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.

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Amédée – Madness at the REP!

contributed by Harriett Stothard, LANS Year 2 student

I went in to this play completely blind (and slightly late – oops!), aside from this very short description I skim-read:

‘Frustrated playwright Amédée (played by Trevor Fox) is still trying to finish the play he started writing  . . . 15 years ago! Meanwhile, his wife Madeleine (Josie Lawrence), works hard in telecommunications to keep them in their dilapidated London apartment. But the couple are keeping a secret. A big secret that seems to be getting bigger by the day. A terrifying secret that is now threatening to take over their lives. A secret that has grown into an unwelcome entity they can no longer hide. Now they urgently need a plan of how to get rid of it!’

Amedee_2

The wordy trailer….

I assumed that it would be a kitchen-sink comedy drama type thing, which I thought would be interesting if a little dry, but I was so wrong! Turns out, Amédée is a little known Theatre of the Absurd play from 1954, from one of the first voices in Absurdist theatre, Eugène Ionesco, who was in the forefront of this movement along with Samuel Beckett. It has been adapted by Sean Foley and produced by Roxanna Silbert, the Artistic Director of the REP (with this trailer).

It did have elements of the domestic/kitchen sink/sitcom drama style with a bickering couple, except with a mysterious growing… thing in the next room and mushrooms sprouting through the walls! One would be mistaken (as I was) for thinking at the beginning that the growing thing could be their child and that the play was reflecting the common parental anxiety of children growing up and flying the nest, as Madeleine had a sense of the maternal about her, but it ended up being a growing dead body that she accuses Amédée of killing because it was her young lover. This is never really agreed upon amongst all the weirdness in the play, for example Madeleine’s job as a switchboard operator in their apartment, fielding calls for and from various heads of state and often answering nonsensically, Amédée’s vision of himself and Madeleine when they were younger, and the absolutely mad ending, which I won’t spoil in case anyone who hasn’t seen it wants to!

It is very confusing to pick up on different themes from this play as I am no expert in the Theatre of the Absurd, but I found it interesting to witness the (non-physical) transformation of the body in the other room from unwelcome, mysterious house guest, to child, to feared, semi ridiculous growing body, to ex-lover, to Jesus/God (from the layout of his body on stage) to finally, and most bizarrely, a sail!

I mustn’t forget to mention the kind of police state they seem to live in, with Madeleine informing someone over the phone about it, although without having been outside in 15 years, and Alfred Hickling interprets it as an allegory to the emergence of far right politics at the moment.

All in all, it was a fantastic play to see, even if I left feeling not a little flabbergasted and confused, but it was an enjoyable and very intriguing experience, which I recommend to anyone if they get a chance to see it. Lucy and I talked about it all the way home!

Amedee-016

Diana Spencer‘s input:

I find the challenges of absurdist theatre refreshing as well as provocative. Living within a context where norms and values seem to shift daily, and within which the ability of anyone to say ‘I belong’ with any sense of confidence has diminished, the worlds of Beckett and Ionescu become increasingly relevant. Like a number of the LANS group, I had been guided by the blurb into expecting something like Look Back in Anger (and was a little bit ambivalent about how such an adaptation would work). Perhaps a better way to my mind of characterising what we experienced was Joe Orton crossed with Monty Python, with a dash of Antonin Artaud.

The play left us processing the challenges of variant and fragile versions of ‘reality’, and it prodded us to examine what constitutes a sense of self and how this reacts to but also models the various modes of existence available to us. We wondered, discussing the play afterwards, whether the growing corpse was symbolic of the ego and its destructive potential. We also wondered to what extent the incomplete play (and the incomplete/dynamic corpse) signalled a wider challenge to the idea of iterative self-fashioning as a way of coming to terms with the daily grind of life. Is it ‘better’ or ‘worse’ to acquiesce to these patterns and normalise them? Or should we seek to ‘resolve’ the irregularities and the mundane experiences that frame them by stepping outside?

I think we all marvelled at the play and the ideas it generated; it’s not necessarily a play to like but it is a play to come back to, and kept creeping into my thoughts all weekend.

And another, shorter, comment: I went along with no idea what to expect and left with just as many thoughts flying around my head! Absolutely bonkers, but also hilarious and thought provoking.Lucy Fellows, Y2

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)

A night at the Guild Awards with Liberal Arts and Sciences Society

By Elena Harris

Guild Awards 1On Tuesday the 22nd of March some of the committee members of LASSoc put on our best dresses and prepared ourselves for The Guild Awards 2016. Every year our student’s union recognise the hard work put in by societies with The Guild Awards where the best societies can win prizes. The event is held in the Great Hall of the Aston Webb building and I thought I would bring you guys along.

The evening started with a drinks reception in the foyer of Aston Webb where we got the chance to mingle with other societies and show off our dresses.

 

Guild Awards 2

The LASSoc Committee, from left to right: Ellie (Treasurer), Emily (Student Representative), Gemma (Secretary), Annie (Social Secretary) and Lucy (President)

 

We were then allowed into the Great Hall which had been beautifully decorated for the occasion.

We took our seats (and a few photos) before enjoying the entertainment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Firstly there was some fantastic dancing and then this was followed by a wonderful dinner.

Guild Awards 6

 

After dinner the awards began, interspersed with some great student performances, which really showcased the student talent – it ranged from burlesque to ballroom, all perfectly executed of course!

 

Guild Awards 9

My favourite performance of the night was from Uptone Girls an all girl A cappella group who just blew me away, I urge everyone to go and see them as they will not disappoint!

Once all the awards had been announced everyone headed over to the student union and attempted to dance in heels.

Thank you to the Guild of Students for a fabulous evening and my favourite committee for sharing it with me.

Liberal Arts and Sciences Cadbury Research Library Internship

By Zoe Emery (year 3 Liberal Arts and Sciences)

pic 127There is something incredibly exciting about handling first-editions of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, as well as Queen Victoria’s personal diary, the Mingana collection (a group of Middle Eastern manuscripts dating from as early as the 6th century), ancient Egyptian papyri, Neville Chamberlain’s copy of Mein Kampf and a letter describing his first impressions of Hitler. I got to do all of this and more as part of my four week internship with the Cadbury Research Library.

For me, one of the best things you can get out of a job is variation. As part of my role here, I, along with two other interns, was not only involved in cataloguing archives, but also helped to create an exhibition on travel diaries in the Main Library and on Flickr, helped conserve a number of documents, taught a group of school children and created several Vox Pop videos to encourage students to use the CRL and its fantastic resources.

Furthermore, we received a series of in depth tours by members of staff, module-choicesshowing us the ins and outs of their different roles as archivists, librarians and conservators. From a personal point of view, it was fascinating to see how the Research Library worked behind the scenes, from the perspective of an employee on a day to day basis. My cataloguing project focused on Bridget Stevenson, a woman who worked for the Save the Children Fund, in German refugee camps from 1948-1962. Steph, an early modern History PhD student, looked at 20th century records of the Women’s Amateur Athletics Association, and Katherine, who just graduated with an English Literature degree, worked on University of Birmingham Medical Society.

Liberal Arts and Sciences is a degree that encourages you to step outside your boundaries, explore different subjects and broaden your wider interests. Having taken modules in Geology, Psychology, Spanish and French over the past two years, my subject choices did not naturally lend themselves towards applying for an internship typically based around History and Literature. However, internships like this allow you to test the waters. Moreover, there are an extensive variety of resources in the collection including Science, Medicine, Art, Sport, Archaeology, Anthropology and Politics, making this internship genuinely interesting to anyone from any walk of life.

Untitled-6Irrelevant of subject, the skills that I have learnt here will be invaluable in the wider working world. Throughout the past four weeks, I have developed my ability to work as part of a team, and as an individual in a professional environment, as well as time management, organisation and the ability to work to a deadline. We also learnt more specific skills including Photoshop, IT, research and conservation.

I can honestly say that I have taken so much away from this experience and have thoroughly enjoyed working with an incredibly lovely and welcoming team.

Our Flickr exhibition on travel diaries – https://www.flickr.com/photos/cadburyresearchlibrary/

http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/facilities/cadbury/index.aspx

To read about the job of an archivist – http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/jenny-childs-day-life-archivist/

To see upcoming exhibition dates (Noel Coward & Transatlantic Style and Toc H. archive) – http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/facilities/cadbury/events/index.aspx

The Quran in Birmingham:

http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/news/latest/2015/07/quran-manuscript-22-07-15.aspx

How to set up a new student society… One Liberal Arts and Sciences student’s experience

An Italian Society for the University:

An insight into the process and motives which helped make a vision become reality.

A blog entry by the Chair, Federico Stillitano (Liberal Arts and Sciences, 2nd year).

If you were to ask any of my friends back in Italy, coming to study in Birmingham was quite an odd decision given that I am Italian. Indeed, most Italians choose London as their university (or work) destination.

Unsurprisingly, this intensive migration has led London to become the sixth city by number of Italian inhabitants, surpassing cities like Florence, Venice, Verona and Parma. It might be London’s hectic nature, its uncompromising development, or the cocktail of culture which the city has to offer that might trigger the desire to live there. And although these characteristics greatly fascinate me, they have instead led me to choose a vast, green, campus-based university for my undergraduate years of study, knowing that I would then have the rest of my life to live and work in a massive global metropolis.

Having made my decision I considered the fact that, like me, other Italians might also deviate from the apparent norm, and instead decide to go to other cities to study (one of these being Brum). I therefore joined the “University of Birmingham 2014-2015 Freshers” Facebook group, filtered its 5000 or so members by nationality, inputted Italy as native country, which resulted in a list of UoB Italian students, just like me.

Once arrived at University, in between frenzied freshers’ parties and attempting to prepare productively my timetables and courses, I looked around the Freshers’ Society Fair for an Italian society stand, with no success. I in fact learnt that there had been a departmental Italian society in previous years, however it had just been closed. I therefore decided to make it my mission to re-start, and successfully run, a new, non-departmental society open to everyone, with the only requirement being an interest in Italian culture and customs.

My first task was to fill in a society proposal; a 20 or so page document that asks the proposer to highlight the aims and philosophy of the proposed society. Considering that I had a clear idea of what I wanted the society to be, it wasn’t too challenging. In addition, I had to appoint a committee, which again wasn’t too hard, as at this stage I had met a few Italians and knew others from back home. Furthermore, to prove the society would target a proportion of students, I had to collect 20 signatures of people that would potentially become members and favoured the idea of an Italian society.

After having collected, completed and sent the proposal and signatures to the Guild of Students, we were asked to pitch the society at a meeting (where again we stated the aims and philosophy of the group and why it should be officially recognised). Needless to say, the meeting was a success: within a month of having come to University I had managed to complete my first goal! Nevertheless I was aware that the hard part was yet to come: to recruit members and effectively run the society.

I therefore went back to the list of Italians I had found on Facebook and individually messaged each person, pitching some small scale events we organised (like “aperitifs” and “meet&greets”), with the hope they would come, enjoy it and finally join. Together with the committee we started a Facebook page, spammed countless other Facebook pages, and managed to achieve a steady growth of likes. Indeed, at the time of writing the page has 182 likes. We chose the page as the main media with which we would communicate updates and future events to our members. Moreover, as a committee we decided we would never fail to pitch the society to any person which would show an interest to Italy during any conversation.

This proved to be significantly effective, nevertheless we wanted to expand our membership base more rapidly and efficiently to organise bigger scale events. We therefore planned events targeted to any interest: cooking lessons, film screenings, football matches, Italian lessons and meals at home or in restaurants, with the scope of attracting the widest possible audience. And although we managed to organise a few of these events and did achieve a visible linear growth in participation, the majority of our ideas either clashed with other events, assignments or exams in the third term.

This served us as a very valuable lesson, as it caused us to think of a number of procedures that would help us organise events more resourcefully next year. For instance, at our AGM we decided to appoint PR and Logistics managers. The former, being English, would demonstrate that the society is not limited to native Italians, but participation of “foreign” people is in fact encouraged, whilst the latter would help us effectively organise transportation and supplies for any event. Alongside fundraising and events managers, secretary, treasurer and chair, these new roles would be allocated specific tasks, in order to tackle every issue specifically and capably.

With hindsight, although we could have done some things differently and maybe thought of solutions and methods of expanding our number of members in a more efficient way, we did manage to achieve a significant membership base and run the brand new society rather smoothly.

I once read a quote attributed to American writer and lecturer Dale Carnegie, which stated: “People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they are doing”. As a response I tend to find myself following this viewpoint in most things I do, as I believe that if you do not expect short or long term happiness, there is little reason to pursue any activity. Therefore while it might sound relatively irrelevant, my third and final aim was essentially to have fun setting up and managing the society: an aim which I can proudly say to have achieved!

The whole process, although at times quite tedious due to the amount of bureaucracy and paper-work, was great fun: I learnt several important skills and really enjoyed all of the events, especially knowing that lots of hard work and determination led to something gratifying. As a matter of fact, I urge anyone to start a society, join a club, play for a sports team or just generally get involved: at the end of the day what you bring home from university, apart from what you learn in your degree, is what you do in your spare time. I cannot stress how important this is!
Now I can proudly say that choosing Birmingham over London and relentlessly pursuing a goal could not have worked out better! Shame on you, London…

Liberal Arts cultural tour of Birmingham city, 19 November 2014

Thanks so much to Phillip Myers from the department of Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology for taking us on a fantastic cultural tour of Birmingham: from the German Market to the Symphony Hall, the REP to the Electric cinema. It was great to spend an afternoon learning about some of the fab events going on & cool places to visit here in Birmingham – here are some photos of the tour.