Birkbeck shortlisted for University of the Year Award


This post was contributed by Professor David Latchman CBE, Master of Birkbeck.

Nearly 200 years since George Birkbeck established our institution to provide education to working Londoners, I am able to announce the excellent news that Birkbeck has been shortlisted for the Times Higher Education University of the Year Award. Following closely on the heels of this year’s National Student Survey, where our students voted us number one for overall student satisfaction in London, our new academic year is getting off to a good start.

The University of the Year Award is based on the 2012/13 academic year. Even by Birkbeck standards, that was quite a year for us as we saw a 45% downturn in our core part-time undergraduate degree enrolments following the major changes to the funding of universities in England. The award entry focuses on this crisis, and says:

“The College knew it had to adapt quickly or face an extremely uncertain and unstable future. By autumn 2013, Birkbeck had achieved unimagined and unanticipated success with a 335% increase in acceptances recorded by UCAS, the biggest growth in the sector. Survival was secured by the rapid expansion of a new Birkbeck proposition – a three-year, intensive, evening-taught degree, made available through UCAS. A well-conceived academic proposition and powerful marketing of a distinctive message through the unfamiliar UCAS pipeline generated soaring demand. Clear leadership, energetic cross-College advocacy and a whole institution determination to succeed ensured students arrived in the classroom in record numbers. Birkbeck was saved and a flexible, potentially sector-changing style of higher education has arrived.”

You can read more about our University of the Year submission on our news section. The winner will be announced on 27 November, and in the meantime please voice your support for Birkbeck in the comments section below, or at #unioftheyear on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Mrs. Waac

This post was contributed by Dr Kate McLoughlin, Reader in Modern Literature in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities.

(c) Birkbeck, University of London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationI was recently interviewed by a journalist from BBC Radio London 94.9 about Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan (right), a remarkable Birkbeck pioneer. Gwynne-Vaughan was born Helen Fraser in 1879, a Scottish aristocrat, and spent her childhood in various exotic locales where her step-father acted as British Consul: Corsica, Stockholm, Oporto, Algiers. Frustrated by the constraints imposed on Victorian girls, Helen battled with her mother to be allowed to study science at university. She passed the Oxford Entrance Exam but Oxford was better known for humanities and, in any case, did not award women degrees.  So Helen read botany at King’s College, London, and, at the age of 30, became head of the botany department at Birkbeck -– the youngest candidate for the post and the only woman.  She married the previous head of department.

When war broke out in 1914, Helen wanted to work in a mobile hospital ‘on a really dangerous front’. In 1917, she was invited to become co-Director of the newly-formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps – –the so-called WAACs. In France, she was a firm but sympathetic leader of the ‘Tommettes’. The French called her ‘Mrs. Waac’ and the servicewomen called her ‘Remember’ as she began so many of her speeches to them with that word. In 1918, she was appointed head of the Women’s Royal Air Force and a year later made a Dame.

After the First World War, Helen returned to Birkbeck and became its first woman professor of botany in 1921. Her research was into fungi, and specifically its reproducibility. A fungus found only in Aberdeenshire – where she had had her coming-out ball was named Rhynia gwynne-vaughanii in her honour. In the Second World War, she led the Auxiliary Territorial Service and was made a Dame for a second time – this time a Dame Grand Cross. She died in 1967, aged 88.

Birkbeck owns a gorgeous portrait of Helen Gwynne-Vaughan in her red and gold doctoral gown by Philip de László (see above). The interview with BBC Radio London will be broadcast in November, to coincide with Armistice Day commemorations, and a longer version will be posted on the website.

Biographical source: Molly Izzard, A Heroine in Her Time: A Life of Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan 1879-1967 (London: Macmillan, 1969).


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Portfolio careers: author and lawyer

Amy Bird, creative writing student and author

Amy Bird, creative writing student and author

Amy Bird, Birkbeck creative writing student and author of Yours is Mine, discusses how her studies at Birkbeck helped her achieve a three-book publishing deal.

I decided to do an MA in Creative Writing to boost my prospects of getting published, both by honing my craft and making connections. The extra-curricular activities on offer, including public readings and the chance to review books, also excited me. Birkbeck was the perfect choice as I could study part-time. Even with an existing career as a lawyer, one evening a week for two years was eminently doable.

As my MA finishes, I have a three-book deal with Harlequin, through their new digital imprint Carina UK. My first novel, psychological thriller Yours is Mine, is out now.

The journey to publication with Birkbeck

Excerpts of Yours is Mine were what got me a place at Birkbeck. I remember sitting in Professor Celyn Jones’ study, being asked to defend the book, particularly the two female voices in the novel.  Were they actually just the same voice? Could I go further to differentiate them? And how?

Yours Is Mine by Amy BirdOver the two years at Birkbeck, I’ve re-worked the novel.  I didn’t use it for assignments, as Birkbeck encourage you to develop new work, but in the background I was tightening Yours is Mine, applying the tips I was learning from my tutors and classmates. That meant that when two opportunities came up through Birkbeck, I was ready for them. The first was the Hookline Novel Award, only open to MA students. I submitted Yours is Mine (under the title Identity Crisis) and it was one of five shortlisted. The second was a call for submissions from new digital imprint of Harlequin, Carina UK, which came through our course administrator. Carina UK loved my novel, and, to my delight, they offered me a three-book deal, which I accepted.

Applying the skills Birkbeck taught me

My first novel was published as direct result of opportunities that came to me at Birkbeck. I also believe that Birkbeck helped me make the most of those opportunities through the skills I learnt there. I spent two years having my work critiqued, analysed and vetted. For the first six months of this, I was also doing a course at Faber Academy. You get a lot of feedback and your skin thickens. I’d also had a short story selected for MIR10, the anthology written, edited and published by students on the Birkbeck creative writing MA, where I worked with the student editors. They were only student in name – uncompromising and very professional. This meant that when I started work with my editor at Carina UK, I knew how to respond to feedback and make appropriate changes swiftly and effectively.  The opportunities to do public readings and contribute reviews and blogs to Birkbeck Writers’ Hub also prepared me for the wider ways in which authors engage with readers.

Beyond Birkbeck

I started at Birkbeck with a career as a lawyer and aspirations to write. I leave it with a portfolio career as a lawyer and author. With my firm’s blessing, I’ve moved to a four-day week so that I can pursue both these avenues at a professional level. So, here’s to the next two books in the deal that I got through Birkbeck!

Amy’s short story, “The Upstairs Room”, is published in issue 10 of the Mechanic’s Institute Reveiw, launched yesterday (26 September 2010) and available from Amazon, local independent bookshops throughout the London area and from selected branches of Waterstones, and in e-book format from Amazon.

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Arts degrees and employability: a career in publishing

Sarah Cumming, MA Creative Writing student

Sarah Cumming, MA Creative Writing student

Creative writing MA student, Sarah Cumming, explains how her studies at Birkbeck helped her launch a career in publishing.

I chose to study creative writing for two reasons: the more obvious reason for studying creative writing – to become a better writer, but also because the course contained an optional publishing module – an opportunity to become one of a team of editors on a short fiction anthology. With a love of language and a slightly pedantic nature, I was always interested in the editing side of writing and I hoped to get an insight into the book business (where I hoped my future career might lie) from both a writer’s and an editor’s perspective.

The business of books

The publishing module began with choosing themes and artwork for the book and most importantly, the content. Along with the other editors, I read hundreds of submissions and once the short list had been whittled down to the final selection of stories, the editors and authors worked together to get the stories ready for publication. I had some experience of editing stories already because a huge part of this MA involves critiquing fellow students’ creative work. In groups of ten to fifteen, we sit in circles and unpick the author’s work and then try and put it back together again. As well as learning from my own experiences, I learn just as much from other people’s mistakes and triumphs. It’s a great way of picking up diplomacy skills too. The discussions can be intense with lots of different views, so I’ve also become better at articulating myself vocally.

The module included a copy-editing workshop, where I learned that the editing process involves two steps: the first, to stand back and look at the bigger picture – the overall structure and how a reader might receive it; the second, to hone in and look at the smaller details – consistency, sense and language use. The key to a successful edit is keeping these processes separate.

My learning curve did not end once the content was ready.  We then started work on marketing, distribution, pricing and organising launch parties and reading events. Social media was a key part of our marketing campaign and helped us reach a wider audience outside the college environment.  I thought I was quite clued up about social networking but I discovered plenty of new ways to reach people. We got our authors involved in interviews and podcasts and we wrote blogs on The Writers’ Hub. We also sent out hundreds of press releases covering every inch of the industry. One of my responsibilities was to oversee the whole process of producing the eBook, from formatting to actually pressing the ‘publish’ button on Amazon. I learnt a great deal about the digital side of publishing and how important it is in today’s ever-changing digital world. Nowadays, they are numerous ways for writers to publish their work and being on top of any new developments is vital. Things can change on a daily basis, especially with new business start-ups and publishing houses introducing digital imprints.  It was a proud moment for the whole team when the months of hard work turned into a finished product – a print run of 500 copies and an eBook in two different formats. This is what it looks like.

In the real world

During the second year of my MA, which I’m studying part time, I started a job as a digital editor for an educational publisher. My role involves developing online learning material for English language learners, from initial ideas to publication. It’s not just about checking for spelling and grammar errors, although this is important, it’s also about supporting authors and helping them shape their material so it becomes suitable for learners. Providing feedback for my peers at Birkbeck put me in good stead for this but it’s also shown me what’s like to be on the receiving end of an editor’s red pen – an important insight when looking after authors.

Although the compulsory lectures and seminars I’ve attended have been informative and helpful, I’ve gained the most from the ‘optional extras’ that the course offers. My advice would be to dive in head first and grab all opportunities. Since starting this course, I’ve introduced guest speakers at launch parties and readers’ events, negotiated with booksellers, written blogs for various publications, helped out on other anthologies and volunteered as a mentor on an adult literacy course. My student status gives me the chance to attend many other arts-based talks for free so I’m continually learning new things. Although I’m coming to the end of my course, the opportunities to get involved will still be there and I feel like completing my MA is really only the start of how it will benefit me in the future.

Sarah’s short story “Paradise”, is published in issue 10 of the Mechanic’s Institute Reveiw, launched yesterday (26 September 2010) and available from Amazon, local independent bookshops throughout the London area and from selected branches of Waterstones, and in e-book format from Amazon.

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