“During my time at Birkbeck I saw over 100 films and plays in London, travelled over 5 countries, and made so many friends – it was the best time of my life!”

Xiayan Zeng graduated last week with an MA in Screenwriting. She shares her #BBKgrad story in this interview.

Xiayan Zeng

What made you decide to study at Birkbeck?
I was studying for my PhD in China and I felt something wasn’t right. I’d studied playwriting for ten years and I wanted to learn more. I decided I should spend my gap year studying screenwriting in the UK to experience different cultures and meet new people.

I chose Birkbeck because I had a great interview with Professor Paul Gallagher, Associate Lecturer in Screenwriting, which confirmed my decision to study at the College.

Did you enjoy having lectures in the evening?
Yes, I loved having the lectures in the evening because my thoughts are a lot clearer at night.

In the daytime, I read scripts and wrote my assignments. Occasionally I went to see a play in the West End and visited museums or galleries, or just enjoyed sightseeing around London.

What do you hope to achieve in the future?
After I finished my degree, I returned to China to finish my PhD and now I am a Lecturer in a university, teaching playwriting.

As an international student, what would you say were the differences for you in culture that you noticed?
The main problem was the language barrier. English is not my mother tongue, so I sometimes struggled writing in English. My classmates and professors noticed this and they helped me correct my mistakes in my assignments and speaking.

Another difficulty I had was explaining my culture. The difference between Eastern and Western culture is something I wrote about in my assignments. Sometimes my classmates and the professors wouldn’t understand, but later it became clearer when they’d ask questions: “Why did your character do this?”, “Why did your character solve the problem in this way?” I would explain my thoughts and then they’d give me advice and suggestions on how I should write so it would be clearer to the reader.

Thanks to Professor Paul Gallagher, Professor Barbara Cox and so many other professors, I’ve got to know more about screenwriting and the difference between screen and theatre. I had a great time chatting with professors about my assignments, which made my life in London wonderful.

How did you settle into life in the UK?
I had a student community of mostly Chinese students, but I also felt I should spend more time communicating with other people. I communicated with people who don’t only speak Chinese, often having a drink with my classmates after lectures, which helped me to fit into London life.

Do you have any advice that you would give to other international students coming to study at Birkbeck?
I think for the full-time students, you may feel that there are a lot of assignments, but when you spend your time and you concentrate on them, you will find that you will successfully finish them.

And, as for the language – just communicate with classmates and your professors and don’t be ashamed of getting things wrong; you will find that it won’t be a problem.

During my year at Birkbeck, I have seen over 100 films and plays in London, travelled over 5 countries, and made so many friends.

It has been only a year in Birkbeck, but I can say it is the best year I’ve ever experienced!

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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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“We need more women to study computer science and build the future.”

Being a woman with a newborn in a male-dominated subject didn’t stop Camilla Graham Wood from achieving a first in Computing. She shares her story in this interview.

Birkbeck: What made you decide to return to university and study computer science?

Camilla: My decision to study computer science was quite a random one. I have no technical background, no science background. In fact, I’m terrible at maths as well. I think my ignorance as to what studying for a degree in computer science would truly involve was a huge benefit. If I knew what was in store, I’m not sure I would have signed up.

At the time I decided to enrol, I was working in legal aid and the then Justice Minister Chris Grayling’s devastating reforms were completely decimating access to justice. I was chatting with a colleague about our backup plans if we lost our jobs because the cuts were so severe. I thought that I might need another skill in addition to law.

I was listening to various podcasts and in one Sheryl Sandberg said that more women should study computer science, so I thought ok, I’ll give that a go. I looked up evening classes in London and came across Birkbeck. I signed up, got through the entry test, and who would have expected that five years later I’d graduate with a first?

How did you find your course, coming from a Law background?

The course was a shock in many ways. I was one of two or three women in a sea of men. I had no idea what the lecturers were talking about, particularly at the start of each course, so I furiously took detailed notes and then went back over them trying to understand what the hell binary digits were, for example. I remember being totally flummoxed even by the basics. I think that nowadays, with technology so pervasive in our lives, most people have a better base understanding than I did when I commenced my studies.

My legal background meant that I found the more theoretical side of the subject much easier. The practical side, such as Java and PHP were challenging and required a lot of practice. That’s one of the harder things when you’re working full time and have other commitments, is to find the time to go over and over something until you can’t work out why you found it so difficult at the start.

What was it like juggling a career with family life?

My partner has been amazingly supportive: he encouraged me to apply, which was good because it meant he couldn’t complain when for the next five years I spent three nights a week at Birkbeck and most of April to June revising. I think he was more excited when I finished than I was.

I didn’t get pregnant until the end of my course, and with working full-time and studying I was already used to having a limited social life. My baby was born in August, so I was quite heavily pregnant during summer exams. My sister said it was a benefit, as it meant I had two brains. That’s one way of looking at it.

The more amusing time was when I had a newborn and still had lectures to go to. I used to drive to Euston with my newborn in the back, meet my partner there who came from work, he’d drive her home and I’d try and stay awake in the lecture. It was pretty chaotic, but we all made it through. I’m sure a lot of those studying in the evening are balancing multiple things and just trying to keep everything moving forwards.

In that same lecture there was another woman who came with her young daughter. I thought that was far more impressive than what I was doing. What incredible drive to attend lectures and convince your daughter to come along too.

What would you say to women considering studying computer science?

We need more women to study computer science and build the future. It will be to the detriment of society if technologies continue to be developed and built predominantly by white men in California. We need diversity in computer science to ensure that discrimination and exclusion is not exacerbated in the future. We need women from all types of backgrounds to shape the face of technology tomorrow. I saw a lot of women going through the doors of Birkbeck, I hope that in the future more of them go into the Computer Science lectures.

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