The future’s bright for Stratford

MatthewWeait_400x400Professor Matthew Weait is Pro-Vice-Master (Academic and Community Partnerships) and the man responsible for developing Birkbeck’s provision in east London. Here he tells us of his vision to widen access and welcome a greater number of students.

University Square Stratford (USS) is a £33m state-of-the-art campus situated at the heart of Stratford’s cultural quarter. It’s also home to hundreds of Birkbeck students who are undertaking a wide range of programmes from undergraduate (Honours, Foundation and Certificate levels) to postgraduate courses.

Aiming to widen access and encourage progression into higher education for non-traditional students, USS is attracting growing numbers of students who see the value of the Birkbeck way of learning. A recent survey of students at the campus indicated a high level of satisfaction with the experience of learning there, although it is clear that there remain opportunities for enhancement and increasing use of the building.

Since October 2011, I’ve been fortunate to have been Birkbeck’s Pro-Vice-Master (Academic and Community Partnerships), a role I’ve held in conjunction with my work as Professor of Law and Policy in the School of Law. That has allowed me to develop and introduce the College’s Institutional Partnership Agreement (IPA) with support from the Widening Access and Student Engagement team. The IPA has resulted in a significant increase in progression from FE Colleges to undergraduate degrees, with enrolments across all programmes doubling since 2012/13.  This is certainly an encouraging growth, and we can only see greater opportunities as we move forward with our plans for the campus. And no, it won’t be without its challenges!

USS is a wonderful place to study – a beautiful building with excellent facilities and support. I would like all students at Birkbeck – especially those living or working in East London – to use it more, whether or not they are registered on courses at USS. After all, it’s something they are entitled to do! I would encourage my Birkbeck colleagues to make this more widely known.

In addition to thinking about ways in which more programmes might be offered at USS, I’m also in the process of developing a Centre for University/Community Partnership there. The Centre would provide a space for community organisations to explore and develop collaborative learning and teaching and research opportunities with the College, and is something I’m particularly excited about. I think there is great potential here – the Centre will, I hope, create opportunities for enhancing the impact of our research through knowledge co-creation, and contribute to our internationally excellent research reputation while at the same time being consistent with our Mission. Watch this space!

Development of this great asset is an important undertaking and I’m very happy to discuss any aspect of USS and the opportunities available there for staff and students, and I’m always keen to hear ideas for its future growth.

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A work placement with the Globe Research team

Jenny ReidThis post was contributed by Jen Reid, a PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities. She writes about her experience of a research placement at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

My three months as part of the Globe Research team were varied and stimulating: in what other role would you find yourself reading sixteenth-century midwifery manuals one week, scouring the internet for pictures of apothecaries another, and editing play scripts for upcoming productions the next?

The research interns take on tasks and answer queries from inside and outside the Globe, so every day was different – which is not surprising given the Globe’s own commitment to a range of activities, not only putting on productions but educational work with local schools, exhibitions and scripted performances of rarely performed plays. Not everything we did related to research; on one occasion we compiled an online resource for schools studying Othello, and on another I provided scene summaries for excerpts from around fifteen plays for Globe Education’s event programme. On my last day, I was asked to find manor houses in the Cotswolds with a historical connection to the theatre as part of the preliminary planning stages for the ‘Read Not Dead’ on the road events. I even helped out at the ‘Concert in Winter’ event, stewarding nursery school children to and from their performance on the Globe stage itself of ‘Engine Engine Number Nine’.

Most of the time, though, we were given research tasks. Sometimes these were about plays just about to open, for the company lecture or for the director to clarify points of performance. In my second week, for example, we were asked to look at ideas of sexuality, pregnancy, and love at first sight for the winter production of The Changeling which was due to begin a few weeks afterwards. Usually there would be a few of us in, so we would divide up the research topic between us: I looked at early modern pregnancy. The aim would be to draw up a report between us by the end of the day, tailored to the requirements of whoever had requested the research, and including pictures as well as summaries of the topic and suggested further reading. I enjoyed these jobs the most, as they afforded an opportunity not often encountered while doing a degree, to spend just a few hours hunting out the salient details of a subject, before moving on to the next. Not only that, it was exciting to know that, for example, our research document exploring sixteenth-century English xenophobia would be helpful for director Jonathan Munby deciding when to set his production of The Merchant of Venice, opening at the Globe in late April, or that our report on eighteenth-century madness could help furnish historical background for Claire van Kampen’s Farinelli and the King.

Undertaking the placement during the winter season meant that I witnessed the excitement surrounding the new Sam Wanamaker indoor theatre, which opened early last year, and we had the opportunity to be part of the projects surrounding this new venture, for example by conducting and transcribing audience and actor interviews. We were by no means confined to productions in the Sam Wanamaker, however, and particularly in the new year, many of our tasks related to productions on the Globe stage during the upcoming summer season. This meant we got a great opportunity to get a sense of the different demands and considerations for the two stages: anyone interested in the day-to-day running of a theatre as well as in early modern research would enjoy the experience as thoroughly as I did.

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Globe Education Placement 2014/15

TNashhis post was contributed by Nash Trevelyan, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Renaissance Studies. As part of her course, Nash completed a research placement at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, and here she shares her experiences.

Studying early modern theatre has been the perfect cover, allowing me to veil my questionable taste for the sensational and the lowbrow under the guise of Serious Literature Student. So when it was announced that the opening season at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse would be Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, a production promising ‘[d]ead hands, macabre wax figures [and] a poisoned Bible’, I felt I’d hit the jackpot. It was fantastic to see the playhouse put through its paces in its opening season; many of the production choices were an intriguing balance between innovation and tradition and the possibilities for future productions were becoming apparent.

The SWP consolidated the first season with a compelling series of Research in Action workshops exploring the versatility and limitations of the playhouse, which would be endlessly useful for my forthcoming incarnation as a part-time graduate student on Birkbeck’s MA Renaissance Studies. The prevailing theme of the workshops was the experimental nature of the playhouse, and as such attendees were encouraged to move around the theatre, investigating sightlines and acoustics, to broaden our understanding of the space. I learned something important about indoor playing every time I visited, so when Birkbeck offered me the opportunity, alongside PhD candidate Jennifer Reid, to partake in a research placement at the SWP, I was thrilled and excited at the prospect of gaining an additional perspective on the theatre that was fast becoming intrinsic to my research interests.

Dr Will Tosh, Post-doctoral Research Fellow with Globe Education, gave Jenny and me the warmest of welcomes. We were stationed in the Globe’s Library and Archive with the research team, which consisted of postgraduate researchers from a wide range of institutions. Research requests would come in from a variety of sources, though they most often came from the director of an imminent production as part of the pre-production process. Tasks were prioritised and delegated by the Research Coordinator. Using the in-house style guide, Jenny and I contributed to documents on an array of subjects including early modern understandings of biology, sexuality, madness, racism and otherness – all themes that related either to the current season at the SWP or the forthcoming season at the Globe – ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, The Changeling and The Merchant of Venice. It was imperative that our research employ reliable resources and as such we made good use of the Globe’s onsite library, as well as online databases such as EEBO and JSTOR, as well as the Wellcome, British Library and V&A sites for images. We were given the opportunity to attend Globe Education’s many lectures and events that shared themes with the current production run, which again proved useful to the research we were undertaking. We also conducted audience interviews as part of ongoing research on how the new space is perceived, which is indicative to how playhouse response is such a fundamental concern within the Globe’s ethos.

Life in the archive could be surreal at times: I researched frost fairs while overlooking the Thames from the window, while the sound of musicians rehearsing floated over from the Globe. We even took tea breaks in the green room with the actors (a 17th-century nobleman with an electric kettle is an arresting sight). The area is so steeped in history that the whole experience was immersive. My relationship with the playhouse in the months preceding my placement informed and inspired my research; visualising the ways in which it may be used was a useful tool, particularly when time is of the essence as part of a research team with a vast amount of information to collate and examine.

Entering the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and watching my own research in action during performance was something I could never have imagined when I first stepped inside the playhouse just nine months before. It was also a huge privilege to be named in the programmes for the duration of the season, alongside actors, creatives and academics that we have admired for many years. I gained valuable insight into the ways research is used and presented by an institution with the size and reputation of Shakespeare’s Globe, particularly at such a significant moment in its history – and I have certainly become a better researcher for it.

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Science funding, the law, and the next REF

This post was contributed by Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Assistant Dean for Strategy (Equalities) in Birkbeck’s School of Science.

Birkbeck currently holds an Athena Swan Bronze award

Birkbeck currently holds an Athena Swan Bronze award

Athena SWAN is currently a hot topic of conversation at the top tables in higher education across the UK.

Minds have been focused by money and the announcement by Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies in 2011 that National Institute for Health Research’s (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centres/Biomedical Research Units funding will require a minimum silver Athena SWAN award from 2015.

A full legal duty on all higher education institutions to mainstream equality across their work came in under the Equality Act 2010. In 2014, the government published a report on Women in STEM showing that women were still badly under-represented at professorial levels in academia across every scientific discipline. Research Councils UK also set out a ‘statement of expectations for equality and diversity’. Underpinned by the legislation, the NIHR position is likely to broaden to other research councils.

Since the evaluation of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) 2008, many funding bodies worked to improve the management and support of equality and diversity. As a result many HE institutions developed effective strategies to support women and diversity in their research so that by the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF): ‘the proportion of staff submitted with individual circumstances that had impacted on their research productivity has risen from 12% in RAE 2008 to 29% in REF 2014.’ (This includes, for example, women who have taken a period of maternity leave during the assessment period). The REF 2014 Equality and Diversity Advisory Panel  published their report on 23 January 2015 and it states that steps to embed: ‘broader cultural change in promoting and supporting equality and diversity across their institutions’ will have a place in the next REF.

In addition to three compelling arguments (research funding, legal obligation, and the next REF), Athena SWAN presents an opportunity to improve the lives of a significant proportion of staff to achieve even higher levels of research performance. Our aim is to make Birkbeck a great place where great people do great research and to become a beacon that attracts the best people from all over the world because of our approach to equality.

An Athena SWAN award can only be obtained following a submission to the Equality Challenge Unit. Awards of Bronze, Silver and Gold are given to departments depending on how far advanced they are in identifying problem areas and implementing initiatives to address these. It requires full, open and transparent submission of data (both quantitative and qualitative) and a strategic approach to making systemic changes to improve the progression of women’s careers. Unlike the REF, where one makes the best case possible, this is about reflection of where we are on the foothills, and what we think we can do to reach the summit (i.e. the Gold award).

Birkbeck’s Bronze Award runs out in April 2015. It means that the College’s Athena SWAN self-assessment team (SAT) have a lot of work to do in a short time. The SAT will ask for information and data as well as suggestions from all staff, to help in the reflection of where we, as a School of Science and in our respective departments, might do things better. The SAT will treat information in confidence. Events too are being planned and the SAT hope that staff will attend these events and prioritise this important area of work.

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