“Studying for a PhD at Birkbeck is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life!”

Zambia-born Kasoka Kasoka, who describes himself as a very proud ‘Birkbeckian’ alma mater, reflects on his time working on a PhD in Law at Birkbeck and his achievements since graduating in 2018.

Kasoka Kasoka at graduation

Kasoka Kasoka at graduation

Tell us about your education before Birkbeck

I am from Lusaka and Zambian. In 2007 I moved to the UK where I enrolled to study for a Bachelor`s degree through the University of London International Programmes. I obtained a Bachelor`s degree in Law in 2011. Upon the completion of my degree I was admitted to study at Maastricht University in the Netherlands where I studied for a Masters degree in Forensics, Criminology and Law. I obtained my Master`s degree in 2013.

Why did you choose Birkbeck?

Firstly, I decided to enrol here because of Birkbeck`s massive ranking as one of the best research universities in the World. And yes, it is! Secondly, I applied to study here because I was attracted to the College`s interdisciplinary research study approach. As a result, my research as a doctoral student cut across; law, human rights, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, history, bioethics, and public health. Engaging in an interdisciplinary research project afforded me a rare opportunity to become an interdisciplinary thinker, be open-minded, and embrace new ideas.

Thirdly, true to its name as a research-intensive university, Birkbeck comprises of academics and researchers who are renowned experts in their fields. Thus, my great former PhD supervisors, Professor Matthew Weait and Dr Eddie Bruce-Jones, are very respected researchers and authorities in their various fields. They are exceedingly knowledgeable and  down to earth. And finally, but not exhaustively, I decided to study here due to the supportive student and staff community at Birkbeck. I indeed received a lot of support during my study from fellow PhD students, academic and research staff, and administrative staff members.

What were your relationships like with staff and other students?

I loved the critical approach to study and work culture at Birkbeck. I found my fellow PhD students to be really smart, friendly and supportive – this was endearing. As if this was not enough,  both academic and non-academic staff were very approachable, attentive and supportive. I had a lot of academic staff who were not my PhD supervisors avail me with research insights and suggested various research material to read – as a goodwill gesture. This was priceless in my doctoral study journey!

Inevitably, I was sad to leave Birkbeck when my studies came to a conclusion,  to leave behind such a great community. Nonetheless, I am still happy that I have stayed in touch and maintained the various friendships and networks I had the privilege of forming while studying at Birkbeck. Indeed, “once a Birkbeckian forever a Birkbeckian”!

It was a great honour to forge  invaluable friendships and networks with students and staff members from diverse backgrounds. I consider Birkbeck to be one of the most diverse universities in the UK.

Did you use any of Birkbeck’s additional support and activities?

I had the opportunity to intuitively avail myself to various societies and student clubs at the University, including various PhD students` social groups. Birkbeck has a lot of societies and social groups with various activities.  So, I was always happy to retire from my studies to unpack my mind by joining fellow students for some good fun. I especially enjoyed playing football! As they say “all work and no play make Jack a dull boy”!

Can you tell us more about your research project?

The purpose of my research was to investigate and analyse the appropriateness of individual autonomy in the context of informed consent HIV testing requirements in Zambia, and sub-Saharan African countries by extension.

Tell us about your experience of living in the UK.

I really loved living in London. London is no doubt one of the greatest cities to live in. What I liked most about the city is the diversity of its population. Thus, I was privileged to meet many people from every part of the world who brought with them various rich cultures, including great cuisines! With such a profoundly rich experience I agreed with Robert Endleman (1963) who observed that human beings in terms of cultures “are vastly various and yet laughably alike”! I also loved English pub food! And the museums, wow! – museums were often my favourite place of respite whenever I needed to briefly divorce myself from the usual business of life and time-machine myself into the past to admire and converse with ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Persians, Africans, Americans, Europeans and Indians who had no internet! And behold, the British Museum is only about three minutes-walk from Birkbeck! London is also pregnant with breath-taking gothic cathedrals and other non-church buildings.

(I need to mention that there are much more things for one to see and enjoy in London than what I can enumerate – there is almost everything for everyone to see, smell, taste, hear, touch and enjoy. That`s the magic of London!)

However, living in London comes with its own downsides: especially the high costs of accommodation and transport. Food is surprisingly affordable!

Life after Birkbeck

Kasoka Kasoka at a United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) Session

It was sad saying goodbye to my community of friends and networks when my studies concluded. After completing my studies at Birkbeck, I was offered a scholarship by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Finland to study on an intensive postgraduate international human rights course at the Institute for Human Rights, Åbo Akademi University. Upon the completion of the course in Finland, I was an Intern at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, Switzerland. Later I worked as a Legal Intern at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva. The experiences and illuminations I gained from these intergovernmental organisations are invaluable! I am a strong believer, follower and advocate that,

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Currently, I am writing a research paper for journal publication, as I keenly continue to follow my career goals, and seek to contribute, no matter how tiny, to improving the wellbeing of our common humanity, without prejudice or discrimination. Indeed, as it has been said before as human beings, we are all as weak as the weakest link (other human being whose rights are not respected, protected and promoted) living among us in our society. My study at Birkbeck (through its critical review approach) and experience at the United Nations has made me see this reality clearer than never before.

What advice would you give other people thinking of studying at Birkbeck?

I highly recommend Birkbeck, University of London! You will study at a university that is known for research excellence with renowned academics; you will study in a supportive environment, with quality teaching; at the end of your studies you will graduate with a prestigious University of London qualification, and not forgetting you will become a Birbeckian; and at the end of your studies you will not look at the world the same way!

As for me, studying for a PhD at Birkbeck is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life, and I am a very proud Birbeckian alma mater.

Share
. Reply . Category: Uncategorized . Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Working remotely: top tips on how to work or study from home productively

The last few months has forced many of us to change the way we work. To help with this transition, Jessica Brooke, Birkbeck’s Social Media Officer, shares her tips for staying motivated and healthy while working or studying from home.

Get dressed

First thing’s first, get dressed. Chilling in your PJ’s may seem appealing to begin with, but getting into normal work gear can get you in the right mindset and help to feel like the day has really started. Freelancer and working-from-home veteran Annie Ridout has commented on the benefits of getting dressed for the day:

“Psychologically, what you see when you look in the mirror matters. If you see someone dressed for success, in a considered outfit, this will inspire productivity. Conversely, if you see pyjamas or sweatpants, this might instil the notion that you aren’t ready to start work.”

Set up your workspace

Once you’re dressed and ready for the working day, make sure your workspace is up to scratch too! In Buffer’s 2019 ‘State of Remote Working’ study, they found that the biggest obstacle participants working from home struggled with was ‘unplugging after work’. Having a regular workspace can help to create boundaries between your home life and your work life.

Think about somewhere in your house where you are least likely to be distracted or interrupted, as well as somewhere you can move away from when you’re finished working for the day. Keep it green with flowers and plants. A study by Dr Craig Knight found that productivity was boosted across the board when mother nature was introduced to the workspace, so get those leafy greens involved! Check out our #Deskies awards over on Twitter for some workspace inspiration.

Recreate your usual schedule

Keeping your workday habits similar is another way to successfully adjust to working remotely. If you’re used to grabbing a coffee first thing, make your own from home at around the same time. This can help to maintain some sense of normalcy, as well as installing some structure in your day. Write to-do lists in the morning to make sure you stay focussed and cross them off when they’re done.

Of course, your overall schedule will be slightly different at home and you might find yourself working harder for longer without the distraction of other people, so it’s important to take regular breaks. The Pomodoro Technique is a method of time management that involves breaking up your day into 25-minute working slots, followed by five-minute breaks. This can help you stay productive and alert to your task, as well as making sure you get those all-important breaks in. Use this fun Tomato Timer to stick to the schedule!

Ask for support when you need it

This can mean from your supervisor, colleagues or classmates. Reaching out to others for support with your work or your studies is important and will help you to stay on task. This could even just mean scheduling in catchups or working on tasks together. Maintaining these relationships and seeing how others are doing will also help you to boost your mood and avoid feelings of isolation. Articulate Marketing have put together this great web page linking to a huge list of resources that can help you work effectively and collaborate with others from home.

Be grateful for the flexibility

Buffer’s 2019 survey also found that participants believed the biggest benefit to working from home was the flexible schedule. Embrace the time you’ve gained from the usual commute by taking walks, cooking wholesome lunches and keeping in touch with friends and family.

 

Share
. Reply . Category: College . Tags: , , , , ,

Lillian Penson: the first PhD in the University of London

Lillian Margery Penson was the first person in the University of London to be awarded a PhD. In this blog, Joanna Bourke discusses the life and achievements of Penson. This blog is part of a series that celebrate 200 years since Birkbeck was established and International Women’s Day on Sunday 8 March.

Lillian Margery Penson

Lillian Margery Penson_© Royal Holloway College, RHC-BC.PH, 1.1, Archives-Royal Holloway University of London

Lillian Margery Penson (1896-1963) was an outstanding scholar and university administrator. She was the first person (of any sex) in the University of London to be awarded a PhD; she was the first woman to become a Professor of History at any British university; and she was the first woman in the UK and Commonwealth to become a vice-chancellor of a university, at the age of only 52. She owed her undergraduate and doctoral education to the History Department at Birkbeck.

Opinions about her were divided. Was she the “foremost woman in the academic life of our day” (The Scotsman), a “remarkable woman” (The Times), and someone who exuded “charm, tolerance, and a sense of humour”? Or was she an “imperious grande dame”, “très autoritaire”, and “too trenchant”? The answer is probably “a mixture”. Although Penson “could on occasion be brusque and even intimidating”, she “had a happy knack of getting to know people quickly”, was “an excellent judge of wine and loved good company”, and projected “a wealth of genuine kindness”. In other words, Penson was probably trapped in that familiar double-bind experienced by powerful women in male-dominated fields: she was admired for her intellect and determination, yet disparaged as a woman for possessing those same traits. One newspaper report on the achievements of “the professor” even referred to Penson using the masculine pronoun: “he”.

Who was Penson? She was born in Islington on 18 July 1896. Her father worked as a wholesale dairy manager and her family were of the Plymouth Brethren persuasion. Indeed, one colleague observed that the “marks of a puritanical upbringing were never effaced” and her “belief in work and duty” meant that she was always made uncomfortable by “flippant talk”. She never married.

From her youth, Penson was intrigued by diplomatic history, colonial policy, and foreign affairs. Her intellectual talents were obvious. In 1917, at the age of 21 years, she graduated from Birkbeck with a BA in History (first class). The war was at its height, so she joined the Ministry of National Service as a junior administrative officer (1917-18) before moving to the war trade intelligence department (1918-19). At the end of the war, Penson returned to her studies of history at Birkbeck and became, in 1921, the first person in the University of London to be awarded a PhD.

Penson’s achievement was even more remarkable because of her gender. After all, throughout the period from 1921 to 1990, only one-fifth of PhD students in history were female. Penson was also young. The average age for history students to complete their doctorates was their mid-30s; Penson was only 25 years old. Birkbeck immediately offered her a job as a part-time lecturer, during which time she also taught part-time at the East London Technical College, now Queen Mary University of London. In 1925, she was given a full-time lecturing post at Birkbeck.

More notably, she was the first female Vice-Chancellor of a university in the UK and the Commonwealth. Indeed, the second female vice-chancellor would not be appointed for another 27 years (this was Dr Alice Rosemary Murray who was appointed Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge in 1975). Then, in 1948, the University of Cambridge agreed to award degrees to women. The last time they had tried this (in 1897), there had been a riot. In 1948, however, the Queen, Myra Hess, and Penson became the first women to be awarded honorary Cambridge degrees (in Penson’s case, a LL.D or Doctor of Laws). The Scotsman decreed Penson’s academic and administrative talents to be “unsurpassed even in the annals of that great institution”.

Many of the values that Penson promoted were those at the heart of the Birkbeck mission. She spoke eloquently on the need to offer university education for “virtually all comers”, with no restriction based on religion, race, or sex. She was keen to insist that the job of the university teacher was to “do something more than impose upon the memories of our students masses of detailed information”.

As with many powerful women, she has largely been forgot. After her death, a University of London Dame Lillian Penson fund was established to provide travel money between scholars engaged in research in one of the universities of the Commonwealth, especially Khartoum, Malta, the West Indies, and new universities in African countries. This seems to have disappeared. All that remains is a bricks-and-mortar legacy in the shape of the Lillian Penson Hall, which still exists next to Paddington Station in Talbot Square, providing accommodation for over 300 students.

Share
. 1 comment . Category: College . Tags: , , , , , , ,

Studying in London: Lydet Pidor

Lydet Pidor a full-time student in MSc Business Innovation with Entrepreneurship shares their experience of studying in London. 

Lydet Pidor at Birkbeck's Malet Street campus

Lydet Pidor at Birkbeck’s Malet Street campus.

As an international student, there are three reasons why I chose to pursue my master’s degree in Business Innovation with Entrepreneurship at Birkbeck. Firstly, the availability and the nature of the course that I wanted to study, secondly, the location of the university itself (I wanted it to be in a capital city where I’d have access to class activities), and lastly, the credibility of the College. 

Although it is my first time living in London, I found the city is quite unique in terms of its history and its well-preserved historical buildings.  To me, London is one of the most dynamic capital cities in the world, especially compared to big cities in other developed countries. By the way, I am also fortunate enough to have secured student accommodation with the assistance of the International Office at the university. I’m sure that finding accommodation is quite a time-consuming task, especially for new international students with little experience of travelling abroad.  

I found Birkbeck’s orientation week at the beginning of the year extremely usefulThe various events helped me to familiarise myself with my course timetable, professors, and the campus, and most importantly, networking with my new classmates. I found that many of them have an interesting background and experiences that I can learn from.  

The first few weeks here were a bit overwhelming because of the differences between the education system here and where I am from, particularly as Birkbeck is among the top one hundred universities around the world. Nevertheless, with the wealth of online resources such as the study skills workshop and readings, I managed to keep up with the speed and standard of the learning here.  

What’s more, I think I chose the right place to live. I was in a place where there were a lot of transportation links and facilities including the underground, and museums could be reached within minutes. Furthermore, the city is full of events besides what has been provided at the university, so I have no regrets about my choice.

Lydet and other students on trip to Bletchley Park.

An Excursion with international students into Bletchley Park, the famous sight of the Allied codebreakers during the Second World War, and it is also where Alan Turing created the British bombe machine capable of breaking the German Enigma code.

Making friends is one of my interests and something I am good at. People here are friendly and helpful; I can collaborate and have discussions that optimise my knowledge of a specific subject that I have in common. Moreover, I had a good experience with extracurricular activities that have been arranged by the university recently to enrich student knowledge and understanding of some historical sites in London. 

For instance, a trip to Bletchley Park, the house of the World War II Codebreakers and workplace of Alan Turing – a world-renowned pioneer in the development of theoretical computer science – and hundreds of intellectuals from across different disciplines. I learned a lot from the trip both about the historical site and through the conversations I had with other students. I usually keep my eyes on Birkbeck’s Facebook page to keep up with new activities and make friends. 

A group photo with international students during a walking tour of Greenwich as a part of Birkbeck One World Festival 2019/20

A group photo with international students during a walking tour of Greenwich as a part of Birkbeck One World Festival 2019/20

I must admit, the tourist traps and historical sites in London attract me a lot. I really like how some of the city’s historic architecture stands alongside the newly built skyscrapers.

Presently, I am at a stage of considering my dissertation topic and really thinking about how I can make the most of it in a way that is practical and beneficial to either the business or education sector under the rapid evolution of technological innovation in this 21st century.  

Although I have only studied here for a year, I am keen to meet like-minded people that I could potentially work with to generate a solution that can address a problem here. I am keen to utilize and leverage the skills I gained from College as well as resources I had to build an impactful business, particularly in areas of education, finance, and health by using tech and business model innovation. 

Lydet Pidor is a full-time student studying MSc Business Innovation with Entrepreneurship. He is one of the Chevening Scholarship awardees, class of 2019, funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and partner organizations. 

 

Share
. Reply . Category: Business Economics and Informatics

Out@BBK film screening for LGBT+ History Month

Professor Anthony Bale, Executive Dean of the School of Arts discusses the feminist classic, Orlando, and why it was such an important landmark in the history of gender and transgender studies. The film adaptation of Orlando will be screened in the College cinema to mark LGBT History Month.

Orlando (Tilda Swinton) in the film ‘Orlando’, Photo by Liam Longman © Adventure Pictures Ltd

As part of our campus, Birkbeck is fortunate to have 46 Gordon Square, now the School of Arts but formerly, from 1904 to 1907, the home of the young Virginia Woolf (1882-1941). Woolf was 22 when she moved from Kensington to Bloomsbury. Her time at Gordon Square was the beginning of her adult life as a professional writer and heralded the start of the weekly meetings of artists and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group. As well as being an innovative author and thinker, Woolf was a feminist and lived what was then an unconventional life, including long relationships with women. Woolf’s affair in the 1920s with the writer Vita Sackville-West inspired her short novel Orlando, a ground-breaking queer text about identity, bodies, history, and love.

Orlando was presented by Woolf to Sackville-West in 1928 after the pair had been travelling in France together. The novel is the fantastical fictional biography of the hero of its title, a poet who changes sex and lives for centuries. Orlando meets key figures in English history including Elizabeth I, Charles II, and Alexander Pope, but Woolf creates a magical version of history in which the queer hero/heroine survives and succeeds. The novel culminates in 1928, the year of its publication. Orlando is at once a light-hearted historical satire and a feminist classic, and an important landmark in the history of gender and transgender studies.

As part of LGBT+ History Month, Out@BBK, Birkbeck’s LGBT+ staff group, is hosting a screening of Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) in the Gordon Square cinema. The screening will be introduced by Dr Jo Winning and myself (we have previously taught Orlando on our undergraduate course Critically Queer).

Potter’s film is a creative and dazzling interpretation of Woolf’s novel. Tilda Swinton, in one of her signature roles as the titular, androgynous lead, heads an eccentric cast encompassing such diverse figures as Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp, Heathcote Williams and Lothaire Bluteau. It is also the film which saw British director Sally Potter emerge from an avant-garde notoriety into mainstream recognition, with a lavishly designed spectacle that earned numerous awards and two Oscar nominations.

Join us at Birkbeck’s Gordon Square cinema on Friday 28 February at 6pm to watch and discuss Orlando, a unique chance to see this fascinating film in Woolf’s Bloomsbury home. You can book your place in advance to save your seat.

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Time to Shut Up! Racism, Royalty and the limitations of Britishness

Following Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision to step back from royal life, Dr William Ackah from the Department of Geography reflects on the media discussion around the couple’s decision and the nature of institutional racism in Britain. 

Meghan’s Blackness has lost its sparkle even quicker than I originally envisioned when I wrote an initial comment piece shortly after the royal wedding. As I alluded to at the time and reiterate here, the sparkle of Meghan’s Blackness could not last because at its core Britain is an institutionally racist country. From time to time the country wraps itself in multicultural garments of convenience like at the wedding, but as soon as Black people dare to question or challenge the multicultural facade, the garments come off and the nakedness of the faded empire’s racism is revealed.

The role of broadcast media has been pivotal in this regard. For the most part a multiracial cast of commentators have debated on various magazine and news programmes as to whether Meghan’s treatment has been racist. On the surface the debates seem fair, however a deeper dive reveals the deep-seated institutionalised racism of this form of broadcasting. Whether it is Andrew Neil, Andrew Marr, Robert Peston, Kay Burley, Victoria Derbyshire, Good Morning Britain, Politics Live, Newsnight, Question Time etc, etc all the permanent presenters, and regulators of the debates on these shows are White and the Black people that appear are temporary. White dominated media institutions make decisions about what is discussed, when it is discussed, how it is discussed and by who. Black people by contrast, have no control and are only invited to comment in highly contested spaces about our predicament. Even in these hostile spaces, in scenes straight out of Kafka, White males complain that they cannot speak about race and are victims of racism! This lets us know in no uncertain terms that there is very limited space to discuss on our own terms what it means to Black and British in this country.

As I have watched and read the debates surrounding the issue of royalty and race what has struck me is the stark difference between White British and Black British experience. White Britishness or to probably be more precise White Englishness exudes a sense of permanent entitlement within the fabric of British public life. Whereas Black Britishness even though it has a longer historical presence in Britain than whiteness (e.g. cheddar man) is seen as temporary. Black Britons have no permanent markers of presence in British institutional life, no public memory of our long- term citizenship. As in the current debate we appear and then disappear until the next episode of race and celebrity, race and violence, race and underachievement, race and music, race and sport, race and discrimination, race and culture generates enough controversy to merit a re-appearance. When we protest and insist that institutional racism in Britain is real and therefore Britain and its institutions need to change, then we are told once again to shut up and be grateful to live in the best multicultural society in the world. (thanks so much White people for reminding us we are so privileged!)

What the treatment of Meghan Markle (the tip of a huge underwater iceberg) exemplifies is that there are limitations to Black British citizenship. Ours is a transactional citizenship based on what we are perceived to contribute to the nation. That being the case I think it is time for the British State to be honest and to take appropriate action. In key areas where we are treated differently and adversely, we should be compensated, where the State provides us with a higher-level service than the wider community we should pay more. This should be the transactional basis of our citizenship until equality has been achieved.

For example, Black British citizens should pay a reduced TV license, as we don’t receive the same benefits from public broadcasting as does the wider society. We should pay less for university tuition, as it has been clearly demonstrated that universities provide a poorer service to Black students, so it stands to reason that we should pay less or receive compensation for services not rendered.

More broadly Black citizens should pay a reduced income tax. I can’t think of any institution in Britain that is maintained directly or indirectly by the taxes that Black British citizens pay that has provided a service to Black citizens that is equal to or better than what it provides to its White citizens.

Black British Citizens have cleaned your bums, manned your transport and done the jobs you did not want to do. In response we take abuse and experience racism from the terraces to the boardrooms to the classrooms. Living in an institutionally racist society has been and is a material and existential threat to our positive well-being in this society. So please no more TV debates framed by White privilege, shut up and pay up until genuine equality is achieved.

William Ackah is Lecturer in Department of Geography, Chair of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race .

Share
. Read all 13 comments . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , ,

Birkbeck’s London Landscapes

Richard Clark, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Politics, writes about how Birkbeck is woven into the very framework of the capital city. This blog is a part of a series that celebrates Birkbeck’s 200th anniversary in 2023. 

Unlike paper maps, smartphone navigation will tell you how to get there but not what’s around you. But search through the index of an old ‘A to Z’ map of London and if your destination starts with ‘B’, you’ll probably be surprised to notice quite a few ‘Birkbeck’ place-names.

Birkbeck roads survive today in Hornsey N8, in Finchley N12, in Tottenham N17 and in Mill Hill NW7.  There are more in Ealing W5, and in Wimbledon SW7and Acton W3.  Acton also has a Birkbeck Mews, and there is a Birkbeck Grove in leafy Acton Park.  Dulwich SE21 has a Birkbeck Hill and a Birkbeck Place and the pub-like building where they join was once precisely that – the Birkbeck Tavern.  In east London, Bethnal Green E2 has a Birkbeck Street, Dalston E8 has a Birkbeck Road (as well as another Birkbeck Mews) and Leyton E11 has two Birkbeck Roads, North and South, as well as another Birkbeck Tavern – still a lively pub protected by its patrons who saved it from redevelopment by a campaigning ‘Birkfest’.

Outside the London postcode area, there are yet more Birkbeck roads — in Beckenham, in Brentwood, in Enfield, in Ilford, in Romford and in Sidcup.  There’s a Birkbeck Gardens in Woodford and a Birkbeck Avenue and a Birkbeck Way in Greenford.  Beckenham has its Birkbeck Station (established as Birkbeck Halt in 1858).

More Birkbeck place names can be found on old maps and census records of the London area.  For example Birkbeck Road, Birkbeck Place and Birkbeck Terrace in Streatham, Wandsworth, are recorded in the 1881 and 1891 census but have subsequently been lost as have Birkbeck Road and Birkbeck Place, Camberwell which appear also in the censuses of 1871.  Elthorne Road in Archway N19 started life as Birkbeck Road as did Holmesdale Road in Highgate N6.  Both had Birkbeck Taverns – the former is now converted into ‘Birkbeck Flats’ (but still, like the Dulwich Tavern, recognisably an old pub).  The Boogaloo at the top of Holmesdale Road is still a pub — a lively music and comedy venue, well worth a visit, with a ‘Birkbeck’ mosaic (desperately in need of protection) testifying to its past still on the threshold as you enter.

All the above have a close connection with Birkbeck, University of London, and reveal something of the College’s past.  Greenford’s Birkbeck Avenue and Way are the most recent.  Both are named after what used to be the Birkbeck College Sports Ground, leased to the College by the City Parochial Foundation from the 1920s until 1998 when governors felt they could no longer justify the rent.  Today’s lessee is the London Marathon Charitable Trust and the ground’s football, rugby and cricket pitches serve clubs across West London.

Several of the Birkbeck toponyms – for example those in Bethnal Green, in Dalston and in Camberwell — are associated with the Birkbeck Schools, established by William Ellis between 1848 and the early 1860s.  Ellis was one of the founders and benefactors of Birkbeck College’s predecessor, the London Mechanic’s Institute —his name appears on a foundation stone in the lobby of the Malet Street entrance.  One Birkbeck School building — today Colvestone Primary School in Dalston — still stands, its structure (including well-lit classrooms in place of dull monitorial halls) reflecting what for the time were Ellis’s progressive educational theories.  The schools were set up to teach children ‘social economy’ as an antidote to the radical socialist ‘political economy’ then gaining ground in Europe and they prefigured the civics curricula taught in English schools today.

Most of the other toponyms mark the locations of ‘Birkbeck Estates’ – land purchased and developed by the Birkbeck Land and Building Societies established in the premises of the London Mechanics Institute by Francis Ravenscroft in 1851.  Ravenscroft had joined the LMI as a student a couple of years previously, became a Governor, and set up the Building Society as a ‘penny savings bank’ to encourage thrift and diligence amongst its students, offering them the prospect of a house – and (for the men) a vote.  Initially based in a cupboard in the LMI’s office, the Societies grew to become a major bank, taking over the LMI’s premises and financing its move —as the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution — to new premises nearby.  Without Ravenscroft (his bust sits on a windowsill in the Council Room) Birkbeck College would probably not exist today.  The estates played a significant role in the suburbanisation of London and are interesting for many reasons – not least because, unlike the temperance building societies of the period, they featured pubs.

For more on the story of the Birkbeck Bank and Building Society, watch out for a subsequent blog or have a look here. And there’s some information on the Birkbeck Boozers here.  I’m about to submit a paper on the Birkbeck Schools, and perhaps I’ll blog a little later about these too.

Further information: 

 

Share
. 1 comment . Category: College, Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , ,

Dr George Birkbeck’s descendant visits the College

One of Dr George Birkbeck’s descendants dropped into Birkbeck prior to Christmas 2019 to put a name to a place!

Lyndsee Baumann-Birkbeck is an academic and school teacher from Queensland, Australia and had long wanted to see the institution that bore her descendant’s name. Lyndsee was undertaking the visit, as part of a wider trip to Europe in honour of her late father who died suddenly in 2015. He never made it to visit Birkbeck and as the Birkbeck family line was through the paternal side Lyndsee felt it was the right time to visit.

Lyndsee visited Birkbeck with her husband and was greeted by Jessica Jeske, Events Manager who gave the pair a tour of Birkbeck’s Malet St building. Later on, they were greeted by Jonathan Woodhead, Birkbeck’s Policy Adviser and Jessica Goulson from the Development and Alumni team who talked through the background to the Mechanics’ Institutes which our founder was instrumental in developing. Birkbeck’s more recent history and planning of the upcoming 200th Anniversary of the founding of Birkbeck was also discussed with the pair. It is hoped that Birkbeck will be able to involve Lyndsee in any future events connected with the 200th anniversary.

Further information:

Share
. Reply . Category: College . Tags: ,

Art and Conversation at the 58th Venice Biennale

In 2019, BA History of Art student Patricia Yaker Ekall was one of Birkbeck’s British Council Fellows in Venice. In this blog, she shares her experiences in ‘The Floating City’ and what she learned from the trip. 

My time as a research fellow at the Venice art Biennale was an incredible experience that will stay with me for many years. With Venice, one typically thinks of the lagoon and its zany effect on perception (really, it’s like being on a giant float, often at risk, thanks to the bustle of the city, of falling into the seasoned turquoise waters). Venetian dining is famed for its cicchetti and gelato and the beloved spritz. The historical landmarks, with their height and ornamental expressions of astonishing beauty, are also of course part of Venice’s reputation as a ‘must-visit’ destination.  And, while the city is a wonderful representation of the value of tradition and heritage, Venice is equally known for its modern and contemporary art.

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, at Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, boasts works by Jackson Pollock and Alberto Giacometti, giants among the assemblage of terrific artworks that shaped 20th-century art. With Venice being an artistic city, there are countless workshops dealing in everything from mask-making to pottery. But, bias allowing, I learned the most from the very reason I was there: the Venice Biennale, the showcase for international contemporary art that attracts thousands of visitors to Venice every other year.

My chance to be part of the Biennale was thanks to a Birkbeck/British Council Venice Fellowship, which funded a month in Venice in September, where I worked as a steward in the exhibition’s British Pavilion while pursuing my own research. The renowned event may have been in its 58th edition and 123rd year, but it was my first time attending. I tried to have as few expectations as possible, which stood me in good stead as the experience was full of unexpected elements. For example, I did not expect the dramatic variation in reactions to the art work in the British Pavilion. Cathy Wilkes’ installation drew on arte povera (a movement that subverts the commercialisation of art founded in 1960s Italy, ironically). It touched on themes of motherhood, poverty and death, and was not understood (let alone loved) by everyone. This took me by surprise, as I’d assumed the visitors would be surer of their own perspectives. Yet, alarmingly often, we were asked to explain Wilkes’ work. Since it was made deliberately inexplicable, our own interpretations would have to suffice. Another one of my assumptions was that everyone in Venice would support the Biennale and, save for a bit of context-focussed research conducted just before I travelled, I was not prepared for all the ways the event is challenged when it comes to issues around sustainability and Venice’s economic state.

It seemed to me that every aspect of this tiny jewel, Venice, was up for passionate debate. Such conversations ranged from questioning of the Biennale’s effect (and dare I say relevance) in relation to the locals, to the issue of excess tourism and the tensions between the old and new and, glaringly at times, the rich and the poor. These were the conversations that a lot of the pavilion’s visitors – be they Italian, or from France, Japan, Germany or the UK – felt at ease in bringing to us, while we as art enthusiasts were primed and keen to discuss instead materials, style and the artwork’s contextual background! Though somewhat unexpected, I very much enjoyed this part of the experience. It added another dimension to my take on the power of contemporary art and all its demands. I enjoyed these roiling debates cocooned in artistic excellence!

From the orientation evening that informed us of the fellowship, to the day before we left for England, Birkbeck and the British Council were on hand to keep us informed. I was particularly touched by the program’s flexibility and understanding in the face of the unexpected. There was a real sense of openness of conversation and options, especially when it came to planning our individual research projects. If there was a change in direction which meant more resources would be needed, for example, they would not hesitate to put us in touch with the relevant modes of help.

Moreover, the fellowship program was structured such that we were introduced to the other people we’d be working with at an early stage to facilitate an easier melding process on arrival in Venice. Now, most would probably say the same of their own group but, mine was filled with the most incredible, laid-back but focused people. From early-career Oxbridge grads, to third wave career professionals who used their research practice to inform their doctorate, there was a diverse mix of interesting people. We had one thing in common: our love of art, its histories and its contemporary practices. In a way, the Biennale was the ideal hub for all of these keen minds to meet – which was, of course, the intention.

Further information:

Share
. Reply . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , ,

The London Mechanics’ Institute: Its Foundation

Helen Hudson Flexner discusses the inception and impetus behind the creation of The London Mechanics’ Institute in 1823.      

London Mechanics’ Institute, Southampton Buildings, Holborn: the interior of the laboratory, in a cellar. Wood engraving by W. C. Walker after Mr. Davy [1828].
1828 By: Davyafter: William Chester Walker
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

‘Knowledge is Power’ was the rallying cry that launched Birkbeck College in 1823, in its first manifestation as the London Mechanics’ Institute (LMI). These words, designed to appeal to uneducated men, headed the Mechanics’ Magazine proposal for a new technical institution and it couldn’t be missed, as the huge-selling magazine was a favourite among artisans interested in the latest inventions. Today large companies control major manufacturing sectors. Back then, a man could make his fortune with a new process or speedier production. So the LMI was set up to empower men with the latest science in this ‘steam intellect’ society.

George Birkbeck, radical teacher and London physician, was immediately on board.      Such was his standing that he chaired the inaugural meeting at the Crown and Anchor on 11 November 1823.  Many who flooded into the tavern were proudly working class: carpenters, jewellers, iron mongers, weavers, precision instrument makers, engineers, and printers. They were necessarily autodidacts, simply because there was no state funded education at the time. The metropolis, with its well-paid artisanal base, provided a ready audience for the new institute.

Although others who came to the launch and joined the LMI were not working class, the Institute was designed for the ‘lower orders’. Indeed, Birkbeck, president of the Institute from 1823-1842, reported in 1837 that two thirds of the membership had always been working class. The Institute even legislated to ensure that two thirds of the management committee was working class, and on nomination a man’s class had to be identified. Thus, the workers’ interests were always represented. Soon, some of the working-class members were running classes themselves, while their inventions were showcased in lectures. The Institute’s egalitarian ethos even extended to women who could attend lectures from 1825 and were able to become members in 1830.

Fees weren’t extravagant: five shillings a quarter, probably a day’s wage for an artisan, or £17 in today’s money. For this, the men gained access to workshops, a chemistry lab, an apparatus room containing geological specimens, drawing equipment and mechanical instruments, a good library, classes and lectures. In these decades before professionalisation, the lecturers encouraged their audiences to challenge what they heard. William Frend, a unitarian radical who had been expelled from Cambridge University for campaigning against the Thirty Nine Articles of the Anglian faith, told the LMI audience to ignore any ‘appeal to the wisdom of our ancestors’. Their new world was in the making.

Working Londoners made the most of this liberating environment. Some used it to change their vocation, which itself could bring higher status.  George Francis was a shoe-maker, but made his name in optics at the LMI. Called to the LMI stage to explain his improved eye glasses, he was described as ‘a plain and unassuming workman’ who ‘addressed the assembly … in very clear and intelligible language, though evidently unpolished by the refinements of education.’ By 1828 Francis had become ‘an optician of some celebrity’. The early history is replete with such examples.

So in its founding incarnation, Birkbeck College was a revolutionary educational institution encouraging and enabling social mobility. Within a year mechanics’ institutes sprouted up across England and Scotland. But none of them was so progressive. None had the two thirds rule. None appealed so consistently to working men. Our London institution remained the radical leader.

Helen Hudson Flexner is the author of The London Mechanics Institution: Social and Cultural Foundations 1823-1830‘, PhD thesis, UCL 2014. 

Share
. Reply . Category: College . Tags: , ,