Meet the Ronald Tress Prize runners-up

The Ronald Tress Prize was established to celebrate excellence in research by early career academics. In this blog, we learn more about the runners-up of the Award.

Philip Pogge von Strandmann, Reader in Isotope Geochemistry

“I’m a biogeochemist, studying how the climate responds to, and recovers from, natural climate change events that occurred in the past. This provides us with information on what will happen as the Earth warms up in the future. In particular, at the moment I’m researching how the planet has broadly kept its climate stable enough for 4 billion years of life to exist. In other words, there is a natural thermostatic regulator of the climate – it operates quite slowly (hundreds of thousands of years), but stops the Earth becoming Venus-like. It is the process that will eventually allow the climate to recover from our activities – and we may also be able to speed it up, to assist us in mitigating climate change.

“I came to Birkbeck (and UCL, who employ me jointly) in 2013 after a NERC advanced research fellowship at Oxford. Before that I was a post-doc at Bristol, a PhD student at the Open University and an undergrad at Oxford. Birkbeck has been a good place both to do research and teach – it has less inertia to get things done than other institutions, and lets departments make important decisions.”

Dr Duncan Jackson, Senior Lecturer in Organizational Psychology

“I received my PhD in industrial-organizational psychology from Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand, which I completed on the validity of assessment centres.  I have continued with this line of research into the present and am currently broadening my research to encompass other types of measure commonly used in organisations, including 360 degree ratings, situational judgment tests, and interviews.

“My research challenges key assumptions widely held about measurement in organisations; particularly assumptions regarding the measurement of competencies (e.g., teamwork abilities, communication skills) that are ubiquitous in the organisational environment.  I have published in some of the leading journals in my discipline, including the Journal of Applied Psychology, the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, and Personnel Psychology.  I have contributed to the international guidelines on assessment centres published in the Journal of Management and I was previously chief editor on the volume The Psychology of Assessment Centers published through Routledge New York.”

Dr Rebecca Whiting, Lecturer in Organizational Psychology

“I’ve been in my current role since March 2015 though my connection with the College goes back further; I completed both my MSc and PhD in the same department, both part-time.  After completing my doctorate, I worked in the College as a researcher on the Age at Work project, then for a couple of years at the Open University as a researcher on the Digital Brain Switch project, before returning to Birkbeck to take up my academic role. Like many of our students at Birkbeck, I know what’s involved to study whilst working and to undertake a career change (I started out as a lawyer).  It’s a privilege now to be teaching students pursuing degree studies at different stages of their lives and for various purposes.

“My current research covers three main areas: age in relation to work, the role of digital technologies in the organization of contemporary working life, and internet ethics. Digital technologies are at the heart of my substantive research interests and the methodologies I use for research and dissemination. In a field traditionally dominated by quantitative methods, one of my contributions has been to enhance the methodological options available to organizational psychologists through my use and promotion of qualitative approaches.”

Dr Pedro Gomes, Lecturer in Economics

“I completed a PhD. in Economics in 2010, at the London School of Economics. The title of my thesis was “Macroeconomic effects of fiscal policy” and it was supervised by the Nobel Prize winner Sir Christopher Pissarides. After completing my doctorate, I took my first academic position at Universidad Carlos III in Madrid. I’ve just started as a Lecturer at Birkbeck, joining in 2017. What I like about teaching at Birkbeck is that most students have accumulated so many different experiences in their lives that I see them as my peers, rather than students. I teach them Economics, but I feel I could learn as much from them in other areas, as they can learn from me. This makes the lectures all the more interactive and challenging.

“My current research focuses on understanding the effects of public sector employment and wage policies. Public sector employment is a major element of both the labour market and government budgets. In the UK, public sector employment, including NHS and Armed Forces, represents 22% of total employment and its wage bill represents 52% of government consumption expenditure. It is particularly sizable for specific groups of workers. The UK public sector hires 37% of all college graduates; 34% of all working women; and 30% of all workers age 47-55. Decisions like raising pay by 3% instead of 1% or hiring 20000 workers instead of firing 10000, affect the state of public finances, as well as the unemployment rate or private sector wages. Understanding what are the effects of these decisions and whether the chosen government policies are the best for the country is the goal of my research.”

Dr Sarah Marks, Postdoctoral Researcher in History

“I joined Birkbeck in October 2016 as a historian working with the Hidden Persuaders research group, funded by the Wellcome Trust. The project examines the ‘psy’ professions – psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis – during the Cold War, and particularly how debates about brainwashing and hidden persuasion shaped their reputation at the time and into today.

“Much of my own work focuses on the other side of the so-called Iron Curtain, on how these professions operated under Communism, and what models of mind and therapy were developed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet sphere, in addition to the abuses that we’re more familiar with. This offers a more balanced account of the Cold War, moving away from stereotypes about the ‘stultification’ of science and medicine in the socialist world by comparison with the West. It’s useful to look back at this history for policy today: many countries in the region are beginning to embark on mental health care reforms, and are dealing with the legacies of the past. Birkbeck is an incredible research environment to be part of – I’ve been impressed by the sheer range of different projects being undertaken here, and the vibrancy of seminars and events where both staff and students participate. It’s clear that this culture feeds in to the teaching, too, making the college a rich and unique forum for ideas and debate.”

Dr Sarah Thomas, Lecturer in Museum Studies and History of Art

“I worked as a curator in Australian art museums before completing my PhD and joining the History of Art department at Birkbeck in 2013. I have a long-standing interest in the visual culture of the British empire, and the role and special character of travelling artists in the nineteenth century. I have recently completed a book called Witnessing Slavery: Art and Travel in an Age of Abolition. My work on the iconography of slavery has led more recently to an interest in the cultural legacies of British slave-ownership, particularly as it relates to the early history of public art museums in Britain.

My publications include an award-winning book, The Encounter, 1802: Art of the Flinders and Baudin Voyages (Art Gallery of South Australia, 2002), book chapters including ‘Slaves and the spectacle of torture: British artists in the New World’ (2013) and ‘Allegorizing Extinction: Humboldt, Darwin and the Valedictory Image’ (2015), and journal articles such as ‘The Spectre of Empire in the British Art Museum’ (Museum History Journal, 2013). Birkbeck provides a very supportive research environment for an emerging scholar. I currently run a work placement module for MA History of Art and MA Museum Cultures students, and as part of this I very much enjoy working in partnership with museums across London.”

Meet the winners of the Ronald Tress Prize here. 

 

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Novel beginnings: MA Creative Writing graduate Mary Lynn Bracht makes her literary debut

Mary Lynn Bracht discusses the impact of Birkbeck’s MA Creative Writing in the publication of her first novel, White Chrysanthemum, after submitting the first five chapters as her dissertation.

Photo credit: Tim Hall photography

There are survivors of WWII alive today who are still protesting war crimes committed against them over seventy years ago. They are Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery in military brothels by Japanese soldiers and euphemistically called ‘comfort women’, which means ‘prostitutes’ in Japanese. These women prefer to call themselves ‘halmoni’, meaning ‘grandmothers’, which is a deeply respected position in Korean society; one that was denied to most of them because of their captivity. The first ‘comfort woman’, Kim Hak-Sun, came forward in 1991 to testify what she endured during WWII. Over 200,000 women and girls were enslaved, but less than 260 were registered with the Korean government.  Over twenty years after Kim’s testimony, the grandmothers’ plight for reparations, recognition and dignity were still largely unanswered. This injustice and their stories affected me deeply; moreso because these women were disappearing – dying from illness and old age.

In 2014 I wrote a short story about a young girl, Hana, who is kidnapped by a Japanese soldier and sent to a military brothel in Manchuria. The story, called Escaping Time, followed her as she struggled with the decision to attempt an escape, even though being caught would mean death. I submitted the story to my writing workshop module for the MA in Creative Writing programme at Birkbeck, University of London, and my course tutor, Courttia Newland, encouraged me to continue working on the story. It was subsequently published in the Mechanics’ Institute Review Anthology, and I wrote the first five chapters of the novel it would become that summer as my MA dissertation. After reading the story in the Anthology, an agent contacted me and I signed with her before the year ended.

Support: that is what a new writer needs most when starting out in this long and lonely profession. The writing programme at Birkbeck introduced me to so many wonderful writers who, like me, aspired to a literary career. I learned many valuable lessons about writing, reading, critiquing, and most of all, supporting one another. Who else but a fellow writer knows just how difficult it is to write? Writing is both joyful and insufferable, like many other professions out there. But a writer wields a powerful tool – words. Words are the vehicle for transferring thoughts from one mind to the next, and they can mean the difference between being labelled forever in history as prostitute or grandmother. The ability to define themselves in their own words – that is what the grandmothers are still fighting for today, and that is why I chose to write about them.

With the support of my agent, fellow writers, and family, I finished my novel, White Chrysanthemum, in time for the London Book Fair in 2016, and it was sold by my amazing agent, Rowan Lawton at Furniss Lawton Agency, to my wonderful editors Tara Singh Carlson at Putnam US and Becky Hardie at Chatto & Windus UK, as well as to 16 international publishers.

White Chrysanthemum will be published in January 2018 and can be pre-ordered from Penguin Random House

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Journalist uncovers new opportunities at Birkbeck through Chevening Scholarship

Carolyn Bonquin is a 27-year-old journalist from the Philippines. She is currently taking MA Investigative Reporting at Birkbeck after applying to the Chevening Scholarship programmeShe discusses how her studies have opened up a network of opportunities for her career.

I spent most of my childhood in a rural town in Quezon province in the Philippines. Growing up, I witnessed how poverty separated families and sometimes pushed people to do bad things.

Now, 27 years later, I still see thousands of Filipinos living under worst conditions. This motivated me to become a journalist and further enhance my investigative reporting skills — I find it unfair to see other people struggle and live in suffering because of the greed and apathy of those in power.

For seven years, I worked as a journalist for ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corporation up until last September, when I came to the UK for my postgraduate studies. Aside from reporting for television, I also produced stories for our radio and online platforms.

I started as a regional correspondent in the South Luzon before I was assigned to the national platform. Crimes, rallies, environment and agriculture are the areas I usually covered until in 2015, I was assigned to the anti-graft beat, which included monitoring of criminal and civil cases against public officials and audit reports on public spending.

My heart is really set on doing investigative reports.  By uncovering under-reported issues and exposing wrongdoings, I hope to affect policy changes and trigger developmental reforms. One of the last expository stories I did with our investigative team was about the alleged human rights violations of policemen in the Philippine Government’s bloody campaign against illegal drugs.

With the help of data, I want to do more expository reports that will unravel the root causes of poverty when I come home. These are the stories that would reveal corrupt and neglectful activities. This way, I feel like I could help the reported 20 million Filipinos who still live under the poverty line.

Leaving the Philippines amid ongoing chaos and cropping up issues on human rights abuses was a struggle. A part of me wanted to stay but, in the end, I realized that I need a year away to enhance my skills so I can better serve the public.

Aside from funding my study in the UK, the Chevening Scholarship programme is a network of future and current leaders and influencers that could help me realize this goal. After all, what’s not to like about being a part of a network of experts in their own field, who would work together in imparting their knowledge to help change the world?

I found Birkbeck while researching for an investigative journalism Masters programme. When I saw the curriculum, I immediately knew it was the right programme for me. I appreciate how the modules have been designed to fit the current demands and trends in journalism. This ensures we have all the practical skills needed to start (or continue) working after graduation.

I’m also impressed by the diversity of students in our class — from journalists to a podcast reporter to a political science graduate. This provides various insights and ensures mature and rich discussions in our class.

Information security experts and award-winning journalists have presented at our seminars, including Iain Overton and Ewan MacAskill (remember the Snowden files?). This is all just in the first term and I look forward to all the great things I will learn for the rest of the year!

If I could offer any advice to someone looking to apply for the Chevening scholarship or wanting to come to Birkbeck, it would be to know your purpose and your goal. All the scholars I’ve met, and even my classmates at Birkbeck have one thing in common —their hearts are set on doing something that would make an impact on other people’s lives.

It’s important to realize that we are continuously honing our skills and gaining knowledge not only for ourselves, but also to contribute to the development of our society, even in our own little ways.

 

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Returning to education: how to be a successful student

Abigail Bryant, recent graduate in Arts and Humanities, gives her advice on coming back to university after a hiatus from education, and how to juggle work and study. 

Before starting at Birkbeck, I worried that the years I’d had out of education may make it difficult to slot back into it seamlessly and that my ‘academic brain’ just wasn’t there anymore. I hadn’t written an essay for over five years! It turned out that I had absolutely no reason to feel like this. As soon as you start you’re given an encouraging, safe space to learn about the technical stuff such as referencing and essay structure, as well as logistics about how the university works and where you can find the resources that you’re entitled to.  There are also plenty of opportunities to ask questions, so you’ll quickly realise that you’re not on your own – there is support everywhere you turn!

If, like me, you’ll be working and studying simultaneously, good for you! You’re in for an enriching, challenging but ultimately rewarding experience. For me, the main goal was always to enjoy my course and never to view it as a chore, and luckily I managed to maintain this for the four years that I was at Birkbeck. Of course, after a long and tough week at work, the idea of sitting and working on an assignment at the weekend was not always a barrel of laughs, but I made sure that I chose modules that I felt passionately about and essay questions that I could get my teeth into, and would involve research that I was genuinely interested in. The feeling of satisfaction and pride upon handing in an assignment would always outweigh the pain of getting it finished! It is important to make time for yourself as well, and make sure that alongside work and study, you have the headspace to pursue interests and ‘me time’. This will no doubt benefit all aspects of your life, and your overall happiness should take priority and feed into your course at Birkbeck!

But what does it really take to be a successful student at Birkbeck? What do you really need to balance work, study and home life? Here are my top three tips:

  • Be curious
    At Birkbeck, you are so lucky to have access to a wealth of research materials, acclaimed professors, and diverse module choices. For maximum fulfilment and enjoyment, stay open minded and have a keen willingness to constantly learn and improve, both from your teaching materials and your peers. Embrace the resources available to you, and immerse yourself in Bloomsbury – there’s so much fascinating history within the walls that you’re learning in! Keep up to date with events going on – I’ve attended many panel discussions, career events and summer workshops throughout my time at Birkbeck. They are all free to attend and are a great way to network with students, teachers and industry folk alike (as well as boost your learning). Most importantly, challenge yourself – never feel like something’s not worth exploring because you don’t initially understand it. Ask questions, do some independent research, and you’ll be amazed at what you can discover and achieve.
  • Be committed
    For all the benefits of evening study, there are inevitable challenges to balancing university with other components of your life. Stay organised, disciplined and committed to your studies. The better you manage your time, the more fun your course will be, and the more you will get out of it. Studying should never feel like a chore, but an accomplishment worth fighting for.
  • Be yourself
    Lastly, try not to compare yourself to other students in terms of ability or knowledge. You have a unique and valuable perspective to bring to the classroom, so never feel afraid to express your opinion or thoughts in seminars. Birkbeck is a safe space to develop and articulate ideas and arguments, with infinite room for progression and improvement.  Follow your instincts, pursue your passions, learn from and with others, and always value your own voice.

Whatever you’re studying, and whatever your stage of life, Birkbeck is a life-changing, diverse, and extremely exciting place to study. It’s easily one of the best things I ever did, and I’d implore anyone to embrace every second, every resource and every opportunity it has to offer.

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Birkbeck’s telephone fundraising campaign – meet the Student Callers

Say hello to the new Birkbeck student callers who will be working on the telephone campaign to raise valuable funds for bursaries, facilities and support services.

The Birkbeck Autumn Telephone Campaign has now begun. A team of dedicated Birkbeck student fundraisers will be contacting alumni over the next five weeks to fundraise for College priorities, including bursaries. 40% of Birkbeck students require some form of financial assistance, and often this support is key for bursary recipients to be able to complete their studies.

Not only do alumni gifts provide financial assistance to these deserving students but they can also have an impact on life at the College, ensuring that future generations of students have the best facilities, support, advice and career guidance during their time at Birkbeck.

We have been running telephone fundraising campaigns for the past nine years, with over 300 telephone fundraisers taking part so far. Tara Millington, Regular Giving Officer at Birkbeck has said: “In the last telephone campaign, our telephone fundraisers secured over £93,000 in pledged donations. This is a real testament to how generous our alumni are – their support can make a huge difference for both current and future students here at Birkbeck. Not only do the callers gain valuable fundraising experience, they really enjoy speaking to alumni and hearing about their experiences.”

The Autumn Campaign will run between 30 October and 2 December – if you’d like to receive a call from one of our students, please get in touch with Tara Millington (t.millington@bbk.ac.uk).

We talked to this year’s Student Callers about why they wanted to participate in this year’s campaign:

Grace, MSc Environment & Sustainability: “I wanted to be more involved in university life and to help raise money to support the student services available at Birkbeck. I’m looking forward to speaking to Alumni and hearing about their experiences”.

Jasmine, MA Victorian Studies: “I wanted to do something for Birkbeck whilst I’m a student here, I think it’s important to raise money for ongoing projects, scholarships and bursaries that benefit both current and future students”.

Thomas, MA Philosophy: “I wanted to gain experience of working within a University. This kind of fundraising allows students to have opportunities they otherwise might not, and I think that’s important.”

Kelli, PhD Film and Screen Media: “I wanted to improve my communication skills and I believe in the objective and importance of alumni relations – which benefits current students in so many ways”.

Tasawar, MSc Middle East in Global Politics: “I wanted to gain experience in connecting with Birkbeck alumni, I think it’s important to give back to a community that you will always be a part of”.

Shakeela, Cert HE Counselling and Counselling Skills: “I was a caller in the last Telephone Campaign – it’s a chance to give back to Birkbeck and gain experience in a fundraising role.”

Shade, MSc Global Criminology: “I wanted to gain fundraising experience and to talk to alumni about their experiences at Birkbeck. Fundraising for Birkbeck is important as it gives a chance to students who may not be able to study without financial help.”

Roland, Counselling Skills“I wanted to get to know Birkbeck better by meeting other students and talking to alumni – fundraising is important as it keeps alumni engaged with Birkbeck and gets the message out there about the good work Birkbeck is doing”

Madeline, BA Creative Writing and English: “I’ve worked on the last two Birkbeck Telephone Campaigns and loved the calling team and getting to speak with alumni about their experiences.”

Melissa, BSc Geography: “I’m a returning caller to this campaign – I want to gain some fundraising experience and feel that raising money for Birkbeck is a sound and just reason; I feel privileged to be able to attend university myself. The bursary I received is incredibly helpful, and the career service at Birkbeck is invaluable.”

Mohammed, BSc Psychology: “It felt like a good opportunity to get involved and be more of a part of Birkbeck, whilst gaining valuable fundraising experience.”

Moonlie, MSc Education, Power and Social Change: “I want to fundraise for the support made possible by alumni donations e.g. career support for disabled students and to enhance the student experience.  I’ve called in a previous campaign and really enjoyed speaking to alumni.”

Ria, BSc Biomedicine: “I’m a returning caller from a previous campaign, and really enjoyed speaking to alumni and gaining fundraising experience. It’s very exciting to be able to speak to alumni.”

 

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Birkbeck’s Digital Transformation Project

Ben Winyard, Digital Publications Officer at Birkbeck, discusses Stage One of our online redesign.

Stage one of Birkbeck’s ambitious Digital Transformation Project went live on 16 May 2017, with the launch of a bold new design and layout for our homepage, corporate site and online prospectus. Since then, External Relations and the ITS Web Team have busily continued with improvements that, while less dramatic in terms of immediate, aesthetic impact, are just as important for bettering the user experience, optimising the accessibility of our website for all users, and making sure visitors can get the information they want quickly and easily.

A core principle of the Digital Transformation Project is that our decisions should be evidence-based and user-focused. In pursuit of this goal, we regularly test users’ responses to our website. Since February 2017, we have run around 50 user testing sessions, which covered the pre-launch, launch and post-launch phases of stage one. Some initial changes we made as a result of user feedback were adjustments to styling and making information clearer and easier to find.

During the June user testing sessions, we looked at how users search for courses and judge their quality, using Google, UCAS, and other comparison and rating sites. As a result, we implemented improvements to usability on our online prospectus, including: rewording and redesigning buttons and signposts; adding links to other available years of entry and to other versions of the same course (‘Related courses’); retitling fields to make browsing easier; and adding career destinations information (pulled from Unistats) to all of our full-time undergraduate courses.

As well as identifying usability issues, regular user testing is also increasing our understanding of how people use our website, which informs future developments. This feedback is proving vital for the next part of the Digital Transformation Project, which is focused on improving our site and course search. We know that the majority of our visitors come to us via Google. But we have learned that an increasing number of visitors – especially younger users – primarily navigate our site via internal course and site search, or externally through Google, rather than using our menus. This makes it even more pressing to ensure our search facility is the best it can be, which is one of our primary aims for the immediate future. User testing sessions in August concentrated on course and site search; they confirmed that improvement is needed and provided vital information on how users expect a search facility to work on a university website.

We are also looking at how students use school/department content on the Birkbeck website and how this content fits into the user journey. This is with a view to launching a project to bring our school/department content into the new visual identity and web design, which will also include rationalising and improving content and navigation, in order to enhance the user experience and ensure all of our users can find the information they need.

In External Relations, our focus so far has been on improving our online prospectus, the most visited and the most important part of our entire website. Depending on the time of year, our online prospectus can total well over 4000 pages, each with its own unique content and each playing a vital role in telling prospective students about Birkbeck and encouraging them to apply. Improving our online prospectus has two strands: rewriting descriptive text for our courses and improving all of the modules that are currently available for undergraduate and postgraduate students. In both instances, we have been applying our new house style and polishing content to make our course and module descriptions accurate and engaging. Our primary aim with any online course description is to grab the reader’s attention and let them know about what is unique, interesting and exciting about the course and about Birkbeck.

An example of a programme page in our new design.

On our programme pages, we have focused attention on the overview, highlights and course structure fields. We know from heat maps and analytics that these are the most visited parts of every programme page, so we wanted to dedicate time and attention to making this text really sing. It’s important to us that we do justice to the intellectually stimulating content of our courses, to the dedicated, world-leading academics who teach them, and to the life-changing opportunities offered by Birkbeck’s unique model of evening study. We have also been working hard with colleagues to ensure our online course pages are compliant with new legal requirements from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). These changes will increase the usefulness of our online prospectus by presenting important information on student contact hours, independent learning, learning development and support, and how students are taught and assessed across Birkbeck.

Our module improvement project has one primary focus: ensuring that every available module at Birkbeck is part of our online prospectus and includes rich, appealingly written descriptive text that adheres to our new house style. We have been working closely with our colleagues across Birkbeck’s five schools to source content and have updated and improved around 200 modules so far.

So, what difference has our redesign made, in terms of the number and quality of visits? An important measure of improvement and quality is the increased amount of time people are spending on our site; visitors spend longer engaging with the improved content and are finding it easier to navigate between different areas. There has also been an increase in the number of returning visitors, so we know that people are coming back to us.

Our online prospectus remains the focus of most visitors’ attention and continues to attract the highest interest. User testing and analytics reveal that, for many visitors, our course pages are their first interaction with Birkbeck, so one of our primary aims with the new web design has been to convert each of our online course pages into a ‘mini-homepage’, with links to news, events and research across Birkbeck and to vital information, such as financial support, student services and accommodation. To this end, we added tertiary signposts to every programme page and we are now seeing that people use our course pages as their main entry route into, and the jumping-off point to, other parts of the Birkbeck website. Other parts of our site have been dramatically upgraded: there are far fewer pages and we have consolidated information in one place and converted old information into downloadable documents, where appropriate. This has led to a significant increase in engagement: visitors are now spending more time on these pages and going through the information more thoroughly, because it’s all in one place and easily navigable.

Meanwhile, we have instituted a regular weekly maintenance slot, during which three web editors in External Relations make requested changes to all areas of our new site. Since May, we have implemented hundreds of such requests, all with the purpose of improving the accuracy and helpfulness of our content.

We have also developed an entirely new Digital Standards area on our website, which provides advice, information and support to all Birkbeck staff who need to convey information online. You can read our house style guide, find out about search engine optimisation, get practical information on links, files and redirects, and learn more about our visual identity and our social media guidelines. We are working hard to supplement this online support with bespoke face-to-face training, which we are in the process of developing. We have also begun using new software that identifies accessibility, content and coding issues across our site, which is greatly helping us continually maintain and improve the new site.

We have a series of ‘conversion goals’ on our website, whereby a user’s visit is translated into an action. We primarily want visitors to: order a prospectus; or book an Open Evening; or submit an application to study. We have seen a dramatic increase in these since we launched the new website, so it is pleasing to see that our work continues to support and advance the primary objectives of the Digital Transformation Project.

 

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How to get your Birkbeck studies off to a flying start

Student Engagement Officer Rebecca Slegg offers top tips to new students, to help you settle into Birkbeck, get your studies off to a flying start and help you make sure you get the most out of your time here.

  1. Set up a study space at home. If possible, decide on one place where you will be able to study. Keep it free from clutter and other distractions as much as possible and make sure that your family/flat mates know that when you’re there they should avoid interrupting you, if possible.
  2. Talk to your friends and family about your course. If the people in your life know why studying is important to you and what it involves they will be able to better support you throughout your course. They’ll understand why you might not be able to go out every weekend at exam or assignment time. They’ll also be interested to hear about the new ideas and topics you’re now an expert on!
  3. Attend BBK Welcome and the Students’ Union Fresher’s Fayre on Saturday 30 September 2017. This is a great opportunity to meet fellow students, find out about life at Birkbeck and join some of the many clubs and societies open to students.
  4. Create a wall planner and use it to map out your first term. Plot on your term dates, exam dates and assignment deadlines. This will help you to know when the pressure points are so that you can plan ahead in other areas of your life to accommodate your study needs and be well prepared to meet all of your course requirements comfortably.
  5. Set up a Whats App group/Facebook group with your classmates. This will enable you to share tips and information between lectures and seminars and help you get to know each other quickly. You will probably find that your classmates quickly become a source of support and encouragement.
  6. Sign up to academic skills workshops. Birkbeck offers a wide-range of resources for students to brush up on their academic skills, whether you need a refresher on essay writing or an introduction to academic referencing – get ahead with these skills now so you’re not trying to master them at the same time as researching and writing your first assignment.
  7. Explore the campus. Get to know Bloomsbury and/or Stratford. There is a wide range of bars, restaurants, coffee shops and cultural and sporting facilities close to both our campuses.
  8. Arrange to meet your personal tutor. Your tutor is there to offer advice and support on issues that may affect your academic progress. Some of the topics you might discuss with your tutor include module choices; exam revision; meeting deadlines; any personal or professional issues that are affecting your studies.
  9. Buy some nice stationery. Investing in some nice paper and pens is a subtle reminder to yourself of the investment you have made in coming to Birkbeck and that this is something that you believe is worth doing and will help you to move ahead with your life goals.
  10. Find out about Birkbeck Talent (the in-house recruitment agency) and the Careers and Employability Service. These two services can offer advice on CV writing, interview techniques, setting up your own business and can suggest suitable short- and long-term positions to match your skills and interests.
  11. Download the Birkbeck app to view your course resources and assignments, help you prepare for the start of term, and communicate with fellow new students from your School prior to starting your course.
  12. Make sure you’ve ticked off all the items in our new student checklist, which includes all the practical details you need to have covered like enrolling on the course, paying your fees and setting up library and wifi access.

At our graduation ceremony we asked those who had made it what advice they would give new students:

If you’re a current student, why not add your own advice for those just starting out in the comments section?

 

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The post-storm city: the very different depictions of Hurricanes Harvey and Katrina

Dr Anna Hartnell comments on the different responses to 2017’s Hurricane Harvey and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and how in both disasters, it has been the poorest who are hardest hit. This article first appeared on openDemocracy.

‘It happened to Texas and Texas can handle anything’, President Trump said last week, waving the flag of the Lone Star State to an approving crowd in Corpus Christi in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.  ‘They represent truly the very best of America’, he added later. Trump’s characterisation of Harvey as a trial to be met by Texan grit and an all-American resilience couldn’t be further from the portrait painted of those impacted by Hurricane Katrina by President George W. Bush 12 years earlier. Following an aerial tour of New Orleans completed soon after Katrina, he remarked ‘I’ve just completed a tour of some devastated country’; he also claimed to ‘know the people of this part of the world are suffering…’ People ‘from this part of the world’, Bush insisted, would not be forgotten.

Bush’s disconnect from the region reflected a larger sense that post-Katrina New Orleans resembled a ‘Third World’ disaster zone, a sense that also led to storm survivors being widely referred to as ‘refugees’, despite the fact that only a tiny minority were not US citizens. This feeling that the post-storm city was not quite American has a long history. It relates to the fact that New Orleans is a majority-black city, but is also connected to the city’s distinctive and pronounced relationship to its French and Spanish colonial past, its links to West Africa, and its apparent flouting of the Protestant work ethic as evidenced in its calendar of festivals, its rich parading and performance culture, and an economy dominated by tourism. New Orleans has thus come to stand out as a quaint relic amidst a relentlessly forward-looking national culture that dispenses with the past in favour of the future.

This stereotypic understanding of New Orleans culture made it into a New York Times piece written last week, which suggests that when ‘Katrina devastated New Orleans, the disaster played out in an eccentric anachronism, a city of modest economic heft proudly tethered to its exotic past. But Harvey has inundated a city perpetually looking to the future, a place built on boundless entrepreneurialism, the glories of air conditioning, a fierce aversion to regulation and a sense of limitless possibility.’ Where New Orleans has long been cast as a disaster waiting to happen, Houston, the coverage seems to be suggesting, will triumph. It is a ‘muscular’, ‘resilient’ city, whereas New Orleans, historically portrayed in literature as weak and effeminate, is imagined in very different terms. While both cities are sited in improbable locations, vulnerable to floods and storms, it is New Orleans and not Houston that is seen as somehow irresponsible for perpetuating its own existence. In the wake of Katrina, there were widespread calls for footprint shrinkage and some commentators went so far as to suggest that the city should not be rebuilt. Despite the rapid growth that has led to Houston becoming synonymous with unsustainable sprawl and concrete, the merits of rebuilding have not been challenged.

Texas stands at the centre of national narratives of rugged individualism and self-reliance, and Houston in many ways represents the neoliberal expression of these values, a playground of unregulated physical and economic growth. So where the story about New Orleans after Katrina was dominated by a narrative about race and class, the racialised poverty that the Hurricane seemingly uncovered, the story about Houston in the wake of Harvey has been embodied by the image of the white, middle-class home owner. Where, according to grotesquely inaccurate and racist media coverage, New Orleanians behaved badly after the storm, the best is being brought out in Texas.

This is not another Katrina, the narrative insists. Disasters, so the myth goes, are great social levellers.  Another recent New York Times story captures the essence of this political and media messaging: ‘Storm With “No Boundaries” Took Aim at Rich and Poor Alike’.  Although this piece does acknowledge that once disaster has struck, the poor have fewer options, this is an enormous understatement. Where depictions of Katrina survivors were sensationalised and often overtly racist, those who will be hit hardest by Harvey have been rendered all but invisible.

What the very different characterisations of post-Katrina New Orleans as compared to post-Harvey Houston obscure is the very sizeable minority and low-income communities in Texas who did not own cars with which to evacuate or homes against which to claim insurance. 30% of Houston’s population live below the poverty line and more than 40% do not own their own homes. As the lessons of Katrina have shown, it is renters and those living in public housing who are most vulnerable to homelessness and displacement following a disaster of this kind. And just as poor black Americans in New Orleans were more likely to inhabit lower-lying and thus flood-prone land, communities of colour in Houston are similarly exposed to risk, living in close proximity to the oil refineries and chemical plants that in the wake of the storm are leaking dangerous levels of pollutants into the environment.

Hypervisible in the case of Katrina and invisible in the case of Harvey, low-income communities of colour are on the front line of climate change in the United States, just as they are across the rest of the world. Stories about plucky Texans facing up to the storm, or indeed about looting in New Orleans, seek to suck us back into the ‘human interest’ narrative of the here and now, into the seductive rhetoric of everyday survival. Meanwhile, the larger, deeply discomforting significance of storms like Harvey and Katrina, as signs of things to come, remain in shadow.

 

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Everything you need to know about coming to Birkbeck as a school-leaver

This article was contributed by Cecilia Nguyen, a BA Language with Journalism student, who will be going into her second year this autumn. It was first published on her blog

What is it truly like to attend an evening university like Birkbeck? I am writing this blog as when I needed it two years ago, it was nowhere to be found.

‘Will I fit in as a school-leaver?’
The short answer to this question is yes, of course you will! I think there is a misconception that because evening studies can be more appealing to people who work in the day (of which the majority are over 25) that younger people may not fit in.

However, with the introduction of more full-time courses at Birkbeck, the number of under-25s is on the rise every year. The demographics of your classmates are highly dependent on the course you study. I study German and Journalism and find that on my German modules, there are more school-leavers, whereas my Journalism module attracts more mature students.

I truly think that you shouldn’t let this affect your decision when choosing a course if the curriculum perfectly matches your needs.

‘Is it only for part-time students?’
No, it is not. Birkbeck started introducing full-time courses in 2009 and has been working on them ever since!

But in this day and age, education takes on so many forms that I find traditional, daytime, full-time education to be highly overrated. Let’s look at an example: A full-time course takes on average 3 years to complete whereas a 75% intensity part-time course takes 4 years. The cost is the same, you get more time to study and have a healthier life balance. For me, it wasn’t a hard decision!

‘Can I change from full-time to part-time?’
Yes, you absolutely can! I think Birkbeck is rather flexible on this as they understand students’ circumstances and commitments well.

‘Is it super tiring after a hard day of work to sit in a classroom and do more work?’
Personally, I didn’t find it tiring enough to moan about. I’ve got to admit I had it relatively easy; I only worked 22 hours per week, I still live with my parents and I didn’t have any major responsibility that would induce stress.

Birkbeck campus and Senate House in springtime 

But from what my uni mates who work full-time and actually have it hard have told me, you don’t even notice the fatigue. Think of it this way, you go to a place with amazing people who challenge you academically while discussing something you enjoy knowing more about. It’s basically a fun fair!

‘Will I have a social life?’
This really amused me as it’s so typical of school-leavers to ask this question.

To put it bluntly, yes, like any other university. Or how I like to put it: you can have a social life. What I mean by that is, it’s totally up to you whether you want one or not.

At Birkbeck, I feel like you can be more selective when it comes to socialising. So if you want to join societies, go out clubbing or have fun, the opportunity is definitely there. But whenever you need to calm down or focus on work, it is easier for you to do so as everyone understands that sometimes you are studying alongside work or internships and that you need to balance all these aspects of your life.

‘You’ve been going on and on about the perks of evening study, but what about its downside?’
Everything has its downside. I personally felt that studying in the evening meant that I had almost no excuse to not find work in the day.

The opportunity is basically given to you and will give you so many things to talk about in your CV to boost your chances of getting employed. You can say things like ‘I can be fully committed as I have the entire morning free to focus on work,’ or, ‘as an evening student I get to hone my time-management skills and determination to complete tasks’. The list goes on and on.

Another downside is that studying in the evening means that sometimes you might have to come to class with an empty stomach as you rush from work to uni. But most of the time the lecturers understand that you have commitments and will allow you to have your meal in class, as long as you don’t let the rustling noises of your sandwich’s aluminium foil disturb the class too much!

Studying in the evening also means that sometimes you have to miss out on gatherings with friends or family. But if you can cope with occasionally not being able to go out, the amount of knowledge you’re getting back is well worth the sacrifice.

If you have a specific question you can leave a comment below or come meet me at Birkbeck’s Open Evening on 12 September (click here to sign up), where I’ll be working as a Student Ambassador.

Good luck on whatever it is that you decide to do and hopefully I’ll see you this autumn.

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Yes, the monuments should fall

This article was contributed by Dr Joel McKim, from Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.Lee Park, Charlottesville, VA

Writing in the 1930s, the Austrian writer Robert Musil famously noted that despite their attempted grandeur, there is nothing as invisible as a monument: “They are impregnated with something that repels attention, causing the glance to roll right off, like water droplets off an oilcloth, without even pausing for a moment.” It’s difficult to reconcile Musil’s observation with what we’ve witnessed from afar over the past week – a nation seemingly ripping itself apart, a statue of Robert E. Lee situated at the centre of the conflict.  Michael Taussig has, more recently, suggested an important adjustment to Musil’s theory arguing that it’s not until a monument is destroyed (or is slated for removal) that it succeeds in drawing our attention. The monument, Taussig reminds us, is often the first symbolic target in times of struggle.  “With defacement,” he writes, “the statue moves from an excess of invisibility to an excess of visibility.”

The confederate statues in America and the dilemma over what do with them became extremely visible this past week. It’s a discussion that has actually been taking place for some time now, with the removal in April and May of a number of monuments in New Orleans (including statues of Lee and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy) being a recent flashpoint. And there are of course many global and historical precedents to this debate, including the removal of racist and imperial icons in South Africa over the past several years and the precarious fate of Soviet-era statuary (see for example the excellent Disgraced Monuments, by our own Laura Mulvey and Mark Lewis). Decisions over what to do with symbols of past shame or troubling history also extend to the realm of preservation. Germany and Austria have recently been debating whether several architectural sites connected to the history of National Socialism, including the Nuremberg rally ground and the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, should be preserved, destroyed, or simply left to decay.

Apart from the abhorrent, but hopefully small faction who sees these symbols as worthy of veneration, another argument for keeping confederate monuments in place surfaces frequently from an apparently more benign viewpoint. We’ve all heard some variation of this position expressed over the past several days: “These monuments are an important reminder of our difficult and troubling history.” Or, “These statues help us to educate ourselves about what we have overcome.” Or, “If we destroy the past we will be doomed to repeat it.” While perhaps well meaning, I believe this line of argument is misguided in a number of ways. I think it’s fundamentally mistaken in its understanding of both the social dynamic and cultural history of monuments. Let me explain why.

Firstly, if monuments do have a significant educational purpose (and even this is questionable), it is certainly naïve to think this is the only mode by which they function. Rather than serving as references to the figure or event of the history they depict, public monuments communicate far more about the collective sentiments of our current period and the period in which they were erected. They express, in other words, rather than simply educate. The majority of confederate monuments, as New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu reminds us, were constructed not at the time of the civil war, but long afterwards during moments of resurgence in pro-confederate sentiment and white backlash against black civil rights, such as the Southern Redemption period. They were much less a marker of a tragic, but completed chapter in the nation’s history, than an expression of a renewed commitment to the cultural values of the losing side. Nicholas Mirzoeff points out that the monument to Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville was completed in 1924 and reflects a period of intense KKK organizing in the area. That these monuments can still function today as rallying points for ethnic nationalists and white supremacists, rather than as neutral transmitters of a distant history, should be self-evident after this week’s events. Could whatever nominal educational value these monuments possess, ever justify the continued emboldening role they play for these groups, or the genuine pain and distress they cause to so many who are forced to encounter them in public space? Ask a member of the black community if they are in need of a statue of Robert E. Lee to teach them about the history and continued impact of slavery and discrimination in America.

The second reason I think anxieties of the “destruction of history” type are misguided is that they don’t adequately recognize the always provisional and malleable nature of monuments and memorials. Far from being permanent or stable markers of history, monuments are perpetually being altered, moved, re-interpreted and reconsidered. They are contentious and contingent objects. The memorial landscape is continually in a process of adaptation. As Kirk Savage claims in his insightful history of the National Mall in Washington, “The history of commemoration is . . . a history of change and transformation.” Even the Lincoln Memorial, the most monumental of American memory sites, is an example of adaptation according to Savage. Its adoption as a symbol for the black civil rights movement occurred despite, rather than because of its intended design – the planners deliberately downplayed Lincoln’s role in the abolition of slavery. Artist Krzysztof Wodiczko’s protest-oriented projections onto existing statues are another important example of how the struggle to determine a monument’s meaning may continue long after its construction. Some of the most powerful monuments and memorial proposals of the past few decades have incorporated an element of self-destruction or suspicion into their own form. From the Gerz’s monument against fascism that disappears into the earth, to Maya Lin’s deliberately non-monumental Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, to Horst Hoheisel’s proposal to blow up the Brandenburg Gates as a memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe. In short, public monuments change; their lifespan is not and probably shouldn’t be infinite. We don’t owe them that. The debate and conflict surrounding the removal of confederate monuments is obviously a clear indication that America is also currently undergoing a process of significant change. While the events of the past week have been worrying and sickening, I am heartened by the number of courageous people committed to ensuring that this change is a move forward, rather than a regression.

Dr Joel McKim is Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies and the Director of the Vasari Research Centre for Art and Technology. His book Architecture, Media and Memory: Facing Complexity in a Post-9/11 New York is forthcoming in 2018 from Bloomsbury.

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