Researching History of Art in Venice and Padua

This post was contributed by Dr Laura Jacobus, senior lecturer in the Department of History of Art.

Sitting at my desk squinting at indecipherable medieval documents, I’m suddenly transported to the near-future and the summer term at Birkbeck, when I’ll be sitting at my desk squinting over indecipherable exam scripts. Academics take research leave in order to refresh their thinking and inform their teaching, keeping up at the cutting-edge of knowledge, so that we can then deliver that to our students and to the wider world of scholarship. But from students’ point of view our disappearances may be less explicable. So I thought I’d write a bit about what I’m doing.

I’ve been using this term to pull together research that I began many years ago on the Arena Chapel in Padua. It’s a fourteenth-century building, with practically every surface decorated with stunning frescoes by Giotto. I have already published a book on it, but I’d found a great deal of material which was still of interest, and it didn’t belong in that book because it had nothing to do with Giotto. This term is an opportunity to pull that material out of the filing cabinet (yes, some of it goes back that many years) and try to make sense of it, getting an overview of what needs to be done and doing some of it.

Before my leave started I’d booked a two-week research trip to Venice and Padua, and over Christmas I planned that meticulously. I had nine different archives and specialist libraries that I wanted to visit, some of them with quite short and irregular opening times. As things turned out I only managed seven of them, and in one of those the specialist collection I needed to see wasn’t available, but this is quite a high success rate for a research trip, and I may be able to go back for a few more days before the end of my leave. And, I have to say, some of those libraries were a pleasure! I’m including a photograph (below) of one, the seventeenth-century library of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore, designed by Longhena and still with all its original furnishings.  I was very lucky to be staying in a newly-opened research centre in the former monastery there, so this was my local library during my stay. Before anyone gets too envious, I should also say that one of the other libraries was in a below-sea-level 1960s basement. Still, there’s no denying that doing research on Italian medieval and renaissance art has its attractions.

Longhena Library

The seventeenth-century library of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore, designed by Longhena and still with all its original furnishings

The trip to Italy allowed me to find and photograph around twenty documents that should help fill some of the gaps in my evidence, but first I have to read, transcribe, translate and edit them.  I returned to London three weeks ago, and have spent much of the time since then doing just that.  It will take many more weeks to do it (more weeks than I have leave), and I am including photographs of some of them so that you can see why. A few are rather beautiful – such as this copy of a letter from Maddalena Scrovegni, the first female humanist, to the Duke of Milan in 1389…

Maddalena Scrovegni's letterMaddalena Scrovegni letter detail

…but most are definitely not. This is the copy of her brother’s will, written at a time when the family had lost everything in 1435.

DSCF0993 Pietro endowment 1435 July 30 cropped p.1Pietro Scrovegni will (1444-1450 copy) detail

I’m interspersing the work on these transcriptions with drafting sections of the next book, treating one kind of work as a break from the other. It sounds like a messy process, and in many ways it is, but the shape of the book is gradually emerging from these parallel processes of thinking, writing and evidence-gathering. If you happen to be working on a dissertation or thesis, this may sound familiar- as will the feeling of time running out! One day, a book called ‘The Afterlife of the Arena Chapel’ will appear, but probably not before I’ve marked quite a few more medieval-looking exam scripts.

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Rehearsing “why” and “how” to not drink alcohol during social occasions may help promote safer student drinking

2014 photoThis post was contributed by Dr Dominic Conroy, a Research Fellow in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck. Dr Conroy is currently working on an NIHR-funded study with Professor Jonathan Smith to explore adolescents with conduct disorders’ experiences of multisystemic therapy. 

Students-drinking1Understanding how to successfully encourage university students to understand and heed government drinking recommendations remains one of the holy grails of health promotion research. One aspect of these drinking recommendations is to encourage individuals to take two ‘dry days’ per week where they do not drink any alcohol at all (National Health Service, 2014). In research recently published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, my research colleagues Dr Paul Sparks and Dr Richard de Visser and I were interested in assessing an exercise designed to explore how students might be encouraged to consider how occasional non-drinking during social occasions could be thought of as a more beneficial, achievable behaviour.

Students-drinking2This experiment involved a  ‘mental simulation’ exercise in which 211 undergraduate student participants were encouraged to ‘mentally simulate’ possible benefits of socialising without drinking alcohol and/or possible strategies which might make not drinking during a social occasion more straightforward. Findings indicated that compared with maintaining a drinks diary, mentally simulating benefits led to reduced overall weekly consumption, and mentally simulating strategies involved in non-drinking led to reduced episodes of heavy episodic drinking. Findings also suggested that all participants held more favourable perceptions of non-drinkers than they had at baseline, though not significantly so.

Several indicative areas for future research were clearly identified from this study. Options for delivering health promotion messages containing a non-drinking mental simulation to encourage young people and/or students to consider the achievability and possible advantages involved in periodically not drinking during social occasions are currently being explored in collaboration with DrinkAware. It would also be useful to understand whether improving perceptions of non-drinkers might offer one route toward promoting safer levels of alcohol consumption. So for example, measuring self-reported perceptions of ‘the typical non-drinker’ might provide a useful screening tool for identifying those most at risk of harmful drinking. However, future research might also help clarify how different strands of ‘perceptions of non-drinkers’ are implicated in alcohol-related perceptions and behaviour. For example, it would be useful to understand how beliefs about non-drinking as a behaviour  chosen by others or as a personal behaviour imagined or enacted by the respondent may hold links with drinking behaviour, just as ‘perceptions of the prototypical non-drinker’ seem to.

Students face a wealth of social opportunities involving alcohol consumption during their time at university. In this context research must continue to explore ways of encouraging students to think about drinking less during occasions when alcohol consumption is inevitable. This said, findings from my PhD research favour the view that efforts to successfully promote moderate drinking among students may benefit from greater consideration over how to encourage individuals to re-appraise non-drinking as a periodic behavioural option available to them personally. This might include instilling more positive appraisals of non-drinking as a social behaviour in others as well as prompting students to consider non-drinking at some social occasions as something more achievable and holding more distinct benefits than they may had previously thought. At a health promotion guideline level, this would be consistent with recent recommendations to take two ‘dry days’ each week provided by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.

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A reflection on the Research Excellence Framework 2014

TStephenFrosh_2014his post was contributed by Professor Stephen Frosh, Birkbeck’s Pro-Vice-Master for Research. In December 2014 the UK higher education funding bodies published the results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a peer review process which evaluates the quality of research in the UK’s universities.  Funding decisions based on the REF results will be announced this spring.

The results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) were published in December 2014 and have been widely reported. While the official results of this six-yearly audit of university research take the form of institutional ‘profiles’ made up of outputs, impact, environment and an overarching narrative, there has also been strong  interest in where each institution sits in the various informal league tables that have followed.

Birkbeck did well in the REF. In keeping with the rest of the sector, our results improved significantly since the last such research assessment in 2008, when 56% of our research was rated as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’, the top two categories. This time, 73% of our research was judged in those categories. Unlike many universities, our performance was not inflated by a strategic decision to include only our most research-active academics in the assessment. Birkbeck submitted 83% of eligible staff to the 2014 REF, well above the national average. This led to the College’s strong performance in league tables which take into account the percentage of staff, rather than just the overall grade point average (GPA) of research, submitted. Birkbeck achieved a ranking of 30th in the UK for its research by the Times Higher Education – placing the College above Russell Group institutions such as Cardiff, Leeds, Liverpool, Queen Mary, Sheffield and York.

Of the 14 subject areas that Birkbeck submitted, half were rated in the top 20 nationally. Our science submissions performed exceptionally well, with Psychological Sciences rated 5th in the UK and the College’s two joint submissions with UCL – Earth Systems & Environmental Sciences, and Biological Sciences – rated 6th and 11th respectively.  Our outstanding subjects in the Times Higher Education’s ‘research-intensity’ league tables  include Law, ranked 6th overall (putting it among the top 10 law schools alongside the LSE, UCL, Oxford and Cambridge) and History, ranked 7th.

Similarly, the College performed strongly in league tables based on the percentage of research judged to be ‘world-leading’, indicating the very high quality of much of our research. I am also particularly pleased that – in addition to the outstanding performance of some of our top disciplines – we can celebrate the good performance in the REF of new areas such as Sociology and our reconfigured Modern Languages group, reflecting the College’s ability to build new research areas over time.

The 2014 REF threw up new challenges for the sector. For the first time, it required universities to demonstrate the impact of their research beyond academia. The College responded very well to this challenge, with good ratings in most areas and outstanding results in three subject areas – History; Art and Design; and Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience – where 100% of Birkbeck’s submissions were rated in the top two categories for impact. The broad scope of our research and its impact are showcased on the College research webpages under six themes: arts, history and culture; conservation and heritage; learning, education and development; politics, society and the law; science and biomedicine; and work and the economy. This demonstrates how closely Birkbeck’s research relates to many aspects of our everyday lives – whether influencing policy-makers in their thinking about early years education; working with major companies to educate parents about their child’s development; or trialling new drugs for the treatment of cancer.

The results of the REF are important for many reasons, including the credibility of our claim to be research-intensive, our reputation with the public and our strong standing within specific disciplines. Importantly, from a financial perspective, the likelihood remains that HEFCE research funding will be allocated according to a formula based on proportion of 4* and 3* overall outcomes multiplied by number of staff submitted, with 4* more heavily weighted.  What this means for Birkbeck will be clearer when funding decisions based on the REF results are announced in spring 2015. At the moment, we expect to earn about the same amount College-wide (though with a somewhat different distribution between disciplines within the College) from the REF as we have done from the RAE (well over £6m in 2014-15) – but we shall have to see whether the funding formula changes, and also whether the UK’s spending on research and development as a proportion of GDP, which is very low by international standards, continues to fall. Birkbeck’s results also show the enormous amount of hard work that has gone on in recent years by our academics. At a time of turmoil in the higher education system, they have continued to produce top-quality research.

The REF was a stressful experience for many people in the College and I am especially grateful to them for the work they put into Birkbeck’s submission. As might be imagined, we have been poring over the results and thinking about how to build on them for the future. We have a new Research Strategy that aims at facilitating the creativity of our research community. We are looking closely at issues of research leadership and we are reviewing the policies and provision we have in relation to postgraduate research students. There is, as ever, plenty to do, but the REF has confirmed our own self-perception as a highly active research-based institution of genuinely international standing.

Listen to a podcast with Professor Frosh about the REF 2014 results.

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Are older people a burden? – Challenging the myths

This post was contributed by Dr Penny Vera-Sanso, a Senior Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. It is taken from her contribution to Facing the Facts: the truth about ageing and development, a campaigning publication launched today by Age International, a UK charity working for and with older people in developing countries.

Age-UK-blog-imageHow we see old age in developing countries does not reflect the diversity of older people’s experience. We often assume that older people in these contexts are being made more vulnerable by changing family values. We also accept the ageism implicit in concepts such as ‘the old age dependency ratio’ that assumes all people over the age of 60 do not work and everyone between the ages of 15 and 59 does. None of these capture the realities facing many older people in developing countries, nor the contributions that they make.

Rather than treat older people as dependants or blame old age poverty and vulnerability on failing family values, what is needed is a new approach to understanding later life; one that shifts the focus from what older people need to what they do. Such an approach dispels ageist stereotypes and convenient ‘blame-the-family’ attitudes; finding instead that older people’s work, whether paid or unpaid, is critical to household economies and plays a significant role in helping a nation to carve out a place within the global economy.

Households and economics

It is economics and government policy, more than culture and family values, that determine the size of a household – the people who share accommodation and living expenses. We are familiar with the idea of large extended households in developing countries comprising several generations, but this is not the only way in which older people and their families (if indeed they have extended families) live. Large extended households need substantial economic resources to support and maintain themselves. This is not always possible.

Where people only have access to low incomes, large extended households are not feasible. Families in this situation tend to form close-knit networks of smaller households. In these poorer settings, older people are not able to ‘retire’ from direct or indirect work because of both the demands of maintaining their own households and the help that related households might need.

The need for better data

Tracking older people’s contribution to the economy is hampered by poor data collection, including differing assumptions of what counts as economic activity. Often, older people’s efforts are merely characterised as ‘helping out’ or ‘passing time’ and do not cover the full economic contribution they make. A much wider perspective is necessary, one that looks at the economic effects of what older people do. Through their low-paid work, self-employment or unpaid work in family businesses, older men and women provide low-cost inputs to industry and low-cost services to workers. This, in turn, enables national economies to offer low-cost services and products in the global market place. Older people are also subsidising national budgets, by taking on caring roles that younger women would otherwise do, and releasing them into the labour force. In other words, for the very lowest costs they are creating a condition that is critical to achieving economic growth – the expansion of the female workforce.

The economic realities of older people are not explained by old age dependency or declining family values. These stereotypes of later life are obscuring the recognition of older people’s paid and unpaid work and undermining their rights. Alongside recognising their value to the economy, what is urgently needed now are measures to put older people in the driving seat – that is, recognition of their rights as workers; their right to work and their right to a pension that is sufficient to allow them the choice of whether to work, what work to do, and for how long.

Read more about Age International’s campaigning work.

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