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.

Further information

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Starting university: tips to manage the transition and be a successful student

Hanneke Kosterink, Counsellor and Supervisor at the Birkbeck Counselling Service offers advice for students managing the transition to university, and explains how visualising success can help you achieve it. 

The transition from school to university brings a range of new experiences and challenges.  During this transition period, it is essential to find the right balance between studying and everything else including:

  • getting to know the university
  • settling into your course
  • learning what is expected of you as a student
  • discovering activities and social opportunities
  • making new friends

Academic Challenges
Many students enjoy the intellectual challenge of university study, opting for courses and subjects that match their interests. However, adapting to academic study and understanding what is expected of you as a university student can be an intimidating experience and will require taking responsibility for your own learning, managing your workload and completing assignments to strict deadlines. This requires self-motivation and dedication.

In addition to making good use of the support services and study resources your university provides it may be helpful to learn the technique of visualisation to reach your academic goals.

Writing over 2000 years ago Aristotle described the visualisation process this way:  “First, have a definite, clear, practical ideal; a goal, an objective.  Second, have the necessary means to achieve your ends: wisdom, money, materials and methods.  Third, adjust all your means to that end.”

Unfortunately, many of us remain stuck at the goal stage.  We start out with good intentions and perhaps a plan, but then we can’t seem to make it happen.  A hectic social life, job, hobbies, anxiety leading to procrastination can get in the way of achieving your academic goals.

Seeing is believing
Before we can believe in a goal, we first must have an idea of what it looks like. To paraphrase the old adage: we must see it before we can believe it.  This is where visualisation comes in, which is simply a technique for creating a mental image of a future event.  When we visualise our desired outcome, we begin to ‘see’ the possibility of achieving it.  Through visualisation, we catch a glimpse of what is our preferred future.  When this happens we are motivated and prepared to pursue our goal.

In the world of sports, this has been developed into a well-researched method of performance improvement.

How do well known British sportsmen and women use visualisation?

Wayne Rooney
Footballer Wayne Rooney is a firm advocate of mental preparation and the visualisation technique. “I lie in bed the night before the game and visualise myself scoring goals or doing well. You’re trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to have a ‘memory’ before the game.” Rooney sees his approach as fundamental to his sporting success. “I don’t know if you’d call it visualising or dreaming, but I’ve always done it, my whole life.”

Jessica Ennis-Hill
Ennis-Hill revealed her mental training tactic prior to the 2012 London Olympic Games: “I use visualisation to think about the perfect technique. If I can get that perfect image in my head, then hopefully it’ll affect my physical performance.”

Andy Murray
In order to mentally acclimatise before a major event, Andy Murray visits the centre court when the area is deserted and imagines his future success. “I want to make sure I feel as good as possible so I have a good tournament.”

Applying it to your study
There are two types of visualisation which ideally should be used together.  The first method is outcome visualisation and involves envisioning yourself achieving your goal.  To do this, create a detailed mental image of the desired outcome using all of your senses.

Let’s start with the big goal: getting your degree and attending your graduation ceremony.  Visualise yourself on graduation day receiving your qualification with a good pass.  Hold that mental image as long as possible.  What does it feel like walking across the stage in your robe to collect your certificate from the Master?  Who will be there accompanying you in the audience to cheer you on when it is your turn?  Imagine the pride, relief, satisfaction and thrill as you hug your loved ones before heading for the marquee where the photographer is waiting to capture that special moment in your life.

Visualising how it might feel to graduate might help you to plan your studies and your time at university. 

The second type of visualisation is process visualisation.  It involves envisioning each of the actions necessary to achieve the outcome you want.  Focus on each of the steps you need to achieve your goal, but not the overall goal itself.   What are the demands and deadlines you will need to meet?  Create a vivid mental picture of yourself succeeding, envision what you must do during each step of the process and like Rooney, Ennis-Hill and Murray use positive mental imagery to stay focused and motivated when you experience obstacles or setbacks.

Visualisation does not guarantee success.  It also does not replace hard work and practice.  But when combined with diligent effort and a strong support network, it is a powerful way to achieve positive behavioural change and create the life you desire.

 

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Getting prospective students talking

Dave Lewis, from Birkbeck’s Widening Access team, talks about the College’s new mentoring scheme which pairs prospective students with alumni for an informal chat. If you’re interested in taking part, contact gettalking@bbk.ac.uk.gettalking

Taking the plunge into higher education can be both exhilarating and daunting. Whether changing career, leaving school or coming back to education, students inevitably have questions about the years ahead. Navigating this transition with the support of a recent graduate can make all the difference, which is why we run Get Talking.

Get Talking is a one-to-one mentoring scheme which pairs prospective students with alumni for an informal chat. After an evening of training, our dedicated alumni draw on their own experiences to provide insight into both life at Birkbeck and higher education more broadly. In turn, students are given the opportunity to talk through any queries or concerns ahead of enrolment. Students are matched with their mentor based on what they hope to gain from the scheme and as such will often receive advice specific to their chosen field.

Meetings take place in a number of coffee shops close to campus, allowing participants to familiarise themselves with the Bloomsbury area and picture life as a student here.  Once students have enrolled at Birkbeck there is a wealth of continued support (including further mentoring opportunities) throughout their time at the college.

This type of pre-entry support is integral to ensuring university is accessible to all. Get Talking is one of many Birkbeck programmes that supports students from widening participation backgrounds. The scheme really is working too, with up to 75% of students who take part going on to enrol at Birkbeck. Deon, one student who took part in the scheme this year, said:

“The meeting with Dimitrios was very beneficial to me and l hope he feels the same. I am happy to say that these programs can only be an advantage to new and prospective students starting out as l feel no one knows better than those whom have experienced the task of completing an undergraduate whilst working. Dimitrios is a very helpful and understanding young man and l can only say l am honored that l was able to draw from his experience.”

This year Get Talking also began supporting applicants to the college’s Compass Project, a fund supporting forced migrants through scholarships to Birkbeck and information, advice and guidance on higher education in the UK. One of the applicants who took part this year said: “It was great to speak to someone who was as passionate about my subject as I was”.

Finally, Get Talking speaks of how closely connected Birkbeck’s alumni remain to the college. Our alumni mentors volunteer their time to support new entrants. Prospective students are supported in their decision making and begin networking before setting foot in the lecture theatre.

Would you like to get involved? If you’re thinking about studying with us or are a Birkbeck alum we’d love to hear from you at gettalking@bbk.ac.uk.

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100 letters changed my life

When Alison Hitchcock decided to write a letter to a friend after he was diagnosed with cancer, she had no idea it would lead to a new venture and an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. She writes about how these letters changed her life. cancerlettersBack in 2010, I would never have predicted that when my friend, Brian Greenley, was diagnosed with bowel cancer, the letters that I offered to write to him would change both our lives.

In 2009 Brian and I had met on a yoga holiday in India. We got on well, both equally inflexible and neither of us able to do a headstand, but we had little else in common. I was a City career-girl, and Brian had recently taken voluntary redundancy and was thinking of setting up his own gardening business. We met up a couple of times back in the UK, but neither of us would have described ourselves as anything other than acquaintances. When Brian shared that he had been diagnosed with cancer, perhaps because I didn’t know what to say, I offered to write letters to cheer him up. Looking back, I’m not sure what possessed me – I was no writer. But a promise was a promise!

The letters began and over the next two years, as Brian’s cancer developed to stage four, I kept on writing. I surprised myself, finding that I cherished the time I sat alone and wrote. It felt good to be doing something for someone else and it removed the feeling of helplessness that friends so often feel when a loved one becomes ill.

My enthusiasm for writing was bolstered by Brian’s response to receiving the letters. He once said: ‘Knowing that someone is caring enough to write, buy a stamp and put the letter in the postbox means so much. Your letters help me to feel reconnected with the real world.’

Enthused by my newly discovered passion for writing, I attended an Arvon Starting To Write course and began to understand what it means to want to write. From then on, as for so many who attend Arvon, everything changed. I wanted to write more and learn more. My letters continued but Arvon had given me an appetite for writing and letters were no longer enough, so I applied to Birkbeck’s Creative Writing MA. The MA not only confirmed my love of the writing process, it gave me confidence to explore different styles. By the time the course ended, I had had short stories published, written a novel and become involved with wonderful literary organisations such as Word Factory.

cancerletters2

At the end of 2016, Brian and I were recorded for Radio 4’s The Listening Project. Such was the response to our story, we set up From Me to You, a charity which inspires people to write letters to friends with cancer; keeping them connected at a time when they feel most disconnected. At From Me to You we run letter writing workshops, speak at events and our website hosts writing tips on what to say and how to say it, and shares many inspirational stories from those who have received and sent letters.  Recently we have expanded the initiative so that people can write letters to cancer patients they have never met. The communications range from postcards and notes that say something as simple as ‘keep strong’ to longer letters recounting tales of everyday life. These letters are acts of pure kindness. There is no obligation on the recipient to write back.

Brian never responded to any one of my 100 letters and I never expected him to. The letters had given me the gift of writing and a whole new life. That alone was, and still is, more than enough.

Contact details for From Me to You:

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The story behind Birkbeck’s new web design

Dr Ben Winyard, Senior Content Manager at Birkbeck explains the research and process behind our website’s new look. 

The Birkbeck website serves many vital functions simultaneously: it must be an authoritative, accurate source of information; a gateway to services; easy to navigate and search; aesthetically pleasing; accessible to all; and it must reflect and advance Birkbeck’s mission. The experience of using our website is often absolutely central to a person’s decision to come and study in the evening with us.

In our digital age, having a professional, beautifully designed and practical, easy to use website is absolutely essential for any university or organisation. Users need to get where they want to be quickly and easily, feeling confident that what they’re reading is accurate, while enjoying the tactile and visual experience of moving through our site.

The Birkbeck Digital project is a hugely ambitious, wide-ranging and on-going project to redesign, redevelop, restructure and re-present Birkbeck’s web presence based on research, evidence and over 50 user-testing sessions. Every longstanding website – and Birkbeck has been online for around twenty years – has a natural history of expansion and growth. The ambition of this project has allowed us to research and reconsider everything about our site – the design, the layout, the navigation and the content – and the opportunity to field staff and student feedback to ascertain how people use, and feel about, our website.

The project has been divided into stages, as the Birkbeck website extends to many thousands of pages. Stage 1, which is being delivering on schedule this month, includes the redesign of the Birkbeck homepage, of our ‘corporate’ site, which includes all of the key information for prospective students and covers many of our most important professional and student services departments, and, lastly, the online prospectus, which includes over 3000 pages of course and module information across all levels of study, from short courses to PhD research.

Our first task was to organise user feedback sessions, to help us map and improve the experience of visitors to the website. A series of workshops, one-to-one interviews and group sessions, were bisected by ‘type’ of user, from ‘young undergraduate’ and ‘mature postgraduate’ to international students, MPhil/PhD researchers and staff from across the College.  From this research we were able to compile a rich analysis of who is using the Birkbeck website, what they are looking for, and what delights and frustrates them. This invaluable feedback has informed every step of the design process, the reviewing and refreshing of content and the build of the new website.

The feedback was often interestingly divided according to the age of the student: in general, users above the age of 30 were positive, describing our website as ‘modern’, ‘clear’, ‘precise’, ‘professional’ and ‘mature’; while younger users were less positive, describing our website as ‘traditional’, ‘outdated’, ‘plain’, ‘dull’ and lacking colour and media content such as videos. Many users expressed frustration with the navigation on our site – the menus, signposts and links that you click on to move from one page or section of the website to another – and felt we don’t adequately convey what it is like to study at Birkbeck. Users also struggled to access vital information, including bursaries and financial support.

Embedded accessibility software, including screen-reading, enables visitors to customise our site in the way they need it to work

Embedded accessibility software, including screen-reading, enables visitors to customise our site in the way they need it to work

The task of converting all of this, sometimes conflicting, feedback into a new design fell to the design company, Pentagram, who created our new visual identity last year so had a head start in understanding Birkbeck’s unique mission and our diverse staff and student community. Over the course of many brainstorming sessions and meetings in the autumn of 2016, Birkbeck’s content (External Relations) and technical (IT Services) experts worked together with Pentagram to translate our new visual identity and user feedback into a stylish, clear and colourful new design.

The mammoth task of translating Pentagram’s beautiful designs into a functioning website fell to our hugely talented and hardworking CIS & Web Team in IT Services. This type of translation work – of turning a design into functioning code on a webpage – will always involve cutting your coat to match your cloth – i.e. working out what can be done given the challenges of schedule, staff capacity and budget. The developers were astute at breaking down each element of the design and explaining the best way of turning them into a digital reality. Extensive user-testing was carried out in the team as well as research to makes sure our site is sector-leading in terms of accessibility. This sort of cross-team working carries its own challenges, but IT Services and External Relations have worked strongly and successfully together.

The new pop-out menu

The new pop-out menu signposts visitors to important pages

This new design has adapted our visual identity for the Web, incorporating new typography and standards of layout. On the redesigned Homepage, we now have the images, clear, graphic signposts to important pages that users have asked for, brought together on a new, easy-to-use pop-out menu on the right-hand side of the page.

 

Finding a course is usually the number one task of a new visitor to our site, so we have incorporated a prominent keyword course search box at the top of the Homepage, to get students started on their journey as quickly and easily as possible. We’re also showcasing the best of what’s happening at Birkbeck – as a lot of user feedback articulated a sense that Birkbeck is ‘hiding its light under a bushel’ and not trumpeting its achievements and strengths. So we are featuring news, events, blog posts and podcasts on the Homepage and on landing pages, singing loudly and proudly about our world-class research.

research-tile

Birkbeck’s unique qualities are showcased with eye-catching statement tiles

Birkbeck’s unique mission makes us genuinely different to other universities and the new website is all about making this clear upfront, celebrating it and helping prospective students see the many ways in which studying with us could have a real impact on their lives. We are also making videos more prominent, as a way of telling our unique story and dusting away some of the fustiness that frustrated our younger users. Finally, the new website has been designed responsively, meaning that, whatever device you are using, the website will look great and be easy to use.

newwebsite6phone

The website is optimised for browsing on any device

On our online prospectus, we are presenting each course page as a gateway into Birkbeck, as many prospective students come to our website through our course pages after a Google search. Thus, we now include links to important information on fees and funding, making an application, entry requirements, accommodation, our research culture and other key areas of interest for prospective students, depending on the level of study. We have also reviewed the content on all of our course pages, stripping out duplication and generic content and simplifying, consolidating and improving.

Redesigning and restructuring the website gave us a golden opportunity to review, assess and edit our content. The pages on our ‘corporate’ website include absolutely crucial information on fees and funding, student services, careers and employability, and research, while our online prospectus is the most visited area of our website and absolutely central to attracting new students.

Like most organisations, Birkbeck has seen its website expand exponentially over the past decade and, as with any large, complex organisation, content on our website has not always been kept up-to-date or focused on the needs of users. Seizing this opportunity, we have reviewed and refreshed over 1500 items of content, which includes webpages, images and files, in line with the newly created House Style and tone of voice guidelines – the first time Birkbeck has ever had a comprehensive style guide.

Duplicate and obsolete material has been removed, written content has been reviewed, rewritten where necessary, and adjusted to meet our House Style. User testing and workshop sessions with content owners across the College mean that we have been able to reorder material based on user needs, giving prominence to the material that matters most to visitors and giving answers to their most pressing questions. Areas of the website that had been structured to reflect the internal organisation of Birkbeck have been reordered to bring users’ needs, questions and tasks to the forefront. Thirty new landing pages have been created, giving essential content areas a fresh, vibrant new look that also makes the website easier to navigate.

Throughout this process, when considering the design, layout, structure and content of the website, we have been guided by the following ideas and principles:

  1. To focus on and prioritise the needs of the website users, whether staff, students or visitors.
  2. To simplify, clarify and reduce, while avoiding duplication, obfuscation and verbiage. Our written content should be truthful, clear, concise and easy to understand.
  3. To ensure our site is accessible to all users and optimised to enable disabled, blind and visually impaired users to access the information they need.
  4. To increase the aesthetic appeal of the website, particularly through the greater use of images, videos and other media. To this end, nearly 600 new images have been uploaded to the site.
  5. To simplify the structure of our website, to enable ease of navigation and quick access to the information that users need.
  6. Apply our new House Style and deploy a more consistent, positive and appealing tone of voice.

And this is just the beginning. Going forward, we will be redesigning and relaunching other parts of our website, utilising new technologies, implementing new principles of digital governance, rolling out our new House Style and tone of voice guidelines, and working towards the shared goal of a website we can all feel justly proud of.

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User-testing Birkbeck’s new website design

Naomi Bain, Web Officer (Training and User Experience), at Birkbeck explains the way student feedback informed our new web design. 

webOver the course of the past few months, throughout the redevelopment of the Birkbeck website, I have carried out more than 50 user testing sessions. These have sought to ensure that the changes and improvements we are making to the website are firmly rooted in research and evidence about how the website is used in real life, rather than how we might imagine it is used.

After each round of testing I reported back to the web teams, both technical and content, about any issues that came out of the sessions. These reports led to some changes being made, helped with decision-making processes and provided reassurance.

There have been four rounds of testing with students, gathered with the help of Team Birkbeck. As well as this, I set up sessions with students with dyslexia and related conditions and students with visual impairment, who I contacted with the help of the Disability Office and External Relations. The students who have participated are studying all kinds of subjects and come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Testing has included a number of older students, and students who do not speak English as a first language.

In the early stages of testing we just looked at PDFs of the new design. Students were asked for their response to the appearance of the site, and I did ‘first click’ tests to assess their understanding of the layout of the pages and how they would find something on a live version. We then moved on to testing some mock up stand-alone pages, concentrating in particular on testing the course finder and the menu.

For the final round, we had something approaching a complete test version of the new site, and focussed in particular on course information. In addition to this, students with disabilities assessed various accessibility tools, and also talked about how their disability could affect their use of websites.

All sessions took place at Birkbeck and were recorded using Panopto, the university’s video content system. All students used the site on a PC, and some also searched the site on their phone.

Feedback on the new site has been overwhelmingly positive. People described it as “clear”, “modern”, “colourful” and “engaging”. It compared favourably to both the existing Birkbeck site and to other university sites.

Observing students carrying out searches on the site enables us to quickly see whether they understand how the design “works”. Several minor issues with the design have been brought to light as a result of these user testing sessions and changes have been made, or potential problems flagged up.

The intention is to do some follow up testing post-launch, as part of an ongoing iterative process of development and improvement, which will ensure that Birkbeck sites are attractive, usable and accessible to all our students.

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Will 2017 be 1984? Rethinking Orwell’s dystopia

This article was written by Dr Ben Worthy from Birkbeck’s Department of Politics

george-orwell-bbc-1

George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty Four tells the story of Winston Smith, a lowly member of the ruling party, rebelling against the totalitarian rule of Big Brother and The Party in Airstrip One (formerly England), part of the vast empire of Oceania. George Orwell’s novel shows with a terrifying clarity what a totalitarian regime looks like from the inside, with its propaganda, controlled hatred and perpetual war. The book was considered so realistic that when copies were sneaked illegally into the USSR, illicit readers presumed it was written by someone close to Stalin.

As others have pointed out, what makes it so powerful are the details that we all recognise. The dictatorship is all powerful yet the in the England of ‘Airstrip One’ sinks are still blocked, greasy canteens serve sloppy food and tower blocks smell of cabbage. When Winston Smith sleeps and dreams of freedom he wakes up with the name ‘Shakespeare’ on his lips. Unlike the brilliant abstract novel We that inspired Orwell, this dystopia, like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, feels very close by (see Orwell’s review of We here).

The world in which Smith moves also feels scarily relevant. The leaders in Oceania control their people through targeted hatred and predict what they do before they do it. There are uncomfortable echoes of the dark side of a surveillance society and big data: they can even monitor you through your television. The book is also full of ‘political language’ that ‘is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’. Double-think dominates a world where those in power can believe contradictory things simultaneously and bend reality at will. Opening up Orwell’s book today, Oceania’s propaganda slogan ‘ignorance is strength’ rings far too familiar for comfort.

Alongside the torture in Room 101 and the mind reading Thought Police, the truly terrifying feature of Winston’s world is the lack of objective truth. In Oceania it is impossible to establish something as a fact: what the Party says is true is the only truth. Winston Smith works in a Ministry constantly amending previous editions of newspapers, altering the past to control the future. Orwell’s fictional Oceania does what the truly horrific regimes of the Twentieth century tried to do: create their own ‘moral universe’ insulated from reality. Primo Levi wrote of how those in the camps in Nazi Germany were taunted by the guards with the constant gloating that ‘no one will ever believe this happened’.

Orwell’s original title for the book was ‘The Last Man in Europe’. Smith’s struggle to love and live in Oceania is a struggle to preserve his humanity. Despite its reputation as a vision of an alternative future, the dystopia of Oceania is as much a warning as a prophesy. Orwell’s book, written in beautiful clear prose, offers us a frightening glimpse of what life was like for many people (and still is like in many places). Is it completely bleak? Read the mysterious appendix on Newspeak that Orwell eccentrically insisted on keeping in, even for Reader’s Digest. It’s written in the past tense.

Listen to Jean Seaton, Ben Worthy and Caroline Edwards discuss 1984 at Birkbeck Arts Week event ‘Will 2017 be 1984? Rethinking Orwell’s dystopia’ on 17/5/2017 at 6pm. For tickets click here.

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Getting our Act together

After 700 amendments and some heated debates, the Higher Education and Research Bill finally became law last week. Birkbeck’s Policy Communications Officer, Fiona MacLeod, has followed its parliamentary progress from First Reading to last week’s ‘ping-pong’ between the two Houses of Parliament, and outlines what changes it will bring to the Higher Education sector.parliament
The Higher Education and Research Bill ended its lengthy passage through Parliament last week and is now law. With both Houses agreeing on the exact wording of the Bill, it received Royal Assent on Thursday 27 May with a flourish of Norman French – a declaration that ‘La Reyne le veult’ – to become the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

The ‘ping-pong’ process between Commons and Lords to agree a final version of the Bill began the day before, when MPs rejected earlier amendments made in the Lords and agreed a raft of new Government amendments in lieu. These final amendments were designed to achieve compromises acceptable to Peers and get the Bill passed speedily before Parliament’s formal dissolution this week ahead of the 8 June General Election.

The 2017 Act has been hailed as ‘the most important legislation for the sector in 25 years’ but getting it to this point involved more than 700 amendments and some major concessions from the Government.   So what key changes to UK higher education does the 2017 Act bring?

The Act establishes a new regulatory body, the Office for Students (OfS), to replace the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), and integrates the UK’s seven research councils into a new body called United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Among its regulatory changes, the Act will make it easier for new higher education providers to gain degree awarding powers and university status, while the OfS will implement a new mechanism to recognise and reward high-quality teaching, already underway, known as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

The TEF will rate universities as Gold, Silver or Bronze, and results of the initial TEF trial will be published in June.  The TEF will be used to set university tuition fees, but any differentiation of fees based on its controversial Olympic medal-style ratings will not happen until 2020/21. Until then, future increases in fee limits – in line with inflation – for universities participating in the TEF will require the approval of both Houses of Parliament.

The Act also requires an independent review of the TEF in 2018 which will look at how ratings are decided and what they should be called; whether the metrics used are appropriate; the TEF’s impact on institutions and indeed whether the TEF is in the public interest. This goes further than the earlier ‘lessons learned’ exercise offered by the Government. The review’s conclusions will be considered before the 2020 timeframe for fee differentiation based on TEF ratings. The Act ensures the TEF can’t be used to limit international student recruitment figures and will require institutions to publish specific data deemed ‘helpful’ for international students.

For Birkbeck, a major problem with the early draft of the Bill was its failure to reference part-time study and its importance for the country’s future skills needs. It also failed to recognise the particular needs of mature or part-time learners when outlining the future role of the OfS.  Working with MPs and Peers, including College President Baroness Bakewell and Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Garden, Birkbeck lobbied successfully to gain explicit recognition of part-time study in the Bill; the OfS will be required to promote choice in the way university courses are taught, including part-time study, distance learning and accelerated courses.

We’re also pleased that the Act will help make alternative methods of financing available to those unable to take out student loans, including for those who require ‘Sharia-compliant’ finance.

The OfS will be responsible for quality and standards in the HE sector and will absorb the work of the Office for Fair Access.  Universities will be required to publish information about the fairness of their admissions as well as information that might be ‘helpful to international students’.

The Act also confirms that International students will continue to be included in the net migration target. Media reports suggesting that the Prime Minister was softening her stance on this in order to get the Bill passed proved to be inaccurate, and Peers reluctantly accepted the status quo.

Among other hotly debated aspects of the Bill, the Act confirms that University title, even those granted by Royal Charter, can be removed by Government.  But the Secretary of State will have to consult representative bodies of higher education providers and students when giving guidance to the OfS about its power to grant university title, and the OfS must consider this guidance before allowing a provider to call itself a university. There will be a full review to look at the shared features of a university – such as excellent teaching, sustained scholarship, learning infrastructure, pastoral care and knowledge exchange.

Similarly, the Bill was strengthened to provide better oversight of OfS’s powers to grant, revoke or vary degree awarding powers (DAP): the OfS will have to notify the Secretary of State when granting DAP to institutions which have not previously had a validation agreement with another higher education provider or OfS, and degree-awarding powers will be automatically reviewed following a merger or change of ownership.

Peers welcomed the many changes made to the Bill during its parliamentary progress and there was much mutual congratulation last week on the Government’s willingness to listen and the degree of cross-party collaboration in the Lords.

Lord Stevenson, Labour’s spokesman on higher education in the Lords, said the amended Bill would ‘improve collaboration within the sector… help reverse the decline in part-time students…assist mature students who wish to come back, and … pave the way for more work to be done on credit transfer and flexible courses’.  Let’s hope he’s right.

See the Parliamentary process of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 here and Read debates on all stages of the Act 2017 here

 

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Take a virtual tour of our campuses

Explore our beautiful Bloomsbury campus in the heart of London and state-of-the-art Stratford campus in east London.

Both campuses offer all the facilities you need, which all Birkbeck students are entitled to use. They are also well-served by public transport, making it easy to get to and from the College.

 

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An early modern treasure trove

Michael Willis is a student on Birkbeck’s MA Renaissance Studies. He reflects on his internship at Shakespeare’s Globe

globe-theatre_michael-willis-blogEvery Tuesday began with a wintery riverside walk from Embankment to Bankside to work with an early modern treasure trove of books and archival material at Shakespeare’s Globe. The vast spectrum of material that I was exposed to fed my intellectual curiosity as an early modern theatre enthusiast!

Each week would be completely different. One week I’d analyse stage movements in Outside In performances, where a production originally performed on outdoor stage at the Globe was performed inside at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse. Another week, I’d be researching costume designs, and in another I’d research early modern lighting. Working on the winter season, Wonder Noir, at the Sam Wannamaker I worked quite heavily on Webster’s challenging The White Devil. When it was originally performed in 1612, it was not received well and Webster blamed the ignorance of the audience and the wintery lighting for its poor reception.

Analysing the idea of voyeurism in the play, I traced the sordid and blackened world of a distorted Jacobean reality and wrote press tweets and researched for synopses of the play. One of my projects was to produce a Christmas blog. Working to a set deadline and with a range of archival material, I focused upon the cancellation of Christmas in the mid-seventeenth century. The blog proved to be popular through its many re-tweets and re-posts upon social media most likely because it presented a world that is quite the antithesis to modern day Christmas time. I mean, can you imagine being thrown into prison for having a festive tipple whilst putting Christmas decorations up?

The internship allowed – and demanded, in a way – an investigation of very different materials. Whether that would be stage production documents or prop illustrations, each week required that I work to a tight deadline: a challenge but a motivation. I have developed a range of skills that will only serve to steer and inspire my research in my current MA, and as I embark upon a PhD later this year.

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