Our First Five Years: from tiny beginnings to exciting developments

July 20, 2018

Written by Diana Spencer

Thoughts from the Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences Dean

 “The last five years have been exciting times for Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences at the University of Birmingham. With two cohorts now successfully graduated, this makes for a very good moment for reflection.

As Dean, I spend my time between getting better to know and support our students, thinking strategically about where our developing organisation can lead us — and into what new partnerships and opportunities — and working on the nuts and bolts of staffing and our physical resources. All these things are interconnected, but also have their own energies and dynamics.

We are a complex organisation, and in our cultural programme, our rich suite of extracurricular activities (including our overnight trips, which take a lot of planning!), our international band of affiliate students, and our strong links into the academic practice of every one of the University’s disciplinary Colleges, sometimes it’s hard for students and graduates of LANS to keep track of all our achievements. So let me outline some of our current highlights, and our plans for 2018/19.

It remains the case that each of our students graduates with a unique programme of study. Reflect for a moment on that: the enormous flexibility enshrined in LANS genuinely enables all our students to craft something brand new and personally meaningful, drawing on the cutting-edge research from across our truly comprehensive university. When we started out, even I found it hard to appreciate how remarkable that would be in practice.

As our graduates know, with four years of LANS under their belts, and for some of them, a year of further study, employment, or other activities, the importance of reflective practice within LANS is paramount, and continues to shape our ongoing development of our core compulsory and optional modules.

Reflection and in particular, learning through trying, failing, reflecting, evaluating, and moving forward through these cycles, is as central to our educational philosophy as it is to our research expertise, and to the entrepreneurial activities of those with whom we collaborate. Our academic faculty, students, and our professional services team, share these goals, and work with the University and other stakeholders to achieve them.

It is in no small part due to this collaborative ethos that we continue to receive resource investment from the University, and collegial support from and within the shared aspirations of Liberal education programmmes within the UK and globally. It’s in all these contexts that we thrive.

Our pioneering cohorts will recall that the LANS academic team was originally composed of many staff seconded to us temporarily on small proportional percentages, and whose ‘main’ role was based in a disciplinary department. This was ideal in many ways, as it gave us breadth across the University, and also provided flexibility. We really had no idea of numbers of students or what it would be like, in reality, to deliver the programme in those early years…

By 2017, it was clear that LANS was recruiting increasingly well – strong numbers, growth in interest, and exceptional students. This made the temporary nature of most of the personal tutors’ roles with LANS increasingly hard to manage: good colleagues were in demand in their ‘home’ departments just as much as they were in LANS, and the pressures on their time and ability to manage the split looked set, eventually, to eat into time that could otherwise have been spent creatively working with students on academic outcomes.

Moreover, although when we started we had a ‘support’ team of just one (Ruth Johnson), we had already anticipated the new scale we were developing by successfully recruiting additional enthusiasts to the office team (compliments to Neil Nelson and Mary Ann Clarke!).

So from September 2018, this wonderful backbone will now grow further, with the permanent addition of Graham Davies, and another administrator to join Mary Ann.

Professional services’ support is one key piece in the jigsaw, but there’s more to the outcomes of this strategic planning. We know how much students value continuity within all elements of the team. We began to address this, redefining our faculty model, by recruiting two new full-time LANS academics in 2017 (Mircea Scrob and Simon Scott) — their roles, working in particular on our core modules’ ongoing refinement and delivery, has been transformative, and they have brought a freshness of vision and energy that we have all relished!

This investment programme also delivers five new academic colleagues, to be known as Lecturers in LANS and x, with ‘x’ a subject area supported by one each of the five university colleges. These new permanent faculty members will be 50% based in LANS. We are extremely excited by this development and the confidence that this resource shows in us as a team (staff and students).

Thus in September 2018 we expect to welcome a new lecturer to Birmingham, shared with the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, and with a mission to focus on public communication of sciences outside the academy. In addition, we will be joined by an expert in interdisciplinary Humanities, whose background in SportEx, History, Conflict Studies, and expertise in languages (and organising study abroad programmes), will make him an excellent new colleague for our new shared Lectureship connecting the College of Arts and Law with LANS, again, this is a 50% LANS proportion, and as a permanent lectureship. September 2018 also sees our current Director for Natural Sciences, Julia Myatt, add to her portfolio by taking on our 50/50 new lectureship in LANS and Biosciences (representing the College of Life and Environmental Sciences).

In autumn 2019, we will increase by two further permanent shared lecturerships, linking us with the College of Medical and Dental Sciences, and the College of Social Sciences.

But where will we fit these new team members in? We have successfully bid to relocate to a fantastic new suite of rooms. It’s still in our home — the European Research Institute building, but better because bigger and configured specifically as we want it. Some readers may know the exciting open plan flexible-learning space from our Applicant Visit Days – this whole area (including offices, social-, and meeting-space) will now be the LANS Staff and Student Hub, more than tripling our current home. This means that tutors will at last able to be deeply integrated into the spatial dynamics of the community, and more dedicated space can be provided for LANS students to work and socialise in groups, and consult with the LANS student administrative, wellbeing, and experience teams.

This autumn, I myself will become a little semi-detached for a year to give me time to get my next major research project off the ground (my current project, a book about the politics of language change in the late Roman Republic – first century BCE – will be published shortly, Research-in-progress updates will be appearing on my blog: https://dianajspencer.com). After four years as Dean, it’s really important that my research has some space to take shape and for me to produce some preliminary results. Just as we are challenging our students to work interdisciplinarily, we are modelling that behaviour ourselves as academics. I’ll be sending dispatches (and maybe a blog post) about my progress by the end of the year…

For this reason, I am delighted that Julia Myatt will spend the 2018/19 academic year as Dean (we will have a temporary colleague covering for Julia’s work as the LANS NatSci lead, but under Julia’s watchful eye) – I will also be popping in every now and again, generally keeping my ideas and assistance in the mix, and I hope that all of our graduates will continue next year to keep in touch with me, as well as with the rest of LANS!

I will return to the position of Dean in September 2019, and am looking very much forward to that new term of office already!

Finally, we are also in the process of setting up an Advisory Board, comprising internal and external members, and our graduates, to guide LANS through its next phase of development and to advise on strategy — keep an eye out for more communications, and more reports on forthcoming adventures as we look forward to 2018/19…”

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Graduate Stories – Jennifer Bainbridge

March 12, 2018

Written by Jennifer Bainbridge

 I graduated from LANS in July 2017 with a double major in Economics and Chemistry. After a rather rainy graduation ceremony I flew over to Malaysia for a couple of weeks in the sunshine and sea.

In September, I returned to the UK to start my new graduate role as a Finance and Risk Graduate in Canary Wharf in London for an Oil and Gas Major. The graduate scheme runs for three years with three one year rotations around the trading part of the company. My first role is as a Commodity Risk Analyst which mainly involves working with traders to manage their risk and monitor their profits and losses. It’s a fast paced dynamic environment working with departments across the company including traders and operators both locally and globally.

My new role has taken up the majority of my time but when I have time off I spend it exploring London, planning and going on holidays, at the gym and spending way too much time at dinner and brunch. I’m also involved in a committee for the graduates at my company and organise socials each week. On top of that, I’m about to begin studying towards my CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountancy) qualification.

In terms of how my LANS degree was useful for applying for graduate jobs; I think the biggest benefit was the fact it’s a bit of an USP. You’ll get very good at explaining the course to recruiters (after being met with a blank face when you reel off the degree title). However, once people understand it, the usual response is “I wish I could have done that at university”. I had positive responses at every company I interviewed at, including consultancies, big four, and finance companies.

For applications, I think it’s important to highlight the technical and in-depth knowledge you gain from studying towards a subject major. You can also show how studying a wide variety of subjects not only improves your understanding and appreciation of the wider world, but the softer skills that come from basically designing and studying your own individual degree – from organisation to communication, perseverance to problem solving. The group projects you do in first and second year also useful for competency based interview questions – for skills such as teamwork, leadership, communication, working with people with different working styles/opinions and many more.

Your combination of subjects is important: try to weave a story about why you picked them (it could just be that you wanted to try something new and challenge yourself). I’d definitely suggest spending time looking at the skills required for each application and finding a couple of examples to back up each skill. You’d be surprised at how many of these return to the opportunities provided by the LANS degree.

In terms of employment and future career, I’m very open to different options and pathways. I feel like I’m still at the stage where I can explore and develop a range of skills and the LANS degree definitely made me more open to trying out new things. Whilst I will probably stay in the Finance/Trading industry for a while I’d consider other avenues such as consultancy down the track.

Nina, Birmingham REP

March 9, 2018

Written by Susannah Shepherd

 

In three words, I would describe Nina as passionate, stirring and insightful.

Nina is a one woman show performed by Josette Bushell-Mingo about her own life and the career of Nina Simone which touches on the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter. Despite the implications of the title, the show is as much about the woman onstage as it is about Nina Simone, if not more so, as well as things larger than either one. Bushell-Mingo showcased her huge personality, passion and boundless energy throughout the show, as well as her beautiful voice. The first half of the one act show took the form of an extended monologue, peppered with songs and accompanied with images from the civil rights movement as well as Black Live Matter. The second half took the form of a Nina Simone concert, with Bushell-Mingo introducing herself as the understudy. In the second half, Bushell-Mingo’s vocal talent is immense, and her performance was utterly captivating. However, it was not her singing voice that drew my attention, but rather her voice in a different sense – that of an activist and a passionate black woman – which she used fully during the first half.

She began by singing ‘Revolution’ by Nina Simone, but before the song was over the show took a sombre turn, as she claimed there had been no revolution, referencing the many black men and women killed throughout the 20th and 21st century. She also touched on forgiveness and religion, speaking about her mother’s death in a particularly moving section of the show. A darker turn was to come however, with Bushell-Mingo playing out a hypothetical situation in which shoots every white member of the audience, which included her imagining her family pleading with her to stop.

One-woman-shows automatically put me on edge, as they can be stirring, provocative and imaginative, but they can easily be cringe-worthy and over-dramatic. I was surprised and thrilled that Nina was an outstanding example of the former.

LANS Trip to Brussels

February 23, 2018

We set out this year from North Gate under conditions which were very similar to last year. It was still a ridiculously early departure for a Sunday; we were all very excited to be heading to the continent to experience a different culture; we had a few anxious moments waiting for everyone to arrive and we were all looking forward to spending some time together before setting off on individual study year abroad.

The one thing that was very different though was that shortly after the trip the last year Britain voted to leave the EU. This context provided some interesting issues to ponder from the policy making angle when we visited the European Commission, to our ability to clear passport control with ease, to thinking about what opportunities may be possible for working and living in Europe in the future. Like last year, some of the best moments were caught on camera. The highlights of our trip are best expressed in photos!

Day 1

 

A walking tour of Brussels

Some serious negotiating skills were on show at the Parlamentarium role play game!

Day 2

 

Vice Chancellor’s Challenge 2017, a Reflective Report

The VCC competition is a new scheme that recruits teams of students to work across disciplines on issues relating to global challenge. In 2017, the topic was Sustainable Cities. Student teams were supported by staff from across the university, including our Vice Chancellor, Professor Sir David Eastwood. LANS students were finalists in 2017.

By Natacha Askovic (Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences, fourth year student)

Why did I immediately feel that a topic on Sustainability was one for me?

The year I spent in Sweden as an exchange student [the LANS Year Abroad] has contributed a lot to changing my mind-set, to making me grow up as an individual and a student. Taking courses in Sustainability (Sustainability: Greening the Economy – lessons from Scandinavia) and Environmental Governance have greatly contributed to shaping my knowledge on global environmental issues and the various theories underlying their understanding, as well as the different solutions used/suggested to limit their effect and/or deal with the situation we have brought ourselves in.

I can say now with hindsight that I had already developed, even before Sweden, strong interests in topics related to ecology on one side, and social studies on the other. It is also mostly the reason why I decided to go to Sweden, even though at the time of applications, I did not use these terms to refer to my decision to pursuing my exchange studies in Lund; it is only after studying there and being part of a very sustainable and environmentally-friendly community that I was able to truly phrase what made me want to go there in the first place – and what actually attracts me about Scandinavia, and Sweden in particular.

At the end of the day, what I have known for years now is that I want to make sure the world that surrounds me is a better place – and that I never leave it worse off on a daily basis! – and throughout my experience at University, I have been led to consider SUSTAINABILITY as the framework in which I would develop both myself as an individual and my future career.

I found out about the Vice Chancellor at the beginning of my second semester abroad, when I was already more aware of my appeal for these themes, and I was truly driven by the topic of Sustainable Cities and Communities, simply because I felt that I was part of a Sustainable Community living in a Sustainable (Student) City – among a lot of other things, I learnt how to recycle EVERYTHING in Sweden, using literally the 8 different bins we had in our flat!

“Could you have the answer to a global challenge”: the LANS approach to the Challenge

Now the VCC is over, I strongly believe that we stood out from the rest of the groups, as LANS students, with regard to our approach. Our team was made up of five members, each of us having very interdisciplinary profiles, and this was both very beneficial and challenging in the first phase of research. In my case, my academic areas of interests are mainly centred around economics and international relations. In the specific given framework of Sustainability, I was immediately attracted to the questions related to Green Economy, Circular Economy and green political thoughts (Ecosocialism, Bioenvironmentalist ideas, the institutionalists approach to global environmental issues). Considering this is a topic that I am truly fond of, I enjoyed doing a lot of research on top of my already solid background on the questions we raised as a team regarding how we could tackle the challenge.

Quickly after we had our team constituted, we were faced with a few difficulties, difficulties that I feel we managed to successfully overcome. I believe that the first and probably main challenge for us while we were still abroad was to settle on a topic/project and this was for several reasons.

The first one was common to all of the teams and related to how vague the instructions were. The expectations on the significance of our project as a solution were also very unclear [this was the first time the scheme had run, and the expectations evolved as the project developed]. Secondly, as LANS students, we all have very interdisciplinary profiles already, with majors from various colleges, (and thus also different research methods, academic perspectives etc.) and we were asked to work on an already very interdisciplinary and very broad topic, which I think did not necessarily mean that it was harder for us, but rather we would approach the question differently from the very early stages compared to the other teams. Last but not least, we were all abroad making physical meetings impossible and also faced the difficulty of finding suitable times for Skype calls as we were in different time zones (Sweden, South Korea, Germany and Australia).

For all of these various reasons, it seemed hard to settle on a topic. When we started running out of time, it was decided that every single member should come up with a solution rather than an issue relating to sustainability, and from there find the problem(s) it relates to/solves, thus making the project both innovative and interesting and having an actual impact. We would then all vote and so Urban Gardens was the solution we settled on.

I offered to work on the idea of closed loops, a project that would involve circular process – having in mind the research on circular economies very promoted in Sweden and at the EU level – since circular/closed processes and cycles, or loop models, could be applied in a lot of different areas (academic, industrial, manufacturing, waste management, and actually urban gardens too!). Not only do I believe this bit of input influenced a lot our research and project as well, but also that it is absolutely essential to the concept of sustainability, since it could resolve the paradox that resides in the growing interest in environmental issues on the one hand, and the importance granted to economic objectives (growth) in the current world on the other hand.

BUGGs working on their platform: the long-term implications

As I learnt throughout my module on the Greening of the Economy, the concept of ‘sustainability’ does not only refer to environmental impacts and practices, but rather relies on three pillars, i.e. the economy, the society and the environment. Very quickly, I understood that the social one was at the heart of sustainability since societies as a whole are included within the economy, which in turn is part of the environment that surrounds us – indeed this is HOW we have decided to organise our societies on a global scale. We hence felt that if we (and when I say ‘we’, I mean anyone who has any interest in sustainability), could work within this pillar and help people develop a sense of connection with the environment while at the same improving social cohesion, empowering communities by teaching them how to be more self sufficient together, this was both life-changing for so many people here, around us in Birmingham, and at the same time a great step in the pursuit of sustainable development.

Urban gardens – or community local food growing – would help build both social cohesion that is so essential for all the individuals for so many obvious reasons – among which well-being, personal development, more (equal) opportunities… We pictured it as a process relating to the grass roots, or bottom-up approach: by shifting back the focus to local action, this could trigger realization of the importance of say more environmental friendly practices by the individuals; it could also impact on consumption habits, nutrition-related awareness and so on. Shifting the focus back to the local level means defining an improved quality of life and thus creating visions of sustainable lifestyles. This in turn leads to the need to work on designing, supporting and governing more sustainable cities where people have a good life and hence shows the key role that innovation and clean technology have in this greening economy.

Then, developments at the business and innovation level are expected to also lead to increased awareness and involvement at the governance level, with effective strategic planning and integration of policy instruments. This is the reason why we believe that working on the social pillar at our level is the best way to trigger this long-term process while still getting these very powerful short-term benefits, essentially related to food security, increased social cohesion, development of important skills etc.

To recap, I would say that it was not so much that we consider environmental or economic aspects of sustainability as less important than the social ones, but rather that as students asked to work on sustainability, the most REALISTIC and EFFECTIVE approach to Sustainable Communities and Cities was to start with a focus on the social sphere of the concept. Thus, Birmingham Urban Gardening Group (BUGG).

The benefits of participating?

I think that the most rewarding aspect of being part of this team and what made me so proud of us was literally knowing how feasible and concrete all of this is. We did not just come up with a utopian project relying on years of deep research, or huge finances. It was thought through to be as practical and achievable as if it was to be done tomorrow. We exactly know how we would proceed with our online platform, serving as a link to all the community gardens and people wanting to get involved in the offline community it would serve. We know we would go to schools and talk to children, and show them what they can do. We know this would bring families together to urban gardens, and create a strong connection to the environment and awareness on food practices, as well as help them all develop strong skills while meeting people they would not get to know otherwise, and so bringing communities together.

The final year is challenging enough but at the end of the day, I study because I believe in myself and what I can achieve through my studies. Studying is not just about satisfying my parents or making sure I earn enough money, it’s about the impact we can have as individuals, it’s about our beliefs and how we use our skills, our knowledge, our strengths and weaknesses to satisfy our values.

As written in the Brundtland Report (1987), ‘humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ and ‘technology and social organisation can be both managed and improved to make way for a new era of economic growth’. With the aim of developing a sustainable project for the VCC, we manage to reach policy advisors, to meet community gardens managers but also communities who already are part of it, and to offer a solution to tackling food poverty (a topic that’s close to my heart, and that I am focusing on for my LANS dissertation too!) and the strong inequalities, and reduce the lack of social cohesion in the area of Birmingham.

In conclusion

Despite the challenges raised here, I think that the VCC highlighted how much we have benefited from our course: team work (for the core modules) + interdisciplinary modules + stimulating debates thanks to the our very personal perspectives. I think that our project was also about making compromises for each of us, both very obviously on the topic and maybe less on the entire expectations related to the project. I think that it is easy to see how much I have learnt on the concept of sustainability though this work, but also on the development of a project of applied sustainability in relatively long-term. A topic on Sustainable Cities and Communities is of genuine global importance, and I already had a taste of its practicality while doing my placement this summer at the Economic Department/French Embassy in Croatia and working on the state and potential of the Energy sector; I was glad to work on the VCC because it meant creating from scratch something more concrete and achievable, which also added to my experience to the field.

Re-viewing Rome (LANS summer study tour 2017)

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Arch of Titus, Forum Romanum (4/7/2017)

Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences Rome study tour: 3rd-8th July 2017

One of the pleasures of being Dean is that I have twice had the opportunity to spend a summer week learning with and from a cross-section of our LANS students, while also talking to them about my own area of research expertise, the turbulent years of the late Roman Republic (the first century BCE) and the impact of that revolutionary era on how modern citizenship continues to be defined and contextualised. I blogged that first trip, and will try not to replicate too much of what I recounted there, here 🙂

With University of Birmingham doctoral candidate Miriam Bay, and guided by the wonderful Agnes Crawford, we worked our way through Rome and its environs with thirteen LANS students, moving from radical urbanism in classical antiquity to the modern city’s shifting acknowledgement of the importance and perils of embracing change.

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Streets in Rome’s Ghetto amply evidence the ‘layered’ quality of the cityscape (4/7/2017)

Rome, for me, is the ultimate laboratory city. Perhaps it’s my research focus talking, but in articulating my vision of what the tour would deliver (when describing it, back in January, to an interested but uncertain group of potential student travellers) I saw the sparks of questions, challenges, ideas, and responses flicker across their faces; to reappear over the ‘welcome’ dinner we hosted (at L’Isola della Pizza) for the whole group on 3rd July 2017, and as we made our first foray into the Forum Romanum early morning on 4th July.

Day 2 (4 July 2017)

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Spoliation, repurposing, but also the lure of genius loci are all on display for scrutiny (4/7/2017)

As Agnes emphasised, that calendar serendipity gave bite to our consideration of the complex forces that cause a people to turn upon themselves in civil war and in the process, to scrutinise and find wanting a myriad previously unquestioned myths of self-determination. These were the years when autochthony and (in a phrase Agnes used as a motif for the week’s study) genius loci (spirit of place) crystallised within Roman identify-formation. By the second century BCE Rome controlled a growing Mediterranean empire; no longer a city-state confined by peninsular Italy, yet still uneasily related to the peoples and cultures of its nearest neighbours.

This was an era when land use and land rights, not to mention rural to urban migration, linguistic change, and a reverse cultural imperialism (speaking to and striking back at Rome) from the literate Hellenic kingdoms that had previously dominated the western world, were all troubling the growing and increasingly urban political elites. It was also an era in which centuries of oligarchic politics (res publica or ‘public affairs’) were foundering as charismatic individuals (reformers, agitators, cynics, soldiers, demagogues…) began to see ways to game the system and wrest control from the few — by promising to transfer it to the many.

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The Temple of the Dioscuri — where we thought about how/why new gods get assimilated (4/7/2017)

Strolling through the Forum we considered how that genius loci paradoxically became a force for political and religious conservatism (‘we have always done x in y manner in z place, we always will; it’s who we are’) and also radical revisionism (‘by doing x in y place we validate transforming how, why, when, by whom it is done in z manner’). Thus, the Curia (a chamber used for meetings of the Senate, traditionally Rome’s conciliar body) which occupies a site by the Arch of Septimius Severus both is and is not the Curia constructed over two millennia before, by the Dictator (at that time still a regular office within consensus politics) ‘Lucky’ Sulla. And it also does and does not recall Mussolini’s early twentieth-century programme of laying bare, often with brutality to the urban fabric of the intervening centuries, what might be recalled to life as ancient proof of Rome’s destined imperial greatness.

As we discussed how the forces of history act not only on the fabric but also the context of how buildings function, we stopped at two evocative death zones. The mysterious Lapis Niger or ‘Black Stone’ (in one legend, the site of the burial of Rome’s founding father Romulus back in the eighth century BCE) is a waymarker for two other key funereal moments in the Forum: the riots, fires, and destruction that followed the deaths of Publius Clodius Pulcher (arch-nemesis of the orator and statesman Cicero) and, not long after, of Julius Caesar.

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The Deified Julius’ temple abuts the former home of the Pontifex Maximus and the commercial and civic centre known as the Basilica Aemilia-Paulli which went through significant changes in form and use (4/7/2017).

The temple to the God Caesar, dedicated shortly after his assassination in March 44 BCE, brings that strand in urban morphology full-circle. Like charismatic leader Romulus (in one version of the legend), Caesar was killed by his colleagues — a rebel conservative group within the political elite. Also like Romulus, he gained permanence within the built environment of the Forum. As Agnes reminded us, the extraordinary thing for contemporary Romans to get their heads around must have been that while humans in myth did indeed cross over into divinity, this was the first time a man with whom one might have had lunch made such a transformation.

The Forum was the heart of the Republican-era city, and while it had few permanent inhabitants (exceptions: the Pontifex Maximus, or Chief Priest, plus the college of female priests called the Vestal Virgins, a powerful cadre of professionally unmarried women) it was the hub for the courts and legal activity, for religious practice, political deliberation, for marking the triumphant return of successful military commanders. It had shops, monuments, arcades within which to stroll, and before the construction of permanent theatres or amphitheatres, it was a space for staging public entertainments. Setting the new God Caesar in this context, in a brand new marble temple, sent a powerful political and cultural message to upholders of the previous status quo.

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Pausing in the portico garden of the House of the Vestals gave us a chance to gaze up towards the Palatine Hill, and think about why statues are most vulnerable at their necks… (4/7/2017)

We spent the rest of the morning exploring the Palatine Hill, the zone towards which power began to shift under the next phase in Rome’s political development: the era of the Principate, ushered in by Caesar’s heir who took the honorific name Augustus.

Rome’s Seven Hills are famous (even if no-one in antiquity exactly agreed which of the many more than seven were the Seven), and the Palatine gave us the chance to talk through the rapidity with which political power shifts can become inscribed on physical topography, and in turn shift cultural expectations. Elevated on a hill, Augustus’ (relatively) modest house was gradually added to, first by him (the construction of a temple complex to the god who helped him come to power, Apollo) then by subsequent ‘emperors’ (a term which in antiquity meant someone with officially sanctioned power, but without the autocratic connotations we now attach to it).

The vestigial remains of one part of that eventually imperial residential complex developed by the emperor Domitian (51-96 CE) showcased the superfluity and conspicuous consumption that characterised the powerful architectural and visual rhetoric of Roman ‘palace’ complexes (‘palace’ from…Palatine!). We would see aspects of this visual rhetoric (opus sectile, scale, complex geometric built form, rich materials) in the static experience and staged movement through space at the Pantheon (that afternoon), St. Peter’s and EUR (6 July), and Hadrian’s Villa (7 July).

After lunch we worked our way through the city zone that was in antiquity the Campus Martius (Field of Mars). Once outside the city limits, it was incorporated, shifting during the late Republic from a green-belt military exercise ground to an entertainment zone hosting the city’s first stone theatres, an amphitheatre, a grand public baths and gymnasium, gardens, galleries, and places of religious worship (including temples of some of the new gods Rome was so good at assimilating, for instance Egyptian Isis; but also giving us a chance to discuss a characteristically Egyptian power-icon, the obelisk, imported into Rome’s urban visual vocabulary).

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S. Maria in Trastevere (4/7/2017)

We though about urban segregation: by ethnicity/religion (within the confines of the Jewish Ghetto), by risk (on Tiber Island, a place of isolation and healing of the sick since classical antiquity), and by choice (the changed urban dynamic reflected in Papal realignment of power at Rome centred on the north-west bank of the river, some distance from the historic centre).

At Santa Maria in Trastevere we concluded the day, thinking about ‘left bank’ politics, spoliation and continuity with classical antiquity, and how radical was the iconographic shift from medieval to renaissance rhetorics of power.

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This charming fountain just outside the Ghetto belies the troubled history of Rome’s relationship with its Jewish population, and the wider challenges of how urban morphology aids/hinders integration (4/7/2017)

All these changes had deeply personal effects on individual lives, but also created seismic shifts in the economic, infrastructural, and political life of the city and its topography.

Day 3 (5 July 2017)

LANS students impressed us all with their ability to get up early and be on time for morning meet ups that were typically 0730! Students were staying in apartments on either side of the Tiber, and had to make their way independently every morning to the designated site — what stars they all were! Wednesday we were on a train to Ostia Antica by 0800 (some of us had postponed breakfast till the caffe at Porta San Paolo station…).

Agnes gave students a clear sense of how visiting Ostia not only presents the skeleton of an ancient city laid bare, but also tells a story of how geographic and environmental change have a radical impact on urban and economic life. This was a port city which lost its connection to the sea, and with its waterway gone, was abandoned to time. Commerce and economic life moved with the changes in the river’s course and the coastline. This vital impact of the river at the heart of Rome’s success was embedded by Agnes in discussions all week. As she reminded students, Rome itself may have been founded where it was not because of a legend of abandoned twins washed up on its banks (Romulus and Remus) but pragmatically because the salt route, moving inland from the coastal salt-flats, found a fordable point there on the Tiber. Commerce and politics then grew up around that site.

For lunch that day we ate at Flavio al Velavevodetto, a wonderful restaurant built into the base of Monte Testaccio, a hill composed artificially in antiquity as a terraced rubbish dump for broken potsherds, detritus of the city port on the Tiber from whence cargo from Ostia was unloaded and ported onwards (over land or using smaller boats).

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‘…along the banks of the sacred river, as far as the Tyrrhenian shores’ (EUR, 6/7/2017)

Similarly, on Thursday evening, at our visit to EUR we saw the famous inscriptions emphasising the River Tiber as a vital artery connecting Italy with its renewed twentieth-century status as a Mediterranean superpower, and characterising Italians as navigators, a nod to the importance of proximity to the sea by way of that watery road.

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Getting a straight line-up together in the cortile at the Palazzo Orsini-Taverna proved harder than one might think… (5/7/2017)

Wednesday evening was the first of our formal lectures, a tour-de-force exposition of what the terminology of the ‘palimpsest’ means when thinking syn- and diachronically about cities, delivered by Prof. Davide Vitale of the University of Arkansas Rome Center (based at the beautiful and evocative Palazzo Orsini-Taverna). I heard students dropping the term blithely into conversation over the following days, and am in awe of how well Davide managed to capture them with this new earworm at the end of another long hot Roman day!

The temperatures were in the mid- to high 30sC all week, so alongside breaks where possible during the early afternoon, we reconvened when it was cooler for evening activities.

After our lecture on the politics of architectural history we thus strolled briskly to the Ara Pacis Museum to look at a very old object (the Altar of Peace, commissioned for Augustus by a grateful Senate to celebrate peace in the empire and at Rome; dedicated in 9 BCE), significantly restored and reconstructed in a new location, excavated using cutting-edge technology, contextualised by a Piazza proud with fascist-era sloganeering and bombast, contained within a new museum (one of the only new buildings permitted to be built in the city’s historic heart) an external wall of which bears the autobiographically styled account by Augustus of his array of ‘things achieved’ (Res Gestae Diui Augusti).

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Do private finance and corporate investment represent a new dawn for the restoration and upkeep of cultural heritage? Are there dangers? (Colosseum, 4/7/2017)

Phew. Not to mention that like the Colosseum (where we ended up on Tuesday lunchtime), the Mausoleum of Augustus (the centrepiece of the Piazza) too will be subject to a restoration enabled by a public-private partnership, bankrolled by Italian commercial and telecoms giants. This, we decided, bore thinking about.

Day 4 (6 July 2017)

Thursday 6 July was another very early start: 0730 at a caffe near St. Peter’s Basilica. St. Peter’s gave us a chance to think about how this part of the city had been re-zoned by the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, the rise of the Papacy, and the seismic shift operated by the fall of Constantinople leading in large part to what would become known as the Renaissance (with all the architectural, political, economic, artistic, and religious shifts that entailed).

The world really was changed as humanocentric theories of the cosmos were challenged (and eventually overturned) and the Catholic Church began the counterattack against ‘protesting’ voices unhappy with the style, ethos, and manner of central religious government.

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St. Ignazio, where a trompe l’oeil ceiling (and dizzyingly fake dome) helped students think about how the counter-reformation Catholic Church fought back… (4/7/2017)

From the church of St. Ignazio with its emphasis on the unknowability of the logic and language of the divine (unless mediated by the Church for its flock) to St. Peter’s (with its massive evocation of classical forms to lend authority, scale, and wow-factor, while reminding pilgrims that Catholicism remained Peter’s foundation and an earthly manifestation hinting at ineffable heavenly glory), we saw again and again how the urban vocabulary of classical antiquity and ancient Roman innovation formed vital motifs in successive negotiations of civic power and authority.

The Vatican also, of course, recalls the Lateran Treaty (1929) and the rapprochement between Church and State that saw the papacy make peace with Mussolini in exchange (among other things) for territorial rights. We saw flickers of this as we studied the iconography and design of the buildings left representing what was to be a showpiece of Mussolini’s fascist (from the Latin term fasces, the name for the symbols of office associated with the magistrates of the Res Publica) vision.

See St. Peter's dome rising, right below the Colosseum and just a swerve from the Pantheon!

Antiquity, Christianity, and politics jostle in this unusual frieze (EUR, 6/7/2017)

Concretised in a grand exhibition (Esposizione Universale di Roma, EUR) in 1942, this vision was to illuminate the modern capital city and (not long ago unified) nation as a ‘Third Rome’ (after the Emperors and the Popes). It would have stressed both the continuity and majestic progress embodied in Italy’s new and improved redevelopment of imperial status.

We had an unexpected transport strike to deal with that day, so Agnes’ ability to hire us a minibus (blessedly, with air conditioning — by 1600 when we were leaving for EUR the heat was intense) last minute was totally miraculous!

Our minibus moved us in style between key sites at EUR (sadly, the Museo della Civilta Romana is still closed), then returned us to the city centre where we variously went for a quick drink and/or a gelato before reconvening for our second evening lecture of the week: Miriam’s introduction to the ideological design linking botany, art, architecture, religion, history, and politics at the Villa d’Este, where we would conclude our visits the following day.

Day 5 (7 July 2017)

Friday morning saw many bleary faces. My impression is that the LANS students made a night of it and fully enjoyed Rome’s summer party atmosphere. I, by contrast, had embraced an early night. We set out for Tivoli in our mini-bus at 0830, and after a pity-pit-stop for coffee / cold drinks / cake at the nearby bar we tackled the archaeological site of the country estate said to have been designed by the Emperor Hadrian. Agnes had designed a route to give maximum thematic value and access to key zones while also keeping us moving between water fountains and patches of shade.

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Orientation: Villa Adriana (7/7/2017)

Crucial discussions picked up on the power of scale and decor, and the relationship of designed space to movement patterns and ideology. In a site as big as this one, with so many unique and complex architectural forms to get to grips with, the most important thing for LANS students was to understand the complex interrelationship between such disparate areas of expertise and authority, and the significance of buying in (or knowing how to source) expertise when novel problems appear.

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Hadrian, an emperor famed for forcing his ‘court’ to join him at his out-of-town villa (or on-tour across the empire), dabbled in architecture and philosophy, and wrote poetry (as well as governing most of the known world). After lunch at the hill town of Tivoli we finished our week’s work with the water-fantasia that is the Villa d’Este.

This sixteenth-century palazzo and garden complex, designed for Cardinal Ippolito II d’Este by architect and antiquarian Pirro Ligorio (just as Ligorio was excavating the nearby site of Hadrian’s villa, for his patron the Cardinal — see a googlebooks preview of David R. Coffin’s 2004 study of Ligorio here), is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, but sadly diminished in terms of the working hydraulics as originally envisaged.

We were lucky to have Miriam as our guide for the gardens because her research is breaking new ground in explaining how the somatic, architectonic, natural, economic, hydraulic, political, religious, and personal all coalesce in a stroll through the water-feature filled terraces. I’m not going to give away Miriam’s original analysis in this blog! Lucky students got a sneak preview, everyone else reading this will have to wait for the completed thesis.

Suffice to say that the stimulating and cooling properties of the Villa d’Este made for a perfectly judged end to a memorable trip, which concluded that night with a very convivial dinner at Trattoria Polese.

There was genuine emotion on display as our meal ended, coffees were drunk, and Miriam and I made a closing address to sum up some of what we hope and believe the week achieved. It’s been a real privilege to share this intensive learning experience with such a great group!

LANS Rome trip, 2016 by Professor Diana Spencer

Here is an overview of our inaugural trip to Rome (27 June-2 July 2016), the inspiration for which lies in the core values and objectives that underpin Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences at Birmingham. Learning to learn in all kinds of unexpected environments, and from unfamiliar experiences, is crucial to the academic and personal development of our students and there is no better place to learn than Rome!

Day 1

Once the twelve students, from a mixture of year groups, had settled into their apartments and done some independent exploring, we all reconvened at Palazzo Taverna in the grand Salon, for a welcome from Professor Davide Vitali (Director of our host institution, the University of Arkansas Rome Center, and Architect).

This was followed by a 20-minute romp through Rome’s early and legendary foundation and republican history, touching on the political and ethical qualities that classical Romans believed to have been baked into citizen identity by the Founding Fathers. Photo 2

Next, we were treated to a whistle-stop lecture by University of Arkansas faculty-member Dr. Ryan Calabretta-Sajder tackling Rome’s identity as a cinematic city, starting with Roman Holiday but ending up with some contemporary visions from Turkish-born director Ferzan Ozpetek.

With that, we retired to a nearby restaurant for food, wine, and conversation about the days ahead.

 

 

Day 2

We met with our guide, Agnes Crawford, at the Arch of Constantine. Students were introduced to the powerful ideological and visual connotations of the arch form.  The important interplay between monumental form, political ideology, and military might, took a different but complementary shape as we moved to the Flavian Amphitheatre, aka the Colosseum.

This site also helped students to get a sense of the hidden layers which urban markup conceals and reveals. The popular name ‘Colosseum’ was first associated with a gigantic statue of the last Julio-Claudian Emperor, Nero.

What remained of the morning was spent moving up and down the Palatine Hill, discussing how it transformed in the last years of the first century BCE from a pleasant residential zone to the bureaucratic and autocratic heart of a transformed governmental system.

 

Students saw how one space, the traditional Forum Romanum, transformed from a focus for Rome’s civic self, increasingly became a venue for grandiose monuments and contestations of power which often escalated into street violence and gang warfare, with electoral disruption happening year after year.

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The afternoon took us through Rome’s medieval story, moving through the picturesque narrow streets that characterised the city as it re-found its power as a Christian capital and — with the Pilgrim trade developing — began to manifest new kinds of commercial and spiritual authority.

Ship-shaped Tiber Island offered a welcome break for gelato, and some quick facts about the island’s history as a ‘hospital’ zone, such as its ancient dedication to the imported Greek god Aesculapius, a healer.

 

Trastevere (the place ‘across the Tiber’) was where our students’ apartments were located, close to the charming Piazza San Cosimato, so en route we took in two iconic churches linking the earliest post-classical Christian era with the developing power of the papacy.

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We all had some free time then, before reconvening back at Palazzo Taverna for a stand-out lecture by Professor Vitali explaining and exemplifying Rome as a ‘palimpsest’. I was also especially happy to hear Professor Vitali’s assessment of our students: one of the most inquiring, alert, and thoughtful groups he has worked with.

Day 3

We met at the caffe at the Porta San Paolo light rail station before boarding the train for Ostia Antica. Once Rome’s port town, as the Tiber silted up, the town was abandoned and gradually fell into a mysterious quasi-burial. Not as dramatic as Pompeii but with surprisingly similar results in terms of excavated and visible ruins.

 

We saw dramatic mosaic pavements in some of the town’s public bath-houses and in the so-called Piazza of the Corporations where trading companies had booths and offices decorated with mosaics representing their origins or business.

Photo 17We strolled through some luxury townhouses (marvelling at one with its own private toilet!) and played at barmaid-and-customer in a remarkably intact bar, before beginning to make our way back to the sleepy medieval town close to the site, and lunch at L’Alimentari.

Photo 18Heading home, we got off the train at EUR to recuperate from Ostia and to think further about what one does with ideologically compromised spaces and structures. EUR was framed as a way for the new regime to build the Rome of the future – a Third Rome.

The ‘Square Colosseum’ characterises the Italians as ‘a people of poets, of artists, of heroes, of saints, of thinkers, of scientists, of navigators, of boundary-crossers’ (Mussolini, 1935).

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That Italian fascist vision of history as a triumphant advance from the foundation of Rome to the rule of Mussolini gains narrative expression in a massive sculptural relief by Publio Morbiducci which drew our brief visit to EUR to a close.

We met up at Palazzo Taverna for our final evening lecture, which introduced the gardens and water-features of the sixteenth-century theme park that is the Villa d’Este, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

 

 

Day 4

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We met at the Pantheon, a great spot to firm up the city’s palimpsestic quality, looming over the Renaissance Piazza della Rotonda. The Pantheon, so called because it was a temple to ‘all’ the gods, survived relatively intact because it was reused as a church – Santa Maria dei Martiri.

Now, the Pantheon houses tomb-monuments to unify Italy’s first rulers – Victor Emmanuel II and Umberto I – forming an interesting echo to one of the few ‘new’ builds in the historic centre of Rome.

From the Pantheon we took a walking tour, stopping at Bernini’s elephant, and viewing the luminous Filippino Lippi frescoes in the Carafa Chapel of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.

We thought more about the papal city this morning, and used visits to Sant’Ignazio, with its trip ‘fake’ dome, to discuss counter-reformation politics and the ways in which art and architecture were leveraged to create a sense of perfect union between man and God.

Moving on, we saw the Piazza di Pietra, in which a temple to the posthumously deified emperor Hadrian has been incorporated into what was once the Stock Exchange. We had a gelato stop next, before working our way through the narrow twisting streets that eventually give onto the spectacular Piazza Navona.

The baroque splendours of Bernini’s Fountain of Four Rivers gave us a glimpse of the territorial ambitions of the post-Renaissance world, encompassing the greatest known rivers in a water-feature.

After lunch, we let the students explore, then met again at the Altar of Augustan Peace, a monument excavated on Mussolini’s orders and relocated to a piazza. It was dedicated by the Senate in 13 BCE, in honour of Augustus’ pacification of Spain and Gaul, and the Empire.

The museum, a (fairly) new building designed by starchitect Richard Meier offered an airy, cool space ideally suited to contemplating this masterpiece and also has helpful displays explaining the complex family tree of the Julio-Claudian imperial dynasty.

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At the end of the day, we walked across the Tiber, past another classical mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian, to the great street — Via della Concilazione — created by Mussolini to mark the new rapprochement between Vatican and secular authorities.

 

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We had the privilege of entering St. Peter’s through the Holy Door — open for the 2016 Jubilee year.  I find myself newly moved by Michelangelo’s Pieta every time, but seeing our students respond to art as a medium of faith and humanity, confronted by the sculpture, was hugely rewarding.

 

 

Day 5

We headed for the Villa Adriana and Tivoli, with Francesca Riccardo (expert on architectural design, and UARC faculty member). The lush countryside was a lovely respite from the marble and bustle of Rome.

 

The Villa is a hot, unshaded place on a late June day, and we ended up lingering at the iconic ‘Canopus’ pool, which gave me an opportunity to talk to students about the traditional ascription of names to parts of the estate. A late imperial biography of Hadrian suggested that he named parts of the villa for sites that particularly thrilled or pleased him, based on his travels around the empire. Canopus, in Egypt, might have recalled the tragic death of his lover Antinous, who drowned in the Nile.

Our minibus took us to Tivoli, where we had a brisk lunch break, meeting up in an hour to start our tour of the Villa d’Este.

The Villa took shape in response to a failed political dream – Cardinal Ippolito d’Este’s unsuccessful attempt to become pope – and in its design he hoped to demonstrate, like Hadrian, that power could reside outside Rome.

Ippolito’s theme for the villa and its elaborately themed gardens was steeped in classical myth. It evoked Hercules’ legendary quest for the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, the dragon he fought to seize them, and the hero’s role as a powerful civiliser.

Visitors are challenged to see in Ippolito’s Tivoli a better-than-life vision of what power looks like, mediated through myth, geopolitics, cutting edge engineering, and the latest in archaeological discovery.

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Originally, plantings used scent and sensory nudges to create and give atmosphere to particular routes through the gardens. We were lucky to hear the Fountain of the Organ play for us just before we left, adding melody to what had already been an extraordinary day.

Back in Rome, it was time for a farewell dinner at Ai Spaghettari to discuss the new insights and approaches our visits had enabled.

Day 6

Check-out day was a valuable day to think through what we had gained from the week. Rome is a city of great dissonances as well as enormous beauty, and in these frictions, I think much of the most powerful learning resided.

For our first years, fresh from their core interdisciplinary module on ‘modernity’, the lessons of history manifest in Rome were an excellent postscript to that semester 2 programme of study. We definitely hope to do a similar trip next summer!