Family Learning: promoting the benefits of lifelong learning to a wider audience

Birkbeck alumna Yvonne Plowright and current student Liliana Torres discuss their experiences with the Family Learning events attended by the Widening Access team. 

Yvonne Plowright at a Family Learning event

The Widening Access team at Birkbeck collaborate with other London universities (including UCL, King’s and City) to attend parents’ evenings and other family events at these institutions, with the aim of promoting learning which spans the generations.  Through workshops and talks in which current students and alumni also share their experience of studying at Birkbeck, we are able to demonstrate to parents and carers what Birkbeck, and higher education, has to offer.

Often they are in attendance to support their children with making a decision about where to study, so it is a fantastic opportunity to talk with people who may not have considered studying at university.  By providing them with information, advice and guidance, we encourage parents and carers to consider embarking on their own university journey too.

One Birkbeck alumna, Yvonne Plowright, has been a regular ambassador at the family learning events we attend.  Here, she discusses how she got involved and why she enjoys doing these events:

“Among its many attributes, Birkbeck prides itself on being the university “for students who simply refuse to stop learning”.  That rubric always strikes a chord with me, perhaps because I am a mature student who has made a commitment to lifelong learning.  I am passionate about education for all, so when Birkbeck’s Widening Access Team invited me to join them at family learning events, I jumped at the chance.

“I have a BA in Philosophy from Birkbeck and these events are my opportunity to share my story and to say thank you to this magnificent university for changing my life in ways I could never have imagined.  I returned to student life after an absence of over thirty years, when I was busy with a career, working full-time and raising a family.  Once my children had grown up and left home to further their education and pursue their interests, I was able to fulfil the promise I had made to myself to continue with my own studies.

“When I attend the family learning events, I usually give a short talk about my journey to Birkbeck and the absolutely wonderful experience of being a mature university student – how this has grown my sense of self-worth, my confidence and how it has made me a much happier, more productive member of society.  The highlight of each event for me, however, is always the time I then have to meet and interact with adults who may have come to the event in support of their children, or grandchildren, or nieces and nephews, without realising that a big part of our presentation is aimed at them.   Much to their surprise, our adult guests discover that Birkbeck wants to engage with them too.  It is a joy to be told by guests that they feel really inspired and are now thinking in terms of taking that first step to either return to university or go to university for the first time.  It’s the feeling of planting seeds which will one day bear fruit that I find so rewarding about these tremendously worthwhile events.”

Liliana Torres applied to study the Foundation Degree in Management and Accounting after meeting Birkbeck representatives at an event in 2017.  She has shared her experience of being a student at Birkbeck so far:

“I first heard about Birkbeck at a Family Day event last year at King’s College in Strand. I heard two accounts from Birkbeck graduates and felt inspired. I decided to do a Foundation Degree in Management and Accounting as I am running a small business and wanted to further develop my professional skills. I decided to do the four years part-time as I have children and other commitments. I believe I have chosen the right university for me as there is a lot of support and my tutors are always happy to give me feedback and answers any queries I have. I attend the study skills workshops which offer a lot of help, this has really supported me in me learning even receiving a merit on my first essay was a big achievement for me. Most importantly, I have enjoyed my experience at Birkbeck and have recommended it to family and friends.”

For further information about our family learning activities and the organisations we work with, please visit http://www.bbk.ac.uk/about-us/outreach/family-learning

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Constitutions, committees and campaigns: an evening at the Birkbeck Students’ Union AGM

Sean Fitzpatrick, Communications Coordinator for Birkbeck’s Students’ Union, gives a run-down of the most recent Annual General Meeting (AGM) – and invites current students to stand in the elections as Liberation Officers and Student Leaders.

A lot has been going on across the Students’ Union this academic year – so much, in fact, we had to have two Annual General Meetings.

Every Birkbeck Student is welcome to come along to our AGM. Everyone is welcome to vote on any issues that arise at the meeting. This is one of the many ways that we make sure everything we do is informed by what students tell us they want.

With one of the largest attendances of the past decade, we settled down for an evening of discussion on all things Birkbeck. First up was officer accountability, where attendees were invited to grill the elected Student Leaders and Liberation Officers on their work, poring over their officer reports and manifestos to make sure they’re doing everything that they said they’d do!

Incidentally, we’re looking for people who would be interested in being one of our paid Liberation Officers and Student Leaders for the 2018/19 academic year. If you’re interested – you can read more about our elections and put your name forward on our website.

We then had a brief run through the current financial state of the Students’ Union, where students can see where our funding comes from and how we’re spending it – it’s important for us to be transparent. We then ran through changes to our constitution, the core document that defines the Union’s ethos and purpose. All of the changes were put to the room, and students voted either in favour or against each proposed change. Once that was done, we continued our discussions at the George Bar on the fourth floor of Birkbeck’s Malet Street building, right next to the Students’ Union offices.

Our AGMs are a great introduction to how the Students’ Union works and how we can work to support Birkbeck students. They also give you an opportunity to vote on how the Students’ Union uses its resources and to bring any issues you feel are affecting students to our attention.

If you have anything you feel the Students’ Union can help you with, please contact us! We’re here to help you make the most of your time at Birkbeck. Get in touch by messaging us on Facebook or Twitter, or by emailing us at studentsunion@bbk.ac.uk

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The Man Booker at Birkbeck: author Julian Barnes on The Sense of an Ending

Dr Ben Winyard, Senior Content Editor, discusses the recent Man Booker event at Birkbeck, which saw author Julian Barnes in conversation with Russell Celyn Jones, Professor of Creative Writing.

On 27 November 2017, prize-winning novelist, essayist, journalist, memoirist and art critic Julian Barnes came to Birkbeck for the annual Man Booker at Birkbeck event. Hundreds of Birkbeck students, alumni and staff – including many from Birkbeck’s popular and successful creative writing programmes – attended the event, while 2000 free copies of Barnes’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending (2011), were distributed in the weeks beforehand. This is the seventh year of this ongoing, hugely successful initiative between Birkbeck and the Man Booker Foundation and, as Hilary Fraser, Executive Dean of the School of Arts, observed in her introduction, both institutions are committed to ‘the public good’ of bringing the highest cultural and intellectual achievements, including the very best of contemporary literature, to the widest possible audience.

In a genial, urbane and erudite exchange, Russell Celyn Jones, Professor of Creative Writing at Birkbeck, discussed The Sense of an Ending with Barnes, interrogating him about the novel’s genesis, central concerns and themes, and readers’ responses. The Sense of an Ending is a meditation on the pleasures and perils of ageing, the slipperiness of memory, the contingency of identity, and the sting of remorse. It is narrated in the first-person by Tony Webster, an affable, very British everyman, who has happily – perhaps even smugly – sailed through life with as little friction and emotional upset as possible. In the first part of the novel, we are treated to Tony’s blandly straightforward memories of his sixth-form and university days, as the repressed 1960s begin to sputter into life with the falling away of old prohibitions. In a bravura middle section, Barnes glosses over four decades of Tony’s very ordinary life in just five paragraphs, emphasising the swift passage of time and the terse eulogy of a man who has lived entirely according to his own fixed self-image as a ‘regular, reliable, honest chap’, in Barnes’s words. In the second half of the novel, Tony’s life is upended by revelations about the death by suicide, forty years previously, of his precociously brilliant school friend, Adrian, and the return to his life of his acerbic first girlfriend, Veronica.

In a tussle over ownership of Adrian’s lost diary, Tony endures a series of baffling, bruising encounters with an indignant Veronica, whose constant refrain is, ‘You don’t get it, but then you never did’. The recovery of a half-remembered letter he sent Adrian in a fit of pique overturns his quietism, revealing a moment of youthful callousness that belies his lifelong self-image as an amiable, decent and morally equitable person. Tony is also confronted with uncomfortable truths about a child secretly fathered by Adrian, forcing him to reassess his memories and unleashing an irremediable, guilty sense of responsibility for contributing to Adrian’s suicidal despair. We might regard Tony as ‘cowardly’, Barnes observed, or as ‘emotionally practical’, but he is less an unreliable narrator than a narrator who simply gets things wrong.

Barnes located the origins of the novel in his 2008 memoir, Nothing to be Frightened of, which explored his own intense fear of dying and death. While writing this piece, he shared with his philosopher brother a memory of their grandfather slaughtering chickens, which his brother remembered so differently as to present Barnes with two alternative, ‘incompatible’ memories. This powered his interest in the precariousness of memory, which has profound implications for our sense of self, but also for the writing of history more generally. In the novel’s early scenes, the young Adrian quotes a historian invented by Barnes – whom some readers have fruitlessly Googled and even quoted as if he were real – who argues, ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’ The Sense of an Ending is thus shot through with concerns about causation, memory and the writing of personal and national histories. This ‘comic beginning’ to the novel was accompanied by the personal discovery of the death by suicide of a brilliant school friend many years before, which encouraged Barnes to explore in fiction how we can think of the dead as alive and fantasise about their unlived lives.

Barnes admitted that he liked wielding the authorial tool of a hidden secret, enlisting the reader as a detective or a historian, who must piece together events from Tony’s unreliable memories. Barnes also confessed to enjoying inflicting a correctional revelation on his complacent narrator, unearthing his buried, youthful capacity for ‘great emotional violence’, as well as delivering a shock to the reader, who has taken Tony at his word and understood him as essentially mild. Through Tony, Barnes explores how our memories, which can feel utterly truthful and foundational to our sense of self, can be sanitised, redacted and preserved in mental aspic. Barnes confessed that he shares Veronica’s punitiveness, as we come to understand the profoundly damaging effect Tony’s blithe letter had on her.  ‘Remorse’, Barnes expounded, has its etymology in Latin and originally meant ‘to bite again’, and it is through the sharpness of his regret that Tony comes to a deeper understanding of himself, his history and his actions.

Barnes discussed his own belief that our character is largely fixed in childhood and the illusoriness of our adolescent sense that our life ‘as free philosophical individuals’ will fully begin when we become adults. In distinction to existential philosophy, which emphasises individual freedom and action and which Barnes’s young characters affectedly adopt, Barnes argues that ‘your room for manoeuvre in your life is smaller than you think’ – as Tony painfully learns. An audience member remarked on Tony’s retreat into the mundane when confronted with uncomfortable truths – he instigates a hilariously petty discussion about thick-cut chips in a pub when he realises that he has met Adrian’s now-grown son – and Barnes revealed his own preoccupation, at a dear friend’s funeral, with the architectural history of the church in which the service was taking place. Grief, he argued, ‘is not as it is written down’ because ‘we oscillate between different levels’ and our grief is rarely unmixed with other emotions, responses and thoughts.

In reply to questions from creative writing students, Barnes confirmed his abiding interest in form and discussed the ‘technical challenge’ of a novel in which the bulk of a person’s life is hastily summarised and the emphasis is rather on the bookends to Tony’s existence – his youthful education, followed by his retirement. The authorial ability to move a narrative through time is something Barnes feels becomes stronger with age. For Barnes, form encompasses style, design and viewpoint and he quoted Flaubert’s observation that form needs an idea – and vice versa. For Barnes, when these two elements – form and idea – cross, there is a ‘fizz’, like electricity passing along a wire. Barnes insisted on the centrality of truth-telling to the art of fiction, arguing that it encompasses and expresses complex ‘truths [that] can’t be reduced to bullet-points or Christmas cracker mottos.’ Although he is an accomplished critic of art, Barnes argued that the novel, with its unique depth and intimacy, cannot be supplanted by other art forms.

The audience was interested in the film adaptation of the novel – ‘Take the money and run!’ was Barnes’s droll advice – Barnes’s influences, readerly responses to Tony, what Barnes is currently reading and his interest in translated literature. This successful, enjoyable evening confirmed yet again that Birkbeck and the Man Booker Foundation are a natural fit, with both offering multiple opportunities for cultural exchange, intellectual advancement and literary enjoyment.

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Future Focus workshops: careers and employability

With the new academic year well underway, the first Future Focus workshop was held at the Bloomsbury campus this month, as part of a series of five workshops that support mature learners with advice and guidance on career prospects.

It’s the start of the new academic year and our very own version of the ‘New Year, New Me’ mantra dawns on Birkbeck; a chance for us to contemplate our goals and the tangible steps we need to take in order to get there. Deciding those next steps can always be made a little clearer with the support and guidance of others and attending Future Focus, a workshop organised by Birkbeck’s Widening Access team and designed and delivered by the Careers and Employability team, is a great place to turn to for that.

The first Future Focus workshop of the academic year took place in early October. Delivered by Birkbeck’s Employability Consultant & Events Manager, Alex Jones, attendees were encouraged to use the time to reflect on their motivation, decisions and skills, and whether the next step they were about to embark on fed into these goals. In our busy lives, taking the time to consider and plan, is all too often swept under the carpet, pushed for another day.

By coming along to Future Focus, attendees gave themselves the headspace to contemplate, make informed choices and seek the motivation and confidence to take those exciting first steps.

One of last year’s Future Focus participants, Ana de Monchaux, talks about her experience of attending the workshop:

“My son was applying to university and in the process for this I had got on the Eventbrite mailing list. One of the events promoted was a Future Focus workshop at Birkbeck University. I had been toying with the idea of going to university to study history but I was unsure whether I was too old and would not fit in. I had done a couple of modules with the Open University but had found the lack of face to face time quite isolating, so I didn’t want to feel isolated in a room of younger people.

I had heard really good things about Birkbeck so the Future Focus workshop seemed the ideal opportunity to test the waters! The workshop looked at what kind of career you could get with a degree in your chosen subject. If you just wanted to study for study sake that was okay but it gave you an idea of what you could do.

Everyone was very welcoming and the demographic was varied, I did not feel the oldest one there. Some people wanted a career change, some wanted to enhance and progress in their chosen career and some just wanted to study a new subject. We were asked what we liked about our present job, if we were working, and what we didn’t like. It made me realised that it was interacting with people that I liked the most and being self-employed I liked the least. It also made me see that I could change my career if that is what I wanted to do.

What the Future Focus workshop did, was to give me the confidence that I was not too old and that I had something to offer and that I could go to University. I applied and got in!”

If you’re thinking about your future and the tools you need to get there, sign up to the next session!

If you have any questions or want to find out more, contact the team.

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