Building an (Inter)Disciplinary Career

Lucy Tallentire from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics explores the challenges and opportunities in interdisciplinary studies, raised in a recent seminar from the TRIGGER Project (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research). 

Gender is pertinent to many disciplines, from literary theory to anthropology, film studies to linguistics, and sociology to geography. However, these disciplines sometimes differ in their approaches to how and why gender is studied. So what are the challenges in a field of study that spans several disciplines? And how can scholars make the most of their interdisciplinary roots?

These were just some of the questions considered at a recent event on negotiating careers as a gender studies scholar within a mainstream discipline. In her welcome address, Professor Helen Lawton Smith, who led Birkbeck’s participation in the TRIGGER Project, said: “Over its four-year lifespan the objectives of the TRIGGER project became more than just to support women in Higher Education, but to champion equality and what Birkbeck can do to support diversity.” Organised collaboratively by the Birkbeck Gender Sexuality (BiGS) research group and the Birkbeck TRIGGER project, this event is the first in a series of seminars that will be the TRIGGER project’s legacy, supporting PhD students, early career researchers and aspiring professors.

The seminar took the form of a conversation between Dr Kate Maclean, Director of BiGS, and Dr Gabriela Alvarez Minte, who recently completed her PhD at Birkbeck after many years of working in women’s rights at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). As a feminist geographer who started her academic career with a PhD in Women’s Studies, Kate reflected on her unique experience of completing her doctorate and moving straight into a career in the “mainstream” Department of Geography:

“It is widely acknowledged that gender, queer, and feminist theory is some of the most intellectually challenging theory across the social sciences and humanities. However you may still face challenges as a gender studies scholar – it is not as prevalent an attitude now as it used to be, but intra-departmental dynamics can be difficult!  And it can be difficult to find a network of people to develop your ideas with – particularly important in the early stages of your career. ”

The conversation then moved to discuss the ways in which the challenges of an interdisciplinary field can be overcome. A real breakthrough for Kate was realising the need to network with other feminist scholars in different departments. When she found that other, even senior, staff were facing similar challenges, she organised a meeting for feminist academics across the institution to come together and discuss the need for a space as feminist academics – for both research and mutual support. The size of the meeting was a real testament to the need for this network, which gave them a space to knock around ideas in a very constructive way. As a result, the Gender Matters @ King’s research group was born.

Taking questions posed by the audience of early career researchers, both Kate and Gabriela were able to reflect on their personal academic journeys. Gabriela sees herself as a combination of academic and practitioner and discussed the benefit of field experience: “working at UNIFEM was extremely beneficial to the development of my ideas and drove me to fill out the knowledge I lacked in gender and development”. Kate recognised that she was lucky to go from a PhD straight into an academic teaching and research position, but emphasised the merits of postdoctoral research opportunities, which allow a unique insight into a different field, the benefit of another’s experience and good networking opportunities. Like in any other profession, networking is very important in academia, and refreshments after the seminar offered participants an informal opportunity to engage with one another’s work, ask questions, and learn from one another.

You can find out more about BiGs and TRIGGER on the Birkbeck website.

Click here to find out more about future seminars.

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How to get your Birkbeck studies off to a flying start

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birkbeck campus and Senate House in springtime 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do well known British sportsmen and women use visualisation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Getting prospective students talking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The story behind Birkbeck’s new web design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new pop-out menu

The new pop-out menu signposts visitors to important pages

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

 

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

research-tile

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

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

newwebsite6phone

The website is optimised for browsing on any device

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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User-testing Birkbeck’s new website design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sherlock Holmes: the man who never lived and will never die

This article was contributed by Mike Berlin, a specialist in the social history of early modern London in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and ArchaeologyBirkbeck is holding a study day on Saturday 14 March to coincide with the Museum of London‘s landmark exhibition on Sherlock Holmes. The afternoon  will feature contributions from Alex Werner, Sherlock Holmes exhibition curator, Dr Nathalie Morris, Senior Curator of Special Collections at the BFI National Archive, and Emeritus Professor John Stokes of King’s College London. 

"The air of London is the sweeter for my presence." Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem. ©Museum of London

“The air of London is the sweeter for my presence.” Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem. ©Museum of London

Though the pipe and deerstalker have been replaced by a waxed Belstaff jacket,  new generation of Londoners  continues  to be captivated  of Conan Doyle’s original creation. What was it about the figure of Holmes that holds such fascination in the minds of generations of readers, film goers and now television viewers?

For many people the Holmes stories, originally published in the Strand Magazine with illustrations by Sidney Paget, are synonymous with Victorian London. The atmosphere of back alleys, dense pea soup fogs, hackney cabs and Bradshaw’s railway guides are the epitome of our image of the teeming city, a city of concealment, social mixing and crime.

The original fascination of Conan Doyle’s audience went with a deep-seeded fear of crime.  The world’s largest city in 1900, an imperial capital that brought people and goods together from all corners of the globe, London was the perfect setting for a series of tales that mixed bourgeois morality with fear of the mysterious and foreign. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used the imperial exoticism of the world’s greatest port, including the swamp adder and baboon of The Adventure of the Speckled Band.

It is no accident that Holmes’ opponents are mostly aliens. For late Victorian Londoners the ‘alien menace’ , associated in the popular imagination with the infamous Whitechapel murders of Jack the Ripper, were a direct threat to the city’s greatness. Conon Doyle perfectly encapsulated a sense of anxiety about the menaces of ‘the city of the dreadful night’. It is an anxiety that is decidedly masculine and middleclass, his eponymous hero allowing the reader to overcome fears of crime via cold forensic logic, disguise and confident elegance.  Holmes and Watson, independent men of science, defeat the forces of unreason and evil with the skills of the Victorian social investigator, the slummer, who is willing to visit the criminal purlieus of the city in the search for truth.

The gas lamps have gone but the fascination remains. How do we account for Holmes’ appeal  ver the last century and beyond. In the 20s and 30s film helped to perpetuate Conan Doyle’s image of London. Different eras have re-created the Holmes that was needed. The detective was enlisted by Hollywood in the fight against the Nazis.  Perhaps our age, with its own anxieties about threats from ‘outsiders’ and desire to master the supposed chaos of the urban experience via the appliance of science helps to explain why Holmes will never die.

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Our favourite diarists

Ahead of the Arts Week event ‘Stranger than Fiction‘ about London Diarists on Wednesday 21 May, Birkbeck academics share who their favourite diarists are, and why. Please use the comments section to tell us about your favourite diarists.

Book M
Sue Wiseman
, Professor of Seventeenth-Century Literature

Austin Street signMy favourite London diarist is Katherine Austen. Next time you go to Shoreditch consider stopping for a moment at Austin Street, next to St.Leonard’s church. You will be where much of Austen’s diary-notebook, ‘Book M’, was written in the second half of the seventeenth century.

Some of London’s most celebrated diarists, such as Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, were writing during the Restoration, when Austen was writing hers. Like Pepys, Austen was a successful and enterprising Londoner, but her voice and concerns add a new dimension to our understanding of Restoration scribbling. Austen had a substantial house in Shoreditch, an area that mixed poor houses, orchard and newly enclosed land. She notes her accounts in ‘Book M’ and is clearly prosperous, but she is pious and almost superstitious too. However, she also had strong views, railing against the ‘abominable rudeness’ of ‘Mr. C’ (he owed her money) and complaining that sending her son to university simply meant that he learned ‘ill-breeding and unaccomplishments’ at his Oxford College. As a young, rich, widow she worried about whether or not to marry again. ‘The world may think I tread upon Roses’, she wrote, but ‘they know not’.

I came across Austen’s ‘Book M’ in the manuscripts room at the British Library. Intrigued by the ‘M’ I ordered it up. My attention was immediately caught by a prose passage concerning ‘a Fall off a Tree where I was sitting in contentment’. The description of the fall was followed by a poem in which she claims that spirits, ‘the crew of Beelzebub’, were responsible for the accident. (You can read the passage and poem here.) Why had Katherine Austen gone from Shoreditch to Essex? Did most seventeenth-century women climb trees for fun? What made her think that the tree was inhabited by ‘revolted spirits’? Was it? I wanted to know and read on slowly, stumbling over her handwriting.

Tillingham_small

Churchyard at Tillingham

By the end of the day I knew that she had fled to Essex to avoid the plague. She comments that plague ‘is not yet’ in ‘my house’, but it is a race against time. She notes ‘Aug 28th 1665: on going to Essex … the day before I went there . . .was dead that week 7400.’ Soon after this the scene of the diary shifts to the village of Tillingham, Essex. She does not record what she thought and saw as she left the safety of her house to travel East through the poor, plague-racked eastern suburbs to ford the Lea and escape. But it may be that the plague travelled silently with her. For a mysterious physician and suitor that she took with her on her journey died while she was there and is buried in Tillingham churchyard (see here for a walk in Tillingham). Austen survived to return to London and pursue her many plans.

I left the Manuscripts Room that day excited but sad. How could this fascinating writer ever get the readers she deserved? Luckily it turned out that several other people had been at work and now there are two editions of ‘Book M’, one for easier reading and the other for scholarly detail.  Maybe someone will find books ‘A’ to ‘L’. I hope so.

Diary at the Centre of the Earth
Dennis Duncan, Lecturer in Modern Literature and Culture

My favourite London diarist is still writing today. In fact they’re a current undergraduate at Birkbeck. Actually, it’s one of my personal supervisees. This feels like an awkward confession. I have never discussed with him the fact that I read his diary. It always seems like an inappropriate digression in the context of the supervision session, like a psychoanalyst asking a novelist patient to sign their book. But let it be known henceforth that I have long been an admirer of Dickon Edwards’s online Diary at the Centre of the Earth.

Edwards describes his diary as ‘sporadic and slightly celebrated’, although there is characteristic modesty in both these descriptions. The Diary at the Centre of the Earth has been maintained since 1997, making it one of the longest-running internet diaries around, and it’s more than a little celebrated (indeed it contributes a fair few entries to Elborough’s London Year). Edwards’s delicate prose elegantly captures the life of a twenty-first-century flâneur, partaking of, and sometimes contributing to, the cultural life of the capital. It has its dandyish moments – Edwards is quite at home with the Soho in-crowd, and his writing has the precision of the Wildean bon mot. Yet for the most part this precision is gentle rather than ostentatious. Diary at the Centre of the Earth describes an attempt to experience London, in its brash, brand-conscious, contemporary configuration, through the aesthetic sensibilities of an earlier age. Its sentences are shot through with a wistfulness at the difficulty of maintaining the illusion.

There is, of course, another more specific pleasure in reading this diary, which comes about when Edwards describes his studies at Birkbeck – a subject he addresses frequently. Here, for me, is the thrill of an intimate association with the narrative – places I inhabit every day, courses I’ve taught, texts I know inside out – caught in the diarist’s lens, assigned a place alongside other, more decadent staples of Edwards’s unfolding life story.

The cat is out of the bag now. Perhaps next time we meet for supervision we’ll make small talk about the parties and private views Edwards has attended most recently. But I think I’d prefer it if we don’t; I’d prefer simply to admire the diary from a distance, to glimpse Edwards’s life – at least his life beyond the purview of a personal supervisor – only through the careful charm of his prose.

The Brixton Diaries
Joe Brooker, Reader in Modern Literature 

The Colour of MemoryGeoff Dyer’s first novel, The Colour of Memory (1989), began life as ‘The Brixton Diaries’. In 1986 Dyer was commissioned by the New Statesman to write about life as he and his friends were experiencing it in South London. In a note to the revised edition of his novel (2012), Dyer recalls that it was hoped that the diary would have ‘an interest that was more than local and personal’. But what had been a factual writing commission subtly became a fictional writing project: ‘Gradually I saw a way of using and shaping the material in a slightly different way, in a form that would deploy it to better, more personal ends (I invented a sister for myself, or for my narrator, rather) and, hopefully, more lasting effect’.

The Brixton Diaries had recorded facts from his real life, whereas the novel takes liberties: introducing invented characters, but also clouding the Dyeresque narrator himself in fiction and leaving him nameless and unidentifiable with the author. In a late twist, it appears that the entire narrative is to be taken as written by a character who has appeared in the third person throughout it. The move renders the novel a teasing paradox, a metafictional circle in the key of Calvino or Borges. But we note that Dyer, in retrospect, presents the shift from diary to novel as a move to a more personal mode of writing. It seems that the Brixton Diaries sought public resonance, as reportage from a riot-scarred area of London during Margaret Thatcher’s third term of office; whereas their metamorphosis into fiction somehow allowed Dyer to write a more truly subjective account of the times.

In any case, The Colour of Memory’s roots in diary are unmistakable. The novel recounts the events of a year in Brixton, around 1986-7, essentially in chronological order. It is divided into sixty chapters which count down from 060 to 000. This device lends the book an obscure suspense, but as Dyer admits, suspenseful narrative was not his forte nor his aim: ‘The book did not start out as a novel (and, for anyone expecting a plot, never adequately became one)’. Each small vignette – involving the theft of the narrator’s car, a party, or a trip to Brixton market – could just about claim to include narrative, and certain tendencies grow through the book, notably the fear of crime which culminates in a mugging. But by most standards, The Colour of Memory is distinguished by the absence of narrative, or at any rate of any plot that soars beyond the plausible. The novel’s fascination is with the texture of life, unmomentous yet constant.

This fascination sometimes takes the idiom of photography: the book declares itself to be ‘like an album of snaps’, in which ‘what happens accidentally, unintentionally, at the edges or in the margins of pictures – the apparently irrelevant detail – lends the photograph its special meaning’. Dyer’s book was thus a rarity: an English novel that not merely relayed but formally embodied the advanced continental ideas of the time, in this case those of Roland Barthes’ late work on photography Camera Lucida (1980). In its hospitality to contingency, it also stands as an ambiguous text, between the genres of personal journal and narrative fiction. The Colour of Memory invites us to think about the common ground occupied by the novel and the diary: that less public and celebrated genre that has so often nourished fiction.

(Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature will hold a day conference on the work of Geoff Dyer on 11 July 2014.)

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A Time for Entrepreneurs

Andrew Atter, Birkbeck’s Entrepreneur-in-Residence, writes about the current opportunities for entrepreneurship in London.

As we draw to an end of Global Enterpreneurship Week, you might be forgiven for being overwhelmed by all the hype. Everywhere you look there are conferences and workshops. President Clinton delivers his key note speech at Entrepreneurs 2012 today. And, as you flick through papers, millionaires promise to share their secrets of success. Who said there’s no free lunch!

What does all this mean?

Well, behind the entire buzz, is a very serious point. As anyone who has seen the expression on Mervyn King’s face will have realized, as a society we face years of stagnation and low growth.

This means for students and alumni, work opportunities, job prospects and career growth through traditional corporate structures will be far more limited than in the past. As both an economy, and as individuals, we will all need to access new markets and create new products and services. This is what Entrepreneurs do: they take initiatives that create wealth and opportunity, for themselves and the society around them.

Looked at through the lens of an entrepreneur, the conditions for starting new businesses are good. According to the FT, new company formations rose by 2% last year, and HEFCE report that knowledge transfer from universities increased by 7% in 2010-11. The UK economy overall might be stagnant, but that is not true for London, and certainly not true for the M11 and M40 corridors linking London to Cambridge and Oxford.

Entrepreneurs with sharp business plans, focused on early sales growth, can get funding. And, the good news is that businesses formed in recession tend to be leaner, meaner and more sustainable that fanciful creations funded by bank debt in boom times. I speak from experience.  A business I founded in the post dot.com crash is still going strong, whereas a business launched at the peak in 2007 became an out of control, over complicated monster, and had to have the plug pulled out.

So, beware of the hype generated by charlatans and snake oil salesman, but also don’t be out off by the Mervyn Kings of the world.

Birkbeck students are situated at the nexus of the greatest concentration of financial, technical and creative resources on the planet, in one of the world’s most entrepreneurial societies. To prove it, next time you have a Dhall Curry at the farmers market in Torrington Square, just reflect on the simple fact that someone put the formula Students+Curry+Lunch = Opportunity together before you did. In other words, someone ate your lunch.

To avoid that happening again, simply join the Birkbeck Enterprise Hub (aka Starts Hub), join a Coaching Seminar, attend a CEO Workshop, and start making things happen for yourself and those around you!

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