when they want it. I’ll also take lateral flow tests when I have to meet others indoors. Is all this an inconvenience and an assault on my personal liberty? No, not really because a resurgence of coronavirus is the real issue and the real assault on our freedom. Kindness costs nothing and it is our kindness that will be remembered by colleagues, friends and family in the years to come. As we go back to our new normal and regardless of how strongly we hold views; if we can be anything, lets be kind to one another.

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“The pandemic cannot be overcome if everyone chooses their own way to battle it”

Professor Renata Salecl, Professor of Psychology/Psychoanalyis and Law in the School of Law, delves into how differently people are perceiving getting the COVID-19 vaccination, and the dangers this presents to society.

Person getting COVID-19 vaccine

While developing countries are dealing with vaccine shortages, in many wealthy countries, people are fighting for the right not to be vaccinated. While these people perceive vaccination as a matter of individual choice, vaccinated people perceive it as a matter of social choice. They accept that the pandemic can only be overcome if people go beyond their anxieties and desires and try to protect themselves, others and society as a whole.

How is it that people have such a different understanding of choice? From the times of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, people have been hearing that there is no society, that the individuals are utterly responsible for their wellbeing and that their success and happiness are related to their choices. Health has especially been perceived as a matter of personal choice. When people fall ill, they are often accused of it being the result of the bad choices they made in the past. They are reminded that they have not embraced a healthy lifestyle, not eaten the right food, not exercised, or not limited stress. Even overcoming illness has been in some circles propagated as a matter of choice. Thus, one often hears that one needs to choose to overcome illness, work hard to change bad habits, and embrace positive thoughts.

The underside of the ideology that puts choice on a pedestal has led to an increase in anxiety, guilt, and inadequacy. People struggle with the questions: What if I am making the wrong choice? Why are others getting better outcomes from their choices? Which information to trust when we are making our decisions? And when things do not go well in people’s lives, they often blame themselves for their lack of success, even if poverty and other social factors might have very much limited their choices.

Since people have been told that everything in their lives is a matter of choice, it is not surprising that choice plays an essential role in current discussions about vaccination. When people have constantly been hearing how important it is to make the right choices, especially when it comes to their bodies, anxiety over the question of what one is putting into one’s body and whom to listen to about vaccination can, for some, become overwhelming.

Rational choice theory presupposes that people think before they act and try to maximise the benefits and minimise losses. Given sufficient information, people are supposed to choose what is in their best interest. This is, however, often not the case since many people behave in ways that do not maximise their pleasure and minimise their pain, and some even derive pleasure from acting against their wellbeing. Our choices are also far less “free” than we think. We often choose under the influence of others, social expectations, and unconscious impulses. And after we have already made a choice, we might second guess if it was the right one or search for assurances that we did not make a mistake.

Among people who are not vaccinated, many are procrastinating over their decision. Some cannot decide whether to get vaccinated or not, and some are waiting for reassurances. In the US, some people said that they were waiting for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine fully. One, however, wonders if they have got vaccinated, now that this approval has happened.

The way people make choices is influenced by decisions that old and new types of authorities are making. Political leaders, media personalities and internet influencers have the power to sway public opinion with the choices they are making in their lives. If people who are influential in their communities get vaccinated, this makes an impact on people’s attitudes towards the vaccines. For some, seeing their loved ones and especially their children suffering from COVID-19 might also be an incentive to make a choice and finally get vaccinated.

Freedom, rights and choice are cornerstones of democracy. However, the problem starts when societies cannot find a consensus on what the way out of a crisis is and when individual choices take precedence over social ones. Sadly, the pandemic cannot be overcome if everyone chooses their own way to battle it.

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How to fulfil your academic potential at Birkbeck

With the 2021-22 academic year commencing in October, Dr Deborah Grange, Learning Development Manager, highlights a range of study skills services available to all students.

At Birkbeck, we do everything we can to assist our students in fulfilling their academic potential. We are here to support students with various channels of study skills support and assistance, including live workshops, extensive online resources and 24/7 academic writing support 365 days a year.

24/7 academic writing and study skills support

We were one of the first universities in the UK to adopt a 24/7 service to assist students with academic writing, and we remain pioneers in this area. All undergraduate students and those who are on MA or MSc programmes can upload their assignment drafts to our Studiosity service and receive feedback within 24 hours in terms of the grammar, punctuation, spelling, structure, and academic referencing. Some of our students have not written formal academic English for a long time so this service has proved to be remarkably successful, with 96% rating it 4 out of 5 or above.

We also have an extensive range of online resources, including interactive activities, handouts and videos. We know that Birkbeck students tend to be juggling other time commitments, so we have designed our online resources in such a way that they can benefit, whether they have five minutes or an hour to spare.

Live workshops

Throughout the academic year, live workshops run every week on topics like essay and assignment writing, critical thinking for university, and exam revision. All workshops are free, and students can sign up for as many as they wish. Recordings of workshops are available if they are running at a time that isn’t convenient. Student feedback from the last month includes:

“Having access to a tutor who really understands the process and can answer questions immediately was brilliant. It was also good to see other students have the same problems as me.”

“Finally, it all makes sense! I have never attended a workshop so comprehensive before – it has really helped me understand the nuances of different dissertation and writing styles, and the expectations.”

Have your skills in place for the start of the academic year

Our intensive series of live online workshops – ‘Get Ahead Stay Ahead’ – run throughout September so that students are primed to engage with their courses right from the start of the academic year. Workshops run every Monday to Thursday evening, lunchtimes throughout the week, and on Saturdays. Topics cover key academic skills like notetaking for lectures and academic reading; academic writing conventions; and apps and software for study. All workshops are offered completely free of charge. Sign up for as many as you like via our Events page.

Support for neurodiversity

Some of our study skills staff have additional qualifications and specialisms, such as working with students who have dyslexia and inclusive technologies. We also offer live workshops and resources on time management, organisation, and the development and support of concentration skills.

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