London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC) – Reading Groups for Research Students

Aren Roukema

Science Fiction is simply one of the most productive and stimulating areas available for research and discussion — encountering and discussing SF texts provides opportunity for thinking (and worrying!) about the future, for struggling with ecological, social and philosophical issues of the present — in addition, of course, to new technologies and scientific advancements — and even for enjoying the continued presence of the monsters, utopian visions, and other imaginaries that have always drawn us to the fantastic.

Birkbeck has a number of faculty members who are leading SF researchers (Roger Luckhurst, Caroline Edwards) and even authors (Mark Blacklock) and has thus attracted a number of students over the years who are specifically interested in SF, whether via the MA module or as PGRs supervised by the above. As researchers whose projects are centrally concerned with SF, Rhodri Davies and I felt that setting up a Research Community with reading group could benefit both ourselves and the Birkbeck Eng and Hums community. We started slowly but have built up our average attendance at reading groups to the point where we can expect 15-20 people per session, either from the community or from universities in London and surrounding areas. We were later joined as organisers by Francis Gene-Rowe of Royal Holloway (in 2015) and Katie Stone (in 2018), who started this past year at Birkbeck.

We also hold an annual conference and host evening lectures, in tandem with Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Literature. The last evening lecture we held (in February) was with SF author and critic Brian Stableford. Thus far we’ve held three of these lectures, in which we try to bring in a well-known SF author either for a lecture or a panel discussion.

Organic Systems

Our last annual conference, Organic Systems: Bodies, Cultures, Environments dealt with ecocriticism in SF. Our next conference will be held on 14–15 September, and will feature keynotes from Roger Luckhurst (Birkbeck) and Helen de Cruz (Oxford Brookes), and a round table with SF authors Jeff Noon, Justina Robson and Fiona Moore (Royal Holloway).

I’ve had many positive reading group experiences. One highlight, though, was reading Frank Herbert’s Dune in tandem with a documentary about a film adaptation by Alejandro Jodorowsky that was never made, yet went on to influence a number of now high profile SF film directors, screenwriters and illustrators. A high profile example is Star Wars, made shortly after Jodorowsky’s seven hour film project was shopped to (but not bought by) Hollywood studios. As a number of critics/conspiracy theorists have observed, Star Wars has some inventions and scenarios that seem suspiciously similar to Jodorowsky’s storyboards. The surprise for me in all this was that I enjoyed the concept of Jodorowsky’s film—the imagining of its never-fulfilled conception—more than I’ve enjoyed completed films like Star Wars; indeed, more than I enjoyed Dune itself!

It is part of LSFRC’s wider mandate to create a space for established academic researchers, students, and non-academic members of the community to discuss science fiction. Interested PGR students can contact

Aren Roukema: arouke01@mail.bbk.ac.uk;
Katie Stone: kstone03@mail.bbk.ac.uk;
Rhodri Davies: mrrhodridavies@hotmail.com

Follow @LSFRC_ on Twitter

Join the London Science Fiction Research Community on Facebook

Birkbeck Intern Blog Post – Pauline Suwanban

Pauline Suwanban

My experience starting a PhD was certainly shaped by my internship with Birkbeck Institutes.

It gave me a rich introduction into academia and public engagement. The Birkbeck Institutes of Social Research, Gender and Sexuality, and Humanities are directed by Professors Jacqueline Rose, Slavoj Zizek, Esther Leslie, Felicity Callard and Kate Maclean. The institutes promote interdisciplinary research on critical issues through public debates, lectures and workshops. They also founded the London Critical Theory Summer School, which is a two-week course where graduate students engage with internationally acclaimed academics.

I joined a group with three other PhD students from different Schools across the university, trained and supervised by the manager of the Institutes. We provided basic assistance at events. This ranged from registration (which in other words meant crowd control when it came to the Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler talks), AV support, to being on hand in case of any technical hitches. We also promoted the events through emails and social media. This involved reaching out to specific audiences who could be interested- quite tricky for some niche events, especially in the case of one interdisciplinary stem cell and nutrition lecture. We also sourced and wrote blog posts for the website about research topics and events supported by the Institutes.

As interns we were also responsible for organising the annual graduate conference; a two-day event which encouraged MA and PhD students to present their work within a supportive environment. This was a more challenging and rewarding experience than I had anticipated. The budget had been allocated and room was pre-booked; which left the rest to our management. This included the theme, call for papers, keynote speaker invitations and the programme. This year’s theme was ‘the Age of Distraction’. We interrogated the meanings and implications of distraction, its reputation in modern societies, its potential to disrupt and to create. We had a broad range of stimulating panels which explored the role of distraction within aesthetics, politics, psychology, digital media and education. Our keynote speakers were Prof. Carolin Duttlinger from the University of Oxford, who insightfully discussed the ‘Narratives of Distraction’ from Kant to modernism, and Dr. Sophie Jones from Birkbeck’s English department, whose provocative paper explored minimalist literature and attention deficit disorder.

We also presented a mini-exhibition of Dr. Kai Syng Tan’s photographic series (BADGE-WEARING MIND WANDERING IN ACTION 2017). Dr. Tan’s work, which explored the fusion of at and mental health, was complemented with energetic drawings from the public which interpreted the concept of mind-wandering. This display was curated by Alessandra Cianetti, who joined Dr. Jones and Prof. Callard in a discussion on mind-wandering, contemporary art and day-dreams. She also presented a very arresting film by Dr. Tan, which surrounded the audience with the visual and sensory impact of attention deficit disorder.

Credit: Dr. Kai Syng Tan

 

I easily underestimated the time that had to be spent for all the logistics and unexpected obstacles, which sometimes felt like an endless checklist! But there were certainly fulfilling moments, especially from noticing the pride in fellow students and the enriched thoughts of a public audience.

I would urge anyone to apply for this internship. It ticks all the boxes in building an academic career and is a wonderful way to meet new people who could inspire your research. Keep an eye on the BIH and BISR websites for recruitment and join the mailing lists to keep up to date with upcoming activities. If you are unsuccessful, there are still ways to get involved, such as volunteering at events, writing a blog post and joining the next graduate conference as a speaker or helper.

Pauline Suwanban is a second year English PhD candidate. Follow her on Twitter @paulinesuwanban 

The Other Side of the Story

Melanie Jones

I decided to take my Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck because of The Mechanics’ Institute Review, an annual collection of short fiction that showcased the best writing at the college. At that time, the Review was produced by MA students as part of a publishing module.

In the first few weeks of term, it became clear that everyone wanted their story to be selected. For some, including me, it represented the first ever chance to be published. Unfortunately, the module was cancelled in my first year because not enough people signed up. Everyone wanted to be in the book, but being an editor made you ineligible.

Julia Bell, the lecturer who set up the Review ten years earlier, wouldn’t let the project die. Instead she called for volunteer editors and built a team that included Birkbeck alumni as well as current students. MIR 11 was published that year and I was fortunate enough to have my story Sowing Seeds included.

I had only written one short story before I started my MA. I had never shown my writing to anyone else. I had never called myself a writer. Seeing my name in print, going to the launch party, holding a physical copy of book that included my work was a gamechanger. It legitimised a creative spark that had, up until that point, just been a hobby. When I was a little girl in the early 80s, I felt like having my name printed out in ‘computer writing’ on a piece of paper meant I was famous. MIR 11 allowed me to live out that dream as an adult.

Julia had a vision for MIR. She didn’t want it to be a university publication that just printed work from Birkbeck students. She wanted to open it up to all UK based authors and she wanted to combine the other extra-curricular activities (like the Writers’ Hub website and the Hubbub live reading event) offered at Birkbeck under one banner. I was about to start my PhD at Birkbeck and becoming the Managing Editor for the online counterpart to the Review was the perfect way to help with my fees and to share my experiences with other budding authors.

 

At MIROnline, I manage a team of about twenty volunteers. We have readers, copy editors, bloggers, features writers, and social media experts. We publish fiction and poetry from writers across the UK and provide an in-depth copy-editing experience for those writers. We run live reading events and free writing workshops that are open to all.

I am a secondary school teacher and sometimes the combined workload is overwhelming. In theory, my weekly schedule is Monday MIR, Tuesday teaching, Wednesday PhD study at home, Thursday PhD study in the Wellcome Library, Friday and Saturday teaching, and Sunday relaxing. It doesn’t always work out that way! My research focuses on anxiety and creativity, and sometimes the stress of a MIR deadline gives me some first-hand experience of this link. That being said, I have an amazing team of volunteers who always step up when I need them. I also have the support of Julia, Toby Litt, and Sue Tyley, the experts who give us a professional sheen.

In my research, I am looking at ways for writers to use the mental barriers they might face to fuel their creativity rather than block it, and this definitely comes in to play when mentoring new writers. Of course, we publish the work of experienced authors too and I learn a lot from their methodology and practice.

My aim as Managing Editor is to offer quality university and industry level experience for anyone who wants to engage with us. For the volunteers, I hope that they learn and develop as writers and editors. For the authors and participants in our events, I hope to pass on the feeling I had when I held the physical copy of MIR 11 in my hands. You are an author now. Legitimate and celebrated.

MIROnline

MIR Anthology info

Buy Mechanics Institute Review 2017 Edition

Melanie Jones is the Managing Editor of MIR Online and a PhD student at Birkbeck University where she researches the links between anxiety and creativity. Melanie teaches at a secondary school for pupils with anxiety and other emotional barriers, autism, dyslexia and school phobia. Melanie was long listed for the 2018 Bristol Prize and shortlisted for Poetic Republic’s Short Fiction Competition. Her work can be found in the following anthologies: Kissing Him Goodbye and Other Stories, and The Mechanics’ Institute Review issues 11 and 13. Melanie is currently working on a collection of semi-true short stories.

 

Avant-Garde Study Group – Reading Groups for Research Students

Evi Heinz

The Avant-Garde Study Group was set up in 2017 and is currently co-organised by Paul Ingram, Robyn Jakeman and myself. I was keen to get involved in the running of the group because I think it provides an important forum for postgraduate students working in the general field of experimental, modern literature and art to discuss their own research and learn about that of their peers. Working on your own, very specific research project can sometimes feel quite isolating and co-organising the Avant-Garde Study Group has been a great way for me to participate in a stimulating intellectual exchange.

We meet every other week during term time to discuss different manifestations of avant-gardism in the nineteenth and twentieth century, including but not limited to such movements as Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism, Constructivism, Dada and Surealism. All members of the study group are invited to suggest topics for discussion and lead individual sessions based on their personal interests. Reading or viewing materials are circulated in advance and each session begins with a brief introduction of the topic by the session leader, followed by an open discussion.

The open format of the study group, which is shaped by the research interests of the participants, means that it is a great way of meeting other researchers working in related fields and learning more about their work. I like the friendly and informal atmosphere at our meetings and that the group has attracted a good mix of participants, including PhD students, ECRs, independent researchers and Masters students from Birkbeck and beyond. Next academic year we hope to organise some one-off events and socials beyond the regular study group meetings. In particular, we’re planning a screening of rarely-seen avant-garde short films.

The study group has given me the opportunity to lead sessions on specific texts and topics closely related to my own research and has allowed me to interrogate my broader understanding of the (historical) avant-garde in incredibly fruitful ways. Being able to practice presenting aspects of my research and discussing them in detail with a group of my peers has been an invaluable experience and I look forward to many more exciting sessions in 2018/19!

The Avant-Garde Study Group meets during term time on alternate Tuesdays from 7-9pm and are always keen to welcome new members. For more information please contact avantgardestudygroup@gmail.com or find us on Twitter (@agstudies).

Health and Safety Training Available for Research Projects

These courses require a password to sign up. See end of post for details.

Risk Assessment using Sevron

Thursday August 30th. 10.00 – 13.00 A half-day course on general health and safety risk assessment with an introduction to the Sevron online risk assessment system. Book here

COSHH Risk Assessment using Sevron

This course is for people needing to assess the risks of the use of hazardous substances under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH). The course introduces the Sevron online risk assessment system and its use for COSHH assessments. There are several opportunities to undertake this training.

Wednesday September 12 morning session 10.00 – 13.00.

Wednesday September 12 afternoon session 14.00 – 17.00.

Thursday September 20 morning session 10.00 – 13.00.

Thursday September afternoon session 27 14.00 – 17.00.

Level 2 Award in Fire Safety

A one-day course for persons with special responsibilities for fire safety such as fire wardens. Wednesday September 19. 9.30 – 17.00. Book here.

Level 2 Award in Health and Safety at Work

A one-day course for persons with special responsibilities for general health and safety such as Departmental Safety Coordinators. September 25. 9.30 – 17.00. Book here.

Level 2 Award in Manual Handling

A one-day course for staff undertaking manual handling tasks as a regular part of their work. Monday 10 September 09.30 – 17.00. Book here.

 

These courses require a password to sign up. Follow the links and enter “BBK” at the Eventbrite page.

Birkbeck Intern Blog Post – Ralph Day

Ralph Day

I joined the Peltz Gallery intern team at the beginning of the academic year 2017/18. Interns are employed on a 40-hour contract, and we manage our own time, deciding how much time we would like to give to organising our own public engagement event, promoting and evaluating events at the Peltz, and installing and de-installing exhibitions.

The internship is designed to fit around our own PhD research, and all three interns have been flexible in swapping responsibilities and supporting each other in our Gallery projects. As well as promoting public events at the Peltz and supporting the install of exhibitions, the major part of my work as an intern has been conceiving, organising and facilitating a public engagement event.

In May, the Wellcome-funded, internationally-touring exhibition, Transitional States: Hormones at the Crossroads of Art and Science, was installed at the Peltz Gallery. The exhibition explores feminist and queer perspectives on the role of hormones in contraception, fertility, menopause, and gender transition. By chance, this academic year also saw the emergence of the Birkbeck Feminist and Queer Theory Reading Group.

While meetings of this reading group normally take place in seminar rooms at Birkbeck, it seemed to me that it would be stimulating to stage a discussion of a queer text at the Peltz Gallery with the Transitional States exhibition in place. And what better text to discuss, in order to engage with the themes of the exhibition, than Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, which explores the author’s use of testosterone as a form of ‘gender hacking’. This proved timely, as Preciado had also been invited by the organiser of Transitional States, Dr. Chiara Beccalossi, to deliver a lecture about his work at the Wellcome Collection in June.

With my bid for funding approved by Birkbeck Gender and Sexuality (BiGS), I invited two specialists to contribute to the reading group meeting at the Peltz, to help us unpack the relationship between queer and feminist theory and (art) practice: Raju Rage, a London-based artist and activist whose video work at Transitional States makes reference to Testo Junkie; and Sofia Ropek-Hewson, a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge who is writing her thesis about pharmacopornographic subjectivity in Preciado’s work. Spaces for this session quickly filled up, and it promises to be a valuable resource for the PhD and MA students involved. This may also signal the start of new partnerships between the Peltz Gallery and university reading groups.

 

Birkbeck Intern Blog Post – Aren Roukema

Aren Roukema

Internships Academic Publishing: Working with 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century

I had the great privilege of interning with 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, a well-respected humanities journal hosted by Birkbeck’s Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies. Over the course of helping with three excellent issues of the journal, I gained valuable experience copyediting text and liaising with authors, reviewers and editors, and just generally had an opportunity to get the sense of a casual, yet still quite professional publishing environment.

The position is largely self-directed, though the one-year internship at 19 is modeled on the adeptship of martial arts films — for the first six months you work and train with a more experienced intern who has already been in the position for at least one issue; for the last six months you’re the master. In reality this equates to learning and adjusting to situations together, as there’s always a new problem to solve, or at least a new twist on an old conundrum. That said, the support from the full-time editors at 19 was tremendous. I particularly benefitted from training and assistance with copyediting. I’d had some experience with this previously, but my time working with the 19 editors gave me an intense commitment to proper grammar and punctuation that I’m not entirely comfortable with with which I’m not entirely comfortable.

Though generally solitary, the internship could be quite social. During regular meetings with 19 staff and with faculty and students involved with the Centre, interns were frequently encouraged to share ideas for the future of the journal and other Centre activities. Internships like this one can be demanding on the already short supply of time available to a PhD student, but I encourage all who are interested in an academic career or a future in any aspect of publishing to apply. The position was fairly remunerated and provided excellent opportunities to develop skills related to both publishing and the critical evaluation of academic work.

Images taken from http://www.cncs.bbk.ac.uk/ 

Birkbeck Intern Blog Post – Shijia Yu

Shijia Yu

I have thoroughly enjoyed being an intern at Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies. Already a subscriber to the Centre’s newsletter and blog before applying for the PhD programme, I learned about this opportunity through the Centre and was lucky enough to be selected as event officer intern. Most of my responsibility lies in assisting the organisation of various Centre talks, lectures and conferences, and I also manage the blog and social media platform of the Centre, as well as sitting in Centre meetings and taking minutes.

The internship has been a rewarding, eye-opening and inspiring experience. As I am in frequent liaison with Birkbeck as well as external PhD colleagues and established scholars over the Centre’s everyday running, I have made many contacts in the field of nineteenth-century studies, which is where my PhD research lies. Communicating research with them helps me keep exploring new perspectives in my work.

Assisting the organisation of various events for the Centre is of great benefit for both my academic and employment prospects. Organising academic events is now expected from a PhD student, and part of the everyday life of a researcher in academia, which is what I aspire to be. Hence my experience from the internship will certainly help make things easier when it is my turn to devise an event.

In a way this is already proven true, as I have been most generously supported by the Centre, but most of all by its co-directors, in organising two events for Birkbeck Arts Week 2018: Paper Peepshow: Make Your Own, and Paper Peepshow: Peep into the Rabbit Hole. During my preparation for the two Arts Week events, they were very generous in their help, from giving guidance on my funding application to coming to the events on the day to show their support. The events have helped me address methodological issues that I have encountered during my first-year research, and also brought more attention to my research subject.

Apart from helping me during the Arts Week, the co-directors have also made sure that I have all the support needed on my daily work on the role, including providing me with handover notes, training me on skills such as minute taking, and maintaining the website. They also encourage me to develop my own working style and help me establish protocols and standards in my work. Indeed, this support can be felt with everyone in the Centre, and even my predecessor, who has long left the position, has come to my help again and again with admiring patience.

I find the internship a great opportunity for Birkbeck PhD students, and would definitely recommend it to others. In particular, the flexibility given to me on this role is incredible: I could finish 80% of the work at any time of my choice, hence integrating the internship into my PhD study nicely, instead of having it disrupting my research.

Shijia Yu, Research Student

The People’s Choice Winners – Three Minute Thesis 2018

Raul Valdivia

Three Questions for Three Minute Thesis

As one of the People’s Choice winners for 2018, how would you describe your experience of the 3MT event?

It was tough! I had practised my speech several times, but once I was in front of the audience I got too nervous and started to forget some bits, so I had to improvise. I guess I wanted to sound calm but passionate about my work at the same time, which is always difficult to get it right. I am glad people in the audience got a clear idea of what my research was about (analysis of photographs taken by slum dwellers in Lima). Overall, the 3MT event was a good experience and very well organised, I can now explain my work in less than three minutes!

Did you submit a poster for the Poster Presentation, if yes/no what did you think of the posters?

Yes, I did. I put lots of effort and creativity into the design of my poster. Coming from the School of Arts, I knew the standard format for posters was not going to suit my needs. The research poster structure is very much based on a cause-effect approach to the study of natural phenomena and social relations. I personally disagree with such positivistic model, even though I have a psychology and sociology background, so I wanted to tell a story in my poster in a way that could give viewers a sense of what it is that I am exploring, my findings so far, and the contribution my study makes to society. I anticipated most poster judges were going to be drawn from disciplines different to mine (visual studies), so I used some of the standard poster sections to keep it within the traditional assessment criteria. Sadly, I did not win, but many people complemented my poster highly, which is always a good indicator and rewarding of course.

 

Would you recommend taking part in 3MT to other PhD students next year?

Absolutely! If anything, it is a good opportunity to think about what you are doing in your research and how to best explain it to people who may not be familiar with your topic. Besides, you could win a good cash prize!

 

Pavni Kohli

When I first heard of the Three-Minute thesis challenge, I had just entered the writing phase of my PhD after an exciting year of field work and was feeling as if I was losing steam. Having presented my research at a conference in the previous few months I realised the exercise was very helpful in refocusing my thoughts. Within this context the 3MT seemed like a much-needed opportunity to step back and regain some clarity and enthusiasm for my research.

The first thing I did was look up the videos of past winners from Birkbeck and other universities. Although it seemed challenging to present three years of work in three minutes, I decided to participate because the PhD students looked like they were having a lot of fun.

Indeed, the whole experience was hugely enjoyable, starting from the training workshop which was also a great learning experience. We learned ways to capture the audiences’ imagination, communicate our ideas quickly and clearly along with breathing and body language techniques. My favourite part was meeting PhD students from other departments and learning about their projects. Their passion and enthusiasm were infectious, to say the least and I felt energised and determined to give my best. The interactive nature of the workshop meant that we could test our presentation styles and get immediate feedback about what worked and what didn’t.

This camaraderie and infectious energy carried onto the evening of the challenge where I was happy to see so many presentations and posters on such a range of fascinating topics. The atmosphere was incredible with an almost full auditorium and a warm, cheerful and sporty audience. I was very nervous but the supportive atmosphere made me feel at ease and my nervousness melted away.

It was an honour to be chosen the people’s choice winner. For me, the three-minute thesis challenge is all about connecting with the audience, communicating my research concisely and clearly and conveying the passion I feel for my work. I felt great satisfaction at achieving these goals and was delighted that the audience voted for me.

I highly recommend participating in the 3MT to other PhD students as its not only a hugely enjoyable experience but is also a tremendously powerful exercise in honing presentation and communication skills and regaining clarity and focus.

 

Raul (Department of Cultures and Languages) and Pavni Department of Geography) took joint place  for the People’s Choice Award this year.

Watch Raul’s talk “Picturing Utopia: Photography against the odds in a Peruvian sunset” here

Watch Pavni’s talk “Looking beyond fear in Delhi: Mapping women’s everyday life” here.

Cathy Rogers: Why I took part in the 3 minute thesis competition

Before doing my PhD, I spent two decades working as a TV producer, with a particular interest in science programming, so over the years I interviewed a lot of scientists. They used to drive me nuts! They would be working on such interesting projects and seeing the world through a completely fresh lens – but they were often just awful at talking about their research, at least in a way anyone could understand. They were unable or unwilling to say anything with certainty, they always insisted more research was needed and in the worst cases they even wore their inability to ‘dumb things down’ as a badge of pride.

So now I am on the other side. In some respects, I can appreciate more viscerally scientists’ stance. As you learn more and more about a subject, you appreciate more and more of its complexities and sometimes you feel you fully understand less and less. Saying things with certainty requires a 100% that science, with its 95% benchmark, will never (or very rarely (see there I am giving the caveat)) meet. But I still believe that if you can’t explain the essence of what you are doing and why you are doing it in a way that anyone interested can understand, then either you don’t understand it yourself, or it isn’t worth doing.

 

To me, that’s what the 3 minute thesis competition is all about. Going back to the big questions of your research – why do you care? Why should anyone else care? And how are you going to go about inching forward knowledge with that bigger picture in mind.

 

Cathy Rogers (Department of Psychological Sciences) was awarded runner-up and a £250 prize for her talk “Freedom and control: how do children achieve their creative goals?”

You can watch her full talk here.