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…”

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.

Lake Coniston Photo Diary

Below is a photo diary of the June 2017 Coniston trip by Simon Scott:

Day 1

At 8am, we set off by coach from the North Gate for the Lake District.  After a pretty good journey, we were welcomed by the team at the Raymond Priestley Centre and had lunch. I think it’s fair to say that most people, if not everyone, was a bit apprehensive about what to expect, but any concerns dissipated pretty quickly when we got straight into the activities:


con 3


The groups were pushed in their tasks and had to coordinate and communicate well.  It’s worth noting that the team at the Raymond Priestley Centre have a full range of activities to choose from, and every year they select the more advanced ones for LANS students, who have a good reputation for working well together.

After the activities, dinner was ready.  I cannot emphasise this enough: I was told that there would be plenty of food and was sceptical about this, but there was way too much and we were never without food for snacks.  Everyone was tired after the travelling and activities, so opted for puzzles, Love Island, pool or table tennis, while others read.

Day 2

Everyone was up on time for breakfast, and then met in the meeting room before starting activities.  Two groups went on the water:






Another group went out onto the ropes:



Then the groups switched over after lunch:


After the day’s activities, John addressed everyone in the meeting room to tell us a few things about the following day’s activities.


In the evening, we made packed lunches for the next day and then most people went to the pub after dinner.

Day 3

After breakfast, we convened in the meeting room before getting stuck into another full day of activities:


Unfortunately, I was confined to the Centre with a foot injury so couldn’t join the groups on their activities.  These photos are from later in the day as they worked as one group:


I should mention that the views, not surprisingly, are spectacular (although the photos don’t do it justice):



Day 4

In the morning, we met up in the meeting room after breakfast.  Yesterday saw the end of the main activities: today we had three to choose from, including mountain biking.  After lunch, we had time for a group photo before catching the coach back to Birmingham:


It was an amazing trip and the team at the Raymond Priestley Centre made us feel very welcome.  People were asking me if they could come again next year.  I cannot recommend it highly enough!

To be or not to be absurd: the existential question of Amedee

contributed by Emil Toescu, LANS team

Amédée, you are the artist: highfalutin with words, working with them, spontaneously. But unable to string them on paper when it matters, but you try.

She’s telling you – she will divorce! Amédée, in all this time, you did no do a thing about it! You just let it grow.

Oh, this antipathy, this pathetic antipathy, la-di-da, like corn is born when thrown, you see!

Amédée, you need to do something about it, you need to overcome these growths, they flourish everywhere, and they might be poisonous, they might be toxic, they might be delirious – they grow and it grows, its nails and hair, all certainly in geometric fashion. Bring on science, bring on numbers, so that we have an understanding: 6 cm in the last hour or so -we do have some control now!

Over Vitebsk Marc Chagall

Another flying man – this one depicted by Marc Chagall

It started in the bedroom: the lover, or the corpse, the baby?, a positive or a negative – depends on the point of view, but both and all expressions of a missing…

Amédée, she is going to divorce you, if you don’t do anything about it! – and if you do? Well, Amédée, then you are going to go, with it, with the relation, with the corpse. She had enough of cleaning and brushing, Amédée, and you’ll be floating, up and free, dead or alive – it’s all just a matter of a point of view.

Whatever you feel it is a right description for this case, Eugene! – we’ll drink to that, us all, la-di-da, with the patophysician on duty near the hatstand.

And the clock eventually stops, the moon shines – it don’t mean a thing even if it got that swing…

(it’s all about this Amedee)

Banff Mountain Film Festival experience

Contributed by Lizzie Slattery, LANS Y2 student

On Saturday 4th March, LANS went to the Banff Mountain Film Festival on tour in the Birmingham Town Hall. It was quite unlike any other LANS trip we’ve been on before and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The event consisted of the screening of seven short documentary films which had been selected from those shown at the 2016 Banff Mountain Film Festival. Below I’ve given a brief comment on my three favourite and one least favourite films…

  1. Doing it Scared–  Filmmakers: Catherine Pettman (trailer)

A short film about a British climber Paul Pritchard completing a very personal challenge. Eighteen years before the filming of the documentary, while climbing the Totem pole in Tasmania, Paul’s rope dislodged a rock above him which fell, hitting his head and leaving him partially paralysed. Following this man on his personal journey and the way that his disability has become something which he immensely values as having taught him valuable lessons in his life. It was an unexpected and interesting outlook on a catastrophic accident which radically changed his life. I was interested in the way he talked about being far more scared on his second ascent, not principally because of his disability but rather because he said he had so much more to lose than when he was younger.

  1. Dream Ride– Juicy Studios; Filmmakers: Lacy Kemp and Ryan Gibb (check it here)

My least favourite of the films, this followed a mountain biker through several North American landscapes. While the footage of the biking and landscapes was stunning, the accompanying poetry was less than. Filled with clichés at every turn, I felt that if the writer had been less concerned with rhyming and more with meaning, he might have produced some more interesting poetry.

  1. La Liste (a 47 min version of the film here, from the RedBull site)

A young French skier Jérémie Heitz undertakes the challenge of skiing 15 of the steepest peaks in the Alps in two ski seasons. A fast paced and gripping film, with Heitz skiing some 4000 metre peaks which look completely vertical. The cinematography is beautiful with some stunning aerial footage of the Alps.

  1. Mira (check further details here)

This was my favourite film, it followed the journey of a young Nepali girl named Mira Rai from her humble beginnings in rural Nepal to becoming a world class trail runner. Her incredible determination, spirit and belief in her own ability were astonishing to watch. I didn’t even know it was humanly possible to run over 110 kilometres through mountainous regions and all weathers. Mira’s tough upbringing in the mountains of Nepal prepared her for future career as a trail runner and gave her an amazing outlook on life. I was struck by her incredible calm and positivity throughout her journey.

LANS Trip to Kiss Me Kate, by Lizzie Slattery

The Welsh National Opera’s production of Kiss Me Kate which LANS attended earlier this month was one of the most fun and unexpected shows I have seen. Having never watched the show before, and knowing very little about it, I went into the performance not knowing what to expect. For the first quarter of an hour or so I didn’t really know what to make of it and found the acting over the top and the pace a little slow. However, once I settled into the show it was fantastic. The mix of hilariously crude humour, fantastic ensemble dance scenes and some surprisingly touching moments between the lead cast members, made it a thoroughly enjoyable show- not to mention the extensive and lavish, operatic solos which punctuated the performance.

The feature of the show which I enjoyed the most was, without a doubt, the tap solo from Alan Burkitt (playing Bill, the drunkard boyfriend of young starlet, Louis Lane). The pace and skill of the dance was breath taking and utterly captured the audience.

The play within a play element of Kiss Me Kate is also part of the fun (and confustion!) of the production and the relationship between Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and Kiss Me Kate’s retelling of it is very interesting. Discussing the play afterwards with other LANS students, we noted how difficult it is for someone with our modern values of gender equality to accept the ‘moral’ of the tale told in the Taming of the Shrew- which is essentially that a women should change herself into a quiet, submissive and obedient in order to be acceptable to a man. I felt that the production left it slightly ambiguous where they came down on the issue; however Kate’s dominant attitude towards Fred (or Petruchio- his character in The Taming of the Shrew) in the final scene and during the cast’s bows, made me think that the show condemned the outdated attitude towards women which it had shown.

As Cassidy put it,

“Although the ending of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew felt a bit out of place with the modern setting of Kiss Me Kate, and doesn’t sit that well with contemporary attitudes, it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the production.”

All in all it was an excellent production of Cole Porter’s classic musical, with a fantastic leading cast and extremely strong chorus!

“It was great, it wasn’t what I expected at all. It was very funny, the two gangsters made it. I’d never been to an opera before so I didn’t know what to expect, but it was a very modern play and wasn’t traditionally operatic. Very enjoyable, 10/10 would recommend to a friend”

Miriam, second year LANS student.

”I loved Kiss Me Kate. It was very different to the Marriage of Figaro that we went to last year – more of a musical/opera cross. It was properly laugh out loud funny, from the moment a pigeon got shot out of the sky to the lyrics of Brush up your Shakespeare.”

Cassidy, second year LANS student

LANS trip to the Colour and Vision exhibition, October 2016


A number of Liberal Arts and Sciences students attended the Colour and Vision exhibition at the Natural History Museum, as part of our cultural programme during October 2016.  A few of them gave their review of the exhibition below.

‘Visually spectacular and informative with interesting interactive activities, would have liked it to be longer’ — Emily

‘I really enjoyed the whole thing, especially the model of evolution of the eye and seeing how on the way some organisms got themselves freakiest sets of those light sensors. And the colour symbolism wall was really interesting as well – I myself was surprised by my answers. ‘–Ada

‘I thought that there were some amazing parts- the eyeballs of different animals and the bit when you could see what colours other animals see. It was visually so stunning and there was lots to look at. For me it was a little short – I felt like I was just getting into it and all of a sudden it was over which was a shame, but there were some unique parts to the exhibition, like at the end when you were asked to associate certain colours to certain concepts like Femininity, Power and Danger.’ —Cassidy

‘I was slightly intimidated by the large collection of animal specimens. Nevertheless I enjoyed looking at things that were very strange to me— spiny shapes and beautiful burgundy shells. The exhibition tried but did not succeed in linking more to humanity, which I would have enjoyed more than biology. There was an interactive wall of colour cards that you could correspond to different humanity concepts, such as deceit and attraction. But instead of expanding on that, it cut short and ended with a beautifully-shot and colourful video.’ —Jennifer Z