Welcome to Birkbeck Orientation module is now live and Library study space is now open

As we prepare for the new term Fraser Keir, Academic Registrar, at Birkbeck shares some essential tips to get you started at the College.

Today the Welcome To Birkbeck Orientation Moodle module is launched and available to all enrolled students. It’s full of relevant and useful information including the fantastic Freshers Week programme offered by the Birkbeck Students Union. From Monday 14 September the Birkbeck Library will be open with almost 200 bookable study spaces. As the new academic year commences on 5 October you need to enrol as soon as you can to gain access to all these resources to get you orientated and study ready.  

Complete the Welcome To Birkbeck orientation module 

strongly recommend that you work through each of the sections in the Welcome to Birkbeck Moodle module, ahead of the beginning of term. Each section outlines key information including how to approach learning online, effective study skills along with an introduction to the Birkbeck student community, the personal tutor system, student services, careers support and the Birkbeck Library. All of this will help you make a success of the year.  

Students who completed the module during user-testing took around 4-5 hours, and even continuing students in their final year told us that they learnt new things that would be of great value. You can complete it at your own pace and return to the sections as you wish. Completing the various sections will help ensure that you are ready for the new term. To whet your appetite you can Watch a brief overview of the Welcome to Birkbeck Orientation Moodle module 

If you need help as you work through this Moodle module you can ask for help on the College’s ASK page by selecting ‘Moodle’ then ‘Orientation Module’ from the drop-down. 

Enhancing online course delivery

Over the summer over 500 colleagues have transformed our modules to be ready for online delivery, as explained in the Vice Chancellor’s message. All our content on Moodle has been produced and is being delivered by our research-led academic colleagues.  

The library has invested heavily in online e-books and digitisation to make sure your reading lists and course materials are available on your devices and computers. If you can’t easily study at home we have made COVID-19 secure spaces for you to study on campus if you need.  

Once you complete the Orientation Moodle module you will continue your studies in an interactive and online face to face medium. As soon as health and safety permits we can revert to in-person teaching on campus, and you will have the option to continue your studies online for the remainder of the year. Our coronavirus information will be updated regularly.  

Student protocol for attending the Library – September to December 2020

Birkbeck is committed to providing a COVID-19 secure environment whilst you study and use facilities in the Library. From Monday the 14 September the College Library in Malet Street will have almost 200 study spaces available for student use. The Library will be open from Monday to Friday from 12pm – 7pm To visit the Library, you will need to book a study space in advance. You can also use this link to make a booking if you simply want to come in and borrow items. There will be no access to the Library without a booking.  

Be sure to read the protocol for attending the Library before you travel.  

To keep our College community safe during the COVID-19 pandemic we all have a responsibility to follow these protocols. This protocol will remain subject to amendment and change depending on NHS advice during Autumn Term.  

Complete your enrolment

To access the orientation Moodle module and access the library and other Birkbeck resources, complete the process to enrol as soon as you receive your invitation. Don’t worry if you haven’t received your invite yet, invitations to enrol continue to be sent throughout September, and students who have had Summer re-assessments will not receive their invitations until all their marks have been agreed and processed.  

Birkbeck is a great place to study and now is a great time to be undertaking your Higher Education and getting a University of London degree. 

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The Use of the ‘Useless’: Exploring the Story of Classics at Birkbeck, 1963 – 2003

Jonny Matfin, a PhD candidate of Birkbeck Knowledge, discusses the contemporary development of Classics at Birkbeck. This blog is part of the 200th-anniversary series, marking the founding of the College which we will celebrate in 2023.

The outside of Birkbeck College

Birkbeck College, copyright Birkbeck History Collection.

In a series of compelling critiques of recent government policy on higher education in Britain, the academic Stefan Collini mounts a conceptual defence of the university; through exploring the question of what universities are for, Collini concludes that higher education institutions – that is, places like Birkbeck – ‘embody an alternative set of values’. Such values, it is argued, have been debased by decades of political drives towards managerialism and marketisation – they are not easily captured by audits and reports.

Within this context, the academic subject of classics is key. As Collini observes, Latin and Greek university studies have had a long journey, ‘from being a preparation for clerical or political office, through the centuries in which they served to hallmark a gentleman, and on to their current standing as favoured example of a “useless” subject.’ Ironically, it is this very – inaccurate – verdict that makes classics so vital to historical understanding of changes to British universities since the 1960s: if, as Collini suggests, our higher education system has been seen by others around the world as a canary in the mine, then classics has been – so to speak – the canary’s canary.

Margaret Thatcher at Birkbeck Open Day in 1973

Margaret Thatcher at Birkbeck’s 150th Anniversary Open Day in 1973. Image courtesy of the Birkbeck History Collection.

Birkbeck, like most universities and colleges across Britain, experienced two major periods of change from 1963-2003: the expansion – in response to a booming population – of the 1960s and 1970s, and the moves towards managerialism and marketisation – widely, but not solely, associated with the Conservative Thatcher Government – of the 1980s and 1990s. Classics was one of a number of ‘smaller’ subjects which came under increasing scrutiny within higher education institutions during policy pushes connected to the second of these significant shifts.

Crisis point was reached in 1985 when a government body, the University Grants Committee, launched an inquiry into Latin and Greek teaching and research in UK universities. A subsequent report by the UGC recommended the closure of a number of classics departments nationwide – including that of Birkbeck, forcing its merger with King’s College by 1989-90. Critically, the government audit failed to take account of the unique part-time tuition provided by Birkbeck’s Department of Classics – an academic lifeline for working students wanting to pursue the discipline.

This then, is the crux: if examining the recent history of academic classics in Britain can help us to explore the question of what universities are for, studying the development of the discipline at Birkbeck from 1963-2003 can help us to break new ground – to understand what an institution like this college, providing exceptional part-time tuition, is for. In short, this aspect of the story of the “useless” is extremely useful in a historical sense. Moreover, the revival of Latin and Greek at Birkbeck through a Department of History, Classics and Archaeology – and its continued evening tuition in both disciplines, is no small reason for institutional pride in the present.

Further reading:

Stefan Collini, What Are Universities For? (London; New York: Penguin, 2012).

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“A good PhD is a finished PhD”: tips for completing your thesis from academics who’ve been there

Struggling to find the motivation to get through the final furlong of your PhD? Professor Almuth McDowall, Head of the Department of Organizational Psychology, shares some top tips to help you finish strong – with many thanks to Rob Briner, Kamal Birdi, Jane Ogden, Gail Kinman, Katrina Pritchard; and Rebecca Whiting for the quote in the title.

Picture of PhD student graduating

Studying for a PhD and writing the thesis is one of the most challenging undertakings in academic life. One of the difficulties is that there is no blueprint. Each research journey is different. Each thesis is unique. Some of us, and this includes me, probably spent too much time and energy emulating others. Then the realisation dawns that it’s yours and only yours to finish.

Writing the thesis is not a linear journey. There are stops and starts along the way. We start doubting our capacity as writers. We will wonder if our research will ever be good enough. Will people care? Or will they look down on our undertakings? Self doubt tends to creep in.

Motivation is also an issue. On the home stretch, which should be the final energetic lap, many of us get bored with our own words. The end is in sight, but energy levels dip, which often means that procrastination sets in.

What can we do on the final furlong? In no particular order, here are our top tips:

Make yourself a plan and timetable

Month by month at first. Week by week on the final stretch. Share this. Make it accountable. If you miss deadlines and milestones, rethink and learn from why this happened. If you were too ambitious, revise timelines but share this with your supervisor. If slippage happened because you simply didn’t write, reflect on why this happened. Don’t beat yourself up, but recognise that this was a slip and think of strategies to do better next time.

Create a reward system and reward chart

Maybe don’t hit the biscuit tin every time you write 500 words, but think of other treats. A walk in the park? A cup of your favourite tea? Relish and notice the reward. It will feel very satisfying to tick tasks off.

Divide tasks up into ‘intellectual’ and ‘housekeeping’

Some tasks are tough mental work, such as writing a meaningful conclusion. Others are more tedious, such as formatting tables, but these tasks still need to be done. So when you are feeling fresh, do the hard stuff. When you have brain fog, do the simpler tasks. This way, productivity is kept up.

Enough is enough

No thesis is perfect. A take-home of five to six contributions, clearly articulated, is better than a long list.

Divide your attention equally

Don’t fall into the trap of going over and over a certain section, but neglecting other equally important sections of your thesis. Use your chapter structure to ensure that you work across all chapters equally. It’s a common trap to neglect the conclusion. Use your abstract to articulate and shape what your key contributions are.

Chunking is your friend

Don’t think about writing thousands of words, or an entire chapter. Think about writing lots of 500 words. It will feel much more manageable.

Use your submission form to fix the end date

Do this as soon as realistically possible. Seeing the date in print makes it more real and will focus your energies.

Let go of perfection

A perfect thesis is a rare creature. Is this really what it’s all about? Doing doctoral research is an apprenticeship which prepares you for the next chapters of your life. Celebrate what you do well, and don’t mull on your weaker points. Good research is rarely perfect but thought provoking. That’s what it is all about.

Make a plan

Our final tip is not just to read ‘top tips’ but to plan how to put them into action. What are you going to tackle first of the above? Always remember – “a good PhD is a finished PhD”. Perfectionism and ambition are helpful, but should not deter and detract you from the final submission. It’s part of an academic’s life that we worry if our work is good enough, liked, cited and used by audiences. A thesis does not have to be perfect, but needs to document a learning journey.

We wish you well in your writing journey on the ‘final furlong’.

Further Information:

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How can we manage our organisations and families out of the COVID-19 crisis? 

As we move out of crisis mode and settle into new patterns of working, Professor Almuth McDowall shares her advice on managing work and family life over the coming months. 

In MayI had the opportunity to deliver an online webinar for Barclays Eagle Labs together with their CEO Ben Davey. We tackled important and profound questions, not only about how we manage work itimes of crisis, but also our families and wider networks. 

Ben shared his experience of managing work-life balance. Initially, he explained, he fell into the trap of working very long hours and not having enough time to rest and recuperate. Now he makes an extra effort to go out, get fresh air and then comes back to his desk feeling reinvigorated. I could relate to this so much. During the first two weeks of the crisis, I must admit that I barely slept or ate, as there was so much to do, so much change to manage. Things have settled down now and we are working virtually as teams and organisations. 

Ben asked me if I had any advice for how to make this happen effectively, particularly in international contexts. The research on virtual working tells us that teams work better if they have had initial face to face meeting and bonding time. Well, none of us has had this. It might be something to go back and revisit – have you agreed a set of principles for how your team will work? Has everyone signed up? Regarding international teams, it can be really important to establish and preserve local identity, particularly during this time of crisis and uncertainty. Maybe each team could agree on a ‘strapline’ that summarises their identity and ways of working? Then provide teams with the opportunity to express their needs for how they want to work with others. Provide regular ‘feedforward forums’ so that the spotlight is not only what needs to be done, but also how you work together.  

The attendees in our online session were as concerned about managing their families as they were about managing their work. Many of them had noticed that energy levels are starting to wane. Also, how do you communicate with young children and teenagers? As the situation is so uncertain, a good approach is to focus on the short and medium term. Think about what is precious to you as a family, and what you can control. No one can control the media, or government policy, but we can control how we communicate with each other. Having been stuck in our homes for so long, it can be easy to fall into a rut and take each other for granted. Make sure you actively seek opportunities to talk to each other and share experiences. 

Another question was about how to keep teenagers motivated to do their homework. I shared my own experience. My middle daughter is doing, or rather not doing (in a traditional sense) her GCSEs. At first, we had several heated arguments as I wanted her to do more work, yet she was lying on her bed and talking to her friends. Being honest, I had to adjust my own expectations. This is an unusual situation. She is at an age where her peer group is more important than family. Will anyone really care about the grades she gets in her GCSEs this year? I think not. So I now let her be and chat to her friends. She is happier for it, and so am I.  

How can we help young children make sense of the crisis? Well, limit exposure to news at home, as ‘big words’ said in a serious tone are likely to unsettle. Children appreciate honesty, so don’t pretend. But find a way for them to express themselves. It might be helpful to get them to start a scrapbook, or a journal, where they can draw and chart their experiences visually – then talk about what you see together.  

Finally, we talked about the importance and power of goals at work, and at home. At work, many of us have been in survival and crisis mode. Now might be the time to agree what the priorities for the next few months are and state these very clearly. Then check in on progress and give each other feedback about how things are going. Revisit and revise as necessary. The same applies at home. Is there something you want to learn as a family? Something that you have learned through the crisis which you want to take forward? Get everyone involved in planning. Express your vision – write this down or draw it – but be sure this is shared.  

The crisis is hard, and we are in this for the long haul. Focus on what you can control, this will help you to sustain motivation. Don’t forget – we are in this together. Talk, share and reach out to others where you can. 

Further Information: 

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“Birkbeck gave me the opportunity to help others.”

Marcel came to Birkbeck to follow his dream of becoming a web developer. Now teaching in the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems, he shares his passion for programming with the next generation of students.

Picture of Marcel

I’ve always wanted to work in IT. Back in the early 2000s, I was doing reprographics in a legal department, but knew I wanted to be more involved in computing. I was fascinated by computers and web design, so I began teaching myself at home. I started with Photoshop, then building websites and began to realise this was something I really wanted to do and could enjoy as a job. 

Getting a career in web development with no education and no experience was impossible, so I went along to a few university open days to explore my options. 

One Saturday, I went to Birkbeck and came across the Foundation Degree in Web DevelopmentI couldn’t afford to quit my day job and study full time, but Birkbeck allowed me to do both. 

Studying part-time and working full-time wasn’t easy and involved huge social sacrifices, but after a year and a half on the programme, I landed my first computing job as a Junior Developer for a digital healthcare agency. 

I also got to meet people in the classroom: Birkbeck has a very international community and it was amazing to learn alongside and collaborate with people from all over the world. 

Once I’d completed my studies, I was headhunted by Sky TV to work on data visualisation dashboards. This made me a proper developer, working on really cool stuff around data visualisation, but I knew I also wanted to study more, so I returned to Birkbeck to study BSc Computing. 

In some ways, when I graduated, I’d achieved what I set out to do: I had the qualification and a proper job in digital, but it felt like something was missing. Birkbeck had been a part of my life for the last five years, so I felt strangely empty without it. 

I emailed one of my teachers and asked if there was anything I could do to help out – I would have gone back just to put paper in the printer! I saw Birkbeck as a hobby where I could also help future students in some way. Some people run or play chess – Birkbeck was my hobby. 

Instead of doing the admin though, I was offered a role as demonstrator. For the first term, I helped out in lectures, providing support with the hands-on activities. In the second term I started teaching. It had never been my intention to teach, but I found it so rewarding helping others to succeed. There’s nothing like the feeling you get when you show someone how to do something and the next time you see them they say “Hey, look what I’ve done on my own.” 

I’ve changed jobs a few times since then and now work at Barclays as VP/Technology Lead, teaching at Birkbeck once a week as well. 

I know that everyone has different circumstances, but Birkbeck has shown me that if you’re willing to work hard, people will help you. Now, when my students say they can’t do it, I tell them “I know how you feel, I’ve been in your shoes, so don’t tell me you can’t do it, because everyone can.” 

Marcel currently teaches on the modules ‘Mobile Web Application Development’ and ‘Web Programming Using PHP’. 

Further Information: 

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“I have really relished the intellectual challenge of returning to university after a break.”

When a new role saw Ella moving from practical outdoor work to people management, she applied for the MSc Human Resource Development and Consultancy to build her skills. She reflects on how the course has equipped her for the challenge.

Picture of Ella

I have had a fairly non-traditional career path so far. I worked on farms for many years engaged in therapeutic agriculture, growing vegetables with young adults with learning difficulties and behavioural issues. My passion for people and land now has me working as a senior manager for a small environmental charity which works across the UK planting orchards with urban communities.  

Transitioning from outdoor practical roles to indoor organizational-focused roles threw me into being a line manager, thinking about team dynamics and holding responsibilities across the organisation for recruitment, wellbeing, HR policies and staff development.

The MSc in Human Resource Development and Consultancy at Birkbeck has given me a good grounding in people management and organisational development, with flexibility to deepen my knowledge in areas that have interested me.  

I have really relished the intellectual challenge of returning to university after a break of many years. The course is structured to deepen academic thinking as well as practical knowledge, and that combination means I can bring practical questions from my work into an academic sphere, and I can apply thinking from my Masters directly into my work.  

The support from lecturers and fellow students is phenomenal. I have learned so much not just from lecture and seminar content, but also professors, guest lecturers and fellow students speaking about their work contexts and roles as HR or Organizational Development practitioners. 

I am about to enter my second year, of which a significant part is embarking on a management research project. This differs from a traditional dissertation as it again combines academic rigour and practical organisational focus, as we work with an organisation to address a challenge that it is experiencing as our research problem. I am really looking forward to exploring an area of HR Development in depth, and to try out new research and consultancy skills. 

Further Information: 

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Cancel the Window-Cleaning Contract!

Professor Jerry White, Professor of Modern London History at Birkbeck recounts how the College faired during the Second World War. This blog is part of the 200th-anniversary series, marking the founding of the College and the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day.

Bomb damage to Birkbeck Library

Bomb damage to Birkbeck Library. The area around Birkbeck College was bombed during the air-raid of 10-11 May 1941. The resultant fire destroyed the Library. Image courtesy of Birkbeck History collection.

Most of London University shut down on the declaration of war in September 1939. The headquarters at Senate House was taken over by the Ministry of Information and most colleges were evacuated (like much of the BBC, many government departments and most of London’s hospitals) to areas thought to be less vulnerable to bombing. University College shifted to Aberystwyth and elsewhere in Wales, King’s to Bristol, LSE and Bedford to Cambridge, and so on. Birkbeck, its London roots deeper than any of its sister colleges and so unable to be useful to Londoners if sent to the country, resolved to close on the outbreak of war and for a time did so. But the war failed to open with a bang and in the absence of air attack, or apparently any likelihood of bombing for the immediate future, Birkbeck reopened at the end of October 1939. Indeed, it didn’t merely reopen but expanded its offer: for the first time, extensive daytime teaching was made available for those London students unable to follow their chosen university colleges out of the capital. And despite the blackout, a wide range of evening teaching also resumed.

Birkbeck was not yet at its present Bloomsbury site. That building contract had been let but work had to stop in July 1939 because of the uncertain international situation – contractors were given more pressing projects to work on, both civil defence and industrial – and in fact the new college would not be completed and occupied till 1951. So Birkbeck was still in its late-Victorian location in Breams and Rolls Buildings, straddling the City and Holborn boundary west of Fetter Lane, incidentally sharing a party wall with the Daily Mirror building. It had some near misses during the main blitz of 1940-41 and narrowly escaped total destruction in the great City fire raid of 29 December 1940, which opened a view – never before seen – of St Paul’s from the college windows. From that time on all places of work had to arrange a fireguard of staff to be in the building at night time to deal with incendiaries and raise the fire brigade if necessary. There followed nearly three-and-a-half years of relative quiet, with sporadic bombing of London and the Baby Blitz of early 1944 rarely troubling the college and its work. But Birkbeck would nearly meet its nemesis from a V1 flying bomb (or doodle-bug) at 3.07am on 19 July 1944.

Dr A. Graham was a member of the college fireguard that night, on the 1-3am watch.

I wakened Jackson [the College accountant] to do the 3-5am spell…. We were saying a few words to one another when we heard The Daily Mirror alarm go. Suddenly the bomb, which had merely been a near one until that second … dived without its engine stopping. Its noise increased enormously; Jackson and I looked at one another in silence; and I remember wondering what was going to happen next. What did happen was all over before we realised it had happened … a gigantic roar from the engine of the bomb, not the noise of an explosion, but a vast clattering of material falling and breaking, a great puff of blast and soot all over the room, and then utter quiet. Massey [another fire watcher] raised his head from the bed where he had been asleep and asked what all that was….

As the dust settled Graham climbed over the flattened metal doors of the College and went into the street. The first thing he heard was footsteps coming at a run up Breams Buildings. It was a Metropolitan police constable: ‘he called backwards into the darkness… “It’s all right, George, it’s in the City”’; satisfying himself there were no urgent casualties he promptly disappeared. Troup Horne, the College secretary from 1919-1952, was also one of the fireguard but, not wanted till 5am, was in a makeshift bed in his office: ‘At 3.06am I was awakened by a doodle overhead. Thinking we were for it, I pulled a sheet over my head to keep the plaster out of my remaining hairs; and five seconds later the damned thing went pop.’ Horne was found ‘covered from head to foot with soot, dust, and thousands of fragments of broken glass and other bits scattered from the partition which separated the general office from his room.’ His chief assistant, Phyllis Costello, was also sleeping in the College that night and was frequently part of the fireguard. She rushed to see if he was injured and was greeted by Horne instructing, ‘Cancel the window-cleaning contract’.

Indeed, there were no windows left anywhere in the College. For some time after, a witticism coined in Fleet Street during the main Blitz, was Birkbeck’s watchword: ‘We have no panes, dear mother, now.’*

*Edward Farmer (1809?-1876), ‘The Collier’s Dying Child’: ‘I have no pain, dear mother, now.’ All the information used here comes from E.H. Warmington, A History of Birkbeck College University of London During the Second World War 1939-1945, published by Birkbeck in 1954.

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“By the time I finished university, I had four years’ worth of tech experience.”

BSc Computing student Trixi reflects on how combining work with part-time study at Birkbeck helped her get ahead in the tech industry.

Trixi, BSc Computing student

Why did you decide to study BSc Computing?  

I have always enjoyed problem-solving and I was curious about programming. When I asked my developer friends what their day-to-day involved, it sounded like something I wanted to try, even though I did not consider myself a computer nerd.

Why did you choose Birkbeck? 

I didn’t want to give up working full-time and Birkbeck had the option of doing evening studies. This alone really helped me make the decision, but I’d also heard good things about Birkbeck.

What aspects of the course have you most enjoyed?  

I enjoyed the learning, meeting people of similar ages and interests and the challenging assignments. I learnt that I am able to do things I thought I couldn’t possibly do before.

How has studying at Birkbeck impacted your future career plans?

I was really keen to get into the tech world as soon as it was feasible and for my studies and work to relate and feed into each other. The kind of assignments we were given helped me interview for jobs and I got my first tech job after one year of studying.

By the time I finished university, I had four years’ worth of tech experience. It helped me understand what part of technology I enjoyed the most and it feels like there will always be a job for me.

What advice would you give to a student thinking of applying for this course?  

Just apply. Start the process. If you have already considered the idea at least twice there is a likelihood that in 3-5 years you will be thinking the same. If you start now you will thank yourself later.

Further information:

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Lillian Penson: the first PhD in the University of London

Lillian Margery Penson was the first person in the University of London to be awarded a PhD. In this blog, Joanna Bourke discusses the life and achievements of Penson. This blog is part of a series that celebrate 200 years since Birkbeck was established and International Women’s Day on Sunday 8 March.

Lillian Margery Penson

Lillian Margery Penson_© Royal Holloway College, RHC-BC.PH, 1.1, Archives-Royal Holloway University of London

Lillian Margery Penson (1896-1963) was an outstanding scholar and university administrator. She was the first person (of any sex) in the University of London to be awarded a PhD; she was the first woman to become a Professor of History at any British university; and she was the first woman in the UK and Commonwealth to become a vice-chancellor of a university, at the age of only 52. She owed her undergraduate and doctoral education to the History Department at Birkbeck.

Opinions about her were divided. Was she the “foremost woman in the academic life of our day” (The Scotsman), a “remarkable woman” (The Times), and someone who exuded “charm, tolerance, and a sense of humour”? Or was she an “imperious grande dame”, “très autoritaire”, and “too trenchant”? The answer is probably “a mixture”. Although Penson “could on occasion be brusque and even intimidating”, she “had a happy knack of getting to know people quickly”, was “an excellent judge of wine and loved good company”, and projected “a wealth of genuine kindness”. In other words, Penson was probably trapped in that familiar double-bind experienced by powerful women in male-dominated fields: she was admired for her intellect and determination, yet disparaged as a woman for possessing those same traits. One newspaper report on the achievements of “the professor” even referred to Penson using the masculine pronoun: “he”.

Who was Penson? She was born in Islington on 18 July 1896. Her father worked as a wholesale dairy manager and her family were of the Plymouth Brethren persuasion. Indeed, one colleague observed that the “marks of a puritanical upbringing were never effaced” and her “belief in work and duty” meant that she was always made uncomfortable by “flippant talk”. She never married.

From her youth, Penson was intrigued by diplomatic history, colonial policy, and foreign affairs. Her intellectual talents were obvious. In 1917, at the age of 21 years, she graduated from Birkbeck with a BA in History (first class). The war was at its height, so she joined the Ministry of National Service as a junior administrative officer (1917-18) before moving to the war trade intelligence department (1918-19). At the end of the war, Penson returned to her studies of history at Birkbeck and became, in 1921, the first person in the University of London to be awarded a PhD.

Penson’s achievement was even more remarkable because of her gender. After all, throughout the period from 1921 to 1990, only one-fifth of PhD students in history were female. Penson was also young. The average age for history students to complete their doctorates was their mid-30s; Penson was only 25 years old. Birkbeck immediately offered her a job as a part-time lecturer, during which time she also taught part-time at the East London Technical College, now Queen Mary University of London. In 1925, she was given a full-time lecturing post at Birkbeck.

More notably, she was the first female Vice-Chancellor of a university in the UK and the Commonwealth. Indeed, the second female vice-chancellor would not be appointed for another 27 years (this was Dr Alice Rosemary Murray who was appointed Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge in 1975). Then, in 1948, the University of Cambridge agreed to award degrees to women. The last time they had tried this (in 1897), there had been a riot. In 1948, however, the Queen, Myra Hess, and Penson became the first women to be awarded honorary Cambridge degrees (in Penson’s case, a LL.D or Doctor of Laws). The Scotsman decreed Penson’s academic and administrative talents to be “unsurpassed even in the annals of that great institution”.

Many of the values that Penson promoted were those at the heart of the Birkbeck mission. She spoke eloquently on the need to offer university education for “virtually all comers”, with no restriction based on religion, race, or sex. She was keen to insist that the job of the university teacher was to “do something more than impose upon the memories of our students masses of detailed information”.

As with many powerful women, she has largely been forgot. After her death, a University of London Dame Lillian Penson fund was established to provide travel money between scholars engaged in research in one of the universities of the Commonwealth, especially Khartoum, Malta, the West Indies, and new universities in African countries. This seems to have disappeared. All that remains is a bricks-and-mortar legacy in the shape of the Lillian Penson Hall, which still exists next to Paddington Station in Talbot Square, providing accommodation for over 300 students.

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