This was freshers’ week, only without the mad partying and drinking. An evening university dedicated to working Londoners is hardly the place for excess – we all had jobs and families to get back to. The graduate speaking to us newbies was a likeable woman and was relating her years in uni and how they changed her life. She had gotten a degree, changed jobs, gotten a divorce and become a new woman. Fuck, I thought, I don’t wanna be a new woman, I just want a degree. Famous last words. Welcome, to Birkbeck.
I had arrived in London with an unconditional offer from a different university for their MA in Translation. I had opted for the part time course, seeing as to survive in London I absolutely needed a full time job. But, upon arriving and having a bit of a chat with the office I had a nasty surprise. Part time – in the vast majority of British Universities – just means that you do half the courses and double the time – in other words you still have to attend whatever courses you have alongside the full time students. Do they have a lesson at 10:00 on a Monday? That’s the one you go to as well. You just have 3 courses instead of 6 per semester. How the hell do people who work full time manage this, I asked the admin office. They seem to manage, they said and shrugged.
I had already started my terrible first job in London when I told that particular institution (politely) to fuck off and started looking around for a BA – considering that I had no actual interest in Translation and it was only something to hold onto to bring me to London. I applied to Birkbeck, the only institution that guaranteed evening part time education, designed for working Londoners, with an overwhelmingly mature student body. I was 22 at the time and always the youngest in any class I attended during my BA.
I chose Humanities & the Media. It was sufficiently generic and I had no actual idea what I wanted to do. I had some tech writing experience and I was good with ideas and theoretical concepts so onwards I ventured. Which brings us to the freshers‘ welcome. “Well, that was scary”, said the friendly shy girl who was sitting next to me, “do you think any of that will happen to us?” I looked at her and smiled. “I seriously doubt it”, I replied and then proceeded to get a BA and an MSc from Birkbeck, changing my career, my aspirations, by personal life and basically most things about me.
On the evening of 11 November 1823, around 2000 people got together at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand to hear Dr George Birkbeck speak on the importance of educating the working people of London. Following this initial meeting, the London Mechanics’ Institute was formally created at the same location on 2 December 1823, with the stated aim of educating working people. Basically at the pub. How cool is that? This foundation meant that, for the first time, artisans and craftspeople could learn about science, art and economics: a concept so controversial that George Birkbeck was accused of ‘scattering the seeds of evil’. Seven years later, in 1830, the Institute took a further radical step by becoming one of the first colleges to admit women as students – nearly 40 years before the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. In 1903 the Institution is renamed Birkbeck College and in 1920 Birkbeck officially became part of the University of London, on the understanding that it would continue to offer evening study. (source)
I am one of those women who benefitted from those scattered seeds of evil.
But the schedule man, the schedule. I had to work full time and study part time in the evening. So that was 9 to 5 work every day, then leg it to Birkbeck for about 3 hours of lectures 3 evenings a week. Leave uni around 9 in the evening to take a bus or the tube home. On evenings without lectures study or go to the library. Combine that with a crap salary and it’s no surprise that it took me *years* to visit even the most popular places in London. There was just no time and I was of the least busy students since other also had children! I tell you, nobody came unprepared to lectures. If you were there as a mature student it meant you were seriously dedicated. Nobody goes to study after work and doesn’t see their kids just for the fun of it.
It only got worse with the MSc. My job was better but the subject matter I was studying was new so I was hitting the books non stop. Those two years were the hardest I’ve ever worked on anything. While doing the final corrections on my thesis tears were streaming down my face uncontrollably. That library was my saviour – especially during exam times, open at all hours. I seem to recall that I existed on fumes from highlighters, cigarettes and coffee.
Those were by far the best years of my life in London. Job was a bit shit? No problem. Boyfriend was a bit of a dick? No problem. Life was hard? No problem. Had no money? No problem. Regardless of how tough things got I had uni. Being at Birkbeck was satisfying and it felt important, not just as a gateway towards something but in the there and then.
“So why did you talk in the seminar about the possible psychotic episode and not in your essay?”
“I mean, I tried, but I could not find any sources”
“You are allowed to put original thoughts in your essays, that’s the whole point”, said Peter exasperated.
Peter was still doing his PhD in those days and led some of our seminars. He had some of the weirdest research interests I had heard of and he was hands down one the best teachers I had. He was always unashamedly himself and it felt as if he was talking to colleagues. He assumed you had read it all and if not that was also fine, we could chat about it. He joked, came up with obscure references and gave some insight into the pure madness of academia. When I had the distinct pleasure to design and deliver a university course years later I channeled a bit of Peter in my lessons and understood firsthand how exhausted he must have been after each session.
We spent the whole lecture challenging her. What is wrong with Public Relations? Isn’t that the whole point of the communications industry, finding a way to spread the message through the media?
She looked at us in exasperation. She had brought in a speaker from a PR firm who spoke about how he crafted his message and targeted specific media so that he could create pressure to save a company from being sold off by the State. It so happened that this was a Greek company. He was specific about his strategy and planning and very open about what his careful strategy had achieved. She had been horrified.
“He was just shamelessly talking about what strategies he used to manipulate the outcome”, I heard her talking to her fellow post-doc researcher after class. The class had been completely unshockable. Considering we were all professionals with loads of work experience that shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
“So wait, you use quantitative methods to get to the proof, right?” she asked me anxiously.
“No, there is no proof, there is only correlation”, I explained.
I had spent two semesters desperately trying to keep up with the Business graduates. They were a different breed than the Humanities students I was accustomed to. They were also younger! Birkbeck offers full time postgraduate programmes and suddenly the student body was completely different! They were also armed with 3 years of case studies and some statistics – while I could talk about the nature of the city as a created space or analyse the othering of the female body etc. – not very useful in business school – or so I thought. I worked incredibly hard to catch up, I made friends who understood maths explain quantitative methods to me. I however was visibly not struggling with philosophy of science – humanities being actually a good preparation for that. I enjoyed that brief moment of popularity during the final revision class.
“Stop thinking about the grade so much”
“I can’t stop thinking about the grade, it’s the grade!”
“Write me a good paper. Practice. Concentrate on the thesis.”
Soo Hee looked at me over his glasses. He wasn’t dismissive, he knew exactly what annoyed me and tried to get me to sort out my priorities.
“When are you finishing the Pina Bausch essay? She was alive when I assigned it to you”
“I will, I promise”
“She died waiting for your essay.”
I don’t think I’ve even seen a more peculiar relationship than the one between an advisor and their research student. They are most definitely not your parent and absolutely not your friend. But they are your guide.
“See this call for papers, we should submit”
“We don’t have a paper”
“Write the abstract with Marios, they will probably reject us”
They didn’t. We had to scramble like mad to write the paper – which got published, my first ever journal publication. It actually gets referenced from time to time.
I don’t think I miss anything as much as I miss Birkbeck. There is a calmness in the library, something magical about the smell of old books. I know people usually remember their university years – especially in Britain – as years of knowledge, partying and experimentation but Birkbeck wasn’t like that. It was the most serious part of my life, the bit I was most dedicated to.
My research was on digital spaces, embodiment online, identity creation and expressivity, problem solving and embodied digital experiences. It was, in other words, about the metaverse. When I decided to pause my PhD I cried for about a week. Nothing has felt like more monumental failure than that decision. Things happened after that, some good, some bad and some very important but there is always something that is unfinished back there, there is a research proposal that I’ve always avoided looking at.
When the metaverse started making the headlines recently Soo Hee dropped me a line: “You were at least 10 years ahead of time. Would you like to pick it up and write a paper?”
And you know, I can’t think of anything more exciting.
- Grexit/ Brexit
- The way to anyone’s heart is through the stomach
- The night bus
- Words save our lives… sometimes
- The rest is noise
- How not to bite your nails in the Officials’ Box
- Always have a sister
- Greek London
- This green and pleasant land
- The bridge of aspiration
- The knight in well travelled armor
- Carpets in the toilet and other adventures in housing
- Moments in Art
- The NHS hunger games
- In nocte consilium
- The friends we found, the friends we lost
- Blogging tips for beginners
- Lord of Gondolin, Bane of Gothmog, mighty beater of his headboard, conqueror of the slide, aka our child
- γνῶθι σεαυτόν
- How to leave London