A guide to mentoring PhD students

What constitutes a good PhD mentor and mentee? In this blog, Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele from the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication shares his thoughts on how to navigate PhD supervision for both students and supervisors.

Two women chatting

Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels

I was recently invited to contribute a chapter on the supervision of doctoral students and one the delicate management of the supervisor–supervisee relationship from the first contact to the post-graduation goodbye (Dewaele, 2020).  Having led 26 Birkbeck students to their PhD as first supervisor allowed me to reflect on the uniqueness of each relationship and on the commonalities.  I realise that my perceptions might help current PhD students in handling their relationship with their supervisor(s) and their fellow students.

The most crucial aspect is the establishment of a relationship of trust and mutual respect, where constructive criticism is appreciated, where the scientific creativity and independence of the student is encouraged and where the student’s expectations are handled appropriately.

As in any relationship, there may be moments of strain and crisis and it is the supervisor’s responsibility to deal with this in a professional manner. Good supervisors are close to their students but not too close and the distance can change over time. In their book about the supervision of MA students, Harwood and Petrić (2017) explain that “different supervisees need supervisors to occupy different roles at different times” (p. 9).

I realise that as a PhD supervisor I am typically more directive at the beginning of the research project and allow more freedom and flexibility later on.  It is not unlike relationships parents have with their children, allowing them gradually more independence until they reach adulthood.

Metaphors are particularly useful in grasping abstract concepts. In the satire, Candide, ou l’Optimisme (1759), Voltaire famously wrote in the conclusion “il faut cultiver son jardin”, meaning “that we must take care of our garden”, away from the hustle and bustle. It is good to visualise a PhD research project as a private garden, to which the student can retreat to tend it, to plant flowers, to prune the trees lovingly, and to wonder where to install that water feature or statue. Spending some time in the garden is good for the garden and for the gardener’s soul, though digging can cause blisters to appear.  Conversations with fellow students allows a useful comparison of gardens. It helps understand that bigger is not necessarily better and that gardens can come in all colors, shapes and sizes.

I have had some interesting exchanges with students about the PhD being a transformative experience because it forces one to do a lot of thinking.  And because it is so long and so intense it can -and should- trigger cognitive and emotional restructuring. Students come out of this as more resilient, independent and confident (and sometimes also humbler) people.

It is also crucial to understand that comparisons with other (former or current) students can only be superficial and that having more or less of this can only refer to a very small part of a much bigger hidden picture.  My colleagues and myself love all our PhD students who work hard.  They are all bright and the fact that one can jump higher, or run faster, or cook better should be of no concern to the others.  Being unique individuals means they all have unique strengths and weaknesses.  They all face unique challenges that may sometimes stop them from reaching their full potential (like long-standing family or work issues, or a momentary problem like a numbing migraine at the viva).  And that is OK too, because each student gives it their all – professional, family and health situation permitting.

This reminds me of karate where it is also crucial not to compare oneself too much with fellow karate-ka.  Some are great at kumite (fighting), others are great at kata (choreographed patterns of 20 to 70 moves, with stepping and turning, that have to be executed while attempting to maintain perfect form), others might not excel at either but have great resilience, attitude and humility.  The standard for the black belt varies slightly according to age and health.  Being 18 or 70 makes a difference, and yet both are able to get the black belt if they can show that they have mastered the techniques and the spirit of karate, and that they are as fit as they can be and can take a solid kick in the stomach.

It is the same for getting a PhD. Supervisors make sure that students reach the threshold but how far they go above it is not really crucial. If they can, of course, they should.  That’s also why I’m so happy that no grade is awarded for a British PhD.  It either Pass or not Pass, like a driving test. If former students later end up winning prizes for their work, everybody will be proud of them, but if they don’t, they won’t be loved any less!

References

Dewaele, J.-M. (2020). Supervising doctoral students and managing the supervisor-supervisee relationship. In L. Plonsky (Ed.), Professional development in applied linguistics: A guide to success for graduate students and early-career faculty. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 153-163.  https://doi.org/10.1075/z.229.11dew

Harwood, N., & Petrić, B. (2017). Experiencing Master’s supervision. Perspectives of international students and their supervisors. London: Routledge.

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Many Days Late and Many Dollars Short: COVID-19 Institutionalised Racism and the Black British Experience

Dr William Ackah, Lecturer in Community and Voluntary Sector studies, reflects on how COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Black, Asian and other global majority heritages.

I watched my first virtual funeral this week. I and around 80 others joined the 15 or so people who were physically present in Bristol UK to say goodbye to an amazing woman. I first met this woman nearly 20 years ago, when I moved to the city. She was then recovering from a brain tumour operation. My wife and I would give her a ride to our local church and on the way she would tell us stories about her nursing career in Britain and the obstacles she had to overcome as woman of Jamaican heritage to gain recognition in her profession. She would talk with pride about her children making lives for themselves in the UK and in the United States and of her dream that when she was able to drive again, she would buy herself a Jaguar. I never quite believed that she would get the car, but lo and behold eventually she did. She was the quite the character, one of a number of wonderful people in that congregation in St Pauls in the heart of the city.

I fondly remember tasty lunches with people of Indian heritage, playing games with families from Singapore, becoming a godfather to a daughter of Malawian descent, being pastored by a man of white south African descent and praying and fasting with Nigerian descendants, Guyanese, Ghanaians, Jamaicans, Brazilians, Romanians, Croatians, Australians and white and black British. In that small church we weaved an international tapestry that criss-crossed continents, cultures and identities. Doctors mingled with taxi drivers, who talked to cleaners, dentists, lawyers, barbers and cooks. It was a living, breathing community with a network that was global in its reach and connections. The death of one the precious members of that community at this time is a very hard pill to swallow.

The bitterness of death is made even harder by the fact that the precious life of this woman will barely register outside of her immediate community. She alongside so many others will invariably be reduced to a BAME statistic. Night after night via the media and the data machine of the day, complex individuals with amazing stories and profound life experiences are reduced to racialised entities. In this reduction they are robbed of their humanity and their dignity. In life they faced discrimination in death they face denigration by statistics.

The primary data sets that reference the Black British experience primarily tell their/our story in proportion or disproportion to the ‘white’ population. The value of Black lives therefore according to the data only exists in relation to ‘whiteness’.  This invariably leads to them/us becoming a freak side show. Them/us are people that require further research and investigation, as opposed to being human beings that first and foremost need support and protection!

The statistics reveal that people from Black, Asian, and other global majority heritages are dying in some cases at four times, the rate that ‘white’ people are. A question that should be asked is why is this public health disaster only warranting calls for a public enquiry and a Public Health England investigation? We might not know why they/us are more prone to the virus, but we do know without question that they/us are particularly vulnerable so why are they/us not being shielded as a matter of priority? Why are they/us not being placed on automatic furlough?  Why are the circumstances around Black deaths not considered a national health emergency that demands immediate action?

Why oh why yet again after Windrush, Grenfell and so many other countless failings by the authorities of this nation are Black citizens once again left to suffer and die? Time after time like clockwork all we hear are words of regret and the promise of an investigation. Is that really all we are worth? Is this nation pathologically predisposed to continually s…t on its non-white citizens?

When a migrant descendant doctor, nurse, care worker, bus driver, supermarket assistant dies the impact often goes far beyond that of their immediate family. ‘Successful’ migrants and their descendants are often at the apex of complex and unfolding pyramids of influence. Their finances, knowledge and influence support communities and individuals both locally and globally. Where the state is absent here and abroad these women and men are often a vital cog in sustaining families and communities. COVID-19 is fracturing these community structures and the state through its lack of action to protect its ‘global majority’ citizens is adding salt to the wounds.

The country faces challenging times ahead. How we treat minorities and the vulnerable in a time of crisis is a true test of how ‘Great’ a nation we are. Britain’s Black, Asian and other descendant communities with origins from all over the globe have demonstrated once again their courage, loyalty, and integrity to support the nation in its time of need. What will the nation do in return? We need a systematic and comprehensive plan backed by substantial resources to eradicate racialised discrimination from our society. It is ultimately the only way to end the curse of the BAME label and stats with all their marginalising characteristics and connotations. There are many lessons that the nation needs to learn from this life-changing event, but one must be that it is time to end the madness of racialised inequality in this country once and for all.

 

 

 

 

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How my MA work placement helped me kick start my career in the Arts

Birkbeck alumna, Florencia Nannetti de Bella who studied MA History of Art at Birkbeck details how she started her career in the arts, from work placements to freelancing, to now starting a full-time role while working remotely.

Florencia Nannetti de Bella

Florencia Nannetti de Bella

On Monday 20 April, I started a new job as Community and Visitor Engagement Officer at the Museum of Cambridge. This has been, as you can imagine, a very unusual experience, given the circumstances. However, I could not be more thrilled about undertaking this post for many reasons, and I want to tell you about it.

First of all, let me tell you a bit more about how I got here. In 2017, I enrolled on a full-time History of Art MA course at Birkbeck. I had undertaken several courses in Arts Education and Visual Arts before, but this course at Birkbeck compelled me for a particular reason: it offered the opportunity to do a work placement at a cultural institution for 3 months.

At least in my case, I discovered quite quickly that breaking into the arts and culture sector could be difficult without enough experience. And although I had worked extensively as a freelance art facilitator in galleries and schools, it felt like I needed something more solid. So I figured that doing a work placement as part of my studies was a good place to start.

While enrolled on the Work Placement module, I had sessions with the tutor Sarah Thomas and the rest of the students to reflect on my practice. This is not something you usually get to do when you are working or doing a placement outside university, and it added so much to the experience. To have been able to discuss what you’re doing, the challenges you’re facing and the things you learn, added a whole new level of knowledge. In this case, it helped me become a reflective professional, and therefore improve my performance.

I had it very clear in my mind what I wanted to do for my placement: I wanted to be part of an Education Team. There were many more placements related to curation, but I was lucky to find one with the Creative Learning Team at Alexandra Palace.

Anna Gordon, from the Careers Advice Team, was brilliant at helping me with my application and interview. If you haven’t heard of the team, I would recommend you look them up and get in touch with them. In preparation for the work placement, Anna not only provided some great sessions on how to prepare your CV and cover letter, but she also provided 1 to 1 sessions. She carefully went through the application pack with me, and helped me tweak my CV accordingly. She gave me homework on this, for us to review together, and then helped me prepare for my interview.

One of the things that have impacted me the most from these sessions has been how she taught me how to approach an application. And most importantly, she helped me understand the skills that I have that I can offer to employers. This was so empowering and gave me more confidence to apply for the jobs that I really wanted.

I would certainly take this particular time to get in touch with the Birkbeck Careers Advice Team and work on your CV and cover letter. What better time to tackle it? Many new remote posts are appearing, so you might also want to consider that as an option.

It was a tricky time, when I was working, studying, and doing the placement at the same time. It was not easy, but was absolutely do-able. You will have to be extremely organised, planning ahead was key to navigating that period successfully.

The placement lasted three months, and it was great. My manager at Alexandra Palace, Isobel Aptaker, would take me to all her meetings, let me see how she went about doing certain tasks, answer my questions, and discuss challenges of the role, and of working at this venue in particular and others she had worked at. It was very useful, because I could get a real sense of how things are done, and the dynamics of the job. It also gave me a chance to really put to the test whether this was something I wanted as a career or not. A work placement can be a great way to discover if something you thought you liked, is actually what you want. Don’t regret it if you discover it is not.

Increasingly, I would have more and more tasks with a good degree of responsibility within the Ally Pally Learning team, which was good to test my skills and learn new ones. You don’t need to know it all when you undertake a placement, and it is good if your manager can give you challenging tasks that will help you grow, and build your knowledge. This is something you should discuss with the manager and your tutor. After all, you need to make it work for you.

After I graduated, I continued doing freelance work, and kept an eye open for other opportunities. My freelance experience has also been invaluable to expand my skills set and grow my professional network after the placement.

Last July, I got a very nice position as the Education and Training coordinator for a team of energy advisers, at an environmental charity. The experience from my work placement, which I spoke about during my interview, was key to getting this role. On this topic, I would recommend you keep a log of every new job or placement: it will help you keep track of everything you learn and do, so then it’s easier for you to give examples of your skills.

Starting a job in lockdown: why it has been good in many ways

In March this year, I came across this lovely post from the Museum of Cambridge, and just before the quarantine started, I managed to attend my interview. Consequently I was offered the role, which I accepted. The week right after, the country went into lockdown. However, Cambridge City Council, who is funding my position and the projects I will deliver, and the museum, were very keen for me to undertake the post remotely.

Albeit unusual, this has had a lot of positive benefits. Firstly, I could tackle my induction in a record time! I went through a lot of online training modules and documents that usually take a bit longer to go through, as you normally have to do other things around it if you are on site. In addition, since all of our cultural and engagement offer has to be re-arranged to fit the current circumstances, I have had to spend a good deal of time figuring the alternatives out. This is certainly testing and improving my planning skills and my creativity. I have to find alternatives, adapt activities, think of new ways to continue to build community through collections with all these new challenges we are facing. On the down side, I cannot familiarise myself with the collection and the building. However, this is bringing me closer to the wonderful team of volunteers and the Collections team, whom I rely upon to understand the museum’s dynamics.

Something that has always interested me is work within the arts and culture sector, and social issues, which in my opinion, have to involve engaging with local communities. One of the things that worried me the most about a lockdown, was that the voices of those communities, especially minorities, might go unheard again, and that we might lose the sense of connectedness between us. In this new job, I have the chance to try and stop that from happening.

It didn’t happen from one day to the other, but with patience, dedication, and the help of the very talented professionals I have mentioned, I was able to find the job I really wanted.

FURTHER INFORMATION
Birkbeck School of Arts
Birkbeck Futures

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The Effects of COVID-19 on Carbon Emissions and how longer-term remote working may impact it further

Dr Becky Briant, Department of Geography and ​Marianna Muszynska, Sustainability Officer, Bloomsbury Colleges Greenthing, consider the impact of the current pandemic on the environment

A picture of a steam locomotive train

A steam locomotive train

There’s a certain schadenfreude in the community of environmental campaigners about the impacts of the current coronavirus crisis on travel and therefore on carbon emissions, but is this crisis really good for reducing our impact on the environment long term?

A reduction in carbon emissions in response to a reduction in economic activity is not a new phenomenon. As Dr Becky Briant teaches Birkbeck Geography MSc students on our Climate Change module each year, one of the only reasons that global emissions only grew 11% between the early 1992 commitments to reduce emissions and the year 2000 was the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic is having similar effects, with an estimated 90,000 barrels of oil per day reduction on 2019 levels at the start of March. Oil production is particularly hard hit by this crisis because it is mostly used for transport. This has other knock on positive environmental effects such as a reduction in air pollution in urban areas.

Whether or not these initial effects will have a long-term benefit for the environment, however, is entirely dependent on what decisions are made in relation to energy usage and infrastructure once society returns to ‘normal’ after social distancing restrictions are lifted. The only way to reduce global carbon emissions in the long term is to decouple economic growth from carbon emissions. There is some evidence that this has been happening in many service-based economies over the past few decades, even if you account for the carbon in the goods that these economies buy from other countries (consumption-based emissions).

Closer to home, here in the UK, Government data shows that UK production-based emissions were about 45 per cent lower in 2019 than in 1990. This is a 3.6 per cent drop on 2018 levels and the same value as during 1888. Even consumption-based emissions have dropped somewhat. There is therefore some evidence that the UK are starting to decouple emissions from economic growth, with emissions reductions of 29% and economic growth of 18% between 2010 and 2019.

This is really good news for our environment, and of course the emissions reductions due to coronavirus are a welcome addition to this, but they are a short-term disruption to a long-term trend. Climate change is a long-term environmental issue and so only long-term changes will make a difference to reducing it.

Reverting to ‘business as usual’ after this crisis will give only another 10% fall by 2030, whilst meeting the UK’s carbon budgets require a fall of 31% by 2030. There is also the danger of a ‘bounce-back’ effect where Government is so keen to stimulate economic growth they reduce environmental ambitions. As a country, we are currently doing well at decarbonising our electricity supply (moving from coal to renewables), with gradual decrease also in the use of gas for space heating although mostly due to increased efficiency rather than switching to electric. Transport, however, is proving less tractable. Oil emissions have only dropped by 6% since 2010 and transport as a sector is now the largest contributor to UK emissions, even without international aviation and shipping, which are not accounted for by country.

Whilst at Birkbeck we are committed to long-term solutions to educate staff and students and reduce emissions and other environmental impacts, we too have seen examples of short-term changes that will not suffice in the long run to decrease carbon emissions. For example, two months of lockdown would reduce Birkbeck’s energy use by 17%, saving almost 400 tonnes of carbon emissions. Indirect emissions from staff travel are also reduced. However, with good planning and resolve carbon savings can still be achieved when restrictions are relaxed.

It is here that the COVID-19 crisis has the potential to leave a lasting legacy – reinventing the concept of the workplace. Having been restricted to remote meeting and discovered that the technology is frequently good enough to make these effective as well as saving time and money, organisations may decide to move to more remote meeting in the longer term. Working remotely for 5 weeks in a row, already, is daunting for some, but not all. Due to the long travel distances of many staff and cost of commuting into London, remote working is already common amongst academic staff. Forced lockdown for all staff has planted a seed of possibility of remote work more often than we previously anticipated is possible or productive.

We hope that once stay at home restrictions are relaxed, Birkbeck’s recovery plan will include encouraging more staff to work remotely a few times a week. This will have the benefit of reducing onsite energy use as well as emissions associated with commuting and business travel.

Whilst we can make these shifts at a local scale, for global changes to be effective, changes are also needed at national level. The key is in what Government policies are in place globally to ensure that economic recovery post coronavirus encourages environmentally positive activities. This is the moment to make this case, as can be seen in a the output of a wide range of organisations from the International Energy Authority to Extinction Rebellion. If we don’t, we risk bouncing back to higher emissions in the search to recover from the economic hit taken during this crisis.

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Maths for the Masses

In this blog, Ciarán O’Donohue a PhD student in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, discusses the decision to teach mathematics to the first students of the Mechanics Institute. This is part of the 200th anniversary blog series that celebrates the College’s bicentenary in 2023.   

The Massacre of Peterloo

The Massacre of Peterloo. The commander is saying “Down with ’em! Chop ’em down my brave boys; give them no quarter! They want to take our Beef & Pudding from us – & remember the more you kill the less poor rates you’ll have to pay so go on Lads show your courage & your Loyalty!”

Many of us will be familiar with the common questioning of why certain concepts are taught in our schools. Mathematics, and especially its most intricate systems, are often first to face the firing squad. It is not unusual to hear someone discussing education to ask: “Why are we not taught about credit, loans, and tax? I’m never going to use Pythagoras’s Theorem!” Certainly, when the subject of mathematics is brought up, the utility of algebra and theorems are often jovially dismissed as unimportant.

Two centuries ago, the picture was very different. The question of whether mathematics would be useful or dangerous knowledge to teach to the working class was one that was debated extremely seriously. In November 1823, the same month that the London Mechanics’ Institution was founded (which has now come to be named Birkbeck, University of London), Bell’s Weekly Messenger seized upon the propriety of teaching maths to London’s lower orders, lamenting that “the unhappy scepticism in France has been justly ascribed to this cause.” The implication was that teaching maths to the wider populace had caused them to question the order of society, and directly contributed to the French Revolution and its aftermath. Pertinently, this was an order which the British government had spent a fortune, not to mention the lives of hundreds of thousands of British subjects in the Napoleonic Wars to restore.

A revolution in Britain itself was still palpably feared in the 1820s, and its spectre was made more haunting by the Peterloo massacre just four years before this particular article was written, in August 1819. And so, surrounding the foundation of our College, and which subjects were appropriate, a war of words was waged.

The idea of teaching London’s working classes mathematics filled many with visceral dread. It was believed this would cause them to also become questioning like France’s peasants, eventually seeking proof for statements which they had hitherto blindly accepted.

The teaching of mathematics to mechanics, then, was considered by many to be socially, politically, and morally dangerous. Not only might it turn them into a questioning multitude, unwilling to simply accept what they’re told, it might also make them question the very structure of society and push for a semblance of equality. For critics, both outcomes could readily lead to revolution.

Henry Brougham, one of the founders of the College, believed that this catastrophe could be averted by teaching a reified body of knowledge, including a simplified version of mathematics. Writing of geometry, Brougham argued that, rather than “go through the whole steps of that beautiful system, by which the most general and remote truths are connected with the few simple definitions and axioms” it would be sufficient (and indeed safer) if the masses were to learn only the practical operations and general utility of geometry.

Similarly, many religious supporters of extending mathematical education to the mechanics believed that it would make people more religious, not less, if only it were taught in the right way. As God was believed to have created the world, the logic and order inherent in mathematic systems was held to show traces of his hand at work. An appreciation of mathematics and its traceable, systematic connections would thus create a renewed appreciation of God; not to mention for the order of the world as divinely ordained.

Likewise, moralists perceived more benefits in teaching the mechanics mathematics than drawbacks. The issue for them was not if the mechanics were to learn or read, but rather what. The key issue was that the mechanics were already largely literate. The rise of cheap literature, especially of the sentimental and pornographic varieties, preoccupied the minds of moralists and industrialists.

As the lower orders were believed to be motivated primarily by sensuality, learning mathematics was presented as a salve to degeneracy; a way to occupy their time with higher minded pursuits and strengthen their characters against wanton immorality.

Perhaps most worrying was the growing and uncontrollable availability of radical political writings. This more than anything was likely to upset the current order of society. The perceived and highly theoretical disadvantages of a mathematical education were thus infinitely preferable to such a realistic and allegedly growing threat. It was believed that the teaching of mathematics and science through a dedicated course of study, being undertaken as in the evenings, might reduce the time and energy the working man would have to devote to reading political tracts, let alone political activism.

It is, however, worth noting that, although many mechanics were literate, and most had rudimentary mathematical skills, the wider debate was far removed from the reality. Many mechanics required far more elementary lessons in mathematics before the advanced classes could even be attempted.  Although mathematics and science initially formed the centre of the curriculum at Birkbeck in the 1820s, by 1830 the reality of need had been discovered: advanced classes had been removed altogether, and instruction in elementary arithmetic was given to vast numbers of members. This was to continue to be the reality for much of the next 30 years.

How far, then, the raging debates about the inclusion of mathematics in the curricula of new centres for working-class education impacted the trajectory, is still a topic for debate.

Further information: 

 

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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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