William Matthews Memorial Lecture: ‘European Journeys, Medieval and Modern’

Dr Marion Turner’s lecture on Chaucer’s writings and journeys reframed the quintessentially English writer as a great European poet and source of inspiration beyond the continent.

Dr Marion Turner took an audience of Chaucer enthusiasts on a journey through the poet’s works for the 2019 William Matthews Memorial Lecture. Following on from her own travels around Europe, where she contrasted the medieval with the contemporary, she demonstrated how Chaucer weaved his journeys through Europe into his works of poetry. Geoffrey Chaucer was an English poet and author, whose most famous works include The Canterbury Tales. He is often thought of as ‘the Father of English Literature.’

During her research, Dr Turner endeavoured to go on a physical journey through contemporary Europe in order to retrace Chaucer’s journey through Medieval Europe, to understand his interests, works and what gives the writer appeal beyond the borders of England.

Early on in the lecture, Dr Turner shared the impetus of her travels; being approached to write a biography of Chaucer’s life. She lamented that, upon sitting down to write the book, the plan she sketched was not very different from any other biography written about Chaucer. Frustrated, she set out on a walk to help her find ways of approaching the structure of the book, when she came to her ‘road to Damascus moment’; the idea to approach Chaucer’s work through his travels through Europe in the fourteenth century as a way of understanding the writer in the reader’s imagination.

Dr Turner reflected on numerous characterisations of Chaucer as an English poet firmly rooted in the English imagination and identity. She used the example of UKIP aligning Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Alisoun with the party during the 2013 election, thus painting her as an English archetype. But this trope is challenged by the numerous writers of colour, particularly women, who have taken Chaucer’s work and adapted it to create stories in their own contexts.

What’s more, through her travels she found that Chaucer’s stories came from distant places made up of diverse demographics. Particularly Navarre, located in the northern region of Spain, where Chaucer visited and saw members of the three main religions living harmoniously. She highlights that in the medieval period the most educated of the population were multilingual and that Chaucer himself would have been influenced by French, Italian and Latin poetry, which he enjoyed.

Chaucer’s travels through Europe also highlighted to Dr Turner the importance he places on perspective in his work, and it is this transition of perspective that characterises much of his poetry. She gives the example of the prominence of birds and someone who can only see from the ground as a way of demonstrating these different perspectives, which will inform an individual’s thinking on any given situation.

The lecture concluded with a reflection on Chaucer’s views of time and crossings, the place of crossing being “a place of magic, darkness and possibility” – an ongoing action in which the past infiltrates the present, much like the persistent influence of Chaucer’s works on writers across place and space within the literary canon.

The William Mathews memorial lecture is an annual lecture on either the English language or medieval English literature.

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Birkbeck students’ away day fuelled their appetite for interdisciplinary collaborative research

Last week a select group of Birkbeck’s BSc Biomedicine and MRes Global Infectious Diseases project students with a few others visited The Francis Crick Institute, informally known as ‘Sir Paul’s Cathedral’, located just a short walk from Birkbeck’s main campus.

The Crick Institute (formerly the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation) is a biomedical research centre right at the heart of London. The institute is named after Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins.

La Young Jackson from International Students’ Administration team in collaboration with the Scientists from the Crick Institute organised this trip which was part of enhancing international students’ experience agenda at Birkbeck. The Birkbeck group was hosted and guided by Dr Minee Choi, a brilliant neuroscientist and researcher who showed the laboratory facilities and the sophisticated equipment used by the scientists working at the Crick.

Borna Matubber, a BSc Biomedicine Independent Research Project Student at Professor Sanjib Bhakta’s Mycobacteria Research Lab at Birkbeck, University of London said: “This was an amazing opportunity to interact with the scientists at the biggest single biomedical laboratory in Europe! It was truly motivating for young researchers like us to go above and beyond and appreciate how discoveries to change lives.”

Professor Bhakta adds: “A collaborative interdisciplinary approach is the way to address many of the major global challenges of our time. Students had the opportunity to step outside their lab and own zone of interest to think beyond the obvious, reflect and bring new energy back to their project. This would add great value to their research experience that we always encourage at our institution.” Professor Bhakta added.

Birkbeck officially partners with the Crick, UCL and LSHTM to jointly host the World TB Day 2020 on the 24 March at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health.

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“My disability does not have to halt my career options in the way I thought they would”

After an accident left Esther Adegoke with a disability she sought to complete her studies in Politics at Birkbeck. Last week, she graduated with a First.

Esther doesn’t recall exactly what sparked her interests in studying politics. Just that her sisters who had studied politics at AS level would come home and discuss topics from their classes, topics that piqued her interest more than any of the GSCE subjects she was studying at the time.

After completing her A levels she opted for a degree in Politics at the University of Leicester. In the beginning of her third year she was involved in an accident that left her using a wheelchair and in need of a full-time care team, meaning she could no longer study in Leicester.  Determined to continue her degree, Esther looked for options in her home city of London where she came across Birkbeck, “what gave Birkbeck the winning edge for me was the evening classes, it was more practical having lectures at 6pm because it fit my routine as opposed to morning lectures and seminars.”

At Birkbeck, Esther found new topics that sparked her interests in Politics further and in different ways. “My favourite course, funnily enough wasn’t a module taken under the politics department but actually the psychosocial department called, ‘racism and antisemitism’. I found it interesting because it did something unique in that it challenged us to investigate the commonalities and differences between anti-black racism and antisemitism. Of course, I had seen instances of the two racisms being studied separately, but never together.”

Fortunately, Esther had the support of her family and friends who were pivotal in helping her complete her work.  “My mum accompanied me to every lecture and seminar I attended and my sisters often read my essays.” The College’s Disability team were also instrumental in allowing her to complete her course. She recalled: “My disability officer Mark Pimm and scribe Yvonne Plotwright were a massive support to me. Mark went above and beyond to ensure that my points were taken seriously and Yvonne was extremely thorough in her note-taking, ensuring I didn’t miss any vital information from my lectures and seminars.”

The accident left her unable to speak for long periods of time before her voice became exhausted so she used EyeGaze to help her craft her essays. EyeGaze is software that enables the individual’s eye to control the mouse and keyboard of a computer. She explained: “I took to it rather quickly, I used to use it recreationally and even then I was told the hours I would spend on it were unheard of. Without Eye Gaze I wouldn’t have been able to complete my degree. “

Now Esther has graduated with a First Class degree, recognition for all of her determination and resilience. She says of her achievement, “It felt amazing, I was over the moon with my result and without sounding arrogant it was even more rewarding because I knew I deserved it. I worked so hard for it so it was special to know my hard work had actually paid off.”

Unsure of what she will do next, Esther still feels positive about her future. “My experience at Birkbeck with the assistance of Eye Gaze has really given me the confidence to say that my disability does not have to halt my career options in a way I previously thought they would. I have often said that I have no plans to return to study after my undergraduate degree but never say never; at least I know it’s a case of if I want to go back as opposed to I can’t.”

Dr Ben Worthy, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics said: “Here at the Department of Politics, we are all so proud of what Esther has achieved and honoured to have been able to help her in her studies. She’s not only been a model student but an inspiration to us all. We also want to say a big thank you to everyone around her, especially the disabilities office and her family and friends who supported her along the way.”

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”With the right motivations you can shift your life for the better”: young father works nights to achieve degree success

Marco Murdocca’s ambition to change his career led him to pursue a degree in Psychology at Birkbeck. Like many students he juggled a full-time job, working night shifts throughout his four year degree. Now with a new job and a young family, he reflects on how his hard work paid off.

After deciding on a career change Marco thought that Birkbeck’s evening taught degrees would enable him to fulfill his ambition while supporting his family. He was impressed by the quality of the teaching in the psychology department and inspired by the original mission of the College’s founder, George Birkbeck who he said, “intended to give an opportunity to the working class to gain further education and better lives. That really resonated with my situation and further convinced me to choose Birkbeck.”

Like most students, Marco faced the challenge of fitting in his studies with an incredibly busy schedule. During the week he worked in The Victoria, Grosvenor Casino and for the last two years of his degree he looked after his pregnant wife and eventually their son, Dante. Marco reflected: “Four days a week I would have been at university by 3pm to prepare for the lecture, and then I attended the lecture from 6pm to 8:30pm and after that I would go to work for a 10pm to 6am shift to finally end up in bed at 7am. For four years.”

Marco progressed well through his studies finding support from his lecturers, particularly his project supervisor, PhD candidate Isabella Nizza, who he said “has been great supporting me and pushing me over my limits and made the project a very formative journey.” But also from his fellow classmates whose varied backgrounds meant that as a group they pushed each other to get things done.

Ultimately, Marco’s source of inspiration was his family. “At the start of my journey, changing my career and upgrading my life was the leading drive. Towards the end, it became my wife and my son.”

His hard work has paid off as soon after completing the course Marco got a job as a consultant at The Business Transformation Network, a company that provides brand amplification to businesses from the HR tech landscape, where he is involved in attracting new partners to the network and sustains relationships with those already a part of it. He has not ruled out a Master’s degree in the future, but understandably for now he will be focusing on his new job and his family.

Marco’s parting words of advice for anyone thinking of a career change: “I would say, go ahead and get a degree and take ownership of your future. London has a wealth of educational opportunities to take advantage of, irrespective of age, gender, religion, sexual orientation and life commitments. What I realised is that with the right motivations and mindset you can achieve big and shift your life for the better. A bit of luck also helps!”

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