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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Orientation 2017: Welcome to Birkbeck

New and returning students joined this year’s Orientation events.

A new year at Birkbeck kicked off with Orientation, a range of events to enable students to familiarise themselves with the campus, get to know fellow students and refresh academic skills to boost their confidence.

It was an action-packed and busy day with nearly 2000 new and returning students signed up to browse the Fresher’s Fayre in the marquee outside the main campus, in order to find out about college sports and societies, ask current students questions about life at Birkbeck, and pick up some freebies.

There were also a range of talks throughout the afternoon on key topics to help students get their years’ off to a great start, on topics from looking after mental health, time management, to preparing for dissertation writing, and campus tours throughout the day.

Thank you to all who attended.

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UpScale visits 10 Downing Street

This post was contributed by Kate Dodgson, UpScale’s Employability Project Manager

Kate Dodgson (right) at networking event at 10 Downing Street

Kate Dodgson (right) at networking event at 10 Downing Street

On 24 November 2016, UpScale went to 10 Downing Street to attend a Women in Tech Networking and Mentoring event. The event was on the invitation of Rt. Hon Karen Bradley MP – the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and was organised by one of UpScale’s partners – DevelopHer – a non-profit organisation elevating women in tech.

100 women in tech were invited to attend and were divided into mentors and mentees. I was invited to represent Birkbeck as a mentor. Birkbeck’s UpScale programme aims to encourage Birkbeck students to pursue work in technology and has a strong focus on under-represented groups including women in technology. Partnerships with organisations such as DevelopHer support UpScale to achieve this important aim.

While nibbling on cucumber sandwiches and sipping elderflower cordial, the fifty mentors began networking with the fifty mentees. Roughly ten minutes were allocated to each conversation before a gavel was hit and the women rotated. Ideas, business cards and laughs were exchanged, and there were women representatives from the public sector, higher education, the private sector (ranging from huge multi-national companies to brand new start-ups) and everything in-between.

The Rt. Hon Karen Bradley arrived and gave a speech highlighting the gender gap in STEM industries and emphasising the need to close the gap. She said that the event was designed to allow prominent women in tech to get their heads together to try and find ways to combat the inequality. She invited the women attending to suggest to her ways that the government could address the under-representation of women.

downing-st-4The evening ended with a hundred selfies by the front door of No.10 and a walk to a nearby pub. Here the networking continued, and the wine drinking commenced. Ideas on how to lessen the gap and make technology a sector of choice, for all women, continued and relationships were built and no doubt will continue to be nurtured in the coming weeks and months.

Birkbeck’s UpScale programme helps promote women in tech by exposing female students to the tech industry and offering ideas and thoughts, directly from industry on how to support them to enter it. Through partnering with numerous companies and organisations, UpScale provides students with a series of co-curricular events which improve their digital and soft skills. Providing female students with these skills gives them greater confidence to enter a currently male-dominated industry and over time will reduce the gender imbalance.

UpScale is delighted to have been invited to No. 10 to act as a mentor for women in tech and looks forward to continuing the incredible work being done to boost women’s prospects in this substantial industry.

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Man Booker at Birkbeck: Colm Tóibín

This post was contributed by Birkbeck alumnus and staff member, Dr Ben Winyard

man-booker_colm-toibin-9722

On 17 October, in a genial, expansive conversation, Colm Tóibín discussed his Man Booker Prize nominated novel The Testament of Mary (2012) with Birkbeck’s Professor of Creative Writing, Russell Celyn Jones. All of the novels discussed at the Man Booker at Birkbeck event, since its inauguration in 2011, have been set in, or concerned with, the past: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (discussed in 2011), The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (discussed in 2013), Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (discussed in 2014) and How To Be Both by Ali Smith (discussed in 2015). Although not set in the past, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (discussed in 2012) proffers a dystopian, alternative present, so it too is concerned with reimagining time. If the other novels covered diverse periods, moving from the rollicking Renaissance to the deadly Reformation and on to the austere 1920s, the bling and clamour of the 1980s and the contemporary digital moment, The Testament of Mary takes us back to the moment at which Christianity was born, an historical event heavily obscured by accreted layers of myth, competing proofs and intervening centuries of weighty theological debate, doctrine and practice. All of these novels are concerned with testimony, authority and history; in particular, who has the authority to speak and which stories become legitimate and enter the official record as ‘History’ – and which are forgotten or even derided, suppressed and erased.

For Tóibín, the task is no less than recovering, or reimagining, the full voice of Mary, the mother of Jesus and the Mother of God or Theotokos, the ‘Birth Giver of God’, in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, among others. Tóibín imagines her less-than-exalted, oblique responses to the life and death of her son and the foundational moments that articulated and established a radical, world-changing new theology and movement. Tóibín’s Mary is not the benign, silent icon we might know from Renaissance paintings or alabaster icons in hushed churches, with her sympathetic half-smile, commiserating upraised eyes and benevolently-inclined head. This is a human – perhaps all too-human – Mary, who wrestles with grief, incomprehension, anger, disappointment and guilt. Mary is deeply ambivalent about her adult son, who, in one of the novel’s most visceral moments, publically rejects her, while she is insultingly dismissive of his followers, describing them as maladjusted miscreants and dropouts – men ‘unable to look a woman in the face’. The two disciples – possibly St Paul and St Thomas, although Tóibín is ambiguous – who hover over and guard her in Ephesus, after the crucifixion, earn her particular opprobrium; she even threatens to stab them if they dare to sit in the chair of her dead husband (and Mary’s refusal to understand herself in divine terms is Tóibín’s quietly devastating challenge to Roman Catholic theology – there is no Annunciation or Nativity in this story).

Tóibín discussed the influence of Greek tragedy on the work, particularly as he was teaching the subject during the novel’s genesis. He wanted to present Mary as a Medea or Elektra figure: a woman who only has power when she speaks. Tóibín readily conceded that the anger of Mary, which constitutes a powerful undercurrent in the story, is representative of the historical anger of women marginalised in, and excluded from, the Church. In the novel, the truth of Mary’s experience is modified by the disciples, who continually interrogate her while using her testimony selectively to build a theology, kindle a movement and accrue personal power. They are uneasy about her stubborn refusal to adhere to the world-altering version of events they are promulgating, although they are painfully cognisant of their need for her as a foundation of their faith and power. ‘Their enormous ambition’, Tóibín observed, ‘is to make these words [of the Gospel] matter’, while Mary is lucid in her understanding that her experience – her testimony – will be discounted and unrecorded. Tóibín was wry about literary-critical focus on unreliable narrators, describing Mary as ‘the most reliable narrator you’ll get’. Mary is clear-eyed about her reaction to key events and the novel’s seminal moment is her fleeing the scene of the Crucifixion, in fear for her life, yet full of shame. To readers who demur at this apparently inhuman act of maternal abandonment – which also muddies the veracity of Christianity’s foundational moment of universal redemption – Tóibín observed that he is uninterested in writing about ‘most people’ or ‘normal people’ – ‘I only write the exception.’

He also confessed that Mary bolting from Christ’s death solved the technical problem of how to present the Crucifixion. For Tóibín, the novel is ‘a secular form […] filled with things […]. It’s really, really bad at divine intervention.’ He joked that it’s hard to imagine a Jane Austen novel in which the action of the plot is suddenly rerouted by God’s intercession. The two other Biblical miracles in the novel – the turning of water into wine at Cana and the resurrection of Lazarus – are shadowy and problematic: at the wedding in Cana, the miracle is made somewhat absurd and undermined by Mary’s sceptical first-hand witnessing; while the raising of Lazarus presents a melancholy spectacle, as Lazarus is unable to convey what he has witnessed in death – another example of silenced or discarded testimony in the novel – and those around him are too frightened to ask. Furthermore, Lazarus ‘will have to die twice’, Tóibín pointed out, making his resurrection feel, in some respects, akin to a curse or punishment.

Tóibín was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and he described his youthful recitation of the Rosary as his ‘introduction to beauty in language’. For Irish Catholics in the middle of the twentieth century, as for many Christians in different places and different periods, the Virgin mattered a great deal, as she had suffered human pain and so would listen and respond kind-heartedly to the prayers of ordinary sinners. ‘Nobody prayed to God the Father’, Tóibín wryly observed. Tóibín thus felt a keen understanding of the need of early Christians to worship a mother figure. In the novel, Mary flees across the Mediterranean to Ephesus (now in Turkey), the site in ancient times of the Temple of Artemis – one of the Wonders of the World – and the locus of goddess worship. Mary secretly keeps a likeness of Artemis, finding comfort in the iconic mother figure she will herself become. Indeed, it was at Ephesus in 431, at one of the Ecumenical Councils of the early Church, that Mary was declared Theotokos and the way was cleared for her veneration and worship. For Tóibín, then, Ephesus is the place in which one form of instinctive, almost primordial, goddess worship was institutionally and theologically elided by another, with the object of adoration remaining, in its essential features, unchanged.

Tóibín discussed his own experiences of all-male religious confraternities, including his Jesuit education at a single-sex boarding school, where students were taught to avert their eyes from women. This experience gave Tóibín his sense of what he called ‘men grouped together, being misfits’ – as Mary contemptuously sees her son’s followers. Tóibín was gently satirical about the absurdity of all-male fraternities such as the Roman Catholic priesthood, recalling a visit to St. Peter’s in Rome, when he secretly observed a flock of male prelates silently divested of their gorgeous arraignment by a company of alacritous nuns. Celyn Jones was interested in other biographical and Irish elements of this apparently historical novel, jovially espying traces of Ireland in Tóibín’s description of the ‘dampness’ of a home in first-century Palestine. Tóibín gamely acknowledged this and other near anachronisms that have been pointed out to him, but firmly asserted that there is ‘no such thing as a historical novel’, as ‘the past is a bit abstract’ and ‘contemporary concerns enter in’. In particular, Tóibín discussed how the novel was informed by his interest in the emotional aftermath of terrorist violence during the Troubles and other conflicts between governments and armed resistance groups, particularly the grief of the families of suicide bombers. Tóibín suggested that there may be some interesting historical parallels between Christ’s fanatical early followers – one need only think of the grisly deaths that Christian martyrs willingly embraced – and self-immolating terrorists active now.

Inevitably, there was interest from the interviewer and the audience about public reactions to such a controversial novel. Although affable and droll throughout, Tóibín was steely when asked about his right to pen such a story, absolutely asserting his liberty to write about religious subjects. He joked that there was no outcry ‘in pagan England’ and that the reception ‘wasn’t really troublesome in Ireland’, where a more avowedly liberal cultural environment has been fostered. He remarked that the greatest outrage came in the United States, where people picketed the theatre where the story – which began life as a one-woman play – was first performed. Tóibín sympathetically observed that the emphasis on identity in American society means people ‘take enormous exception’ to anything they feel is undermining their individuality. Although the outcry was relatively muted – ‘there was no fatwa’, Tóibín jested – he seemed entirely uninterested in becoming a poster boy for vociferous debates about religion and freedom of speech: ‘It wasn’t brave’, writing the novel he said – ‘it was opportunistic’. If his models were Antigone and Medea – women ‘strung out with fear – and bravery’ who are obligated to speak the truth to power – Tóibín evidently doesn’t see his work in the same heroic vein. He demurred at the idea of deliberately seeking to offend readers – he found it particularly difficult to depict the brutality and violence of the Crucifixion – but he found himself compelled to tell such a ‘dramatic’ story. ‘Where there is faith, there must be doubt’ and the literary imagination thrives in the spaces of silence and ambiguity that inevitably accompany any official historical retelling of events.

For would-be writers in the audience, including students on Birkbeck’s creative writing programmes, Tóibín joked that a recent root canal treatment had felt akin to the writing process (although he admitted that this simile may have been born of the Valium he was given by his dentist). He emphasised that writing involves ‘all the dull, dull, dull drilling of detail’ and that pattern, form and structure may only become apparent at the end of the writing process. He admitted that ‘technique is not enough’ and, although he was willing to describe writing as ‘mystery’, it is ‘not transcendentally’ so, he insisted. For Tóibín, the mystery is how ‘An idea, an image, a memory or a thing becomes, of its own accord, a rhythm’ and he urged students to write what they feel compelled to write. Writing thus emerges as a process of accretion and problem-solving: ‘Every sentence becomes a way of solving the problem the previous sentence gave you’.

This was the sixth Man Booker at Birkbeck event and this sprightly exchange confirmed yet again the success of this ongoing, rewarding partnership. As Hilary Fraser, Executive Dean of Birkbeck’s School of Arts, observed in her opening remarks, the Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck both share an ongoing, deep commitment to broadening knowledge and bringing the best of contemporary culture to the widest possible audience.

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