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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Should memorialisation do more than keep memory alive?

As we approach a time when witnesses of the Holocaust will no longer be amongst us to give a first-hand account of their past, Dr Diana Popescu, Research Fellow at Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism argues that memorial events must do more than keep their memories alive – it must involve a more direct confrontation with urgent problems we face today.

As organisers of memorial events in Great Britain prepare to mark this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, we are reminded of the vital role that survivors have played in shaping public awareness of the Holocaust.  Public memory of the Holocaust rests on their remarkable efforts to share painful stories of survival and of loss. Survivors have passed to us the responsibilities for preventing such atrocities from happening again, and of ensuring that the Holocaust is not forgotten. How well have we risen to these challenges?

“Never again” had a profound meaning for survivors who uttered the phrase soon after their liberation from concentration camps. In Buchenwald and other camps, survivors held signs on which they had written “never again”, and pledged to build a “new, democratic, and peaceful world”. Later generations have been encouraged to take on this pledge. Holocaust survivor Bob Behr’s hope is that younger generations “feel an obligation to humankind to do whatever you can to help people, to liberate people, to do something good for people”. Behr’s message is echoed in the mission statement of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum whose aim is “to encourage its visitors to reflect upon […] their own responsibilities as citizens of a democracy”. But how does this message resonate with the public today? My own research into young people’s reactions to memorial initiatives reveals powerful emotions and a commitment to social activism. However, the commitment to “Never again” reiterated by younger generations loses potency when it is not mirrored in the present; genocidal events keep occurring, most recently in Myanmar and in Syria.  In response to the rise of racism and of antisemitism in Europe, art critic Jonathan Jones wonders “why Holocaust memorials have done so little to prevent the return of Europe’s far-right demons?”  If the function of memorialisation is to ensure “Never again”, then it seems that memorialisation does not deliver on its promise. Perhaps it is time that memorialisation demands other responses. A far more honest response and a sobering one might be “Again and again”. Indeed, this phrase appears in visitors’ reactions specifically to artworks dealing with the Holocaust and is often followed by challenging discussions on human shortcomings such as cowardice, conformity, indifference, or passivity.

In The Drowned and the Saved, renowned writer and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi observes that: “Human memory is a marvellous but fallacious instrument”. He continues: “The memories which lie within us are not carved in stone; not only do they tend to become erased as the years go by, but often they change, or even grow, by incorporating extraneous features.”  For Levi, admitting to the volatile nature of memory did not mean that memory should be discarded.  Instead, Levi invites us to scrutinize how the past is re-elaborated in the present. He warns that “the further events fade into the past, the more the construction of convenient truth grows and is perfected”.  The challenge set out by Levi is about deepening our understanding of what remembrance means in the present. If remembering is a process by which the past is reconstructed in relation to the present, then the failures of the present must be more fully and more compellingly integrated in memorial events. That memory is an imperfect tool for representing the past is something which public remembrance needs to acknowledge and deal with. This demands a different kind of education; one which enables young people to relate to remembrance as a phenomenon of the present, rather than the historical past.

We are at a critical juncture, approaching a time when witnesses of the Holocaust will no longer be amongst us to give a first-hand account of their past. Taking forward the messages inherited from survivors, memorial events should do more than re-tell their stories, and more than keep their memories alive. They must involve a more direct confrontation with urgent problems we face today. In Europe and elsewhere, intolerance towards difference is notable, hostility towards foreigners is growing. Knowledge-based on real evidence is giving way to simple belief based on untruths and half-truths, and fake news shapes crucial decisions about the future. Holocaust denials surface in public debates at an alarming rate. Holocaust distortions pass on as factual truth as the gap in historical knowledge grows wider.

Memorial initiatives can and should engage more daringly with such issues. At their best, memorialisation projects lead to self-reflective and critical acts of introspection. They do not shy away from being provocative, or from inviting one to take part in difficult conversations.  They can mirror back at us the failings of the present, together with our own limitations, prejudice, bias, and ignorance. Ultimately, memorial events should remind us of what remains important but is difficult to achieve: tolerance, fairness, justice.  Compelling artworks engaging with the Holocaust and indeed with the memory of other genocides are already doing this. It is time for public memorialisation to catch up.

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What is a vote of no confidence?

Dr Ben Worthy from Birkbeck’s Department of Politics explains why confidence is such an important part of being Prime Minister and what might happen when it’s no longer there.

Being prime minister is all about confidence. In fact, the British constitution is held together by confidence. Being, and staying, prime minister means you have to ‘command the confidence of the House of Commons’. You don’t have to have a majority (though that’s always nice) but you do need to able to get your votes through. The Cabinet Manual, which sets out the rules as to how government runs, states that:

The Prime Minister is the head of the Government and holds that position by virtue of his or her ability to command the confidence of the House of Commons, which in turn commands the confidence of the electorate, as expressed through a general election.

So to be thrown out without an election, you need to somehow lose that confidence.

The main way this can be done is if the opposition passes and wins a vote of no confidence. If a prime minister loses such a vote then, technically, they’ve lost the magic ‘confidence’ and something has to happen, whether their resignation or an election. So far, so simple. So, to illustrate, Jeremy Corbyn has said if May loses her vote on her crucial bill next week, Labour will immediately call for a vote of no confidence in the government.

The government can also do the opposite and call for a motion of confidence in itself. This makes a vote crucial, and was a way of making sure it’s MPs supported them. This is a good discipline device and has been used by ‘prime ministers down the ages to keep their backbenchers in line and say that “this vote really matters”’. John Major famously did it over Maastricht, as a way of saying to his party: ’support me or we lose power’. Neither of these, by the way, should be confused with a party vote against its leader, of the type that fizzled out against May recently.

So far, so simple (ish). So why aren’t both sides throwing around confidence or no confidence motions every few months when things get sticky? One reason is that they are seen as a weapon of last resort. Another is that to win a vote you need the numbers, obeying Lyndon Johnson’s first rule of politics to ‘learn how to count’. Politically, you shouldn’t call one unless you are pretty sure you can win. So Labour can call for a vote of no confidence but whether they have the numbers to pass one is another matter.

Most importantly, do they work? Well, sometimes. The last successful no confidence vote was in 1979, which led to the end of James Callaghan’s government (the government lost by one vote, legend has it because one MP was in the pub and didn’t get back to the House of Commons in time). Before that you have to go back to 1924 when the first ever Labour Prime Minister, Birkbeck’s own Ramsay MacDonald, was forced out by one.

Then things get more complicated. The Fixed Term Parliament Act has limited how no confidence votes can be called. It also means that if a government loses a vote there is 14 days before another, after which an election is called if that’s lost too.

So, If May loses a Labour confidence, let’s say next Wednesday, what happens then? The next 14 days could be very messy and confusing. Probably she would resign as Prime Minister, though she could stay as a caretaker leader. Another possibility is that someone gets an early Christmas present, and steps in as a temporary Tory PM to cobble together enough support to carry on.  Where would Labour stand in all of this, and should Corbyn get a chance? Because the rules aren’t set, no one is quite sure. A week is a long time in politics. Two weeks could be even longer. Catherine Haddon, who you should follow on twitter, is best placed to explain all the scenarios.

So one outcome of the next few days could be a vote of confidence. Yet no one knows, with any confidence, what would happen next if it’s lost. And all the time, the clock is ticking on Brexit.

Further information:

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Why migration bans and restrictions on recruitment of workers to the Gulf States is a bad idea

Ghana’s government introduced a ban on the recruitment of workers to the Gulf region in 2017 in the hope of reducing exploitation and abuse of migrant employees. However, the ban does not address the underlying drivers of migration for young Ghanaians, and it is likely to continue with unintended consequences. Michael Boampong, PhD candidate in the Department of Geography says that instead, Ghana should ensure improved working conditions at home, coupled with greater legal protection for migrants abroad.

In 2017, the government of Ghana banned the recruitment of workers to the Gulf region. The ban was introduced due to widespread reports of abuse and exploitation of Ghanaian migrant workers in the region. The ban affects not only recruitment agencies, but also those who use their services, the majority of whom are young females. The Ghanaian media and unverified WhatsApp videos have often shown stories of young female migrant workers who have travelled to the Gulf States as domestic workers, working under inhumane conditions, often abused and unpaid for their work. Most recent is the horrific account of a young girl who returned from Kuwait to Ghana.

It must be acknowledged that the danger of being a migrant worker in the Gulf region is not peculiar to only Ghanaians. Media and rights-based organisations have documented the harsh conditions migrants experience in the region often due to the poor domestic labour laws of most of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. These countries have what is known as the “Kafala” visa system, whereby the employer pays the recruitment costs and consequently takes legal responsibility of the worker. This includes making decisions regarding working hours and conditions.  The worst aspect of the Kafala system, however, is that the migrant’s visa is then tied to that one employer – denying the flexibility of changing employment or risk invalidating the visa.

Nevertheless, in many developing countries like Ghana, the rise in youth unemployment rates, poverty and the important role of young people in household livelihoods – coupled with a sense of ‘making it through migration’ – remain major drivers for young people’s migration. There is no doubt that the young will be the most affected by this long-standing Ghanaian ban which has been in place since June 2017.

It is a timely effort for Ghana to take steps toward protecting ‘innocent citizens …from illegal employment agencies’. However, there are some reasons this prolonged ban is a bad idea, considering that the drivers of migration (e.g. unemployment) remain prevalent:

  1. An outright ban on recruitment criminalises the work of all recruitment and travel agencies. When this happens, young people are likely to find other options to facilitate their movement, including falling into the hands of human traffickers. Migration is likely to be riskier, and irregular migration could increase.
  2. Depending on their age and gender, individuals are likely to be expected to contribute to household income. This is often obtained through migration, hence migration becomes a livelihood strategy. Thus, a ban will affect the income of households who depend on migrant worker remittances. This is likely to be the case of potential and current migrant households, including those who have returned home but are unable to go back to the region to work due to the ban.
  3. Fundamentally, the ban also affects the freedom of young people to make decisions about their own lives, including the choice of work, travel, and how they obtain a livelihood. Migration is commonly perceived as a route out of poverty, and thus the ban removes the agency of young people.

So, what should be done?

The drivers of migration must be addressed. Given the poor job prospects in Ghana for both educated and uneducated individuals, many young people do not have another alternative but to leave the country. Therefore, the vital thing is to create economic and job opportunities for young people at home. This will offer them the choice of working in Ghana rather than taking the risk of moving to places where their human rights are likely to be abused. Further, it is essential to open up the space for registered labour market intermediaries or brokers, and private employment agencies to continue their work under strict government regulations.

There is also a need to strengthen information campaigns about the realities of migration to allow young migrants, including those in urban and remote areas, to make informed migration decisions. Added to this, there is the need to regulate and monitor the work of recruitment agencies to know what kind of information is offered to potential migrants.

Moreover, the Government must take steps to fine-tune the legal framework for migrant workers through bilateral arrangements. This includes exploring opportunities to establish new labour mobility agreements with countries that uphold human rights laws, including within Africa itself.

In essence, the ban on migrant workers recruitment in Ghana is unlikely to curb migration to the Gulf region. While a ban may appear to be a step in the right direction, it, in fact, it makes young migrants (particularly females) more vulnerable to clandestine travel agents, and increases migration through illegal channels, further exposing migrants to abuse and exploitation.

 

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‘As an international student, there was a lot of support from Birkbeck’ – an MSc student shares her experience

Nadia Raharinirina, whose passion for education led her to apply for Birkbeck’s MSc Education, Power and Social Changereflects on her reasons for choosing the College and the support she has received as an international student.

Before coming to Birkbeck, I ran the international exchange program at a local business school in Madagascar. My work gave me a global outlook by allowing me to build connections with overseas universities and meet students from all over the world, sparking in me a desire to learn more about education.

I chose Birkbeck because of its excellent academic and research reputation: the opportunity to study alongside other professionals at a research-intensive university was one that I couldn’t miss. Evening study was very convenient because it allowed me more time for other activities during the day, for which Birkbeck, with its easy access to restaurants, parks and historic locations, is perfect. The College and surroundings are a busy, cosmopolitan place with plenty of history to uncover too.

It takes a good deal of perseverance to apply for a Chevening scholarship, as the process takes a year. It’s exciting to prepare for such a life-changing opportunity, but it’s scary as well as you might not be successful. I’m so pleased that my efforts in applying paid off.

Being a Chevening scholar is one of the most prestigious opportunities I’ve ever had in my life. It has not only given me access to a renowned university in the UK, but allowed me to connect with future leaders from all over the world. Before Chevening, I didn’t know much about the UK, but my experience here has been priceless, not only because of the education I’ve received, but because of the people I’ve met who’ll be friends for life.

Birkbeck offers a range of accommodation for international students. I was attracted to the International Lutheran Student Centre for its vibrant, inclusive feel. For me, it was the perfect place because I could call it home. Students connect with each other through different events and activities, which is exactly what international students need: a local community.

I’ve had a really enjoyable year at Birkbeck. Evening classes allowed me to study alongside a part-time job and other activities during the day. The different workshops were extremely helpful for me as an international student to integrate into the College and reintegrate into the academic world. Birkbeck Talent allowed me to access a range of professional advice and opportunities, through which I found my part-time job. Their advice was so helpful in understanding and preparing for the professional world in the UK. I am especially grateful I can still benefit from their services even after my studies at Birkbeck. The library is a great space to study; it’s very calm with generous opening hours. As an international student, there was a lot of support from Birkbeck which allowed me to smoothly integrate into the academic world and the local culture.

During my studies in MSc Education, Power and Social Change, I learned about the dynamics of education in a globalized system, the different powers around it and its transformative potential. I was so inspired by how education can transform something, someone, and alongside my studies, I’ve been looking for ways to implement that. As education is my passion, strengthened by the inspiration of the support and opportunities Birkbeck and the UK gives to its students, I decided to create a platform, Madagrads.com, to encourage students in Madagascar to grow personally and professionally through the different opportunities around them. The goal is to help improve the lives of students in Madagascar and to create a better future for them. In the long term, my plan for the future would be a role as an advocate for education in one of the International Organisations such as the United Nations, to impact more lives, not only in my country, but also globally.

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‘The Department offered a lot of support’ – a former MA student shares her learning experience

Jahan Foster, a recent graduate from Birkbeck’s MSc Children, Youth and International Development, writes about how her studies opened her eyes to a range of research and literature, and instilled her with skills she’s putting to use in her new job. 

I completed my MSc in Children, Youth and International Development at Birkbeck in October 2017 and enjoyed every part of my experience. Birkbeck attracts students from a wide variety of backgrounds and ages, and this was something I found unique about my experience, as I was able to meet and become friends with a diverse group of people, all of whom had different professional backgrounds and career aims.

I decided to pursue this MSc having completed an undergraduate degree in Politics and French and then spending several years teaching, both in the UK and abroad. As part of my course my compulsory modules were in International Political Economy of Childhood, Social Studies of Childhood, and Researching Children and Childhood, and I took an option module in Education, Power and Resistances. My compulsory modules were fascinating and I enjoyed writing essays on subjects such as migration and their effects on children and young people. I was eventually inspired in the choice of my dissertation midway through one of my modules, during which we learned about transnational childhoods. This opened my eyes to a range of research and literature I would otherwise not have known about. I developed a dissertation proposal which focused on understanding the transnational and gendered identities of Latin American youth living in London. Having spent several years working in Spain and Latin America, I was interested in the growing size of this community in the UK. To collect data for this research I spoke with nine Latin American young people, aged between 16 and 19 years old, living in Lambeth and Southwark in south London, and learned about their recent migration to the UK, their experiences at school and their life now in London. Conducting these interviews highlighted the challenges of collecting primary data – I had to contact a number of schools and local organisations to try to recruit participants, and also spent time canvassing at festivals and events. However, speaking with these young people was one of the most enjoyable parts of the dissertation process and I learned a number of new skills that made me realise that I would like to develop a career in the research sector.

While I was writing my dissertation, I felt like the Department offered a lot of support – we had dissertation workshops instructing us on how to develop our literature review and methodology plus regular meetings with our supervisors. As part of my course I also took the module, Researching Children and Childhood, which helped me to understand the specific challenges and considerations to make when conducting research with children and young people.

During my MSc I completed research internships with various community organisations, which introduced to me the types of ways that research can be integrated into work at the local level. Since graduating I have been working with a health charity based in south London that gathers the views of people’s experiences of health services and represents them at national and local level. This involves holding surveys and conducting interviews with members of the public, and writing reports on their views. My academic experience has been incredibly useful in gaining work opportunities within the research sector, and the skills I have acquired, particularly in interviewing and writing literature reviews, have been highly sought after. I have been motivated to stay within academia, largely as a result of the great teaching and supervision I received from Karen Wells, and the range of topics and content that I was introduced to during my MSc. I have recently been accepted into a PhD at Birkbeck in their Department of Geography, with my research focusing on understanding the social reproduction strategies of Latin American families living in London.

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Birkbeck Library website redesign; or, my adventures in a digital transformation project

Elizabeth E. Charles, Assistant Director of Library Services, discusses the redesign of the library website. 

Today, we have launched a brand-new Birkbeck Library website, with completely revamped content, navigation and design.

The Library website has been redesigned on two previous occasions: we changed the landing page, but the content remained the same, which is like repainting your front door and landscaping the front garden, but doing nothing to the interior of the house! I hasten to add that this occurred because, every time the opportunity arose, we just didn’t have the time and it was too close to the start of another academic year.

This time, we asked Naomi Bain, the College’s user experience (UX) expert, to undertake some UX testing with Library website users. This told us some things that we already suspected or knew – there was too much text on the Library website, and it was difficult to find information – but, we also learned that the layout was confusing, alongside a number of other issues.

We knew that the main Birkbeck site had been redesigned and restructured and we liked some of the features, as did our users; so, I contacted Jane Van de Ban, Web Content Manager in External Relations, with a list of the things we would like changed on the Library website. As the Library site is the second most popular section of the entire Birkbeck website (after the online prospectus), Jane suggested that, rather than simply update our existing site, it would be worth integrating it into the new design. She asked us whether we would be prepared to undertake this as a collaborative effort. The Library web editors agreed that this would be a good opportunity to refresh our website, so we said yes!

The redesigned library website

Getting ready

Jane supplied us with a content audit and looked at traffic to the Library website in the past year. This showed us that a large proportion of the Library site was not being used, and it also told us which content was most popular with our web visitors. Jane presented us with a collaborative spreadsheet, listing all the content areas, and her advice on what to do in relation to each area. After the initial emotional reaction, we reviewed the comments and suggestions and either agreed with them or explained why we disagreed with her assessment.

The next step was to come up with a new structure for the Library website. We were invited to a Library web workshop and, using post-it notes and sharpies, we wrote down the most common queries that we get from our users (one query per post-it note). Then we stuck them on the wall, and grouped and sorted them. We then filled in the gaps and took pictures of the grouped post-it notes for future reference. This then became the basis of the Library redesign, alongside the initial, annotated content audit.

Jane then set up a project on Trello – a collaborative project tool – with a list of tasks, organised into columns like ‘To do’, ‘Doing’, ‘To review’ and ‘Done’.

The project

Given the importance of this project to our web visitors, Jane wanted to complete the improvements as quickly as possible and asked if a member of Library staff could be seconded to the project. I volunteered, as I felt I was best placed to answer queries. So, for one day a week, starting in early April, I was scheduled to work on the website.  As homework, I had to familiarise myself with Birkbeck’s Style Guide and tone of voice guidelines, as well as other support materials provided in the digital standards section of the website. I also attended a bespoke training session, run by the External Relations web content team, then prepared to set to work.

Using the Trello project board, I chose the content areas I wanted to work on (everyone works from the same board, which means that there is no duplication of work), and my job was – for each content area – to answer the queries that came out of the Library web meeting, find all of the pages on the live Library site that related to them, then review the content and rewrite it, to meet the digital standards and to reduce the amount of text.

My first task: getting membership under control

I decided to start with our membership information. My challenge was to convert 55 separate pages to one page. Working with Ben Winyard, Senior Content Editor in External Relations, who gave me one-to-one training and advice, I rewrote and changed the formatting to match the house style, then experimented with how the information is presented.

Jane then reviewed the new page and wrote a detailed report on the format, the tone of voice, grammar and house style – I felt I had received a C+, ‘Could do better’ mark! I worked through Jane’s detailed report, addressing each point raised and making changes as necessary. This was helpful because it meant I could then review other pages to ensure the same issues didn’t crop up.

The new membership page was then moved to Ben’s list on Trello, to check that it met the requirements for the Birkbeck tone of voice and the use of plain English and active voice. He cut the text even further while ensuring that the content flowed. Then, the page was given back to me, to check that nothing crucial was missing, giving me another chance to suggest other edits.

This process meant that I received a crash course in writing for the web from a team of experienced content editors, working collaboratively, using live content. It is all well and good to read guidance notes, but quite another thing to implement them and keep to the task!

Improvements

Rewriting content wasn’t the only improvement we made to the Library site. We also improved navigation and findability of content:

  • We didn’t duplicate information that already existed elsewhere – we linked to it.
  • Forms to suggest new books for the Library and for staff to request teaching materials were converted into Apex forms and located either in My Birkbeck for Staff or in My Birkbeck for Students. So, Library users do not have to retype personal information that we already hold about them.
  • We also made huge improvements to navigation in two key areas of content:
    • Angela Ashby, Digital Editor in External Relations, reorganised the navigation for past exam papers, which had included a separate web page for each department for each year of exams – amounting to more than 200 pages. Angela cut the navigation down to 26 pages – one for each department.
    • I compressed 232 web pages listings our for databases and online resources into just one page. This was made easier by deciding to move extensive help guide information for each database into a document, which will eventually become a support manual for Library staff on the helpdesk.

Keeping Library staff updated

This has been the first opportunity I have had to fully examine the content of the existing Library website and to undertake a root-and-branch review. I focused on thinking always of what our users want/will be looking for and trying to ensure that they can visit a web page, scan it, easily find what they need, and move on. Helping users to find the resources they need without adding additional layers of unnecessary content was very important. When in doubt, I would look at the website traffic figures, the feedback from the UX testing, and the post-it notes.

After all that work had been done, the slimmed-down website was shown to Library staff and to students who attended a Student-Library Partnership meeting. The response was very positive: obviously, we were on the right track.

Creating the wayfinding page

The wayfinding, or landing, page was the last component of the project. We had more post-it-note sessions with groups of Library staff to consult with them. This enabled us to come up with an initial layout, based on a top-task analysis, to inform the order in which signpost tiles appear.

Then, I built the wayfinding page. We decided to use new photos taken last year, focusing on images of our students using the Library.

Redirects

Before we could go live with the new website, we had to create a comprehensive list of redirects, to ensure visitors following old links ended up on new content. This was a huge task, which ended with 1700 redirects (and, wouldn’t you know, I also got to help with that, too).

Looking forward

We have already requested UX testing to ensure that we have not overlooked anything, to pick up on any issues, and to provide evidence to make informed decisions on any further changes/tweaks to the Library website before the beginning of the 2018–19 academic year.

Conclusion

It has been a challenging and stimulating experience. But, I have learnt a great deal from the External Relations web content team and I can honestly say, I now understand what is required to write for the web in a consistent and engaging fashion. I’ve also learned the importance of optimisation for search and paying consideration to where our users would expect to find the information they are looking for. I also know the whole of the Library website intimately, and I will continue to learn and retain my newly acquired skills, through continuous practice and actively reviewing the content on our website.

My thanks to Jane, Ben, Angela, Emlyn, Steve, Naomi, John and Outi and the Library Web Group and the Library staff for their support and for providing feedback at the drop of a hat.

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Birkbeck teams up with Refugees at Home

Naureen Abubacker, coordinator of the Compass Project at Birkbeck, writes about the College’s partnership with charity Refugees at Home, which matches people with spare rooms with refugees and asylum seekers in need of a place to stay.

The Compass Project at Birkbeck launched in the autumn of 2017, providing 20 fully funded places on a university level qualification for 20 asylum seekers. This offers an opportunity to students to study for and gain a UK qualification, who would otherwise face a unique barrier to accessing higher education.

With few opportunities like this elsewhere in the UK for mature asylum seekers, The Compass Project has welcomed students living outside of London, including Wales, York and Birmingham – which would mean several hours of travelling in and out of London in order to attend class. As classes at Birkbeck take place in the evening, it has been important to find ways to support these students, ensuring that they have a secure place to stay and they aren’t travelling home late into the night. For others, their precarious status has meant that overnight they have found themselves homeless.

Through the wonderful work of Refugees at Home, a charity that brings together those with a spare room with asylum seekers or refugees who need a place to stay, it has been possible to support our students who live outside London, through temporary accommodation with local host families in and around London. The accommodation provided by Refugees at Home is invaluable and offers them a safe and welcoming home environment whilst they focus their attention on their studies.

Michael, a Compass Project student who is studying for the Certificate of Higher Education in Counselling and Counselling Skills, has been living with Refugees at Home hosts Hannah and Charlie since the Spring term Michael said:

“I had the pleasure of being hosted by Charlie and Hannah and it’s been such an awesome experience. Being here allowed me to enter the year 2018 in a loving home full of love and warmth; I am not exactly sure where I would be now if Charlie and Hannah had not come to my rescue. I have been able to continue with my course.

I first heard about Refugees at Home through Naureen, the Compass Project coordinator at Birkbeck, who made several enquiries and a request on my behalf to find secure accommodation, following a challenging time. That very same night when I thought everything was against me, Refugees at Home came to my rescue and sent me to a host’s house in London whilst they sorted out a more long-term place for me with Charlie and Hannah.

The help I have received has really been overwhelming. I have been supported, shown love and affection not just by Charlie and Hannah, but their respective families, Spergen, the dog, and friends. I am treated like a member of the family by those within this lovely community.

I am by far probably the worst guest in a long time as my mood has been going up and down like a yo-yo but through it all these guys have been amazing giving me space when I needed it and always being there to talk to and help me with any difficulty I might be facing.

For those being hosted by the wonderful people through Refugees at Home, here is my tip on being a good guest: learn as much as you can from your host and for you to share any knowledge or tips about anything with your host as this allows you to better understand and be understood. Above all open mind and love in your heart, you will never go wrong.”

Hannah talks about her experience of how she became involved with Refugees at Home and what it’s been like having Michael as a guest through the scheme:

“My husband and I have spare rooms in our house and had been wanting to host for some time. I came across Refugees at Home on Facebook and got in touch. A few forms, references and a house visit later and we were contacted about a couple from Eritrea who spoke no English and had been the country a very short while. Fortunately for them, they found more permanent accommodation before they came to us. Then we were contacted about Michael. It is fair to say Michael is not the type of person we were expecting to host as a refugee – which just goes to show all stereotypes should be blown out of the water when it comes to those seeking asylum. Michael has been in the UK for over 20 years and through a series of unfortunate events and system failures has slipped through the net and is still awaiting leave to remain.

Having Michael with us has been more like having a friend to stay. He’s easy going, full of interesting facts and stories and a fantastic cook. He has been a huge support and help to another refugee we host who does not know English or the UK system well- Michael has been able to work with us to guide him through.

We’ve found hosting to be a real joy and have learnt the support of our community through it- we’ve been given bikes for everyone to get around, invites for our two guests to meals, birthday parties and cups of tea. A group from our church even wanted to give our guests Christmas presents and made up Christmas hampers for them.

It takes a while to settle into hosting if you’ve not done it before. Learning each other’s daily routines, figuring out how to do the shop (we have a list app), finding the balance between wanting guests to be at home and be autonomous in how they live, while being able to live your own life as well. But our every growing, slightly unconventional family has enjoyed working out these ways of living with others.

We have learnt the importance of time, patience and listening and have had our eyes opened to a whole world of navigating systems and of backstories of other people’s lives that we might have touched the surface of previously but never fully understood.

If you have a spare room in your accommodation I would highly recommend you consider hosting, even if for a short time!”

The success of the students on the Compass Project who have found accommodation through Refugees at Home would not have been possible without the support of this incredible organisation. To find out more about Refugees at Home and to become a host, please visit: www.refugeesathome.org

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What Happens When Meghan Markle’s Blackness loses its Sparkle?

The wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle has been hailed as a pivotal moment for multicultural Britain. But Dr William Ackah (Department of Geography) argues that it is just another fleeting false dawn and there will be little lasting, positive impact for Black Britons.

Symbols are important. For some people, seeing Meghan Markle marry into the monarchy, while a Black preacher expounded the word and a Black Choir sang at the ceremony, was viewed as ushering in a new area of racialised harmony and black cultural acceptance at all levels of British society. If blackness is acceptable to the monarchy, then surely it can be embraced by everyone? One can envisage that cascading out from the memories of the day; TV production companies will make documentaries on relationships across cultural and racial boundaries; there will be operas and plays about mixed cultural and racialised identities and new research council funding streams on identity, relationships and difference. Once again, black culture will be examined, explored, explained, celebrated, debated and mined by White people as something new and exotic.

In contrast to the negativity surrounding racialised minorities due to fears over migration and religious and cultural differences, Markle’s Blackness will provide the space for more and more elements of White society to once again be comfortable in talking about how they have Black friends, or how they are down with Stormzy’s lyrics, had a Black choir sing at their wedding and rap lyrically about their love of Jerk chicken. This, I envisage, will be the new language – at least for a while – that will showcase multi-cultural Britain. Meanwhile, the structures of institutionalised racism that leaves the majority of Britain’s black communities at the margins of British society remain unchanged.

We have been here before. Black culture is cool for a time; it is supposedly edgy, hip, and transgressive, and it is useful for British elites to be associated with it in order to project an image of modernity, tolerance and cultural relevance. When London made its bid for the Olympics, it projected a powerful image of itself as a global city a multicultural, multi-ethnic place with a vision of East London as a space and place of opportunity for Black communities and the descendants of migrants from all over the world. This was in contrast to the French bid – fronted by White men and regarded as old fashioned and tired. It could be said that it was the Black and Minority Ethnic Cultural presence that won it for London. Fast forward to today and in East London we have a Queen Elizabeth Park, a Westfield Shopping Complex, the great and the good of elite educational/arts/cultural institutions are moving into the area taking advantage of all the facilities and opportunities. But what has happened to those Black poster children of the Olympic vision that were the catalyst for the change? They apparently have lost their ‘sparkle’ and are being forced out of their homes, businesses and communities and are being erased from the collective consciousness of post-Olympic East London.

Britain has a long history of adoring high profile African Americans and treating them regally whilst perpetrating systematic racialised injustices against its Black British population. Muhammad Ali was a source of fascination and immense entertainment when he boxed and toured Britain in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Martin Luther King was admired and lauded when he preached in Westminster Abbey and garnered honorary doctorates here in the ‘60s. Paul Robeson the legendary singer, actor and political activist was a huge star of the stage here in the late 1920s and  early ‘3’s, and spoke to huge admiring crowds in many parts of the country. The same is true of the African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass who spoke to thousands of people across Britain in the late 19th Century. And if it was thought that Meghan Markle was the first to bring gospel music to the attention of royalty one would be mistaken. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, an African American choral group from a Black college in Nashville, sang for Queen Victoria in 1873 and toured Britain and Europe, singing for the elites who were both intrigued and moved by the power of their renditions of the Spirituals.

The British establishment has used and abused black people for centuries, whilst occasionally celebrating and feting them with adoration and praise. The Monarchy and the Church of England, both central to the representation of Blackness as a celebratory theme at the wedding, have been deeply complicit in these enterprises. It was royal charters that endorsed the heinous enterprises of transatlantic enslavement and colonisation and the Church ‘owned’ and profited from the labour of enslaved Africans. And through their missionary endeavours they provided the velvet glove of justification for the iron fist of economic, cultural and social brutalisation of many nations and people in Africa and Asia.

These historical realities, and not just historical niceties, have their contemporary manifestations in the treatment of black and minority ethnic bodies in incidences such as the Grenfell and Windrush scandals and the marginalisation and lack of equitable treatment that Black communities receive here. British institutions want to be portrayed as contributing to a world of love and cultural celebration, but they refuse to deal with the legitimate claims of Black communities for justice and reparations. While these claims for justice continue to be ignored, talk of the wedding as an example of Britain’s successful multiculturalism is, to be frank, bulls**t (for example, Douglas Murray ‘s Spectator blog Meghan Markle and the myth of ‘racist’ Britain Spectator, dated 21 May)

British institutions – political, economic, religious and cultural – are manure-peddling institutions. A few Black flowers do grow and flourish against all the odds in these institutional spaces. And when the Black exceptionalisms do emerge, they are asked to sing, play, run, jump, speak and represent the nation. Some are given knighthoods and honours, and some people do manage to have meaningful relationships in this environment. The institutions then use these small success stories to portray themselves as smelling of roses in relation to ‘diversity’ issues. What the institutions fail to acknowledge, and systematically address, are the numbers of Black people for whom the institutional manure is toxic. And how in some cases the institutional environment leads to death, imprisonment, educational underachievement, poor life expectancy, limited employment prospects, lack of political representation, deportation, poor mental health …. the list goes on and on. It needs more than an interracial romance, a few songs, some mentoring schemes and a Stephen Lawrence day to compensate for all the racist manure and meaningless diversity schemes that British institutions have been peddling in order to placate both minorities and the majority in this country.  What Black people require are concrete manifestations of compensations for past wrongs and guarantees of formal equality and justice moving forward. All this other stuff, as beautiful as it looks and happy as it makes people feel, is just bulls**t. Same old empire, just different clothes!

Our ancestors, as enslaved and colonial subjects, built and paid for the maintenance of this system – and now, in the form of tax, we still pay for it. When we complain, we are told look at Meghan, sing and be grateful! Well as far is this country is concerned the song is this: “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child a long way from home”. I wait to be culturally orphaned again, once the fascination with Meghan’s Blackness loses its sparkle.

William Ackah is Lecturer in Department of Geography, Chair of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race and will be facilitating a discussion and film showing at Birkbeck at 6pm on 15 June entitled Black Spirituality and Black Power: Reflections on Race, Religion and the Fight for Liberation across the Transatlantic in honour of Rev Dr James Hal Cone

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