Reflecting on an internship in Public Engagement

Simon Watt reflects on his six month internship project managing the Public Engagement Awards, working with the Birkbeck Public Engagement Team

Back in October 2018, I joined Birkbeck as their second Public Engagement Intern. I have spent all my adult life working in public engagement, usually in relation to science, in some form or other, but this was my first role working embedded within a Public Engagement team in a university.  As such, this post at Birkbeck offered me the excellent opportunity to expand my knowledge of public engagement with research within the higher education sector and to work with a group of people that I like and whose work I greatly respect. Birkbeck has a strong tradition of socially engaged research and a commitment to its historical mission to connect with a wide and diverse range of people outside of academia. This mission is precisely why this was a university I wanted to work for; very few places have such a sense of social responsibility and a desire for equity of knowledge at their core.

My role was centred on the Public Engagement Awards.  This project was now in its second year, having been initially developed by the team with last year’s public engagement intern, Rhea Sookdeosingh, who has since moved on to another role within the college as a Public Engagement & Events Coordinator in the Department of History.  Rhea left the project in a very good state and I hoped to build upon her legacy.

The awards exist for many reasons.  They seek to acknowledge and celebrate the ground breaking public engagement projects being conducted by researchers here. They allow us to take the public engagement pulse of the college and take a snap-shot of how the research conducted at Birkbeck both affects and is affected by the outside world.  The ceremony itself acts as a fun means of putting some of our champions of public engagement all in the same room so that they have the opportunity to reflect on their own and each other’s processes, learn new approaches and possibly meet new friends and potential future collaborators for the first time.

It felt a real privilege to be behind the scenes and shape the awards so that they might act as an incentive to take public engagement seriously and help improve how people here interact with the wider public.  By redrafting our application process to reflect what best practice looks like, changing the prizes we award with the aim of upskilling our researchers or furthering their capacities in other ways and working on the visuals used throughout to better show off engagement achievements, we have pushed for a more holistic approach that benefits not only our researchers but those they work with.  I hope the awards continue to flourish.

The scheme culminated in the Awards Ceremony at Mary Ward House where, over wine and nibbles, the shortlisted researchers swapped stories and revelled in their success.  You can learn more about the winning projects and the night as a whole here.

By far my favourite aspect of the scheme was meeting the researchers along the way.  I was continually surprised and impressed by their raw enthusiasm and desire to make the world that little bit better through their work.  It was terrific to learn of what they were doing and help their future projects prepare before they take flight. Understanding what they were doing now was the first step to suggesting how they might scale up their efforts and what other avenues might be worth pursuing.  It should come as no surprise that our department, which helps researchers and our research culture grow by building mutually beneficial and respectful relationships, also benefit by building such relationships ourselves with as many people as we could.

I feel greatly indebted to the people of External Relations, Development and Alumni and the Research Office who have not only provided solid support and expertise throughout these last six months, but made my time here such a joy.  In particular I owe thanks to Mary-Clare Hallsworth and Katy Glazer, as the Public Engagement Team, who aided and abetted me all the way. They have changed how I think in many ways and helped me grow in confidence with regards what my opinions and expertise are worth.

I will continue to make my own engagement projects and help others with theirs.  I am, as ever, keen to collaborate.  Please get in touch.

Contact the public engagement team:

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Astrea’s Women in Leadership Agenda panel gave me hope

Kayleigh Woods Harley from Birkbeck’s Strategic Programmes Directorate discusses the Astrea network’s recent International Women’s Day event, and what it means to take a collaborative approach to tackling gender inequality.

One month on from International Women’s Day, what, if anything, am I hoping for? LinkedIn Editor Felicity Menzies commented that “the one change I’d like to see in the workplace is a shift from fixing women to fixing the system.” It echoed my thoughts exactly on the reasons why we needed a cross-College panel event on the Women in Leadership Agenda. The big question is: how can the system be fixed? It’s a huge question that no one in any industry I’ve come across has sufficiently answered.

As a grassroots initiative, Astrea is a professional development initiative for women working in professional services and support roles. Managed and run by nine women who volunteer their time away from their normal jobs in External Relations, the library, project management, student advice, admissions, administering schools and departments, dealing with student complaints, and all manner of other roles, Astrea is grounded in the Birkbeck ethos of striving for better, of goodwill. But its existence alone does not equal gender parity.

The gender pay gap is a worthy subject within the world of gender equality but of course it is merely a symptom of underlying discrimination and unconscious bias within organisational structures. It affords us a picture of what may be happening under the surface. According to the gender pay gap report 2018, Birkbeck’s women earn only 90p for every £1 that men earn doing jobs of equal value. Women only occupy 45.2% of the highest paid jobs in the College. This is expected to make Birkbeck one of the better examples in the higher education sector (last year Birkbeck had the 11th lowest gap out of 135 HE institutions), but there is still a long way to go, and it is this last leg of the journey which is the hardest to travail. And it by no means tells us anything about the ethnic pay gap, the disability pay gap, and many other types of pay inequality. (Birkbeck has recently published its latest Equal Pay Audit.)

Astrea continues to receive College funding to host 6+ internal events each year. Yet there has never, until now, been an event open to all staff: women, men, professional service and academic staff. Judging by the range of women and men in the audience, there is a desire across Birkbeck to engage with the problem and seek ways of overcoming inequality, including at management level.

Kicking off the panel event on 8 March, the College Secretary, Keith Harrison, confessed that there was much more that Birkbeck could do to attain gender equality. This theme was picked up by the panel members themselves, expertly chaired by Birkbeck’s own Communications Manager Bryony Merritt, comprising two academics and two UK politics-affiliated people: Jane Holgate, Professor of Work and Employment Relations at Leeds University Business School; Luke Holland, a communications consultant who recently worked for the Labour party; Birkbeck’s own Professor of Geography, Rosie Cox; and Deborah Day, a senior civil servant who also champions women’s digital skills. While all acknowledged that workplaces had changed for the better during their careers, they also pointed out that there is still a considerable distance to be travelled and all had a different take on how that should be achieved.

Deborah offered some stark views on the world of technology. While women comprise half the British workforce, technology, the bedrock of our daily lives, is predominantly a male industry. Technology firms are just not recruiting enough women. This results in products and services that are inherently designed to disadvantage women, creating a worldwide digital gender divide.

Jane has worked in male-dominated industries throughout her career. She began in the heavy-drinking macho culture of the print industry and is now one of only 9 female professors (out of 100) in her faculty. Actively involved in trade unions and conducting research into their historical development, Jane sees grassroots networks as the most valuable asset for making a difference to individual women’s lives, especially when considering intersectionality.

Luke, being the only male representative on the panel, offered his perspective on Labour’s achievements in getting true representation in Labour’s elected members. Luke advocates men and women making a strong case for equality in their workplace, raising awareness and calling out injustices where they are seen. It also requires mentoring, monitoring and accountability. The Welsh Labour party has legislated for its goal of becoming a “feminist government”. Even if it is a goal that is doomed to failure, it should be pledged anyway, because equality should be a guiding mission for all organisations.

As an expert on gender and work, and co-founder of the research centre Birkbeck Gender and Sexuality, Rosie had some positive things to say about Birkbeck’s internationally-recognised research on gender and its guiding mission. But she pointed out that there are many things the College can do to improve: it’s not about “fixing the women,” it’s not about a deficit model, and it’s certainly not about simply ticking boxes for Athena Swan. She called on leaders to recognise that good intentions are simply where the hard work really starts; the next step is to push for real change, even if that change is disruptive. It is important to take an intersectional approach, since white middle-class women have recently begun to see benefits but their BAME counterparts are still being left behind. Rosie also highlighted the benefits of equality at all levels. She argued that if an organisation is not promoting staff based on merit alone, then the chances are it is discriminating against all manner of characteristics, whether protected or not. This would include discrimination against unconventional people, or those who do not conform to Western standards of attractiveness, male or female. At heart, the equality agenda is about building an organisation that is utterly fair, that serves everyone’s interests, even if they don’t think so.

The depth of the discussion on the panel, carefully managed by Bryony, reassured me that I am not alone in believing that real change is not yet upon us, but also hope that things may be changing. Momentum, awareness-raising and a shift in attitudes are all contributing to the demand for change, and recent reporting on Birkbeck’s equality pay measures shows that there is ongoing investigation into the causes of the pay gaps and potential solutions to them. It simply remains for us all to maintain pressure in our workplace to ensure that it results in positive actions.

If you attended the Women in Leadership Agenda panel event, please leave us a comment and let us know what you thought.

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Maximising your impact through creativity, visioning and design

The Director of Human Resources at Birkbeck, Charlotte Croffie, challenges us to be creative and listen in the latest Astrea networking event. This blog was contributed by Kayleigh Woods Harley, from Birkbeck’s Strategic Programmes Directorate.

Glancing around the hot and sunny room at Gordon Square, I realised I had never seen such a well-attended Astrea networking event in my time since becoming a facilitator. There were around 45 people staring back at me as I gave a brief introduction to Charlotte Croffie. I took my seat amid the anticipation.

There could be no higher authority from which to draw than Buddha, and that is exactly where Charlotte began: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” With humour and insight, she reinforced this message, moving on to the theme of creativity in one fell swoop. We considered how Michelangelo created his masterpiece David. She outlined the steps from selecting a block of marble, to chipping away in small increments until all that was left was David, appearing as if conjured straight out of the sculptor’s imagination from the inert stone.

We were asked to step outside of ourselves and draw or write down what we thought people saw when they looked at us. There can be no more difficult question than this; the ability to get out of our own head and peer at ourselves is something that everyone wishes they could do. I looked down at my blank green post-it, touched the pen to my lips, thought. After a moment, I wrote:

  • Young
  • Colourful, happy, positive, cheerful
  • Proficient and efficient

Those who had chosen to draw instead of write their answers were asked to show their hands. Only a handful of people had. It demonstrated how few of us are willing to step out of our comfort zone. We needed to start challenging ourselves to step out of our default position more.

Next, we were asked to write down what we wanted to achieve. I wrote:

  • Friendships and networks
  • To feel like my work is worthwhile – for others and myself

Being part of Astrea is one way for me to meet these personal goals, and so far it has not failed me in reaching them.

In the largest segment of the afternoon, we worked in small groups to take on one of three roles, A, B, and C: A – articulate what you want to achieve; B – listen; C – observe. Those who became ‘A’ took on the challenge of speaking non-stop for two minutes about what they’d written. The listener was forced to listen without speaking, while the observer noted the interaction, the body language and tried to interpret what was happening.

If you’ve ever done this exercise before, you’ll know how revealing it can be. For some, it revealed how little we truly listen to others because we assume we already know what they are going to say. Being unable to respond to the speaker was deeply uncomfortable, but also liberating to hear what is really being said. The natural temptation to ask the speaker questions was very difficult to override. It showed how deeply ingrained are the learned behaviours that we adopt from a young age into adulthood.

Charlotte taught us that active listening is a key skill for coaching. You must learn to override those natural instincts to interrupt, to comment, to reassure, and allow the other person the space to expand on their thoughts. We were encouraged to practice this often with a trusted friend or colleague. Learning to coach and being coached are both ways in which we can learn to unlock our potential through creativity. Creativity requires that space and time we don’t often find at work because we are constantly busy and feel under pressure.

Charlotte shared her roadmap for changing your default position and doing things a little differently in the future:

  1. Map your default position when approaching a task
  2. Plot your journey – challenge yourself
  3. Take stock – how will this be perceived; what are the strengths and potential drawbacks?
  4. Move to the next stage – is it propelling or hindering you? … next steps
  5. Future-proof – tweak, shift, reinvent
  6. Do it all over again.

It all begins with that first step of mapping your default position. It all begins with a realisation, a thought, just like the Buddha said. With a little perseverance and possibly the help of a friend, it can transform us.

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The Digital Transformation Project (DTP): termly update  

There is a lot going on in the digital transformation project. Jane Van de Ban, Birkbeck’s Digital Content Manager, provides this summary of activity over the past term.

What are we doing?
We are upgrading the Birkbeck school/department web presence, to provide entirely new, refreshed content, including new images, and improved navigation. With five school sites, 18 department sites, 21 microsites and over 32,000 content items – pages, images, files, events and news stories – all of which need to be reviewed and upgraded – this is a huge undertaking.  

Our objectives are to:  

  • review all the content, topic by topic and piece by piece  
  • decide what needs to be retained and upgraded
  • consider how best to present this information online, via workshops with subject experts from across the Birkbeck community
  • ensure that all content:
    • fulfils user needs  
    • meets our digital standards  
    • is fully optimised, to ensure that Google and other search engines index it properly 
  • build appropriate wayfinding pages, comprised of high-quality images and signpost text, to improve navigation across the Birkbeck site. 

Welcome to our expanded project team
Due to pressing technical issues with our content management system (CMS), Plone, we need to deliver this project by the start of the 2019-20 academic year. To help us deliver this ambitious project, our team has grown, with freelance editors and web staff from all of our schools working alongside us for a few days each month.  

So, a special welcome to Ollie Chinyere (Arts), Yossie Olaleye and Aaliyah Archer (BEI), Louise Ross and Matt Wicks (Law), Pauline Jones (Science) and Antonio Terzini (SSHP) and our freelance editors, Rebecca Slegg and Denise Drake.  

Improving access to MPhil/PhD funding information
At our launch workshop, subject experts told us the following about MPhil/PhD funding: 

MPhil/PhD funding is hugely complex and requires knowledge of different funders’ priorities and processes, as well as the conditions attendant on them.  

Funding is not static – it is awarded throughout the recruitment cycle. So, we need a flexible web solution that allows us to add and withdraw funding throughout the year.  

Information on funding needs to be easy to understand for both prospective students and academics, as the latter need to provide specialist information on the full range of MPhil/PhD funding available. 

Based on this workshop, we have developed a bespoke MPhil/PhD funding resource (on our development site) and shared it with subject experts across the College, who gave us extensive and helpful feedback, mostly related to the layout of the new wayfinding page. We have now revised and updated the content and aim to get final sign-off in January, after which we will schedule the go-live. 

Rationalising application information for MPhil/PhD applicants
As with funding information, you will find application information for prospective MPhil/PhD research students scattered across the Birkbeck website. The objective is to make it as easy as possible for users to read and follow our advice before applying.

At the workshop, the prospective MPhil/PhD research students need to explore potential supervisors and ideally, contact them and start writing a research proposal before applying. Although this advice is provided across our website, departments still receive ‘cold’ applications, which require a lot of administrative and academic support. We also learned that the application process is similar across schools – the most striking differences relate to funding.  

In response to the workshop, we have consolidated and improved our MPhil/PhD application advice on our online prospectus and on our central How to Apply pages, which will help improve the application process (we will, of course, test the changes with users). This information also dovetails with the improved MPhil/PhD funding information.  

The application information is now live and, early in the New Year, we will unpublish redundant, duplicate department pages and redirect users to our new, consolidated information. This will make it much easier for academics and prospective MPhil/PhD research students to find information.  

Telling the public about our research projects
In all the years that we have talked to schools/departments about their web presence, one message has come out loud and clear: the absolute centrality and importance of research. Yet, if you explore our department pages, it’s difficult to find much information about research.  

Around 160 funded research projects are currently underway at Birkbeck but learning about them is very challenging: the majority don’t have any presence on the Birkbeck website, and the only comprehensive list is a spreadsheet maintained by the Research Office.   

Yet, our subject experts told us that: 

We need to publicise the full range of our funded research projects.  

The audiences for this information range from the general public to corporations looking to invest their Corporate Social Responsibility fund, businesses keen to invest in new ideas and tools, potential academic collaborators, and REF panels.  

We need to provide more than just a summary of each project.  

With this and other findings, we have started to develop web pages for every funded research project at Birkbeck, using a standard template. In the New Year, we will engage with researchers to take this project forward, with a view to publishing these new pages in 2019.  

Other DTP projects
Other work that is ongoing includes: 

Improved search: the ITS Web Team have been busy implementing our new, much improved search tool, which will make it far easier to find relevant information on our website. This is due to go live in the first half of 2019, following a rethink of the implementation to reduce reliance on the College’s current CMS. 

Academic staff profiles: redeveloping staff profiles was set as a project priority by the Web Working Group and we commissioned new designs and extensive user testing and consultation with staff across Birkbeck. Pending final consultation relating to KEF and business services, the new profiles will be built and then populated with information by the DTP content team. The plan is that academics will maintain their profiles via My Birkbeck for Staff.  

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