Birkbeck students embark on virtual tour of the City of London

While we’ve been unable to head out and explore our capital city in person, Birkbeck students toured the historic City of London virtually with the help of guide Tim Kidd.

Picture of the City of London

Whilst we would all love to be together in person, Birkbeck is bringing London to its international student community.

On Thursday 26 June, Birkbeck students were treated to a fascinating virtual tour through the historic City of London.

Courtesy of Tim Kidd, a member of the British Guild of Tour Guides, the Birkbeck community was brought together to explore London’s ancient origins. As Tim explained throughout the event, the City of London has a vibrant and varied history which tells the story of our famous capital. From the Bank of England to the walls of the Tour, Tim was able to explain London’s Roman roots and their role in shaping the world of finance today.

For many of Birkbeck’s students, the City offers world-class employment prospects and a foothold into the world of banking, trading and insurance. The City of London is today regarded as one of the major financial capitals of the world, and with good reason. Tim’s tour told the tale of the City of London, exploring why it is so such a unique place within the UK and Europe. At the end of the tour, an insightful Q&A session followed.

With the international situation evolving rapidly, it’s as important as ever that Birkbeck continues to adapt its student experience. Indeed, we very much look forward to hosting more engaging virtual tours in the future.

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Birkbeck and Heritage Lottery: working together to build Newham resident’s social media skills

Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement work to provide people who face additional barriers to accessing higher education with advice, guidance and free dip-in learning opportunities. The Department works with a lot of community partners and this year has been developing a programme of volunteering with professional services staff so that our non-academic colleagues can share their expertise with community organisations and residents in east London.

While planning our outreach work for Newham Heritage Month, the Heritage Lottery Foundation approached us to ask whether anyone at Birkbeck could help deliver a session to local community groups about how to use social media to promote their events. I straight away headed to the Comms team and asked them whether they’d be interested in getting involved!

I’ll hand over now to Jessica and Rebekah to tell you more about their experience with the Heritage Lottery- thank you both! We are still looking for volunteers across the College to deliver online content, so if you are interested in getting involved email Hester at getstarted@bbk.ac.uk.

Birkbeck, Stratford campus

We work in the communications team in Birkbeck. A typical day for us would be coming up with ideas and making content that is shared on our social media channels. Content can range from blogs, to videos to infographics and images and features staff, students and the occasional owl. We are often behind a screen (or camera), so we were keen to volunteer for this skill-sharing opportunity with some of the London Borough of Newham’s residents.

We decided to get involved because we wanted to assist the local community with developing their ideas on how to showcase their events to their audiences. Together we came up with a workshop that we hoped would introduce attendees to social media and help them start thinking of ways they can interact with existing and new audiences.

Social media can feel a bit overwhelming to someone who doesn’t use it in a professional capacity, so we hoped that we would be able to give practical steps that could help attendees promote their events. We also saw it as an opportunity to get out of the office and improve our communication skills and practice public speaking!

The session took place in Stratford Library, across the road from our Stratford Campus. The group varied in age, gender, and background and were all looking to learn how they can promote and run their events throughout Newham Heritage Month.

On arrival we were met by a room full of attendees, a positive start! We were introduced by Jan who had organised and facilitated the session. Our presentation opened with a brief introduction to Birkbeck and a chance for the attendees to write down and share their questions and intentions for the session.

We then talked them through the various social media platforms and demonstrated the best ways to showcase content on each of them.  We shared thoughts on how to write blogs to generate more content that can be shared on social media. Attendees were engaged and asked questions, so the session felt interactive.

To conclude, we referred to the questions posed to us. It was affirming to know that we were able to answer the questions and hopefully, we were able to put people’s minds at ease as they take their first steps into the world of social media.

Overall, the experience was great as it gave us the opportunity to reflect on what we do and the skills we have gained through our roles and then impart our knowledge on people who are making a difference in their community.

 

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The Map is not the Territory: Re-imagining Place, Reweaving Story

Natalie Mitchell, a first-year MA Contemporary Literature & Culture student, shares insights from Professor Marina Warner’s lecture that took place as part of the celebration of the 100-year anniversary of Birkbeck joining the University of London.

City of women map by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, ‘City of Women 2.0’, 2019. Courtesy: the artists

Professor Dame Marina Warner took her audience on a fascinating journey through the role of mapping in storytelling and memory, in her lecture, which forms part of the 100 Years of the University of London lecture series. Using Alfred Korzybski famous axiom ‘the map is not the territory’, which suggests that a map cannot encompass the true quality of a place, Professor Warner considered the re-imagining of place and how mapping can become a rebellious act.

She began the lecture considering the many roles of cartography in territory making, defining borders, resources, military and governance, and how this informs our memory of place. The map attempts to ‘actualise history’ through naming, marking and dividing, but the construction of history is a type of narrative. A point Professor Warner emphasised through the words history and story, which are the same in many languages. As such, mapping can control the narrative of a place and becomes an important tool for colonisers, although it may bear little resemblance to the reality of a place by its indigenous people.

Adam Dant – Shoreditch as New York – 2018

The activity of creating maps can also realise fiction, such as the detailed fictional maps in the novels Gulliver’s Travels and The Lord of the Rings. Similarly, star maps give mythical gods a presence in reality through the stargazer’s eye and theme parks and Disney castles parody real locations through the child’s imagination. In this way, the fictional locations of stories can become real locations; these narratives ‘folding back’ onto the actual.

Professor Warner went on to suggest that the map can function in time as well as space, making the past present. This was particularly notable in Emma Willard’s mapping of aboriginal tribes in America and her Progress of the Roman Empire, charting time using the course of the Amazon river. These reworkings of maps can also perform a ‘historical resistance’ as seen in Layla Curtis’ NewcastleGateshead collaged map of all the places renamed after those cities, which highlights the colonial activity of claiming places through naming. Such use of cartography revealed the potential rebellious nature the renaming of maps can perform.

Artist Mona Caron and cartographer Ben Pease - Monarchs and Queens - 2010

Artist Mona Caron and cartographer Ben Pease – Monarchs and Queens – 2010

This type of resistance was expanded further by Professor Warner through many recent examples of the renaming and reworking of maps and places. In Paris in 2015, Osez le Feminisme flyered the city’s street signs, renaming them to notable women from history. Artists have also reimagined places via the redrawing of maps, such as Rebecca Solnit’s and Adam Dant’s maps, which create a visual narrative, questioning the authority of the map and returning to a cartography blending art and science. Similarly, Simon Patterson’s iconic reworking of the London tube map in his work The Great Bear renamed the stations after a myriad of famous and forgotten figures from history. Through each of her examples, Professor Warner showed how the reimagining of the map ‘makes the familiar unfamiliar’ and how a sense of place can be reclaimed by those in situ.

Simon Patterson - The Great Bear - 1992

Simon Patterson – The Great Bear – 1992

Professor Warner’s lecture was bookended by her recent work with a collective of young migrants in Palermo, Sicily, through the Stories in Transit workshop project Giocherenda. These workshops involved the young people developing stories of the city using the figure of The Genius of Palermo, a 15th century icon who has become a synonymous symbol of the city. The workshop took place around the city, where the young people placed the historical figure in different locations. Through this, they could develop their own sense of their new home in Palermo, but through the use of the city’s history. She expressed how it was the children who wanted to use mapping in their story creations and in doing so created a sense of belonging in an unfamiliar place.

Professor Warner concluded her lecture by emphasising the importance of continuing to create stories. Storytelling is an action and a way of history-making and in the days of fake news and big data, it is even more paramount.

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Bernal Lecture 2020: Fifty Shades of Grey Matter

Clare Samson, Senior Associate Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Biological Sciences reports on the annual Bernal lecture that was given by Cordelia Fine, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science on Monday 4 February, that explored whether there really is an essentially male and female brain.

photo of head bust printed

Professor J.D. Bernal is remembered for work on the social consequences of science as much as for his ground-breaking research, and these lectures have frequently focused on societal issues. The choice of Cordelia Fine, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne, Australia as the 2020 lecturer echoes Bernal’s passionate advocacy of women in science; Fine’s choice of title, Fifty Shades of Grey Matter, proved an engaging one. Tickets ran out long before the lecture, which took place on Monday, 4 February 2020; the lecture theatre was packed, and Fine held her audience’s attention throughout.

Fine began by explaining how our 19th-century ancestors viewed the difference between the sexes. Less than 150 years ago, the overwhelming majority accepted that men and women were biologically determined for their different roles. In 1876 a Professor Edward Clarke wrote a best-selling book that suggested that ‘if a woman were to engage in the hard-intellectual labour of higher education, it would divert energy from her [clearly far more important] reproductive system’. Even progressive voices supporting women’s education claimed that it would help them become ‘more interesting wives and better mothers’. Scientific justification for these views often focused on one simple variable: brain size. Since an average male brain is significantly larger than a female one, they argued, one would expect women to be intellectually inferior.

It is easy to argue against that viewpoint, since we are not ruled by elephants or whales. This degree of bias seems bizarre to our ears, yet, as Fine explained, we all – even neurologists and psychologists – look, perhaps unconsciously, through biased lenses. Differences between male and female brains do exist, but they are highly complex and subtle ones. She identified three main biases: androcentrism, in which the masculine view of the world is taken as central; gender polarisation, in which the masculine and the feminine are seen as polar opposites; and biological essentialism, in which traits are seen as innate and biologically (often genetically) determined, rather than arising from both nature and nurture.

Much of the lecture focused on the way in which gender polarisation continues to affect both academic and popular science. This bias is seen in the proliferation of ‘pop psychology’ books, arguing that men are from Mars and women from Venus; that men are like waffles and women like spaghetti; or that there is some innate reason why men don’t listen and women can’t read maps. Academic books setting out reasons for this ‘essential difference’ between male and female brains are still being written, and still sell well.

She presented a case study of a paper in a reputable journal that seemed to show innate differences between the connectivity of male and female brains: that is, the way they are ‘wired’.  According to this paper, female brains have stronger connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, while male ones have stronger connections between each hemisphere. Fine noted that although the difference was there, it was a tiny one. All the pairs of ‘bell curves’ showing brain characteristics of the women and men in the study overlapped so greatly that any differences would be described as ‘modest’ at most. No differences justified the word ‘striking’ used in the paper’s title, and no correlations were given with behaviour. Press officers, however, see headlines rather than read graphs. Publication of this paper led to headlines such as ‘Men and women wired like different species – expert’ (New Zealand Times); ‘Yes, each sex is really from a different planet’ (Metro, UK); and even ‘Women crap at parking: official’ (The Register).

Gender polarisation is summed up in the idea of a single scale with ‘100% male’ and ‘100% female’ brains at opposite ends, suggesting that they are opposites and, at times, equating the ‘extreme male brain’ with autistic tendencies. It is possible to take a quiz to position your brain at some point between the ‘systemising’ male brain and the ‘empathising’ female one, but the results can be odd: Fine quoted a colleague who found, on taking the test, that he seemed to have ‘no brain at all’. Even popular psychology makes more sense if ‘systemising’ and ‘empathising’ are seen as different characteristics with no relationship to gender. The idea of men as stereotypically problem-solvers and women as collaborators should be consigned to the past. Each community – including the scientific community – will flourish best when it is diverse, open and able to identify and eliminate bias.

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