Out of this World: An Evening with the Planets

This post was contributed by Henry Rummins, Communications Manager at Birkbeck, University of London

1.-SpaceIt is a question which humans have pondered for thousands of years when looking up at the night sky and seeing the thousands of dots of light which gradually twinkle into view: what is out there, beyond our world?

It was these questions, too, which led Dr Louise Alexander, now a post-Doctoral researcher at the UCL/Birkbeck Centre for Planetary Sciences, to follow her curiosity and begin a journey which would begin at introductory classes at UCL to a Master’s degree and PhD at Birkbeck to her current destination, analysing rock samples brought back from the Apollo 12 mission to the moon, to determine lunar geology.

Her story was one of six presented on the evening in a showcase of planetary wonders hosted by Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement at UCL, comedian and founder of Science Showoff, looking at aspects of the solar system ranging from our closest neighbour, the moon, to distant Pluto and beyond. Yet while the planets were the stars of the show, the stories of all the researchers in planetary science reminded us that reflecting on the cosmos often brings that questioning back down to Earth, and what it means to be human; to look up and the night sky, and wonder.

It was a theme which ran through Clara Sousa Silva’s look at Twinkle, a space mission that will analyse light reflected from planets outside the solar system to reveal the chemical composition of their atmospheres, as well as, it’s hoped, their weather and history, giving crucial clues to worlds outside the solar system and potentially spotting clues for life elsewhere.

As well as the science behind the project, she also looked at how to encourage more women into studying science in school through to university level, and subsequently pursing research as a career option, illustrating her point with some sobering facts on the current low level of female participation in the sector.

A fly-by of planetary science made up the evening’s contribution from Dr Pete Grindrod, who busted some of the most widely believed myths about Mars, with a look at the origins of planets and the Rosetta comet mission by Geraint Jones and a look at missions to Jupiter by Lucia Ray making up the trio.

The evening rounded off with the first performance of a new piece of music interpreting the celestial dance between Pluto and its moon Charon, called Pluto and Charon – A Planetary Waltz. The piece – commissioned by the Centre for Planetary Sciences at UCL/Birkbeck – was accompanied by grainy footage of Charon orbiting Pluto, enhancing the original piece played as a piano duet between Valentina Pravodelov and Kerry Yong. It ended the evening where we started: stimulating the excitement and curiosity of wondering, what’s out there?

An Evening with the Planets was presented by The Centre for Planetary Sciences at UCL/Birkbeck

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Law on Trial: The End(s) of the Legal Academy

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer for Birkbeck, University of London

Law on TrialThe School of Law’s Law on Trial 2015 came to a close on Friday 19 June with an exploration of the Legal Academy – or rather what its role is at a time when its ends and purport are increasingly being put under the microscope.

Organised by Prof Peter Fitzpatrick, the workshop featured presentations from a trio of legal academics – and each responded to by thoughts from a further three discussants.

From the high pressured environments of the legal professional, to the complexities of ‘legitimised’ violence, to an examination of the pre- and post-war structures of the university, the afternoon event offered plenty food for thought for the gathered audience of legal academics, professionals and students.

Wellbeing in the Legal Profession

The trio of presentations was begun by Prof Richard Collier of Newcastle University who discussed his recent paper – and ongoing research – in the area of Wellbeing in the Legal Profession. During the course of his talk, Prof Collier argued that not only is there considerable evidence that interest in wellbeing in the legal profession is growing; there are multiple strands to it, including:

  • The study of wellbeing in the profession – recent articles in this area have looked at the hyper-competitive environment and the implications on social connectedness and subjective wellbeing of the lawyer
  • The impact of legal training and education programmes on wellbeing – with ever-growing pressures being put on students being reflected in an increasing uptake of on-campus wellbeing and counselling services
  • The proliferation of wellbeing programmes being run in law firms, which underlines a growing recognition of poor wellbeing in the legal profession, and the desire to tackle it

Prof Collier then critiqued these emergent areas of study, and highlighted the discourses arising from them. Among them, he noted an ‘individualised discourse’, in which attention is directed away from wider structural, political and economic forces i.e. wellbeing as a personal, not a political issue.

A further over-arching theme was the commodification of wellbeing, and how it is considered by many to be another artefact of the neoliberalist world – where ‘wellness’ is considered important primarily because it is a vital part of the profitability of the law firm.

Future research, he concluded, could examine how normalised the hyper-competitiveness/wellbeing situation is, and to what extent the legal profession is now a field only survivable by an elite class who can successfully self-manage its pressures.

In her response to Prof Collier’s presentation, Prof Fiona Macmillan questioned a university’s complicity in laying the ground work for, and perpetuating, the high-pressured environments of the legal profession.

The Law School and the Force of Law

Next up was a presentation by Birkbeck’s Prof Patricia Tuitt, executive dean of the School of Law. The relationship between law and violence, she explained, has underpinned much of her work.

Reflecting this field of interest, Prof Tuitt presented her thoughts and findings as outlined in her recent paper, which explores:

  • Walter Benjamin’s 1921 essay, Critique of Violence, in which the German philosopher contemplates the seeming paradox of an exercise of a legal right being construed as an act of violence – subject, potentially, to the emergency jurisdiction of the state.

And its applicability to a 21st Century incident:

  • In which an American law school dean recently wrote to her students, urging them to take part in protests in Baltimore – even offering to defer an exam for those who help people on the street with legal advice (read the Washington Post article)

Examining this incident within the boundaries of Benjamin’s proposition on sanctioned vs unsanctioned violence, Prof Tuitt noted that the dean’s actions could have been construed as an extortionate use of legal rights. However, she also noted that Benjamin’s Critique doesn’t adequately address the 21st Century legal system, such as the impact of human rights principles.

In his response to Prof Tuitt’s presentation, Dr Eddie Bruce-Jones, continued the conversation on the matters of the distinction between the academy and the legal system; what this might mean for the end of the legal academy; and asked whether – given the topics under analysis – the State needs the University to stay alive, or whether it merely keeps the University barely alive for its own legitimacy.

The Structure of a University

Closing the presentations for the afternoon, Birkbeck’s Soo Tian Lee examined the historical structure of a university from the perspectives of:

  • Instrumentalism
  • Idealism
  • The University-in-itself
  • Forms of life

In discussing each structure, Soo Tian examined the contexts of the university during the post-war consensus era, and the rise of the neoliberalist university in which it has become “subordinated to narrow economic goals”.

Instrumentalism and idealism are often seen as opposed, Soo Tian explained. However, he finds this to be “a false dichotomy”, and instead proposed “a relational structure” in which both instrumentalist and idealist principles co-exist. Also within this relational structure are what he described as ‘Forms of life’ – i.e. the individual habits of an institution which, though not always easy to identity, exist nontheless.

In summation, Soo Tian offered what he considered “an uncomfortable conclusion”, in that the objective of such a study such as his, can only be to lay out the proposed structure of the post-war educational institution and let it be discussed.

If an overly neat or definitive conclusion is found, he explained, “it should be killed immediately”. “Unflinching rightness is to be approached with caution”, he concluded.

Soo tian’s presentation was responded to by discussant Dr Matthew Charles, of the University of Westminster. Dr Charles spoke of the university as a special kind of community, and examined it within the context – and limitations – of Kantian theory on antinomy.

The workshop’s final half hour comprised an open Q&A opportunity between the panellists and audience members.

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On Going On: Sustaining Life in Theatre

This post was contributed by Maria Patsou, PhD student, Birkbeck Department of English and Humanities who attended the One-day symposium, Birkbeck Centre for Contemporary Theatre, 5 June 2015

Rosemary Lee discusses the intersections of work and life in her dance practice

Rosemary Lee discusses the intersections of work and life in her dance practice

This one-day symposium came at the end of a year’s exploration of desire in theatre at the Birkbeck Centre of Contemporary Performance. The intention of the symposium was to extend desire to ideas of support, wellbeing, welfare and overall sustainability of self and others from multiple angles.

The day was devised in the following sections:

It concluded with a Key Note Dialogue between Professor Alan Read and David Slater, on their community theatre work during the 80s at Rotherhithe.

Representing minority voices

Lobel’s and O’Brien’s autobiographical practice on physical illness highlighted the artist’s survival through presenting difficult material, utilising the audience’s negative and positive responses and voicing the unspoken.

D’Souza covered questions of empowerment and disempowerment, by narrating his relationship with theatre from an early age and focused on his experience of enabling others as a member of the RADA audition panel. In a similar autobiographical manner, Beau’s talk focused on the importance of performance for his survival, his relationship to enabling others, and the value of narrative in representing minority voices, a recurring theme of the day.

Questions arose on the separation between artist and human, performer and audience, and the ways we connect to each other. The value of obstacles and doing work in the community were the focal point of Lee’s and Shah’s presentation.

Lee discussed being sustained from the knowledge of creating something valuable for the society, and Shah explored thriving through disappointment, and utilising negative feelings on improving and going on.

Theatre in the community

During the second part of the day, Green examined the role of the producer in the theatre and the intricacies of surviving and controlling oneself. Wookey presented her work as an artist and entrepreneur and discussed finding strength to go on from within community, which was a common theme in Paul’s presentation as well, while Fleming presented the union’s efforts in giving people a voice and thus sustaining artists.

David Slater (left) and Alan Read (right) discuss their work in Rotherhithe Theatre Workshop

David Slater (left) and Alan Read (right) discuss their work in Rotherhithe Theatre Workshop

The Key Note Dialogue delivered by Alan Read and David Slater, complemented recurring themes about the place of theatre in the community and the importance of the community’s critique and concentrated on theatre as a mirror of societal change.

Perseverance and willingness to share were some of the day’s conclusions, as well as perceiving artist and human as one, and recognising performance as inextricably linked to its surroundings, in a community where each individual plays an instrumental part on sustaining and enabling themselves and others.

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Buying, Selling and Impact – ‘In the Market for Academic Research’

This post was contributed by Habibatou Gani, senior editor at the Birkbeck Law Review, Birkbeck University, University of London. The Birkbeck Law Review Conference will take place in November 2015.

Law on TrialThe fourth day of Law on Trial 2015 saw Professor Fiona Macmillan chair a panel of leading academics on the issue of ‘Scholars, Intellectuals and Research Evaluation Exercises’. The panel considered the research function carried out by universities.

It reflected on the opportunities and criteria for research funding within academic research. It ended its discussion with an engaging debate on the challenges and hopes for the future of academic research.

Prof Macmillan, of Birkbeck’s School of Law, opened the panel discussion by posing a series of questions to the panellists and the audience. She asked those present to consider how universities think about themselves as scholars and what role academics play. She introduced the panellists:

From intellectual enquiry to a tool for economic growth

Prof Ashiagbor started by saying that she wanted people to consider how universities think about scholarship. A look at Lord Robbins’ report on higher education, published in October 1963, reveals the then prevailing attitudes toward universities as intellectual incubators, within which, according to Robbins, students were exposed to intellectual inquiry.

Ashiagbor contrasts that position with the demonstrable shift in attitudes, wherein higher education and the institutions which dispense them, are seen as existing in an open market for education and competition for students. Education is seen, by the state, primarily as a tool for economic growth. Ashiagbor notes that presently, the government agency responsible for allocating the education budget falls within the auspices of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Ashiagbor also wanted to introduce the idea of what she has quite interestingly coined as the ‘entrepreneurial scholar’. She says that this shift in focusing on the monetisation of academic scholarship has compelled some scholars to convert their academic research into easily digestible material.

The Research Excellence Framework (‘REF’) and the ‘impact’ criterion

Both Ashiagbor and Norrie discussed the REF and reflected on its impact on research scholarship. REF 2014 was a culmination of an assessment of research undertaken from 2008 to 2013. Ashiagbor explained that REF sought to assess the impact of research outside of academia.

Impact, in the context of REF, is defined as “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia”. Ashiagbor expressed her reservation regarding the inclusion and centrality of ‘impact’ in the task of assessing the power of research. She recalled that many, now household legal and social, concepts such as sexual harassment and transitional justice did not exist before research. She asked, how would and could one go about quantifying the impact of such research. In this vein, Ashiagbor noted that ‘REF impact’ has shifted the focus from narrowing research to mechanical and measurable output.

Norrie, spoke about his participation in REF. His approach was far more pragmatic. He noted that today the neo liberal university is what he eloquently coined, a ‘leaner enterprise’ in so far as competition for academic scholarship and funding means that universities are increasingly selective in the academic pursuits they choose to support. Equally, Norrie noted that despite the REF initiative, ‘we must remain academic communities within and outside academia’.

Alan Norrie talking on the REF panel

End of a Certain Type of Academic Work?

At the outset of his address, Motha explained that he wanted to talk about what he considered to be the end of a certain type of academic work. He said that when thinking about the impact of impact on academic research, we should remember why one enters academia in the first place. In doing so, he compared the achievements of the Feminist Judgement Project at Kent University and the MacBride judgement in South Africa.

Emerging Marketization of Education

As Motha spoke to the death of certain species of academic work, in the Q&A that followed, Prof Adam Gearey of Birkbeck Law School, sitting in the audience, intervened with a comment and question. He opined that through its discussions, intentionally or unintentionally, the panel had raised questions of work and value of work at play within education.

Prof Gearey questioned whether the REF was in fact asserting education as a market in of itself. Reshaping the discussion, Prof Gearey asked that if an ‘education market’ was being asserted, it was seemingly unregulated. He invited the panel to consider the existence of the education market and the dangers of its seemingly unregulated existence. In response, Ashiagbor saw the merits in the argument for the emerging marketization of education, owing to the discerning shift in focus within academic scholarship to competition, rather than intellectual collaboration.

The final intervention came from Dr Nadine El-Enanay, lecturer at law at Birkbeck Law School. She asked the panel, whether in furtherance of creating an education market, REF intended to bread competitive rivalry within academia. The panellists noted that REF might well have resulted in a kind of competitive rivalry within academia.

In closing, Motha expressed renewed hope that academic institutions and individual scholars, would continue to operate collaboratively, insulating themselves against commercial influences and staying true to what brought them to academia. In doing so, Motha hoped to preserve what he considered the core purpose of academic scholarship, to engage in critical thinking and research.

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