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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Birkbeck’s London Landscapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further information: 

 

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Art and Conversation at the 58th Venice Biennale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Bonnart Trust PhD Scholarship

Zehra Miah is a Bonnart Scholar who is currently undertaking a PhD on the experiences of Turkish immigrants in London from 1971 to 1991. In this blog, she shares what it was like applying for the scholarship and how it has allowed her to pursue her project full-time.

Pictured: Idris Sinmaz (Zehra’s grandfather) came to London from Istanbul in 1971 to work in the restaurant of his landlord’s son. His two sons and wife joined him in 1973, his married daughter stayed in Turkey. This image was taken in 1980, by which time Idris had opened his own restaurant, Abant on Kingsland High Street in Dalston. Abant is a lake in his hometown of Bolu, Turkey.

Freddie Bonnart-Braunthal founded the Bonnart Trust to fund research aimed at tackling the causes and consequences of intolerance. Largely inspired by his own experiences leaving Vienna in 1935 and being branded an enemy alien and interred in the UK, he wanted to provide funding for scholars, such as myself, to explore these topics and to use their findings to help make a more tolerant and equal world.

When considering embarking on a PhD one of the main hurdles, once you have written your proposal, met with a supervisor, perhaps even had an interview and secured a place is – how to pay for it! My own story, is that I had returned to study as a mature student with three young children and a full-time job as an Executive Assistant. I had studied for my BA and MA at Birkbeck part-time and decided that if I was going to do a PhD then I wanted it to be all or nothing, so I applied for a full-time place. Starting the PhD meant not only the loss of my salary for me but also for my family, even cobbling together the fees would have been a struggle.  In short, without the Bonnart Trust seeing value in my research and awarding me the scholarship, I would, best case scenario perhaps, be pushing through a part-time PhD or, more likely have made the decision to take a different career path.

As a prospective student, you will already know from the institutions that you have applied to that whilst there is not an awful lot of funding about, it is a different offer with every university having vastly different application processes. If you have chosen to study at Birkbeck, or you are considering it and your research area fits within the remit of the Trust, namely addresses diversity and inclusivity or social justice and equality, then I would urge you to consider applying for this fantastic scholarship.

My research considers whether ethnic, religious and racial labels have helped or hindered the Turkish speaking minorities in London between 1971-1999.  When I read the guidelines and spoke to my supervisors (Professor David Feldman and Dr Julia Laite) it was clear that the Bonnart Trust Scholarship was most closely aligned with my research interests.  I have previously held a fees scholarship for my Master’s at Birkbeck and one thing I was not aware of at the time is quite how many people I would meet, collaborate with and the opportunities to present that come along when you hold a scholarship.

These opportunities are worth just as much, as the funding,which is full fees, an annual stipend, and a research allowance of up to £1,000.  The scholarship is open to the entire School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy so it is competitive, but I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed the process. The form had very specific questions (as do all funding applications, and helpfully they all ask different things with different word counts).  For the Bonnart Trust Scholarship I had to succinctly answer a number of questions about my research in general, , why it was important, what sort of influence outside of academia I hoped for and the possibilities it might offer to help address some of the Trust’s aims; no section allowed more than 250 words.

I am naturally a ‘better in the room’ sort of person so when I was shortlisted and invited to interview I knew that this was my opportunity to demonstrate just how important I felt my research was.  I can understand though, that interviews can be a bit daunting and my interview for the scholarship involved a panel comprising a linguist, two historians and a political scientist (one of whom was a past Bonnart Scholar).  I had lots of great advice, but there are two key points I want to share; firstly, you are the expert and you love your project, but spend some time considering what could go wrong and what the challenges might be and secondly, be ready to address every member of the panel even if they are outside your discipline, find one thing to engage with them on within your research.  They aren’t there to catch you out; they simply want to hear that you have thought through your ideas.

I was in Prague Castle when I got the email informing me that I had been successful and I am so grateful that the funding is allowing me to carry out this work. Since starting my PhD I have had numerous opportunities to meet Bonnart Scholars working in other disciplines. Next term there is the annual Bonnart Trust research seminarwhich will, I hope, be a great forum to meet more people interested in what I do and doing interesting things; they are now my peers, colleagues and maybe even my future employers!

I would urge anyone who feels that their research aligns with the Trust’s mission to take a look at the website, have a read of the current and previous projects and see where you fit – and then apply!

Applications are now open for the Bonnart Trust PhD Scholarship and will close on 31 January 2020.

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Considering a career in counselling?

People reach out to counsellors for many reasons; to try and resolve an emotional or psychological issue in their lives; if they have underlying anxiety or depression affecting their day-to-day life; if they’ve experienced a particular period of distress, such as divorce or bereavement; or if they are isolated, with no one else to talk to – or just prefer to talk to a professional who is impartial and understanding.

As such, to be an effective counsellor you need a wide range of skills and attributes. You need to be able to communicate and relate to people from a variety of different backgrounds, be patient, tolerant and non-judgemental; to always act ethically and with integrity; and to have undergone professional training, based on recognised standards of quality and competence, providing training in reflective, competent and ethical practice.

There are three main models of counselling:

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy looks at the links between thoughts and feelings, patterns and behaviour. A CBT counsellor would work collaboratively with the client to actively change thoughts and behaviour patterns in healthy ways.
  • Psychodynamic therapy is concerned with exploring the ways in which the past affects the present, and looks at how unconscious processes impact the ways in which we experience the word.
  • Person centred therapy is concerned with empowering the individual to self-actualise in order to find fulfilment.

Birkbeck’s Introduction to Counselling course is a great way to find out whether training in counselling is the right career move for you, with the freedom to explore these different models of counselling. You will be introduced to the core theories, aims and methods of the main counselling traditions and you will consider the role of the counsellor and the importance of the therapeutic relationship. You will also explore the idea of ethics and learn about the importance of self-awareness and reflective practice. It may also be useful to those who work in people-focused roles, like teachers or social workers, for whom developing new skills and techniques around empathy and support is useful.

This year, the Introduction to Counselling short course will take place on Wednesdays 10am – 1pm, for five weeks from 13 November to 11 December 2019.

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“Studying in London gave me a new perspective on important issues that I may have overlooked before”

Hitomi Imamura, an international student who was awarded an international merit scholarship from Japan, tells us about studying for the MSc Education, Power and Social Change at Birkbeck and how she has made the most of her time studying in London.

After a long career in Japan, I wanted to follow my childhood dream to study abroad and make friends from all over the world. I chose London because it is a multicultural city and the best place to study with international students. I decided to apply for Birkbeck because it is famous for its evening classes and it is an environment where I could study with students who had varied lifestyles and careers.

Also, I was interested in the MSc Education, Power and Social Change as I had worked in education in Japan for many years and could not find this type of subject at other universities. The atmosphere around Birkbeck is ideal, surrounded by other universities, parks, amenities, and many university libraries. I enjoyed London life even though the cost of living is high. There are many things to do in your free time as it is such a large and historic city.

I found some things quite difficult to start with including a huge amount of reading assignments and the obvious language barrier. There were a lot of assignments to finish at the same time over a short period. It was very stressful so I had to take care of myself but it was also very rewarding. I used some of the study skills sessions provided by the university which gave me useful information on how to improve my writing.

I joined some events specially provided for international students such as the University tour and Parliament tour. They were very interesting. I became a member of the Japan Society of Birkbeck and taught Japanese to the students. The students appreciated my contribution and I received a Birkbeck Student Union award in 2019 for an outstanding contribution to club and societies.

I could meet caring tutors and nice classmates from all over the world and they helped me when I was struggling with my study.  We were able to support each other without considering the differences in the ages and nationalities of my classmates.

My dissertation theme was related to the important Japanese primary school education reform going through 2020. I interviewed 5 Japanese education experts and one American expert that included the former State-Minister of Japanese Education. I found that many changes are happening in Japan because of globalisation through my research. I’m very glad I came to Birkbeck, and think it is important to see my own country from overseas. It gives me a new perspective on important issues that I may have overlooked before studying abroad.

I aim to continue to PhD level study as I would like to continue my research after graduating from the master’s course. Birkbeck has enabled me to improve my ability to study and conduct research at a high level so I can progress on to the next stage.

I am satisfied that I completed my master’s degree and met the challenge I set for myself to make my life more positive. Unfortunately, the number of Japanese foreign students is currently decreasing. However, I feel it would be good if more Japanese people studied abroad and exercised their global citizenship as I did at Birkbeck. For me, that is a great personal achievement. I would like to thank all the course tutors and various administrative staff for making my time at Birkbeck such a worthwhile and enjoyable experience.

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Ozioma Maxwell-Adindu: Distance learning from Port-Harcourt

Ozioma Maxwell-Adindu, a Birkbeck alumnus from Port-Harcourt in Nigeria, talks to us about her experience studying for an MSc in Geographic Information Science via distance learning.

My name is Mrs Ozioma Maxwell-Adindu and I hail from Nigeria. I’m from a family of nine and the fifth of seven children. I am currently married with two boys.

Before starting my MSc at Birkbeck I had a Higher National Diploma (HND) in Electrical/Telecoms Engineering, Petroleum Training Institute (PTI). After my HND in Electronics/Telecoms Engineering, I went on to the compulsory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) and then got a job with Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC).

I decided to study Geographic Information Science (GISc) because I found myself working in the Geomatics (Survey) department in SPDC. I had the urge to improve my chances of getting into the mainstream of the company and still retain my job. So, I decided to go for distance learning education so that I did not have to leave my job to do this.

I heard about Birkbeck and the GISc programme from my colleague who gave me the link to the university’s website and I applied immediately. I chose an MSc in Geographic Information Science (GISc) because I wanted it to link to my first degree in Electronics /Telecoms Engineering.  The application process wasn’t tedious, after applying online I was required to send my HND transcript to the university which I did and before long had a conditional offer. However, I could not take up my place that year due to financial reasons so I quickly asked to defer which was granted immediately, and I started the programme the next year.

Geographic Information Science (GISc) is the scientific discipline that studies data structures and computational techniques to capture, represent, process, and analyze geographic information. When we started we were asked to introduce ourselves and state why we chose the course. We were directed to the Bloomsbury Learning Environment (BLE) by the school’s IT department using our ID & password. The BLE was the platform where we interacted with other students, submitted our assignments which was time-bound, the topics for each week was pasted in that same environment. I received remarkable support during my study from my project supervisor, Dr Maurizio. He was highly supportive; the first time I submitted my first three chapters we had a chat via Skype. He suggested the methodology I should use in processing my data, which made my project unique and made me think out of the box with my research. Outside interacting with other students on the BLE, we also interacted during some group assignments and section projects. The IT Services department was also very superb, I always appreciated a swift response to any technical challenges I faced during my course. We sat our exams within the premises of the British Council in Port-Harcourt.

It was easy managing my studies with my professional/family life because there was no distance constraint, no stress of shuttling between office, home and school. Since I could work and go to university at the same time I was able to pay myself through school.

The major challenges I faced during my studies were financial, so for me, the advantages of distance learning were that I could work and do my degree simultaneously, the stress of travelling to complete my studies was totally eradicated. It was difficult being able to meet up with school work, profession and family, it was a lot of hard work.

I had to apply to my department for a lift in salary which was slightly increased and the type of work I do has changed from just archive management to duties in the Geographic Management field, so that is increased responsibility. I would recommend Birkbeck to other students just as I recommended Birkbeck to my younger brother William who joined me on the course, and we concluded our studies together.

I intend to come for my graduation next year April-May 2020 with my family.

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Mariyeh Mushtaq: Life in London as an international student

Mariyeh Mushtaq was awarded the Great India scholarship to study MA Gender, Sexuality and Culture at Birkbeck. She was also selected as one of the recipients of the Birkbeck/International Student House Accommodation scholarship.  In this blog, Mariyeh shares what it was like settling into life at Birkbeck.

I decided to apply to Birkbeck because of the range of courses it offers, particularly in the field of women’s and gender studies. One of the main reasons I chose this university was the ample financial support it offers to international students in the form of scholarships, bursaries and fee-waivers.

As an international student applying for an MA at Birkbeck, I was intentional about applying for a scholarship. I came across the Birkbeck/ISH Scholarship when I was searching for accommodation on the Birkbeck website and was directed to the International Students House website, where I learnt about this partnership and the criteria for application and selection.

Being a Birkbeck/ISH Scholar has truly facilitated my learning and growth in a much broader and holistic way. I do not have to worry about of the financial implications of living in London and at ISH I have met fellow scholars and residents from all over the world that I have been able to forge meaningful relationships with, both academically and culturally. As a student of social sciences and humanities, I feel learning about other students’ cultural experiences has enabled me to open my mind to new possibilities and approaches in my own research.

There are so many great things about staying at ISH. Firstly, it is located in the vicinity of Bloomsbury area so it is only a short walk from the Birkbeck campus, and the beautiful Regents Park is only a three-minute walk away. But ISH is more than just a student accommodation, it is an international community of people and it actively facilitates interaction and cooperation among its residents through regular events and activities. Throughout the school year, I regularly attended ISH events, where I had the opportunity to interact with fellow residents and enjoy delicious food! I organised film screenings and discussions which provided a common space for students from different academic backgrounds to come together, share their opinions and hear from others. At the annual garden party, I got an opportunity to meet Her Royal Highness Princess Anne and exchange a few words about my stay at ISH and my studies at Birkbeck. I was also involved in filming a video about ISH which was screened at the event and later shared on the ISH website.

Getting used to an entirely different system of teaching and learning was a bit stressful in the beginning. I was a little apprehensive about the readings and the lectures in general.  My course tutors helped familiarize me with the process and reassured me through my frequent in-person meetings with them. Birkbeck organises regular study-skills workshops; ranging from academic writing skills to coping with student life in London. Attending these proved extremely helpful in terms of coping with my workload and gave me the confidence to conduct my own research. The library induction familiarized me with the relevant sections of the library and put me in touch with my subject librarian for guidance and support.

Coming to London as an international student was my first time abroad. Before travelling to London, I was anxious about many things as most international students are. Immediately after arriving here I met so many different people. It was a little overwhelming at first, but given the homely vibe of ISH, I was able to overcome my anxiety and start interacting with everyone quite quickly. London is a big and busy city, similar to home. Even so, dealing with the culture shock was difficult because it was a sudden change, from the food to the overall life here.

Having spent a year in London, I’d advise prospective international students to spend more time with their family before leaving their home country, and look forward to meeting and making a new family before you go!

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The deep historically rooted misperceptions revealed by Brexit

Dr Jessica Reinisch, Reader in Modern European History, discusses the ahistorical narrative around the UK and its European neighbours that is shaping Brexit. 

History has been part of the Brexit madness from the start. It’s hardly news that thinking about things that happened in the past is often directly shaped by perceived priorities in the present, but something rather more one-sided has been going on with history under Brexit. From the small group of Eurosceptic historians around David Abulafia and their problematic claims about Britain’s past, to the Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski’s wilful ignorance of the role of Marshall Aid in post-war Britain: history has never been far away from the Brexit politics of today.

Since the UK referendum campaigns, politicians have tried to bolster their support of ‘Leave’ with claims about history and arguments about the present in the light of the past. Some academic historians and a range of history buffs have been eager to oblige these efforts. For them, what Abulafia called “a historical perspective” involves rifling through the past for evidence that the Brexit project is valid, desirable, perhaps even inevitable. As their once marginalised opinions have become mainstream and their confidence has grown, Brexit-supporting historians have set the pace of historical debate, if we can call it that – or rather the proclamation of more or less uncontextualized (or simply false) statements about the past, followed by an often bewildered chorus of disquiet from historians at large.

The claims put forward by the ‘Historians for Britain’ were quickly rebuffed by historians across the UK, who presented plenty of evidence that undermined the supposed exceptionality and benevolence of the British path and its immutable separation from the rest of Europe. “Britain’s past”, they pointed out, was “neither so exalted nor so unique.” In a more recent piece in the New Statesman, Richard Evans, never one to run from a good fight, lists a catalogue of examples where today’s Brexiteers have manipulated and distorted the past to fit their political agenda. But these efforts notwithstanding, the politics of Brexit has spawned what Simon Jenkins has fittingly called “yah-boo history: binary storytelling charged with fake emotion, sucked dry of fact or balance.” Jenkins’ comment made reference to Labour’s John McDonnell, though as Richard Evans shows, the Tory Brexiteers’ list of abuses of history is rather more substantial and significant.

The problem isn’t so much that apparently everyone feels entitled to serendipitously dip into the past for findings to support whatever they believe in; it is rather that much of this history is so very un- and anti-historical. History has become a caricature of parochial dreams, nostalgias and made-up analogies to prop up binary political choices. At stake is the nature, direction and meaning of British history and Britain’s place in the world. But just as important is the question of whether history can really be scaled down to an apparently singular ‘British’ vs ‘European’ position.

It is high time for historians to restore complexity and take seriously the variety of geographical and historical vantage points which can bring to light very different timelines and priorities. The contributions to a roundtable debate, published by Contemporary European History, have tried to do just that. It asked 19 historians of Europe working within very different national and historiographical traditions to reflect on the historical significance and contexts that gave rise to Brexit and within which it should be understood. The result is a palette of pertinent historical contexts in which Brexit has made an appearance and can be analysed. As a result, some of the certainties appearing in the Brexiteers’ version of history suddenly seem much less certain.

The upshot of this roundtable cannot be easily reduced to a political headline, and that is precisely the point. Serious history rarely works that way. As the contributors show, the prospect of Brexit has revealed deep historically-rooted misperceptions between the UK and its European neighbours; Brexit in this sense is a process of stripping away dusty historical delusions about national paths and those of neighbouring countries. The essays demonstrate that Brexit has to be understood in the context of a long history of British claims about the uniqueness of the UK’s past. Europeans at times recognised British history as a model to be emulated. But they periodically also challenged the applicability of the British yardstick to their own national exceptionalisms, or pointed to an equally long history of connections between the UK, the British Empire and the European continent. The present debates about British history and its place in Europe and the world alter readings of the past, in some cases significantly. History is, once more, being rewritten in the light of Brexit.

This article first appeared on the Cambridge Core blog

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A new kind of research guide

As part of LGBT History Month, Birkbeck alumna Norena Shopland writes about why it was important to develop an LGBT glossary as part of Queering Glamorgan, a research guide to sources for the study of Welsh LGBT History.

Over the last fifteen years or so I have been researching lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, allies and events, in relation to Wales. In that time I have curated a number of exhibitions, given numerous talks/workshops and written the first book, Forbidden Lives, on Welsh LGBT history and in all my work I have tried to add new material into the public domain whenever I can. But how does one find people who have lived forbidden or hidden lives? Particularly when the written record is often so sparse, and because most of the terminology we use today is modern, much of which was not used earlier than the mid-twentieth century.

A number of heritage organisations have tried to tackle this by providing research guides to aid those looking for hidden people, but most provide only summaries of resources available with limited glossaries. In addition, due to the legal status of male homosexuality, existing guides and glossaries have concentrated on the male experience, with minimal attention paid to women or gender diversity.

Using these guides was, I found, a very frustrating experience and in the end I realised that I needed to compile my own glossary – an exercise that proved surprisingly fruitful, and I was able to recover over 3,000 pieces of information – 80% of which has not been published outside original sources.

The glossary was then married with work being carried out by Dr Daryl Leeworthy, who had extensively examined the archival record in Wales for LGBT content – and Queering Glamorgan was published as a free download by Glamorgan Archives, funded by the Welsh Government. Glamorgan Archives is noted for its excellent work on the history of sexual orientation and gender diversity, and most of the examples used in the guide come from their archival content.

For this blog, I just want to reference the glossary part of the guide.

Some of the frustrations I experienced when using existing guides was the lack of timelines, which could result in time wasted using terminology not in existence for the period being examined, and cautionary notes about some terminology. For example, whilst most guides list ‘gross indecency’ as a possible search term, few mention that this could also apply to heterosexual cases, and even bestiality. Therefore in our guide we added, where possible, both timelines and cautionary notes.

One of the challenges with using a standard glossary for research is its very nature as a list of words or phrases. But individuals, whether they are journalists, diarists, letter writers or those filling out forms which end up in archives, do not all use the same words or phrases. Their individualistic styles of writing may therefore be missed if using a set list. What the glossary in Queering Glamorgan does is provide a theme of collected words and phrases which can be married in numerous ways in a ‘pick-and-mix’ style. This allows for individualistic writing, but also provides a broader sweep if for any reason an OCR reader has failed to pick up other terminology.

One theme of the glossary is to look, not at what people are, but what they were doing. For example, cross-dressing and cross-living were used extensively as a means to live in same-sex relationships, or as a transgender person. To locate these people in the historic record the researcher can try ‘woman in male clothes’, ‘female in boy’s costume’, ‘girl in male attire’, etc.

It is hoped that the innovative selection method in Queering Glamorgan will aid researchers to find more hidden LGBT people in the archival record. Particularly as it can be used anywhere in the world for English and Welsh language material (and the basic principle allows it to be translated into any other language).

As for the future, Glamorgan Archives and I are exploring rolling out this methodology for other areas of research.  Others are also considering its uses for themselves – in the few months since publication it has been downloaded over six hundred times– and been described in reviews as ‘pioneering’ and ‘revolutionising research methodology’ – not bad for a research guide.

Try it for yourself: Queering Glamorgan can be downloaded here.

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