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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Setting an example: mother and son graduate in the same year

When Miroslava Ezel’s teenage son started browsing university prospectuses, she couldn’t resist taking a look as well.

Miroslava Ezel had always wanted to study Mathematics, but prioritising work and family life meant plans for further study were put on hold. Still, while encouraging her son to apply to university, she couldn’t resist taking a look for herself.

Then she stumbled across Birkbeck. “The evening study model appealed to me as I could fit studying around my work and family life,” she explained. “I also felt it would help me meet people a similar age to me – it did, but in reality I’m friends with people of all ages on my course, so I needn’t have worried.”

Miroslava began studying the BSc Accounting at Birkbeck’s Stratford campus, which was conveniently located near her home in Southeast London. She attended academic writing workshops on campus to develop her skills and prepare for full time study. “Coming back to the classroom after a break and as a speaker of English as a second language, I wanted to make sure I was prepared to write an academic essay,” she explains. “I love Maths, so I applied to study accounting, but I became really interested in microeconomics and macroeconomics, so in my second year I transferred to BSc Accounting with Finance.

“I had some fantastic lecturers, like Dr Ike Ndu, who teaches Financial Economics – we loved Ike! Another lecturer also told us “we are not here to fail you, we are here to help you” during exam term, which was really reassuring. I think it’s really important to see your lecturers as people who are there to support you and help you do well.”

Graduating with a first, Miroslava admits to being very strict with herself and prioritising her studies, and with two students in the family at the same time, it was easier to stay on track. She also credits the friends she made through her course for helping her succeed: “We would be great motivators for each other – we knew what we wanted to get out of the experience and we pushed each other to do our best.” She admits that the first day of a new course can be daunting, but has now made friends for life at Birkbeck.

Miroslava’s confidence grew so much through her studies that, before finishing her degree, she had switched careers from retail to banking. Her son graduated from his degree in Law in July, although she had to rush back from the celebrations to sit one of her final exams in the evening!

For Miroslava, studying at Birkbeck has fulfilled a lifelong dream: “I’ve loved every minute of it. I’ve always enjoyed learning, but I never knew before what I was capable of, especially in a second language. When I got here, I realised that age is not a limit: all that matters is knowledge, drive and your desire to prove yourself.”

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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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