Welcome to Birkbeck Orientation module is now live and Library study space is now open

As we prepare for the new term Fraser Keir, Academic Registrar, at Birkbeck shares some essential tips to get you started at the College.

Today the Welcome To Birkbeck Orientation Moodle module is launched and available to all enrolled students. It’s full of relevant and useful information including the fantastic Freshers Week programme offered by the Birkbeck Students Union. From Monday 14 September the Birkbeck Library will be open with almost 200 bookable study spaces. As the new academic year commences on 5 October you need to enrol as soon as you can to gain access to all these resources to get you orientated and study ready.  

Complete the Welcome To Birkbeck orientation module 

strongly recommend that you work through each of the sections in the Welcome to Birkbeck Moodle module, ahead of the beginning of term. Each section outlines key information including how to approach learning online, effective study skills along with an introduction to the Birkbeck student community, the personal tutor system, student services, careers support and the Birkbeck Library. All of this will help you make a success of the year.  

Students who completed the module during user-testing took around 4-5 hours, and even continuing students in their final year told us that they learnt new things that would be of great value. You can complete it at your own pace and return to the sections as you wish. Completing the various sections will help ensure that you are ready for the new term. To whet your appetite you can Watch a brief overview of the Welcome to Birkbeck Orientation Moodle module 

If you need help as you work through this Moodle module you can ask for help on the College’s ASK page by selecting ‘Moodle’ then ‘Orientation Module’ from the drop-down. 

Enhancing online course delivery

Over the summer over 500 colleagues have transformed our modules to be ready for online delivery, as explained in the Vice Chancellor’s message. All our content on Moodle has been produced and is being delivered by our research-led academic colleagues.  

The library has invested heavily in online e-books and digitisation to make sure your reading lists and course materials are available on your devices and computers. If you can’t easily study at home we have made COVID-19 secure spaces for you to study on campus if you need.  

Once you complete the Orientation Moodle module you will continue your studies in an interactive and online face to face medium. As soon as health and safety permits we can revert to in-person teaching on campus, and you will have the option to continue your studies online for the remainder of the year. Our coronavirus information will be updated regularly.  

Student protocol for attending the Library – September to December 2020

Birkbeck is committed to providing a COVID-19 secure environment whilst you study and use facilities in the Library. From Monday the 14 September the College Library in Malet Street will have almost 200 study spaces available for student use. The Library will be open from Monday to Friday from 12pm – 7pm To visit the Library, you will need to book a study space in advance. You can also use this link to make a booking if you simply want to come in and borrow items. There will be no access to the Library without a booking.  

Be sure to read the protocol for attending the Library before you travel.  

To keep our College community safe during the COVID-19 pandemic we all have a responsibility to follow these protocols. This protocol will remain subject to amendment and change depending on NHS advice during Autumn Term.  

Complete your enrolment

To access the orientation Moodle module and access the library and other Birkbeck resources, complete the process to enrol as soon as you receive your invitation. Don’t worry if you haven’t received your invite yet, invitations to enrol continue to be sent throughout September, and students who have had Summer re-assessments will not receive their invitations until all their marks have been agreed and processed.  

Birkbeck is a great place to study and now is a great time to be undertaking your Higher Education and getting a University of London degree. 

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A short history of Computer Science at Birkbeck

The story of the contribution of one department to the life of the College, the development of computing technology and to the computer industry.

The first official reference to computing at Birkbeck can be found in the 1947-8 College Annual Report, which says: “An ambitious scheme is in progress for the construction of an Electronic Computer, which will serve the needs of crystallographic research at 21-22 Torrington Square; it will also provide a means of relieving many other fields of research in Chemistry and Physics of the almost crushing weight of arithmetic work, which they involve.”

The origins of these computing efforts at Birkbeck are inextricably linked with the names of J D Bernal, the great crystallographer, and his new assistant, Andrew Booth. Returning to Birkbeck at the end of the Second World War, Bernal started building a new research group to study crystallography. He appointed four assistants, one of whom was Booth, who was to lead on mathematical methods. Booth began by building his first electromechanical calculator, the Automatic Relay Calculator (ARC).

Kathleen Britten Xenia Sweeting and Andrew Booth working on ARC in December 1946

Kathleen Britten Xenia Sweeting and Andrew Booth working on ARC in December 1946

A highlight of Booth’s early career at Birkbeck was an extended visit to the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, where he was accompanied by Kathleen Britten, who would soon become his wife. The trip allowed the pair to work with John Von Neumann, one of the most influential early computer pioneers, and convinced them that the ARC should be redesigned in accordance with what is now commonly known as a “von Neumann” architecture. Together, Andrew and Kathleen wrote a widely-circulated paper entitled “General Considerations in the Design of an All-purpose Electronic Digital Computer” which examined the options then available for building each component. The construction of their first electronic computer, called SEC (Simple Electronic Computer), was completed around 1950. Andrew wrote up the project in his MSc dissertation, which appears to make him the first computing graduate at Birkbeck and hence the Department’s earliest alumnus.

The couple’s best-known machine, APEC (All-Purpose Electronic Computer), was designed in 1949. In 1951, BTM used its hardware circuits as the basis of the design of their HEC1 computer, which evolved directly by the end of the 1950s into the bestselling British computer, with a total of nearly 100 machines installed.

Even in the days of cumbersome early machines, Andrew wrote about making computers available as widely as possible, securing a grant for a programme ofresearch on “desk calculating machines” as early as 1949. A copy of his reportevaluates the technical options for putting computers on, if not the desktop, at least the laboratory bench.

From the start, Kathleen was closely involved in the building and testing of the computers that Andrew designed. Getting these early machines to work involved a

The BTM HEC1 Prototype in store at Birmingham Museum

The BTM HEC1 Prototype in store at Birmingham Museum

combination of testing the electronics and then checking that the programmes executed correctly. In 1953, they co-authored their best-known book, Automatic Digital Calculators, which ran to three editions. As part of her software development work, Kathleen developed a very early assembly language for their computers and in 1958 she published a book on software entitled Programming for an Automatic Digital Calculator.

The first of its kind

In 1957, a Governors’ Resolution stated that Birkbeck’s Computer Laboratory was to be constituted as a separate Department under the headship of Dr Andrew Booth. As far as can be made out, the Department of Numerical Automation was the first department established to teach computing in a UK university; elsewhere the courses were still taught in Computer Laboratories.

Andrew and Kathleen Booth stayed in the Department until the summer of 1962, when they moved to Canada. Andrew continued his career in computing initially at the University of Saskatchewan and subsequently as President of Lakehead University, Ontario.

Over subsequent years, the Department crossed many milestones: adopting the name Department of Computer Science in 1963; awarding MScs to 29 students in 1968; and appointing a chair in 1970. The College Calendar for 1970-71 is the first to acknowledge “Computer Staff” as a distinct group, comprising two programmers, two operators and four computer assistants who prepared paper tape and punched cards. At this time, the College’s IT support staff reported to the Head of the Computer Science Department. This arrangement continued for many years until a separate College Computer Service was created.

At the turn of the century, Birkbeck gave its highest accolade, a College Fellowship, to two members of its community who had made distinguished contributions to the advancement of computing. Firstly, in 2002, to Dame Stephanie Shirley, who created a major UK software house, whose workforce for many years was composed principally of women working from home and who has subsequently done much to promote the responsible application of IT and other charitable activities. Secondly, in 2003, it awarded a College Fellowship to Andrew Booth in recognition of his lifetime contribution to computing.

Left to right: Dame Stephanie Shirley and Dame Judith Mayhew

Dame Stephanie Shirley (left), on the occasion of her installation as a College Fellow in 2002 with Dame Judith Mayhew, Chairman of Governors.

The Department today

The Department of Computer Science and Information Systems’ research activities have continued to expand over the past twenty years, into advanced logics, computer vision, ontologies, personalisation, web technologies, and ubiquitous computing, with the appointment of several new members of academic staff.

In 2004, the Department set up the London Knowledge Lab in collaboration with the neighbouring Institute of Education. The Birkbeck Knowledge Lab established in 2016 extends this legacy, drawing on multi and interdisciplinary perspectives and methodologies to investigate how digital technologies and digital information are transforming our learning, working and cultural lives.

The Birkbeck Institute for Data Analytics was founded in 2016 to develop

Andrew and Kathleen Booth in 2008

Andrew and Kathleen Booth in 2008

interdisciplinary research in data analytics and data science between computer scientists at the Department and members of Birkbeck’s other departments, across the sciences, social sciences, economics, law and humanities.

The Department celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2017, and the legacy of Andrew and Kathleen Booth continues to inspire generations of computer scientists. Each year, distinguished scholars and practitioners of computer science are invited to the College to deliver the Andrew and Kathleen Booth Memorial Lecture, which commemorates their pioneering work.

In 2018, Birkbeck became a founding member of the Institute of Coding, a national initiative established to address digital skill needs in industry sectors in key areas including data science, cyber security, artificial intelligence, and coding. Through our part time evening face-to-face model of delivery, Birkbeck is well placed to support those already in employment and has developed new full and part time programmes in Data Science to address the digital skills gap in this area. The Department has also established a relationship with industry through our partnership with the British Library and National Archives, where we jointly develop a PGCert in Computing for Cultural Heritage to help upskill their respective workforce and address the need for digital skills, such as programming, to manage the large volumes of digitised documents being made available for research and to the public as part of our digital economy.

The discipline of Computer Science is never dull. Rapidly evolving technology is always opening up new application areas, while new challenges from the real world drive technology developers to continually push the frontiers forward. We look forward to what the next 60 years will bring.

This article was adapted from the School of Computer Science and Information Systems: A Short History by Dr Roger Johnson, which was originally produced for the Department’s 50th birthday celebrations.

Department of Computer Science and Information Systems Timeline

1947      Andrew Booth and Kathleen Britten undertake a six-month US tour based at Princeton, where they work with early computer pioneer John Von Neumann.

Andrew Booth secures funding from the Rockerfeller Foundation for a computer to carry out natural language translation.

1948      Andrew Booth designs the Simple Electronic Computer.

1951      Andrew Booth is Birkbeck’s first computing graduate.

BTM’s HEC1, based on Andrew Booth’s Circuitry, is built.

1955       The Birkbeck Computer Laboratory gives a public demonstration of machine translation.

1957       The Department of Numerical Automation is officially established.

Andrew Booth is elected to serve on the first Council of the British Computer Society.

1958       Kathleen Booth’s book Programming for an Automatic Digital Calculator is published.

1961       International Computers and Tabulators Ltd. provide the Department with an I.C.T. Type 1400 computer, worth just under a quarter of a million pounds.

1967       The Chair in Computer Science is established.

                George Loizou (now Emeritus Professor), joins the Department as a Lecturer.

1968       29 students are awarded MScs, seven with distinction.

1971       Betty Walters is appointed Department Secretary, where she will serve for over 36 years.

1973       The Department takes part in a College Open Day, offering specialist equipment demonstrations. The then Secretary of State for Education, Margaret Thatcher, is among the attendees.

1983       Dr Roger Johnson (now Fellow of the College) joins the Department.

1987       The Department plays a major role in organizing the Very Large Data Base Conference in Brighton, which will host 700 delegates from all over the world.

1992       Dr Roger Johnson serves as President of the British Computer Society.

2002       Dame Stephanie Shirley is made a Fellow of the College in recognition of her distinguished contributions to the advancement of computing.

2003       Andrew Booth is made a Fellow of the College in recognition of his lifetime contribution to computing.

2004       The London Knowledge Lab is established in partnership with the Institute of Education.

2008       The first degree programmes are offered on Birkbeck’s Stratford campus.

2009       The School of Business, Economics and Informatics is established. The Department of Computer Science and Information Systems becomes one of four in the School.

2016       Birkbeck Institute for Data Analytics is founded.

2017       The Department celebrates its 60th anniversary.

2018       Birkbeck is a founding member of the Institute of Coding.

2020       The Department of Computer Science and Information Systems offers twelve scholarships to the PG Cert Applied Data Science for black and female candidates in order to widen representation in computing.

Further Information

 

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“Birkbeck was the only university offering the exact course I wanted to do”

A desire to specialise in innovation and electronic business led Nigerian, Ayomide Disu, to enrol on Birkbeck MSc Business Innovation with E-Business.  In this blog, the recipient of one of Birkbeck International Merit scholarship, tells us about his background and life in the UK.

Ayomide Disu

Ayomide Disu, MSc Business Innovation student from Nigeria.

Tell us about your background. What were you doing before you started studying at Birkbeck?

I am originally from Lagos, Nigeria. During my teens, I came to study at a boarding school in Gloucestershire in the UK. Following that I went on to the University of Central Lancashire and Cass Business School for my BSc and MSc respectively. Prior to Birkbeck, I was working as an independent consultant/advisor to a non-profit organisation in which I collaborated with C-Level executives and other stakeholders to gain an understanding of the business process which lead to bridging the communication gap between management and employees. I also suggested, pitched, trained and implemented the use of software such as Slack to increase productivity and pitched and developed a new website and algorithm for organisation operations.

Why did you decide to come to Birkbeck?

Studying management twice has its pros and cons, the understanding of different functions and different models of business are some pros, but the drawbacks are the overlap in knowledge and a lack of specialisation.

I wanted to specialise in innovation and electronic business which is what has led me to undertake a second postgraduate degree in that subject. I could have studied at Warwick and Newcastle, but I choose Birkbeck because I wanted to be in London, and it was the only university that had the exact course I wanted to do.

I attended orientation and it was quite useful just to get a feel for the surrounding areas, the Library and all other facilities. Birkbeck is unique as it’s the only place that gives working professionals the chance to study and work simultaneously (not that I’m working). However, for me as a full-time student, it allows me to be flexible and manage my time as I don’t have classes till 6 pm. However, although we don’t have lectures until night-time, there is still plenty of work to do in the day, so managing your time effectively is a must.

What it is like living in London?

The UK generally and London feels very much like my second home as I have been coming here since I was two years old for holidays and family gatherings. For me moving was quite simple as I had lived here when I was studying for my first masters.

Transportation is quite straightforward and efficient, and I love London as it’s so multicultural and has one of my favourite places in the world (Ronnie Scott’s).

What have you found most challenging about your time in the UK so far? What have been your highlights so far?

The only challenge for me personally is the weather and lack of sun, but I think it’s all part of the experience and I’m grateful. In terms of actual study challenges, I feel that the university could do better in bringing together the full-time students, so a sense of community may be fostered outside of the classroom. My highlights so far have been taking modules such as intellectual capital, digital creativity as they are so unique and give me a fresh perspective on how I approach business. Also, the friends I have made are lovely. I am looking forward to taking the block chain and entrepreneurial finance modules in the summer term, hopefully getting more sun and submitting my dissertation.

The advice I would give to prospective students would be to get involved in activities you enjoy, cultivate a habit of exploring different friendship groups outside your nationality and bring an umbrella.

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Where is our 1939-45 War Memorial? Help Us Find It!

Professor Joanna Bourke reflects on the story of Birkbeck’s missing war memorial. Have you seen this? Let us know and we’ll send you a £20 voucher.

Lost war memorial

Birkbeck’s lost war memorial created by sculptor, Ralph Beyer.

How can a large, very heavy sculpture made of solid stone simply disappear?

This is the question I asked myself while researching the history of Birkbeck. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the College recognised the need to commemorate the lives of thousands of Birkbeck students who had been killed, mutilated, and bereaved by the war. The man for the job, they concluded, was German-born sculptor Ralph Beyer.

Beyer had fled to England from Nazi Germany (his mother was killed in Auschwitz). Despite being only 16 years old and barely speaking English, he had quickly found a job working with the famous artist Eric Gill. When war was declared, Beyer was interned as an “enemy alien”, which is where he met fellow internee Nikolaus Pevsner, who lectured on art and architecture at Birkbeck. They formed a life-long friendship. Beyer was eventually released from internment and served in the British Army in the UK, France, and Germany. On his return to England, he was commissioned (thanks to the support of his friend Pevsner) by the College to design our war memorial.

The memorial was four feet high (excluding the plinth) and carved out of a single cube of brown Hornton Stone from Warwickshire. It showed a woman sitting on a rectangular block on top of a pedestal. The woman’s legs were close together, with her arms resting on her knees. She was draped in a flowing garment. While her hands and feet were large, her head was disproportionately small with few discernible features. Her posture and heaviness suggested grief or the mourning of a mother.

Not everyone approved. Some commentators complained that the war memorial was “at pains to conceal its identity” as a war memorial. “Are we to suppose”, one critic asked, “that the artist” was “more concerned with pleasing the living than honouring the dead?”

Pevsner came to his friend’s defence. He reminded its critics that a utilitarian memorial (such as a lecture hall) had been ruled out as “unsuitable to commemorate the sacrifice of so many young lives”. The commissioning committee had also decided not to simply inscribe the names of the dead on a tablet: too many men and women had “given” too much and any list would inevitably be incomplete anyway. Creating a stained-glass window was also dismissed because, as a College in which teaching took place in the evening, the “glow of colour and the composition would be lost”.

Pevsner also attempted to disabuse critics of the assumption that a war memorial “ought to be a soldier with a gun”. After all, war of the scale seen between 1939 and 1945 depended on “so many jobs of work, in different surroundings, and with different uniforms”, all of which “led to the same gateway of death”.

Pevsner argued that Beyer’s design was “both personal and universally valid”. The woman’s face “creates a sense of mystery and reverence”, he contended. Her hands “lie heavily on the thighs, as they do in archaic Greek statues of women, and that sense of weighing down is essential for the mood”. Pevsner concluded that the Birkbeck war memorial was “a piece of sculpture which is of today and yet at the same time of an undated rightness”.

Beyer went on to become a distinguished artist. He is best known for his design and carving of the lettering in Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral (1961+), which remains the most significant work of British public lettering in the twentieth century.

But what happened to his memorial to the dead and suffering men and women of Birkbeck between 1939 and 1945 remains a mystery.

Joanna Bourke, Professor of History in the Department of History, Classics, and Archaeology at Birkbeck and writing the history of the College for our bicentenary in 2023.

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The Unfortunate Persistence of Being

As the discussion over the meaning and significance of statues wears on, Gaynor Tutani, who is currently completing a PG Diploma in Museum Cultures discusses the current Black Lives Matter Movement and how cultural institutions can engage with history and encourage more inclusion within the industry. 

Perpetual Histories

I have been here before,
You have been here before,
We have been here before.
How long will we have this same conversation?

I am tired. I used to feel the pain.
Now, almost, I do not feel!
I saw the knee heavy on his neck, everyone saw it,
but the knee is always on our necks.
We carry it daily.
It’s on my SKIN,
Engraved on my Bones,
And flows through my Blood.

I am Black. I am African,
You are African too,
Evolution says so.
But somehow my Black is an outcast,
To be feared, hated and killed.
Not only a physical death.
No, the deeper death,
One that TAKES my spirit, hopes and dreams.

Regardless, I fight. I push.
I continue to BE. For there is pride in my being.
There is pride in knowing my history and who I am.
I am more than Black!
My life matters, I am human,
Just like you.

Jean Joseph, A Good Outlook, 2010, Mixed Media on Canvas

Jean Joseph, A Good Outlook, 2010, Mixed Media on Canvas

How do I feel about the Black Lives Matter movement? What does it mean to me as a Black woman and a British citizen with African origins? These are a few questions that have been playing in my mind following the passing of George Floyd. It has not been easy to digest his horrific death, and so, I have not really found any answers to my questions. Today we all call for change, but how is this change going to come about or is it even possible? I ask this because Floyd was one of many Black men that have died at the hands of White police. There have been women too, yet their stories do not receive the same attention. This is not to say that their deaths and lives were less important, but it highlights the fact that it is prevalent within the United States of America. I believe that this is why it bothers me, knowing that his story is yet another devastating headliner of perpetuated terror.

Historically Africans and those of African descent have suffered extreme injustices due to an adopted persistent backwardness based on geography and melanin. While the racists’ systems of slavery, segregation and apartheid have ended, we cannot deny their lasting imprints and legacies within our current political, socio-economic and cultural societies. Deep psychological traumas continue to affect Black people – inherited from their ancestors, termed by Dr Joy DeGruy as Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. Although she coins it “Slave Syndrome”, I believe that the crippling impact of trauma should be considered with regards to all western encounters with Africa and its diaspora. This includes colonisation and its destruction of Africa as a whole. Therefore, when I think about these histories and the Black resistance movements that occurred – such as the Civil Rights Movement in America and the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, both in the 1960s –  it is disheartening  that in 2020 a movement called Black Lives Matter is even necessary to counteract current racist systems.

Nonetheless, despite this dim reality, I am encouraged by the movement’s momentum and the level of scrutiny currently on equality and social justice. But I am also concerned that this focus on racism is an unsustainable banner.

How long will the discourses continue without positive, tangible change? How do we end this perpetual cycle of action and reaction? As a keen student of history and a cultural facilitator, I believe that museums and other cultural institutions can make lasting contributions and be an example of the change we need, via a true engagement with our society. One that does more than tick the boxes of inclusion and diversity, but actually acknowledges our society’s unique cultural fabric and how it came about. We have to honestly discuss controversial topics such as racism and its intricate connection to our lives. I believe that art can inspire and change people’s perspectives and understanding of their world. Consequently, museums and curators should do more to address difficult issues within their curation and programming.

This has been my mission as a curator and co-founder of EARTHworks a curatorial duo that organically formed with my partner, Jean Joseph (a visual artist and cultural facilitator; @artmaroon). Together we have hosted and organised exhibitions, talks and events that delve into similar topics such as race, culture and history. Currently, we are working in partnership with arc Gallery to realise an exhibition that investigates the complexities of colonisation. Reading from scholars such as Frantz Fanon, Cheikh Anta Diop and Mandivamba Rukini, just to mention a few, the project draws upon theories of existentialism, as a means to discuss notions of identity. It aims to highlight how cultural institutions and those working within the arts can address uncomfortable narratives. In short, the exhibition comprises an academic interrogation of how history has shaped the lives of Black and Brown people, which sometimes is not included within museum exhibitions dedicated to people of colour.

The above comment is not an attack on museums. There has been an improvement within their structures, but I believe more can be done, especially within the operational field. There is a significant shortage of Black and Brown curators and general programming staff within museums. Although there has been a rise in exhibitions for/dedicated to people of colour, the fact that these showcases are not directed or led by those they claim to represent is problematic. Therefore, even though many museums have been working on decolonisation agendas within their operations, the extent to which these methods are effective are minimal if the decolonisation does not involve those that have been colonised by the very imperialist structures of museums.

Further, discussing issues of decolonisation within museums, Tristram Hunt, (Director of the Victoria & Albert Museum ) in his newspaper article on restitution and repatriation of previously looted collections within museums, argued that it was not possible to decolonise or return some artefacts due to the fact that losing them would be to disregard museums’ historical ties with empire. As a result, he contends that to “decolonise is to decontextualise” since the rise of empires was closely linked to collections.

Consequently, Hunt urges museums to find the right balance when dealing with their collections and the historical narratives behind them. In a way Hunt’s argument shows the reluctance of the West to relinquish its colonial hold. He proposes better museum practices and claims that the V&A has made procedural progress. However, his current idea of loaning artefacts to their countries of origin is condescending. Why should they borrow what rightfully belongs to them? Hunt’s solution does not solve the problems or issues pertaining to restitution, which I believe can be resolved if there was a commensurate staffing of people of colour within museums and galleries. Their voice, experiences and knowledge are paramount when deciding how these collections can be returned or respectful partnerships be formed with their countries of origin.

As a Black cultural curator, and being aware of the historical race debate within the arts and cultural scene, I am in support of the Black Lives Matter movement as a vehicle to address social injustice. If change can be achieved at all, I believe that it can, and should, start with productive conversations within museums and heritage institutions.

Gaynor Tutani is a student on the Postgraduate Diploma in Museum Cultures in the Department of History of Art, and an independent curator. You can read more about her work and encounters with art and museums here: https://fambaneni.tumblr.com/

Further information:

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To lie about History – Statues and the British Slave Trade

Gabriel Burne, an MA History of Art student, discusses the legacy of the historical figures whose statues have been removed and how the current debates around these monuments should encourage deeper discussion about Britain’s violent and racist past. 

“The air of England is too pure for any slave to breathe.” Allegedly this was said during the trial of Shanley v. Harvey, a case where a British man, Shanley, was attempting to recoup a substantial sum of money given to Harvey by Shanley’s niece on her death bed. The basis of the claim was that Shanley had bought Harvey as a child slave to England some 12 years earlier and given him to his now deceased niece. I heard it quoted during my undergraduate degree in History in a debate about the role that slavery played in the UK economy. Even though many slaves were bought, sold and owned on the British Isles, the quote was employed as evidence of Britain’s relationship to slavery being distinct from that of the United States. Whilst the quote was likely never uttered, and the sentiment it reflected false, its popularisation reflects this Island’s complex and unresolved relationship to its violent and racist past. Much of Britain’s history of racial violence is hidden, existing only as ghosts haunting the otherwise heroic narrative of Britain and its heroes. When I embarked on a Master’s degree at Birkbeck in History of Art, it was these ghosts I wanted to know more about, in an effort to reinsert the lives and horrors which these spectres recall back into popular British history.

For many of us in Britain, our understanding of racism is taught from the perspective of the United States. The civil rights movement – Martin Luther King, the KKK, Malcolm X and segregation – are all things many in the UK have an understanding of. They are core aspects of our national curriculum and whilst they teach us important lessons on white supremacy, they create a sense of separation from the problems that exist here in Britain. To learn more about how we honour and adulate those who created this system of white supremacy in the UK, I took a module called “Slavery and its Cultural Legacies.” My reading for the course took me to some of the black theorists writing in the US currently – particularly Saidiya Hartman and Christina Sharpe. Whilst their writing was specifically speaking to an American experience, I felt there was a lot to be learned from their ideas here in the UK. Sharpe and Hartman speak of “the wake” and “the afterlife” of slavery respectively. Slavery’s violence lives on in white supremacy, a condition which is constitutive of contemporary Britain. The Research Project that I am currently writing examines the British monuments that often honour and/or neglect to acknowledge racial violence as part of the individual championed legacy.

Robert Milligan statue outside the London Docklands Museum

Robert Milligan statue outside the London Docklands Museum

In February this year, I went to the London Docklands Museum organised as part of the module. We were taken through the museum’s exhibition on slavery – London, Sugar & Slavery. The exhibition itself speaks of the ubiquity and brutality of the slave trade in the UK and is situated in the very building that was a hub for receiving the imported goods from Britain’s slave plantations. Whilst the museum takes steps to foreground black voices and highlight some of these hidden histories, a walk onto the docks outside the entrance reveals some stark reminders of this unconfronted violence. A cocktail bar serves “plantation punch” as a drink on the menu. And towering just in front of that sits a statue honouring prominent British slave trader Robert Milligan, who by the time of his death in 1809, owned two sugar plantations and 526 slaves in Jamaica.

I stared up at the dead metal eyes of Milligan looking out across the docks, posed as if smiling upon an arriving ship, bountiful with the fruits of his murderous plantations. The plinth on which the statue stands illustrates his achievements with a relief that depicts Britannia seated on her tame-looking British lion, whilst the female figure of commerce offers her riches and at her feet three cherubs help carry the bounty. The mast of an approaching ship is visible in the background, the very ships whose docking in Greenwich Milligan would have cheered.

The engraving below Robert Milligan’s statue

The engraving below Robert Milligan’s statue.

In romanticising the wealth men like Milligan brought lady Britannia, statues such as this obscure how this wealth originated in racial violence – the lucrative cargo carried aboard these ships, and which both Milligan and Britain celebrate, were produced by the enslaved. The continued existence of these statues’ silences new voices and alternative histories under the weight of the historical indulgence upon which Britain’s current power structures relies, that of a grotesque imperial and racially violent past located elsewhere, in far-off lands.

When I embarked on researching the Milligan statue, along with the statues of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol and Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, George Floyd was still alive. The protests catalysed by his murder at the hands of three police officers have since led to each either being removed or torn down by activists. This totally unforeseeable set of events taking place as I research these statues has left my project at an incredible crossroads that changes from day-to-day. The removal of the Colston statue in Bristol by activists, followed by its symbolically poignant casting into the harbour, prompted the Milligan statue to be removed by the local council days later. It has just been announced that the Cecil Rhodes statue that sat on Oriel College and has for years been the subject of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, will likewise be removed. Commenting on these events, the Prime Minister stated that to remove these statues is to “lie about our history and impoverish the education of generations to come.” This statement is reminiscent of the same mental gymnastics performed by the relief that sits below the Milligan statue. Rather than being moved by watching the monuments to these men fall and cheering what is, at best, a small step toward confronting this violent past, Johnson continues the exercise of obfuscation. Not once does he mention precisely what he thinks this history is, yet he claims it to be the “truth”. To engage in the actual process of discussing this history is to highlight what these statues hide: that of a British slave-trading and imperial past not confronted, and the “afterlives” of the British slave in which non-white people in this country must live.

At the time of an anti-racist uprising alongside offering solidarity to America, we must also reflect on the constitutive role slavery and white supremacy have played in British history. As the actions of many demonstrators have movingly and powerfully shown, it is imperative to reflect on what voices are hidden when men like Colston, Milligan and Rhodes are celebrated. We must remind ourselves that the enslaved also breathed the UK’s air “too pure.”

Further reading:

On the British abolitionist movement and the Haitian revolution 

CLR James, The Black Jacobins, (Random HouseNew York, 1989)

US Black studies theorists and the afterlives of slavery 

Saidiya V Hartman Lose your mother: a journey along the Atlantic slave route (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2007)

Christina Sharpe In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2016)

Fred Moten In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (University of Minnesota Press, 2003)

For British involvement in the slave trade

Paul Gilroy The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness (Verso, London, New York, 1993)

Catherine Hall Legacies of British Slave-Ownership (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2016)

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A guide to mentoring PhD students

What constitutes a good PhD mentor and mentee? In this blog, Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele from the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication shares his thoughts on how to navigate PhD supervision for both students and supervisors.

Two women chatting

Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels

I was recently invited to contribute a chapter on the supervision of doctoral students and one the delicate management of the supervisor–supervisee relationship from the first contact to the post-graduation goodbye (Dewaele, 2020).  Having led 26 Birkbeck students to their PhD as first supervisor allowed me to reflect on the uniqueness of each relationship and on the commonalities.  I realise that my perceptions might help current PhD students in handling their relationship with their supervisor(s) and their fellow students.

The most crucial aspect is the establishment of a relationship of trust and mutual respect, where constructive criticism is appreciated, where the scientific creativity and independence of the student is encouraged and where the student’s expectations are handled appropriately.

As in any relationship, there may be moments of strain and crisis and it is the supervisor’s responsibility to deal with this in a professional manner. Good supervisors are close to their students but not too close and the distance can change over time. In their book about the supervision of MA students, Harwood and Petrić (2017) explain that “different supervisees need supervisors to occupy different roles at different times” (p. 9).

I realise that as a PhD supervisor I am typically more directive at the beginning of the research project and allow more freedom and flexibility later on.  It is not unlike relationships parents have with their children, allowing them gradually more independence until they reach adulthood.

Metaphors are particularly useful in grasping abstract concepts. In the satire, Candide, ou l’Optimisme (1759), Voltaire famously wrote in the conclusion “il faut cultiver son jardin”, meaning “that we must take care of our garden”, away from the hustle and bustle. It is good to visualise a PhD research project as a private garden, to which the student can retreat to tend it, to plant flowers, to prune the trees lovingly, and to wonder where to install that water feature or statue. Spending some time in the garden is good for the garden and for the gardener’s soul, though digging can cause blisters to appear.  Conversations with fellow students allows a useful comparison of gardens. It helps understand that bigger is not necessarily better and that gardens can come in all colors, shapes and sizes.

I have had some interesting exchanges with students about the PhD being a transformative experience because it forces one to do a lot of thinking.  And because it is so long and so intense it can -and should- trigger cognitive and emotional restructuring. Students come out of this as more resilient, independent and confident (and sometimes also humbler) people.

It is also crucial to understand that comparisons with other (former or current) students can only be superficial and that having more or less of this can only refer to a very small part of a much bigger hidden picture.  My colleagues and myself love all our PhD students who work hard.  They are all bright and the fact that one can jump higher, or run faster, or cook better should be of no concern to the others.  Being unique individuals means they all have unique strengths and weaknesses.  They all face unique challenges that may sometimes stop them from reaching their full potential (like long-standing family or work issues, or a momentary problem like a numbing migraine at the viva).  And that is OK too, because each student gives it their all – professional, family and health situation permitting.

This reminds me of karate where it is also crucial not to compare oneself too much with fellow karate-ka.  Some are great at kumite (fighting), others are great at kata (choreographed patterns of 20 to 70 moves, with stepping and turning, that have to be executed while attempting to maintain perfect form), others might not excel at either but have great resilience, attitude and humility.  The standard for the black belt varies slightly according to age and health.  Being 18 or 70 makes a difference, and yet both are able to get the black belt if they can show that they have mastered the techniques and the spirit of karate, and that they are as fit as they can be and can take a solid kick in the stomach.

It is the same for getting a PhD. Supervisors make sure that students reach the threshold but how far they go above it is not really crucial. If they can, of course, they should.  That’s also why I’m so happy that no grade is awarded for a British PhD.  It either Pass or not Pass, like a driving test. If former students later end up winning prizes for their work, everybody will be proud of them, but if they don’t, they won’t be loved any less!

References

Dewaele, J.-M. (2020). Supervising doctoral students and managing the supervisor-supervisee relationship. In L. Plonsky (Ed.), Professional development in applied linguistics: A guide to success for graduate students and early-career faculty. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 153-163.  https://doi.org/10.1075/z.229.11dew

Harwood, N., & Petrić, B. (2017). Experiencing Master’s supervision. Perspectives of international students and their supervisors. London: Routledge.

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“Birkbeck has so many resources when it comes to study skills and I have been able to pass those skills on to my boys.”

Last month, we bought three current part-time Birkbeck students who are also parents together to talk about how they made the step into studying and how they’re managing studying while looking after their children under lockdown.

In this blog, We’ll hear what Liliana (Accounting and Management FDA), Fentezia (Film and Media BA) and Mohamed (Applied Psychology CertHE) have to say about how they’re managing juggling studying and childcare in this challenging time.

If you’re a parent thinking about studying, email us at getstarted@bbk.ac.uk for information and advice about starting a university course. Now, over to Liliana, Fentezia and Mohamed!

Mother and daughter home schooling

Thank you for agreeing to share your thoughts with us about studying while parenting. We know it must be a busy time! So, tell us a little bit about why you decided to come to Birkbeck and what you enjoy about your course?

Fentezia: I decided to come to Birkbeck due to the great reputation it had, and flexibility of learning in the evenings. I enjoy my course because a lot of the lecturers are already established in the film and media industry and you get a lot of insight in it through them. The students are also mature and most are returning to education and some have families so you have a lot in common with them.

Liliana: I first heard about Birkbeck at a family event in a university, I thought it was what I was looking for and the part-time option made it easier to make the decision to study for a degree as I thought to myself ‘How can I juggle having two children a part-time job and studying!’

Birkbeck has so many resources when it comes to study skills and I have been able to pass those skills on to my boys. Learning together and being able to find the answers to topics have made me more confident as a parent when helping my children with homework.

Mohamed: Studying Applied Psychology has really given me an insight into why people do the things they do. I enjoy the course because I get to learn more about people. This was really important to me coming from Sierra Leone, it helped me understand the conflict in my own country and why people act the way they do. I’ve also enjoyed the child development parts of my course where I’ve learnt more about how children grow and learn.

How do you normally juggle childcare and studying when you’re attending on campus lectures?

Fentezia: Luckily, I have family that can help and being part-time, I only study two nights a week. While my children are in school, I also take the time to do assignments.

Mohamed: Usually it’s no problem at all. As the classes are in the evening, I can look after the baby during the day (my son is only 19 months old) and swap with his mum in the evening. Sometimes it’s a challenge to do the academic work before class, but I manage to fit it around my other commitments.

Lilliana: I am very lucky because I have supportive parents that help look after my children in the evenings when I have classes. My dad is at home when my children get home from school and stays with them until I get home, he even cooks meals for us! When I study at home, I try to do it when they are at school or I will dedicate a Sunday morning to studying, I think it’s important for them to see my studying.

How are you finding parenting and studying during lockdown?

Liliana: In lockdown my time management skills have been put to the test, I’m working from home and have a collaborate session (a live workshop with other students and the lecturer) on a Tuesday evening, but I make sure I have a long break before I sit down to study. I try to study while they are getting on with schoolwork as I find this is the time when we are all studying which helps us focus. I don’t try to do a full school day with them, rather we are task-orientated and decide how long each task should take and allocate times – however, we also allow room for flexibility.

I give them at least three tasks on most days and it could be anything from getting a piece of homework done to vacuuming their room, this gives them a sense of accomplishment for the day. I have focused on teaching them essential skills like cooking and looking after themselves, I like to think I am preparing them for university life in the future. I also find time to go out for walks – this could be on my own or with my boys, it gives you clarity and a break from staying at home.

Fentezia: It has been challenging as I have taken on the role as governess without the patience of Mary Poppins! However, it has been nice to spend time with my children and see their progress. Sometimes I study while they do their learning, but it’s usually at night when they have gone to bed.

Parenting is harder because we have to do the domestic chores as well as home school and answer a million questions from our children, whilst also being followed around the house.

Mohamed: Staying at home has been good because it means I’ve got to spend more time with my son, but it has been hard because I can only really work when he is sleeping. Even when his mum is there, it’s difficult because there are lots of distractions.

Do you have any tips for other students who are also trying to juggle studying and parenting at the moment?

Fentezia: I would recommend PE with Joe Wicks he is now like a TV family member; the sports sessions help the kids burn excess energy. Home learning should be done in the morning when their minds are fresh and get them to read in the afternoon to give you a bit of (quiet) time to do some work.

Don’t forget to rest and eat well so that you have the energy to do your own work at night. Try not to get too stressed, stick to a good routine and set a bedtime for the kids.

I’m also Birkbeck’s Student Parents & Carers Officer, so if you are a student who is also a parent, email studentsunion@bbk.ac.uk to find out more.

Liliana: Take breaks and do activities together such as cooking and playing board games, it’s also important to do sports with your children; this could be a bike ride around London or just around the park.

Take time for yourself and do something you enjoy like reading a book or watching your favourite series. It’s okay to ask for help – email your teachers.

Mohamed: It’s important to find space to be alone and to have some quiet. Make arrangements with your partner to have that space.

Make sure that you reach out to get support, for example, charities or services at the university. Try your best, look for support, go to school but it can be a challenge sometimes!

Further information: 

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(Art) History Matters

Dr Sarah Thomas, from the Department of History of Art, shares her experience of museum curation in Australia and discusses how we should interrogate the ‘hidden histories’ that underpin current debates. 

In 1993 when working as a curatorial assistant in a public gallery in Sydney I was involved in a project which I’ll never forget. Yamangu Ngaanya. Our Land Our Body was an exhibition of paintings by a group of Aboriginal artists from a remote desert community in Warbuton, Western Australia. The dazzling canvases, derived from ancestral ‘Dreaming’ stories that were traditionally painted onto the body, were accompanied by forty-five Ngaanyatjarra men and women, most of whom had never visited a city in their lives and who had travelled to Sydney by coach over several days and nights. Besides the paintings they also brought with them sixteen tonnes of red sand from their land, which over the course of several days was dispersed over the gallery floor. What had been a standard ‘white cube’ interior was radically transformed into a space for ceremony: over several days and nights separate groups of women and men prepared and performed Dreaming ceremonies, filling the space with traditional song, language, dance, swirling dust, bodies painted in ochre, the smell of smoke and sweat. This was not what an art historical training had prepared me for: ‘performance art’, ‘installation’, and ‘body art’, even ‘painting’, were all wildly inadequate terms for what I observed over the course of that week.

I am reminded of this moment by the global repercussions recently of the Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests. The Australia I grew up in was deeply racist, and it remains so. Sadly, despite years of protest, public and scholarly debate, and a government apology in 2008 for the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families by national and state agencies, Indigenous Australians remain the most incarcerated people on earth. Leading Aboriginal artists have long been highly critical of Australia’s colonial past, and the pervasive hold it has on the present. Daniel Boyd, for example, critiques the nation’s foundational myths by reworking white Australian imagery, from heroic depictions of Captain Cook (statues of whom are currently the subject of heated debate) to encounters between Aboriginal and European settlers. I included Boyd’s painting We Call Them Pirates Out Here (2007) in an exhibition I curated in 2015 called Colonial Afterlives, which brought together the work of contemporary artists from former British colonies including Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, Canada, New Zealand, as well as Australia.

: Colonial Afterlives exhibition catalogue cover. Image by Christian Thompson, Trinity III, from the Polari series, 2014. Christian Thompson is represented by Sarah Scout Presents (Melbourne) and Michael Reid Gallery (Sydney and Berlin).

Colonial Afterlives exhibition catalogue cover. Image by Christian Thompson, Trinity III, from the Polari series, 2014. Christian Thompson is represented by Sarah Scout Presents (Melbourne) and Michael Reid Gallery (Sydney and Berlin).

Over the past decade, I’ve been researching the European representation of enslaved people in the 18th and 19th centuries across the Caribbean, Brazil and antebellum America (the subject of my book, Witnessing Slavery: Art and Travel in an Age of Abolition). More recently, I’ve been talking to museum professionals and scholars across the UK about how their institutions might publicly acknowledge the cultural legacies of slavery. The work of UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership project has uncovered a wealth of data about slave-owners at the moment of British emancipation in 1833, when a grant of £20 million (40% of Britain’s national budget) was paid in compensation, by British taxpayers to slave owners. My research draws on this work, focussing on the impact of slave-owners as art connoisseurs, collectors and patrons on the early history of British art museums.

There’s no doubt that such ‘hidden histories’ are troubling. The toppling of the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston on 7 June was not simply a spontaneous action born out of collective rage, but one with a long and more complex history of thwarted community attempts to acknowledge publicly Colston’s role in the slave trade. Madge Dresser points out that when the statue was erected in 1895 (over 170 years after the subject’s death), it coincided with the building of monuments which glorified the Confederacy in the United States, and others in Britain and across its Empire, which: ‘similarly extolled the virtues of British imperial figures whose relationship with colonised people of colour ranged from the paternalistic to the genocidal’. Historian Nick Draper is right when he says: ‘Historians need to be realistic about their reach and influence. But for more than 30 years scholars have worked towards an adequate post-colonial account of Britain’s history as a colonising and imperial power.’ He cautions: ‘We have tried to establish an evidence base that can be drawn on by all parties. The hegemonic view of British exceptionalism, its unique commitment to liberty and its glorious imperial past, has been challenged, but it has survived. Had we collectively succeeded, then some of the paths not taken would have been pursued. The binary of leave it alone/tear it down might have been avoided’. There is a sense of disappointment in this statement, as if historians themselves have in some sense failed in their attempts to challenge the status quo. But it is this ‘evidence base’ that is so vital to what we do as art historians as well, and why in our teaching we often speak about ‘authoritative sources’ and the importance of primary archival research.

Australia has a longer history of grappling with its colonial (British) past. As a curator in a big state art museum in the late 1990s, I was part of a generation that began to question the traditional separation in collection displays of ‘Aboriginal art’ and ‘Australian art’, interrupting Euro-centric chronological displays by introducing works of contemporary Indigenous artists, such as Boyd. (European visitors had no doubts about what constituted ‘Australian art’: they headed straight for the Aboriginal art collections.) My first sustained encounter with Aboriginal art and its makers in 1993 was profound, and its complexities and contradictions have stayed with me over the course of my career and feed now into my teaching. In Britain, museums are starting to engage more directly with the deeper implications of empire (see, for example, The Past is Now: Birmingham at the British Empire, 2017), but there is still much work to be done.

Art historians today are attentive to the complexities of social context, and careful to avoid the simplistic dualisms that newspapers, politicians and much social media commentary thrives on. Public statues have garnered attention across the world as lightning rods for heated and often bitter debates about national identities, yet the very fabric of our cities and countryside  – street names, public buildings, museum collections, archives, country houses, to name just a few examples – is steeped in the residue of history. This reminds us that colonial business is unfinished, its legacies are raw; history is now, and it matters.

 

Sarah Thomas is Lecturer in Museum Studies and History of Art in the Department of History of Art, and Director of the Centre for Museum Cultures. In Autumn term 2020, she will be teaching the seminar ‘Slavery and Its Cultural Legacies’ as part of the MA Museum Cultures and MA History of Art.

 

 

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The Use of the ‘Useless’: Exploring the Story of Classics at Birkbeck, 1963 – 2003

Jonny Matfin, a PhD candidate of Birkbeck Knowledge, discusses the contemporary development of Classics at Birkbeck. This blog is part of the 200th-anniversary series, marking the founding of the College which we will celebrate in 2023.

The outside of Birkbeck College

Birkbeck College, copyright Birkbeck History Collection.

In a series of compelling critiques of recent government policy on higher education in Britain, the academic Stefan Collini mounts a conceptual defence of the university; through exploring the question of what universities are for, Collini concludes that higher education institutions – that is, places like Birkbeck – ‘embody an alternative set of values’. Such values, it is argued, have been debased by decades of political drives towards managerialism and marketisation – they are not easily captured by audits and reports.

Within this context, the academic subject of classics is key. As Collini observes, Latin and Greek university studies have had a long journey, ‘from being a preparation for clerical or political office, through the centuries in which they served to hallmark a gentleman, and on to their current standing as favoured example of a “useless” subject.’ Ironically, it is this very – inaccurate – verdict that makes classics so vital to historical understanding of changes to British universities since the 1960s: if, as Collini suggests, our higher education system has been seen by others around the world as a canary in the mine, then classics has been – so to speak – the canary’s canary.

Margaret Thatcher at Birkbeck Open Day in 1973

Margaret Thatcher at Birkbeck’s 150th Anniversary Open Day in 1973. Image courtesy of the Birkbeck History Collection.

Birkbeck, like most universities and colleges across Britain, experienced two major periods of change from 1963-2003: the expansion – in response to a booming population – of the 1960s and 1970s, and the moves towards managerialism and marketisation – widely, but not solely, associated with the Conservative Thatcher Government – of the 1980s and 1990s. Classics was one of a number of ‘smaller’ subjects which came under increasing scrutiny within higher education institutions during policy pushes connected to the second of these significant shifts.

Crisis point was reached in 1985 when a government body, the University Grants Committee, launched an inquiry into Latin and Greek teaching and research in UK universities. A subsequent report by the UGC recommended the closure of a number of classics departments nationwide – including that of Birkbeck, forcing its merger with King’s College by 1989-90. Critically, the government audit failed to take account of the unique part-time tuition provided by Birkbeck’s Department of Classics – an academic lifeline for working students wanting to pursue the discipline.

This then, is the crux: if examining the recent history of academic classics in Britain can help us to explore the question of what universities are for, studying the development of the discipline at Birkbeck from 1963-2003 can help us to break new ground – to understand what an institution like this college, providing exceptional part-time tuition, is for. In short, this aspect of the story of the “useless” is extremely useful in a historical sense. Moreover, the revival of Latin and Greek at Birkbeck through a Department of History, Classics and Archaeology – and its continued evening tuition in both disciplines, is no small reason for institutional pride in the present.

Further reading:

Stefan Collini, What Are Universities For? (London; New York: Penguin, 2012).

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