Author Archives: Rebekah

Birkbeck and the dubious dealings of Francis H. Fowler

In this blog, Ciarán O’Donohue an MPhil/PhD student in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, shares the story of the development of a new Birkbeck building in the nineteenth century. This blog is part of our 200th anniversary series.

New building of Birkbeck Institute 1800s

New building of the Birkbeck Institute. ‘Bream’s building, Chancery Lane’

Once the decision had finally been made in 1879 for the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution to fly the nest and leave its original home in Southampton Buildings, Chancery Lane, it took years for the necessary funds to be raised. Rather than move to another existing building and “make do”, Birkbeck’s executive committee was dead set on commissioning a new one. Fund raising was slow. Scarred by the struggles of the mid-nineteenth century, where mounting debts had threatened the Institution with collapse, the Committee set about taking public subscriptions to reduce the costs.

Nevertheless, the risk had to be taken. Birkbeck could remain in its home no longer. A new building, the Committee asserted, was essential to ‘the prosperity and development of the Institution.’ The revival of its fortunes under the leadership of George Norris was such that, by 1879, new applicants were having to be turned down. There simply was not enough room.

Perhaps this explains the expediency with which an architect was selected to build Norris’s dreams. Intriguingly, the Committee decided not to request tenders from architects. Birkbeck’s future was entrusted to one man, Francis Hayman Fowler. Fowler was an internationally famous and reputable theatre architect. Hailed as a “pillar” of the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW), the forerunner to the London County Council, he had been an important figure in London politics for twenty years.

With his reputation taken into consideration, his selection out of the blue seems above board. It then merely seems incongruous that the Committee asked eighteen different vendors to tender for the job of constructing Fowler’s edifice. Besides, they could not take any risks. After taking into consideration the various pros and cons of each – and making especial note that they were selecting a builder based on a number of factors, not merely who was cheapest – a Mr. Cates was awarded the contract.

During the Committee’s next meeting, the contract was suddenly and inexplicably presented to Messrs. Nightingale. No clarification was forthcoming. A solitary clue remained, however. Amidst the notes of the meeting, a special note was made thanking Fowler ‘for his attendance and explanations.’ These breadcrumbs seemingly amount to nothing, until we look deeper into Francis Hayman Fowler’s conduct.

As Breams Buildings, the Institution’s new home, was being designed and built, the Royal Institute of British Architects was starting to doubt the legitimacy of the Board’s conduct. Three presidents used their inaugural addresses to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the MBW’s processes, in 1879, 1881, and again in 1883. Singled out for particular admonishment were the Building Acts Committee and the theatre subcommittee, of which Fowler was one of only five members. Specifically, other architects suspected Fowler and other members of the MBW of abusing their position in order to gain contracts, or exact payment for advice and services which would then guarantee that projects met final approval with the Board.

Three years after Breams Buildings was completed in 1885, the rumours surrounding Fowler and a number of other architects on the MBW reached a fever pitch. The Financial Times interviewed a number of disgruntled London architects, and boldly declared that the “facts are no secret.” A scandal erupted off the back of the article. Parliament took up the issue. Almost immediately, a Royal Commission was set up to investigate the Board for corruption, and Lord Herschell was appointed its chairman.

What it found was a shock to a great many people. Fowler’s reputation was such ‘that the Commission was genuinely surprised’ that the allegations were true. Fowler certainly was using his positions to exact payments in expectation of serving external interests on the board. Fowler was forced to resign but refused to ‘admit that he had behaved reprehensibly.’

How does all this relate to Birkbeck, you might be asking? Let’s go further down the rabbit hole. Another member of the Board, John Rüntz was also implicated. Only because he was not an architect, the Commission did not find him to be corrupt per se. Nevertheless, Rüntz and Fowler, the Commission asserted, were part of an ‘inner ring’ which exerted control over the affairs of the MBW.

Rüntz had extremely close ties to Birkbeck, spanning several decades. Originally a cabinet maker, he started attending the institution in the 1840s.  By 1848, he had been appointed Master of the Birkbeck school. By 1852, Francis Ravenscroft had co-opted Rüntz onto the board of the Birkbeck Bank. This relationship with Ravenscroft would have brought him in very close range of the Executive Committee, of which Ravenscroft was a dedicated, important (and honest) member. By 1860, Rüntz was a trustee of the Bank. 1868 saw Fowler elected to the Board of Works, and Rüntz became Chairman of the bank’s board.

The close relationship between the two men, and Rüntz’s extensive connections with Birkbeck, may have set the scene for Fowler’s introduction to the Committee at the very least. In such situations, both men would profit, as Fowler would pay for other MBW members for introductions. This is one course of events that may explain the peculiar decision to award Fowler the commission, with no prior interaction and no alternative tenders by other architects. Alternatively, it could all be entirely speculative, creating false links between the dots.

Either way, it is also important to consider the historical context even of dubious dealings. As historian David Owen conceded, architects were one of a number of occupations that were undergoing a gradual process of professionalisation in the Victorian era. An important yet fractious facet of this transformation was the establishment of agreed standards of ethics. Fowler’s case is evidence of this process. Debates were still ongoing concerning what was permissible in obtaining commissions, how to distinguish a justifiable use of connexions, and precisely what constituted a corrupt use of special influence. This is a potent reason for why Fowler might have refused to concede any wrongdoing: he sincerely felt he had acted reasonably. If architects themselves had differing opinions of the basic standards of fairness, furthermore, how were those commissioning work to decide what was honest or not?

Seemingly, although this scandal put an end to Fowler’s political career, it did not put an end to his scheming. Theatre magnate Sefton Parry commissioned Fowler to build the Avenue Theatre in 1882. With inside knowledge from the MBW, who owned the land, Parry financed the theatre with the express intention of having it requisitioned by the South Eastern Railway. Subsequently, he would receive a payout for the value of the theatre; that is, more than he spent on construction. His plan came to nothing. Then, in 1905, something suspicious occurred. Allegedly, the Avenue needed renovation. Parry commissioned Fowler once more. Before the opening night, part of Charing Cross Station collapsed onto the theatre, leaving only its original façade! Parry got his payday after all.

 

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Meet the Open Library of Humanities team

The six members of the Open Library of Humanities Team in different squares on Microsoft Teams

The Open Library of Humanities team

Tell us who you are, and where you sit in the Birkbeck, University of London departmental structure?

The Open Library of Humanities (OLH) is an award-winning, academic-led, gold open-access publisher with no author-facing charges. OLH was launched in 2015 and has been operating as an independent charity until May 2021, which is when the platform merged with Birkbeck, University of London.

We are based in the College’s Department of English, Theatre and Creative Writing, and it’s Centre for Technology and Publishing. We’re proud to hold a Coko Foundation Open Publishing Award, an AOP Digital Publishing Award, and to have been Highly Commended at the ALPSP Awards for Innovation in Publishing.

How many staff are in the team?
The OLH has a team of five — soon to be six — full-time members of staff.

The team in detail:

  • Dr Rose Harris-Birtill is the Acting Director and Managing Editor of the Open Library of Humanities, and is head of editorial at OLH. She is also the Editor of our flagship journal, OLH.
  • Paula Clemente Vega is the Marketing Officer for the Open Library of Humanities where she is in charge of memberships and of increasing the visibility of the OLH through outreach, marketing and advocacy.
  • Dr Eleanor Careless is the Editorial Officer for the Open Library of Humanities where she oversees editorial processes and production.
  • Andy Byers is a Senior Publishing Technology Developer at the Birkbeck’s Centre for Technology and Publishing. He leads development of the Janeway journal management system project.
  • Mauro Sanchez is a Senior Publishing Technology Developer at Birkbeck’s Centre for Technology and Publishing. He is in charge of managing development processes and operations for the Janeway project.
  • The OLH was co-founded by Professor Martin Paul Eve and Dr Caroline Edwards from Birkbeck’s Department of English, Theatre and Creative Writing.

What are the key functions of the team?
Our mission at the OLH is to support and extend open access to scholarship in the humanities – for free, for everyone, forever. Our small but hardworking team each oversee different facets of the organisation to make this mission a reality, supporting the editors across our platform of 28 open access journals, developing and maintaining our own field-leading open-source publishing platform, and securing the funding that allows our journals to remain completely free to read and free to publish in.

The OLH operates using a consortial funding model, which means that over 300 institutions pool their resources to collectively fund our open access publishing activities, allowing us to publish scholarship without the need to charge authors or readers. Our idea is that research organisations and libraries make a relatively small voluntary contribution – often less than a single article processing charge – that, when combined, covers the costs of running a publication platform on which peer-reviewed scholarly journals can then be published as fully open access. Our dedicated Marketing Officer is in charge of working with member universities, securing the vital member support that allows us to keep running.

One of the goals of the OLH has been to flip subscription journals to open access, making previously paid-for scholarly journals completely free to read and publish in. With this model we are proud to say that the OLH has been able to expand from 7 journals in 2015 to 28 journals in 2021. A huge milestone was the development and launch of Janeway in 2017, our own field-leading innovative open-source publishing platform developed fully in-house by our talented Senior Publishing Technology Developers, which is used both by our published and funded journals, as well as by a growing number of external partner university presses. The editorial team is in charge of coordinating the academic journals published by the Open Library of Humanities, and our Director oversees the day-to-day running of the organisation.

How have you been keeping each other afloat during the pandemic?
The OLH is fully set up for remote working, which allows us to keep overheads low. As such, we worked from home before the pandemic, so in that respect, not much has changed! However, we’ve continued to work closely to support each other through a challenging year. Organising online parties and games has been what has helped cheer up our days and keep us motivated during lockdown, as well as sharing funny gifs, anecdotes, photos and pet updates!

What are your current key activities?
We recently merged with Birkbeck, University of London, which has been a huge milestone for securing the future of the organisation, and now have a new Director, Dr Rose Harris-Birtill. She stepped in to replace Professor Martin Paul Eve, who is currently on research leave until Autumn 2022.

Universities continue to join us on a weekly basis, and our Marketing Officer is always busy dealing with member universities, sending invoices and doing outreach.

With a strong supporter base, we are now in the process of expanding our team. We recently hired a talented new Editorial Officer, Dr Eleanor Careless, and are in the process of hiring a third Publishing Technology Developer to help with journal migrations to our in-house publishing platform Janeway.

What are the plans for the year ahead?
Our developers, with the help of our editorial team, are in the process of migrating most of our journals to Janeway, a sizable project due to be complete by the end of the year, and which means that these will all be published using our own in-house publishing software.

We have recently been awarded a grant of £200,000 from Arcadia, a charitable fund of Dr Lisbet Rausing and Professor Peter Baldwin, to support the innovative research and work of the Open Library of Humanities. This grant will be used to help OLH to expand and diversify its revenue sources. While the pandemic has put strain on library budgets worldwide, OLH has achieved financial stability using its innovative collective funding model. This funding will allow the Centre for Technology and Publishing to expand its Janeway services, thereby providing a second, secure, and stable revenue source for the years to come.

We also recently launched our new Jisc Collections OLH offer for UK institutions. Under this new agreement, UK universities are given the opportunity to voluntarily support us at a higher membership rate. In the coming year, this will allow us to re-open our journal flipping programme to grow our portfolio of open access journals, and make even more world-leading scholarship freely available to all.

When libraries choose to support us at the higher tiers, we will invite applications from scholarly journals currently at for-profit, subscription, and hybrid publishers to apply to join OLH, once we have suitable revenue levels. This flipping will yield benefits not only for the titles that choose to join us and convert to open access, but will also escalate pressure on other publishers to adopt models for equitable open access that allow greater knowledge sharing worldwide.

Who do you most closely work with?
We work closely with our authors, journal editors, partner presses, platform users and university presses that use Janeway to publish their journals, as well as with our 300+ member institutions, and the library open access community more generally.

Janeway is currently used by many publishers and libraries including Michigan Publishing Services, UCL Press, the Open Library of Humanities, Huddersfield University Press, Iowa State Digital Press, the University of Essex, the University of West London, and California Digital Library, which uses Janeway to host its recently launched Preprint service Eartharxiv.

Tell us something interesting about the team.
We love playing games together, and our past online parties have included virtual bomb defusal and the retro real-time strategy game Red Alert (in its open-source version, of course). During the lockdown, two of our team members completed an all-night online gaming session to raise money for charity, and one member of the team even repurposed an old TV to build their own virtual truck-driving rig, complete with steering wheel and cup holder (we’ll leave it to you to figure out who!)

Further information:

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Rainbow washing: what should we think when every brand seems to support Pride Month?

With Pride Month becoming increasingly commercialised, Dr Olivier Sibai, Lecturer in Marketing at Birkbeck, University of London, Dr Mimoun, Lecturer in Marketing at the Business School (formerly Cass), and Dr Achilleas Boukis, Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Sussex discuss how brands are engaging with the month of celebration.

A zoom in on some people's feet with rainbow colours on them

Image credit: Angela Compagnone

It’s June again, the first heatwave has arrived, flowers are blooming, and more and more rainbow avatars appear on your social media feeds! Yes, it’s Pride Month again and brands won’t let you forget it! As everyone celebrates Pride, brands won’t stop showing their surface-level love and support to position themselves as socially progressive and increase their resonance with their younger audience.  From brands’ rainbow LinkedIn profile picture to Google Doodles, every brand and its neighbor are jumping on the occasion to demonstrate their virtue. Yet, people are not so easily fooled and criticism abounds! Between accusations of rainbow-washing, blog posts wondering whether we can escape the commercialisation of Pride, and lists of brand’s “Pride fails,” consumers show their disapproval vocally.

a screen shot of a Disney post showing disney characters walking across a rainbow 'Pride Flag' backgroundOur research recently published in Psychology and Marketing uncovers how consumers interpret brands’ LGBTQ+-related support and decide on whether to condemn or to approve them. We show that consumers are more likely to condemn brands as ‘woke-washers’ if they are unable to prove morally competent. Specifically, media and consumers make up their minds on the biggest corporates by assessing such performative acts of allyship through three moral criteria: sensitivity, vision, and integration.

Moral sensitivity — a brand must recognize the moral content of a situation as failure to do so is likely to damage customer satisfaction, customer-brand relations, and brand equity. For example, by posting straight characters walking over the rainbow flag, Disney has proved morally insensitive to the stigma and discrimination that LGBTQ+ individualsThe Uno game packaging with the tag line 'Play with Pride' on the cover are still experiencing in many instances.

Moral vision — a brand must show a clear moral vision when outlining challenges to free speech that help solve problems for markets and society as failure to do so results in brands being dubbed as ‘conformists’ — those who reproduce the dominant moral judgments about what is acceptable to say publicly. While Mattel still shows a lack of moral vision by mostly reproducing mainstream discourses around gender and diversity, it at least shows some moral integration with the launch of gender-neutral Barbie dolls in 2019 followed by the launch of the UNO Play with Pride edition this year (alongside $50,000 donated to the It Gets Better Project).

A screenshot of a Pfizer Inc. Instagram post with a video still of a woman called Valentina, and 'she/her/hers. The caption reads: "We're celebrating #PrideMonth2021 because everyone deserves to be seen, heard, and respected for who they are. At Pfizer, we affirm every way people may choose to identify. Watch what it means to be Pfizer and proud."

The caption reads: “We’re celebrating #PrideMonth2021 because everyone deserves to be seen, heard, and respected for who they are. At Pfizer, we affirm every way people may choose to identify. Watch what it means to be Pfizer and proud.”

Moral integration — a brand must have the ability to pursue their moral beliefs in all situations as failure to do so results in brands being dubbed as ‘opportunists’ and ‘fame-seekers’ — manipulating the boundaries of free speech to serve personal interest rather than reform morality. For example, despite sharing the positive experience of its LGBTQ+ staff members, Pfizer demonstrates a lack of moral integration by simultaneously funding anti-gay politicians.

But let’s not despair, some brands have understood the point of Pride Month and, in doing so, further the fight for LGBTQ equity and inclusivity. For example, over the last few year (moral integration), Skittles celebrates Pride Month with a limited-edition Skittles Pride Packs (gray packaging and all gray candies) to emphasize the rainbow visual as a symbol of the LGBTQ+ community (moral sensitivity), alongside donation of $1 from each pack to GLAAD.

A black and white skittles packet. The tag line reads: 'During Pride only one rainbow maters #onerainbow."

A Skittles packet with the tag line: ‘During Pride only one rainbow matters #onerainbow

So has Pride Month just become another branded holiday? Well, it’s not for us to settle. But what we can tell you is how to judge the genuineness of branded communication: evaluate the brand’s moral sensitivity, vision, and integration. While we can condemn the over-commercialisation of Pride Month, the good news is that these branded discourses, whatever their values and intent, still raise awareness of the LGBTQ+ cause and normalize and legitimize its presence in public discourse.

Want to know more? ‘Authenticating Brand Activism: Negotiating the Boundaries of Free Speech to Make a Change’ by Dr Olivier Sibai, Lecturer in Marketing at Birkbeck, University of London, Dr Mimoun, Lecturer in Marketing at the Business School (formerly Cass), and Dr Achilleas Boukis, Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Sussex, is published in Psychology & Marketing.

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Prepare your Chevening application

With less than two months until the opening of Chevening, the fully-funded scholarship for postgraduate students offered by the UK government, Catherine Charpentier, from Birkbeck’s International Marketing and Recruitment team, advises on how to prepare for the scholarship application.

A collage of six past Chevening students holding a sign saying 'I can't keep calm. I've been chosen for Chevening'

Some of the 2020 Chevening scholars

It’s official, applications for Chevening for 2022/23 open on Tuesday 3 August 2021!

You’ve underlined the date in red on your calendar. So what now? Is the only thing left for you to do is crossing off the days off on your diary?

Well, no. Now isn’t the time to rest. There is plenty to do ahead of the application opening date. Here are four things you need to do to prepare.

  1. Check that you meet the eligibility criteria

You need to have at least two years work experience (equivalent to 2,800 hours) in order to apply. This can be in part-time or full-time employment, voluntary work or paid or unpaid internship; and this can be submitted in up to 15 employment periods on the application form.

Get your calculator out. Your entries will be calculated automatically by multiplying the number of weeks worked by the number of hours worked per week. For this calculation, a working week comprises 35-60 hours and a working year comprises 40-50 weeks.

Don’t have 2,800 hours of experience yet? Why not apply for an internship, or offer your services to a volunteer organisation to make up the total? You should meet the requirements by the time you submit the application, which should be no later than 2 November 2021.

  1. Gain meaningful experience

It’s not only about quantity but also quality. You might have reached two years of work/voluntary experience but feel that your CV could do with improving. Don’t forget, you will also have to demonstrate leadership qualities in your application.

Can you take on extra responsibility at work? Could you offer to manage on a project for an organisation you are involved with? Can you organise an event for a charity?

The Chevening students outside Birkbeck entrance holding up a blue relay stick

Birkbeck’s 2019 Chevening scholars complete a relay

  1. Develop your network

In your application, you will be required to demonstrate your networking skills. Spend the next few months working on your network. You can reactivate old links and build new relations. This can be in person at work, at events you attend, or online via social media or LinkedIn for example.

You can refer to Birkbeck Futures The Importance of Networking for tips and advice to develop a networking strategy.

  1. Select your referees

You will have to give the name of two referees in your application. Use the next few months to select who you think could provide positive and meaningful references for you. Get in touch now, keep the relation going and remind them all the reasons why you will be deserving of this glorious reference when the time comes.

For further information on the scholarship visit the Chevening website.

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Law, pandemic and crisis

Professor Adam Gearey is a Professor of Law at Birkbeck’s Department of Law. In this blog, Professor Gearey previews Law on Trial, the School of Law’s annual week of free, public events around a particular theme, which this year is ‘Law, Pandemic and Crisis’.

A surgical mask on some grass next to some daisies

Photo by Niamh Gearey

The correct response to the ongoing Covid crisis should be: “enough, this won’t do anymore.” In putting law on trial, this series of workshops seeks to put the whole viral/ military/ technical/ capitalist/inhuman/ racist complex on trial.

Legal thinking needs to catch up with the crisis. This is not a re-tread of the self-satisfied cosmopolitanism of the 90s, or a false choice between identity politics and the politics of anti-capitalism. It is a less-deceived, pessimistic and realistic engagement with the depth of the crisis and the possibilities of transformation: a framing of new paradigms of legitimacy and new ways of thinking. The Black Lives Matter Movement, global concerns with racist policing, climate protest and insurrection in Colombia draw attention to different aspects of this international problem. A morally bankrupt order hangs on through power and promises of bread and circus.

The global health crisis, and the fixation on technical solutions, an obsession that clearly extends beyond health care, also starkly shows that ‘market solutions’ are anything but. Like Leonard Nimoy’s character in the film Assault on the Wayne, we are being fed pills by a bogus doctor that, instead of making us better, makes us much worse.

If we are stuck with markets, then they need to be extensively regulated. Markets should serve social ends, rather than the interests of an ‘elite’ whose wealth insulates them from the effects of the markets they recommend as the only possible form of social and economic organisation. At the very least we need to approach markets with an understanding of how their immanent and radical dysfunctions can be controlled in the interests of the common good.

So, although the global epidemic should provoke a massive realignment of how we do things, it’s unlikely that the new normal will be much different from the ongoing crises of the old normal. We will be stuck with fragile constitutions, dysfunctional markets, populist politics and ongoing social and environmental crises.

Thus, to put the law on trial is to ask, how can we see the big picture? How can we be the less deceived?

Further information 

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Supporting parents, carers and educators during the pandemic

Over the past year, Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department has teamed up with the Psychology for Education BA: reaching out to parents, carers, and educators in the pandemic. In this blog they outline how they are supporting those who face barriers entering higher education in a virtual world. People in a classroom with a person speaking Social interaction and peer support are invaluable to all of us, and for children and young people isolated from their friends and usual routines, it has been an especially tough year. Parents, carers and educators have also been hit hard, having to adjust to online learning and struggling to find time for their own needs while juggling online learning, work and caring responsibilities.

Recognising these increasing pressures and following the launch of Birkbeck Inspires last year, Ana Da Cunha Lewin, Senior Lecturer and Course Director for the Psychology for Education BA contributed a series of online lectures for parents and carers. These covered coping with anxiety during lockdown, exercise for wellbeing, and nurturing resilience. At Access and Engagement, we were delighted when Ana agreed to work with us to deliver a five-week taster programme on the subject of Psychology for Education with a focus on children’s learning, wellbeing and resilience.

The Access and Engagement Department aims to support those who face barriers to Higher Education to take a step into formal education. This taster programme provided a space where people could come and learn more about the subject and apply it to their life as parents, carers or at work. It also gave participants a chance to explore what university learning is like using Moodle, seminars on MS Teams and pre-recorded video content.

We had 30 people without a first degree join us, with ages ranging from 20 to into the 60s, and an array of different life experiences. Working with our Trade Union partners, a third of our attendees heard about the course via Unison or the Public and Commercial Services Union. Participants shared their experiences of their own schooling and parenting, or their work in schools or youth work.

Ana da Cunha Lewin said: “It’s been a pleasure to work on the Psychology for Education Taster Course with the Access and Engagement team; planning was really well-supported and the team made the preparation very straightforward. It was also an absolute pleasure to teach a really interested, engaged and enthusiastic group who made the sessions lively with many interesting discussions. A really positive experience and I would be very happy to take part in the programme again.”

Feedback from participants was positive with one person commenting: “Ana and Vanna were magnificent educators and their passion and enthusiasm for the subject has been infectious!”

We’re looking forward to running a similar programme with Mike Berlin and Tim Reynolds from the History and Archaeology Certificate of Higher Education later this year. For more information about our Taster Programmes and Access and Engagement’s other work take a look at our newly revamped web page.

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Mentoring on the Compass Project

Luke Williams is a part-time lecturer in Creative Writing, member of the Compass Project Steering Committee and mentor. In this blog, he speaks to Natasha Soobramanien about his involvement in the project.

A laptop with a sign that says 'we rise by helping others'

I’ve been involved in the Compass Project since it began in 2016. Right from the start we realised that if we wanted to offer scholarships to people from forced migrant backgrounds, we also needed to make sure those students received the support they might need to thrive at Birkbeck. Each student on the Compass Project has a mentor, an academic at Birkbeck who elects to support them through their studies.

Compass Project students face particular challenges in relation to British institutions: government policy is designed to create a hostile institutional environment for migrants, and educational institutions are no exception to this. But the university is also a place to gain and share knowledge, and to form friendships with others. Our job as mentors is to give Compass Project students practical and moral support so that they remain able to focus on the positive and rewarding aspects of student life, and the opportunities Birkbeck offers.

The mentoring role is a little like a personal tutor, but involves a lot more contact and communication, and flexibility. On average I speak to my mentee around three to four times a month. It could be a simple check-in, or a response to a request, like support with an essay, or help liaising with other departments or services. I’ve helped out with finding a laptop and looking for a place to live. In the current pandemic, this kind of contact is particularly necessary for students who might already feel quite isolated. I’d say this role has been the most challenging and rewarding aspect of my involvement in the Compass Project.

Before the Compass Project, I’d volunteered for several years at Akwaaba, a Hackney-based social centre for migrants, so I had some awareness of the stressful logistical, bureaucratic and emotional complexities faced by migrants. Getting involved with the Compass Project allowed me to find a way to align the advocacy, creative work, and activism I was involved in at Akwaaba, with my day job at Birkbeck.

Through my role as a mentor I have met some amazing people. I’ve enjoyed our conversations, and learned a lot. Everyone at Birkbeck knows that universities are in a precarious position right now, and that our roles as academics are increasingly co-opted by the marketisation of education. Getting involved in the Compass Project feels like a gesture of resistance against this deliberate erosion of what is truly valuable in the university, which is to say study – and the freedom to do this with others.

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Amplifying the voices they don’t want you to hear

Heidi McCafferty (she/her) is a postgraduate student at Birkbeck, University of London, studying for an MSc in Criminology. She is a mother, intersectional feminist, anti-racism activist and founder of Affinity Research and Development. She lives near Oxford with her family and plans to begin her PhD next year.

I first visited Warm Springs Correctional Center in 2019. It was beside the jarring, razor-sharp fences that stretch on for eternity, that I fell into conversation with other women waiting to visit. One had been up since 3am and had driven from the Bay Area through the stunning but treacherous mountains of Nevada to reach her son.

“He has been down for 20 years,” she told me as her eyes filled with tears. “He made a bad decision as a teenager”. Another, a primary school teacher, told me with a weary smile, how she visits her nephew there every weekend.

I initially started visiting a pen pal I had who was part of the Pups on Parole Programme. Led by the Nevada Humane Society, it trains incarcerated men to rehabilitate stray and last-chance dogs, so they can find homes. I was interested in the programme’s impressive low recidivism rates and the hope it gave to both the dogs and their trainers. I gradually learned more stories about those who are serving prison sentences. I heard examples of degrading and inhumane treatment inflicted by certain Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) staff members in various facilities, from unwarranted stints in solitary confinement, to extreme physical and emotional violence, compared with stories of NDOC staff who genuinely care, who act with professionalism and compassion and shine like beacons within these bleak, dark spaces. It is easy to feel initially overwhelmed when you explore the realities of the US ‘justice’ system. What can you do when you live 5000 miles away? That was the question I asked myself…

I would like to introduce you to Michael Wadsworth, another friend I met through the programme. He has kindly granted me permission to share his story. He has been in prison since 18. He was sentenced to up to 100 years by an all-white jury for his role in a tragic accident as a teenager. Michael had a promising football career, but just before he was due to begin a program at Feather River College in California, he was attacked outside a store by a group of men. While being chased, Michael took out the gun he kept on him for self-defence, as millions of Americans do, and shot at the ground to slow them down. In a tragic twist of fate, a bullet hit the leg of one of the attackers and caused him to lose his life. An all-white jury decided Michael was guilty of first-degree murder. This means a premeditated, planned act, the most serious of all prosecutions. That was the day the State of Nevada stole Michael’s life.

Michael has been in prison for 16 years. All his appeals failed. His family does not have the $50,000 needed for an attorney. Just one 15-minute local phone call from the facility costs the equivalent of £1.50. After spending time getting to know Michael and his inspiring Nana, who demonstrates psychological strength and Christian faith I can only dream of, we set up the #FreeMichael campaign. We built a website, recorded a short film, scripted and voiced by Michael, set up social media, a crowd-funding campaign and even launch a Free Michael podcast series on 12 March. We have already raised over $5500, but need $45,000 more to secure the representation of Kristina Wildeveld, one of the top attorneys in Nevada. She has already had a consultation with Michael and will help us get Michael’s case presented to the Nevada Pardons Board. If successful, he could be eligible for parole as soon as 2025. It would mean Michael still has a chance of living his life, of following his dream of becoming a youth mentor and having a family.

I am a mother, run a business and am a committed activist, so I was reluctant to throw a Master’s in. But Birkbeck makes studying this way possible. My studies here are allowing me to gain the academic foundation I need to progress. It is teaching me how to conduct my own research and gather my own evidence. I chose the MSc Criminology  in the Law School because the modules were engaging and relevant to my activism. It is helping to expand my knowledge and understanding, so I am better able to amplify the voices of those trapped in a system designed to silence them.

I plan to begin my PhD next year and will focus on exposing the culture of racism within NDOC through digital storytelling, allowing former inmates to anonymously share their experiences and allow their collective voices to help implement change.

To close, I would like to reflect on how the media and government assure us that without incarceration, the world would fall into apocalyptic-style chaos. But what the media and government misses, is how many men and women remain caged, often for decades, for poor decisions they made as teenagers, for addictions, trauma or because they were failed by the system designed to protect them. They neglect to highlight the numerous stages of missed-interventions, due to a lack of resources and state funding that could have changed the courses of so many lives. They fail to respond to questions around why members of Black and Minority ethnic communities continue to receive disproportionate, harsher sentences than white individuals. The evidence shows US prisons aren’t effective, they don’t rehabilitate, they make private companies billions of dollars each year, strip families of resources, separate parents from their children, nurture violence and exacerbate mental ill-health and trauma.

We all have a duty to challenge systemic racism and transform structures like the US ‘justice’ system. Especially the most privileged of us in society.

Black Lives Matter, they always have, and they always will.

Find out how you can support the #FreeMichael campaign at www.free-michael.com.

 

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Taking on the challenges of the pandemic to embrace a world of opportunities in London

Flexibility and daytime freedom are what led Oghenemine Djebah to choose Birkbeck to study an MA/LLM Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. In this blog, the Nigerian student shares his journey so far with us.    

Oghenemine Djebah

Oghenemine Djebah

After obtaining an LLB from the Delta State University, Oghenemine Djebah enrolled at the Nigerian Law School, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Laws and was subsequently called to the Nigerian bar. Since then, he has been in active legal practice in Nigeria.

He worked for two notable law firms (Rotimi Jacobs & Co. and Zatts Law Chambers) and volunteered to give free legal services through a registered NGO (Fundamental Rights Enforcement Enlightenment and Defense).

During a 2019 visit to London, Oghenemine fell for the culture and diversity of the city. So, when his desire to gain more in-depth knowledge of the workings of the law inspired him to pursue an LLM he naturally focused his search on universities in the capital. “I started searching for an institution that would be flexible enough to let me work or volunteer while I studied. I found out about Birkbeck on the internet and the evening lectures tallied with the type of institution I was looking for, so I applied and was given admission into the School of Law.”

As the pandemic took hold around the world, Oghenemine considered deferring his admission by a year. “Because of the financial challenges caused by COVID-19 it was quite a challenge getting the initial deposit in time. The management of Birkbeck recognised this and made the concession of reducing the initial deposit by 90% for all international students, which gave me the opportunity to meet all of the requirements and enroll for the 2020 session.” In recognition of his potential Oghenemine was subsequently awarded a Birkbeck International scholarship and a School of Law Postgraduate Award.

The pandemic’s impact was not only financial as, first the Autumn, then the Spring terms were moved online. Oghenemine embraced the challenges and attended online orientation, public lectures as well as the international student’s virtual event at the beginning of the academic year. He reflected: “The international student event was really helpful for me in understanding my role as an international student, including the benefits and how to tap into them.”

Oghenemine has also been making good use of the online services available to students: “The Birkbeck Careers platform is great and enables students not only to see available jobs and apply but also to help teach them how to prepare for interviews and tailor their CVs and cover letters to meet professional standards.”

With a few months of studies under his belt, the Nigerian student assesses his time learning online. “This is actually my first time doing any course via virtual learning. It is quite challenging because I do not get to meet with other students and make good connections which is also part of the university life. However, the lectures have been going great, better than I expected because we are provided with pre-recorded videos for each lecture. The COVID-19 pandemic has made everything different, from living, to studying. Not being able to meet physically and always being indoors has made this period a bit difficult. I look forward to having the opportunity to meet physically with my fellow students and lecturers before graduating from Birkbeck.”

More than anything the Law student sees and embraces the positives studying in London and at Birkbeck can bring: “London is well known for welcoming international students globally, including from Nigeria. Being a student in London enables you to be a part of a well-integrated international and diverse community. London is a city with a lot of opportunities for everyone beyond academic programs. I advise all Nigerians who wish to study internationally to study in London and join a diverse community and tap into the available opportunities.”

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Finding new paths with lifelong learning

John Simons, who was recently awarded a PhD in philosophy, acknowledges his debt to Birkbeck’s commitment to the principle of lifelong learning, having been helped by the College to move from a career in campaign management to a successful academic career in sociology, and now to a new career in moral philosophy.  

When I left school, back in the previous century, my only qualification was a satisfactory set of results in the then equivalent of today’s GCSEs. It was enough to get me a job as a research assistant in a physics laboratory and to start studying at Birkbeck, where I planned to obtain the equivalent of A Levels in physics, pure mathematics, and applied mathematics and then to proceed to a BSc course in those subjects.

John Simon

John Simons

In those days, the College was in Fetter Lane and had its own theatre, which was used by an active group of drama enthusiasts, The Birkbeck Players. I joined them to play the part of Hodge, the gullible servant of an elderly countrywoman, in a production of the 16th Century rustic comedy Gammer Gurton’s Needle. I believe the happy experience of being in that play with students from across the College departments helped me finally reach a decision that I had been considering for some time: that I was on a career path for which I was not well suited. After obtaining the three A-level equivalents, I abandoned my studies and my job, determined to find a new path. But first I had to get through two years of then obligatory National Service.

After leaving the army (with Second Lieutenant, infantry, added to my very short CV), I worked in marketing for several years, and then obtained a role that would have a radical effect on my subsequent career. It was as Director of a national campaign, sponsored by the Family Planning Association, to arouse awareness of the scale of world population growth and the need for better access to birth control services in many countries. From my work in that post I acquired a strong interest in the dynamics of reproductive behaviour – so strong that I decided to change direction again and become qualified to study it. So, in my mid-thirties – married and with three small children and a mortgage – I went to the London School of Economics (initially part-time) to acquire a bachelor’s degree in sociology and demography. My A-Level equivalents gained at Birkbeck made me eligible for the course. Two other advantages made it possible for me to attend part of the course full-time: a grant that was available from the Local Authority in those days, and, even more important, a wife, herself an LSE graduate, who fully supported my career change.

The degree from the LSE enabled me to obtain a post at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which is just across the road from Birkbeck. There I helped the late William Brass, an internationally renowned expert in the analysis of population data, to create the School’s Centre for Population Studies, and make it one of the largest of its kind in Europe. I contributed a course on the Sociology of Fertility to its MSc programme, supervised research students interested in social research on reproductive behavior, conducted my own research in this field, and undertook consultancy assignments for the World Health Organisation, the World Bank, and other agencies. I attended to some of my own educational needs by taking specialist courses relevant to my work provided by Birkbeck and the Open University, eventually obtaining a BA from the latter. I retired from the Centre (as its Head) after 25 years, but continued to work in the field as chief editor of one of its main journals, Population Studies, a post I held for 20 years.

I also continued with a long-term quest into the explanation of differences in fertility by religion. That quest would eventually take me back to Birkbeck, because it led to an interest in the evolution of religious belief, and from that to an interest in moral philosophy and eventually a decision to study philosophy at the College. I first obtained an MA in philosophy there and then a PhD. The latter was for a thesis on the determinants of morally significant conduct in social roles. It offered a revisionary account of the moral philosophy developed by John Dewey, one of the founders of the school of philosophy known as Pragmatism.

My CV did not have the advantage of beginning with an extended school and university education. But my early experience of Birkbeck enabled me to compensate for much of what I had missed, and later made me eligible for a degree course at the LSE that would make possible my career in population studies. More recently, the College’s outstanding Philosophy department allowed me the freedom to pursue an interest that many other institutions would have regarded as outside their compass, and that enabled me to start a new career in moral philosophy. Now actively engaged in contributing to the literature of that field, it is a pleasure to acknowledge my debt to Birkbeck’s commitment to the principle of lifelong learning.

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