A day in the life of the LANS Operations Manager

I’m a newbie in the Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences team – I started as LANS Operations Manager in November 2015.  So far so good … it’s a great team to work with and a really interesting concept as an undergraduate degree.  It’s the sort of degree I would have loved myself!  And, despite the work in progress of the new library, the view is a vast improvement on the brick wall and pigeon mess I looked out at in my old job!

 

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View from the ERI

My days are very variable but at the moment because it’s a new role there is a big backlog of paperwork to catch up on – for example programme specification documents for the Natural Sciences exit degree, module specification documents for a new and exciting 4th year Entrepreneurship module, a collaboration agreement with UpRising (who will provide campaigning training for the 2nd year core module later this semester), a job description for a Birmingham Undergraduate Internship to join the LANS team …etc.  I’m nearly there with all that and hopefully we will be able to share more information with the student body soon. I’m also getting to grips with the budget and doing lots of financial planning to make sure that the day-to-day stuff, the improvements, and the extra-curricular trips and events are all covered.

I’ve also spent the last few months having lots of meetings with the other departments and services across the university to understand their processes (for example, timetabling, study abroad, planning, finance) and to talk about the unique and usually chal
lenging requirements of the Liberal Arts and Sciences programme.  Some of my focus over the next few months will be to work with these departments to improve our interaction with them and therefore the outcomes for our students.  For example, if we can put together a new Birmingham Liberal Arts package and marketing to attract overseas students to come and spend a year or semester abroad within Liberal Arts and Sciences at UoB, then  we can open up more spaces for UoB students to go abroad which will help with the placements for LAS students.

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Dr Anna Brown, LANS Operations Manager

This is the first role I’ve had in the university dealing directly with undergraduate students and it’s great to be reminded why we all work here – Chamberlain’s radical vision of a place of learning for students from all backgrounds.  Ruth (LANS Programme Manager) and I have been hosting a series of ‘feedback lunches’– for me this has been the first chance to get to know our students (they’re a lovely bunch!) as well as seeking feedback on the experiences of Liberal Arts and Sciences students.  Feedback is important to us, and we will listen and, wherever we can, act on it.

Following student suggestions last term we have reconfigured the LANS hub area to give individual study carrels with PCs as well as a smaller group meeting area in the ‘glass box’.  A further five PCs are on order and we are working with IT to get printer access.  More recent suggestions for pinboards and maybe artwork for the pink wall will hopefully complete the new look and feel of the space.  But we’d like students to keep the suggestions coming!

I’m really glad I took on this role – steep learning curve and challenges not withstanding – and I look forward to meeting more students and to feeling like I’m really making a difference to the experience of a Liberal Arts and Sciences degree at Birmingham.

Dr Anna Brown, LANS Operations Manager

 

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Evaluating Europe — the Second Years’ Brussels trip

One of the perks of my role as Dean is that I was in a position to develop and participate in our new annual trip for second year Liberal Arts and Sciences students, taking the group to the heart of Europe: Brussels. This built on their first and second year core modules, studying the nature of modernity and crises facing humanity, and helped us all as a group to think hard about recent and forthcoming flash-points relating to European and UK politics.

We are fortunate at the University of Birmingham to have close research and development ties with continental Europe, and the University has an office in Brussels giving us a base for engaging with policy developments across the Union. To get our second years in the mood, the big questions we posed for the trip were:

  • When you hear “Brussels”, what does it represent? Does this change over the course of the trip?
  • What in Brussels’ historic relationship to European power-dynamics might have led to its primacy in the EU? This might touch on politics but also, think about Brussels and the development of the Modern in art and architecture.
  • What characterises contemporary Brussels? How does it differ from, or seem similar to, other capitals?
  • To what extent has the city been swallowed by its EU role?
  • What can “European” signify, and how well does Brussels as a lived city and living community fit in with those implications?
  • How much is homogeneity OR multiculturalism a defining feature of perceptions of the EU?
  • What is your understanding of decision/policy making processes in the EU? How might you propose to enhance them? What would be a better organisational executive structure?

A challenging set of discussion points, but they did keep reverberating right through our three-day visit.

The early start was bracing (a coach from Birmingham at 7am), but by the time we were all gathered at International Departures in London’s St. Pancras Station, there was a fantastic buzz. The energy was increased by our guest academic Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal, an expert in policy, faith, and communities.

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Brussels has a compact centre, and our hotel was a pleasant walk from the Gare du Midi. The first evening was exploratory, and once we had settled in, the students somehow found a new lease of life and decided to explore (as students later put it: ‘It was really interesting to see other parts of Brussels outside the standard tourist hot spots’, and ‘Having already been struck by the apparent beauty and diversity of the city, we had the chance to delve deeper’).

At Schaerbeek's School no. 1 Brussels, by Henri Jacobs

At Schaerbeek’s School no. 1, Brussels, by Henri Jacobs

Day 1, beginning to work (Monday)

We started early the next morning, with a coach-tour introducing the role of socialism and political change in the development of the Art Nouveau movement (students commented: ‘I really enjoyed the Art Nouveau Bus tour…thanks to the enthusiastic and knowledgeable tour guide, the tour was both engaging and informative’, and ‘learning that the fundamentals behind designing buildings can be synonymous with the core principles in a culture to reflect the important values of learning, community and appreciation of beauty, was inspiring’). Visits to key buildings included Schaerbeek School No.1, where our guide spoke compellingly about the interplay between social modelling and educational values underpinning some of the most interesting architectural projects.

Taking a breather, at the Cathedral.

Taking a breather, at the Cathedral.

Story-telling!

Story-telling!

The afternoon took us back out into the heart of old Brussels, where over the course of two-hours, our walking-tour guide introduced us to the backstory by way of which Brussels continued to punch above its weight in shaping the forces of change long before European union was dreamed of. One student commented, ‘every building was different from the next and had a unique character/story behind it. There wasn’t just one amazing piece of architecture, but many.’

We time-travelled from the medieval core of the early city, right through to the urban planning revolution of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century urban quarters, taking in history, art, and politics en route.

w4CcyN2Myg8TxJOT3ZeOVY452M36dhsSQtJqnVwnXM4Jagbir and I hosted a dinner for the students that evening, in a charming Brussels restaurant where moules (mussels) were just one menu highlight. It was wonderful, after an action-packed year, to spend some time just talking to the students and reflecting on our collective achievements. Plus, the chocolate pudding was outstanding (and I did take the opportunity to do some chocolate-shopping; well, it would have been a waste not to!).

Day 2, making policy

Tuesday morning saw us negotiate the Brussels metro in order to get to our first EU appointment, a presentation and Q&A at the Commission.

EU Commission, Brussels

EU Commission, Brussels

Shepherding the group through the unexpected intricacies of the metro was more bracing than I had imagined, but we made it on time and with good humour intact. Our guide, Simon Pascoe, was from the civil service team working day-to-day with the College of Commissioners to transform their work into directives ready for the EU Parliament and Council. It was fascinating to gain insight into the processes, the stress points, the trade-offs, the enthusiasm, and the difficulties that make up the Commission’s work. Simon stressed just how crucial the continuous feed-through of new minds and new ideas is, and encouraged the students to consider applying for Commission internships.

Ready to move and shake in Europe! At the Commission.

Ready to move and shake in Europe! At the Commission.

We left with many new questions (always a good sign).

The EU Parliament runs a challenging, frustrating (in a productive way), illuminating role-playing exercise, at the Parlamentarium. We arrived for 2pm, and after 2.5 hours of mock politicking our new political factions had managed to agree the progress of one directive. I managed only to shout once, and one student was so compelling in speaking for his party’s position that two students voted across party lines (hence the shouting). Jagbir’s take on this is lovely: ‘when having to negotiate on the legislation passions ran high, and we all learnt that this involved a lot of horse-trading; everyone entered into this negotiation with dynamism and enthusiasm, and in some instances when students were defending their positions you could see young MEPs in the making’.

Personally, I was exhilarated (ok, exhausted) by the high-pressure tempo of the exercise, dealing with lobbyists, managing a party office and phone-line, being called upon to react when a major natural disaster struck, having to stand (literally) under the spotlight during briefings… As one student commented, ‘the Parlamentarium also helped to reinforce the information we were given during the EU commission trip the same morning. It was really fun and interactive!’

Jagbir summed the role-play up eloquently: ‘Students received two directives from the Commission to move through the process and liaise with the Council. All were then divided into four different parties, with defined manifestos. Using their manifestos they had to negotiate their position with the other parties, in order to reach an agreement.  Through this process they learnt the complicated nature of legislation, lobbying and political positions.  For example through the various lobbying videos they learnt the importance of listening to the viewpoints of the people for and against legislations and learn and understand peoples’ concerns. What was clear to the academics was that they were utilizing a number of skills needed to make learned information useful in the real world: self-awareness, problem solving, communication, initiative and teamwork’.

We all agreed that we wanted to visit the EU history exhibition, which told the story of European union through an intriguing and unexpected medium — photos from significant moments in European history which taken collectively encouraged viewers to reflect on how and why union was the right solution. The ideological takeaway was for the most part delivered with subtlety and panache, and although over the course of the day there were striking moments of media geared to just one (positive) EU message, visitors were continually challenged to think hard about the pros and cons.

Our last night’s dinner was a little more subdued — everyone was tired. But the students took the chance to explore Brussels’ nightlife when Jagbir and I headed back to the hotel. Counting them all back onto the Eurostar on Day 3 made me feel very proud of the intellectual effort they had put in, the energy they had expended, and the real sense of drawing intellectual and academic strands together at the close of a busy year. As one student summed up: ‘Everywhere we looked something interesting was waiting, it really made me think how we don’t pay enough attention to things in daily life and I really want to be more aware of simple things’.

Coda

When I asked Jagbir to reflect on the trip, her comments were illuminating: ‘I was particularly impressed with how the students engaged with our visit to the EU parliament and the role play activity. That activity showcased and made real the role of MEPs in the European Parliament, and until this point most of our students had only read or heard about what MEPs do.  This activity allowed them to experience first-hand how intense and complex this position is and the immense responsibility attached to it…this visit highlighted for the students, but also the academics, the intersection between politics at the EU level and our daily life in our respective countries’.

Jagbir’s expertise, the students’ enthusiasm, and my interest in getting everyone thinking about how transdisciplinarity can deliver really original insights, mean that we are now planning some provocative events addressing the UK in Europe, the EU referendum, and other big world events for 2016 and 2017. I expect we’ll blog about that over the coming months!

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LAS in Action: Old Books and New Technologies

As one of the new recruits to the Liberal Arts and Sciences team of tutors I’m gaining new perspectives on multi- and inter-disciplinarity within and beyond the University of Birmingham and, in turn, on my own work and that in my field.

As a medievalist I’ve long practised inter-disciplinarity in my research and teaching. I specialise in early English literature and one of my main interests currently is manuscripts and documents and all other material records of early writing. You might think that we would know almost all there is to know about them as they’ve been around for such a long time. Nothing could be further from the truth. As hand-written and hand-made artefacts, each manuscript and document is a unique witness to cultures of text production, writing and reading. Yet we don’t even know how many medieval manuscripts survive, and we only have sketchy pictures of, for example, how they were produced, who the scribes were, how readers engaged with books – the list of unanswered questions is endless. This means that a major source of evidence for a millennium’s human history still has huge untapped potential.

The LAS spirit of breadth across disciplines is crucial to unlocking the possibilities. In particular, sciences are beginning to play a key role. To give just a few examples, DNA analysis is being applied to the animal skin used to make parchment and spectroscopy has been used to discover the components of the pigments used to decorate books. Such techniques offer the possibility, eventually, of linking books to aspects of the wider economy and environment, to agriculture, butchery, and trade.

The key development, though, is digitisation. Medieval manuscripts are little known and understood in most part because they are scattered across the world in hundreds of different libraries and archives. A further barrier to accessibility is their sensitive conservation status. Over the past two decades major digitisation initiatives have been launched and for the first time in human history these unique objects are becoming available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.

Digitisation, though exciting, is producing its own problems. Digital media rapidly become obsolete: how can we ensure sustainability? Unlike digitised books, digitised manuscripts are not searchable automatically: how can we speed up analysis of this ‘big data’? Digital images are often subject to copyright restrictions: how can we resolve the intellectual property issues involved in using them in publications? Computer scientists, intellectual property lawyers, information scientists, archivists and librarians, and manuscripts scholars are working together to tackle these problems.

What better illustration of the relevance of the LAS ethos to solving today’s problems?

Wendy Scase (Liberal Arts team)

Classicising modernity

I wrote this post after attending a University of Birmingham talk last week 🙂

Rome and all that...

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a provocative and thoughtful discussion of the relationship between classical Greek tragedy and the development fascism in Italy, Germany, and Greece. The speaker was my wonderful colleague Eleftheria Ioannidou, and the occasion, our fortnightly Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology research seminar (all are welcome!).

The full title of the paper (‘Classicising modernity: Performances of Greek tragedy and the cultural poetics of fascism’) helped to unpack some core issues economically, in particular, how fascism and the idea of ‘the modern’ were rooted in complex understanding of ‘Greek’ (or ‘Classical’) and ‘tragedy’.

We were challenged, as an audience, to reflect on whether and how one can explore aesthetics of fascism and its culture without forming a value-judgement embedded in grand ideological narratives (and the sweep of 20th/21st century history). It was especially useful, for me, to be asked to think hard about the origins…

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