Category Archives: Society

Erasmus Programme: Opportunity or Waste of time?

The EuRopean Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students (ERASMUS) is an EU student and academic staff exchange programme that has been in existence since 1987. It’s named after the Dutch philosopher Erasmus, who spent much of his life travelling across Europe to increase his knowledge, gain new insights into the world at large and expose himself to unfamiliar cultures.

The programme aims to encourage cross-border cooperation between European Union academic institutions and to expand the practice of international studying. To join the Erasmus programme students must be registered at a higher education institution; all the administration is carried out between the sending and receiving institutions on the students’ behalf. 4,000 institutions across 33 different countries take part in the scheme funded by European Union.

According to the European Community website, the academic year 2012/2013 year marked a significant milestone for the scheme. Since its start, 3 million students have participated as have over 350,000 staff members.

I’m one of those 3 million students. During the 2012/2013 academic year, whilst studying for my Masters in Management and Governance, I spent 11 months at the University of Valencia (Universitat de Valencia) in Spain, away from my home institution the University of Siena (Università degli Studi di Siena) in Italy. I’d always dreamed of living in Spain, a country I’d admired because of its people and weather. For a while, that dream became a reality.

From my very first day in Spain, I was never disappointed. Valencia is a friendly city, easily navigable by public transport or bike-sharing. It’s by the sea and has warm weather, just like my hometown. The people are amazing, always cordial and devoted to making a stranger feel welcome in their city. Every day I lived there was filled with a mixture of happiness and surprise.

Taking part in the Erasmus scheme is an adventure. It’s a great way to leave your daily routine behind and jump into an immersive experience full of tumultuous emotions. It changes your lifestyle and exposes you to a new culture, which leads to you becoming more open-minded. But the academic side should not be forgotten. It was the first time I had studied alongside foreign students from all over Europe and that, too, broadened my thinking.

Andrea Sironi, an Erasmus Alumni and current rector of Bocconi University (Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi) in Milan, states:

“As my first international experience, my Erasmus year allowed me to understand the value of studying and working in an international environment. My advice to future Erasmus students is to take full profit of the international experience and not focus on the academic side only.”

Its wide adoption throughout Europe notwithstanding, the Erasmus programme has not become a major part of UK university life. According to official figures taken from the European Commission, the UK is one of the top receiving countries, but it is not present among the top sending ones.

I asked one of the few British Erasmus friends I’ve made in the last couple of years whether they could shed some light on this low uptake. She’s studying Languages at Birmingham University, which is how I met her abroad on the Erasmus programme. She said that British people usually link Erasmus only with the opportunity of learning a new language. So, aside from those studying languages, British people do not feel Erasmus is worth it, since English is the official business language spoken all over the world. Moreover, the rigidity of the academic system makes it tougher to spend a year abroad on Erasmus, unless they have to do it for their degree. British people are more willing to go abroad to work, and not to study.

Birkbeck College is a newbie to Erasmus, at least for students. It’s only been a few years since the university opened its doors to full-time students. Before that, it was London’s part-time evening university, famous for its working part-time students. 2014/2015 is the first year they’ve started to offer an Erasmus Programme.

They are now partnered with Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (Hogeschool van Amsterdam). Birkbeck, thanks to the individual effort of Professor Rodgers, lecturer in Media Theory, was able to find an agreement between his Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies and the Dutch institution.

He was encouraged in doing so by undergraduate students seeking exchange opportunities abroad. Sybil, the first outgoing Birkbeck Erasmus student, has been able to study outside the UK. The same worked for Dirk, Nikki and Ilya, Dutch students incoming at Birkbeck, who wanted to have a more affordable experience studying abroad.

Whenever programmes such as this start, there is noticeable room for improvement. Professor Rodgers had to work it out all by himself, without an official presence of Birkbeck. Sybil, the English girl now in Amsterdam, says how much the International Office of her receiving institution helped her in getting through the academic studies; They gave her a “buddy,” someone to help her in getting to know Amsterdam. No such support was provided to the Dutch Erasmus students here at Birkbeck. Since I do not believe an International Office exists*, they could only deal with Professor Rodgers.

The students told me they would have preferred an awareness of the scheme so that professors could offer help with the student tools such as Moodle, My Birkbeck Profile and so on. But they understand that they are ‘pioneers’ and that things will improve in the future as participation grows. Professor Rodgers himself told me that it has to be a bottom-up process, starting from students asking and encouraging their academics to be allowed such opportunity. Birkbeck’s vision is changing, and they are slowly starting to understand that as more full-time students enrol in their courses, the Erasmus Programme will need to be part of it and officially recognised.

My conclusion is that Erasmus is a valuable opportunity. The ability to participate in a funded experience abroad during your studies, and experiencing both the academic and social sides of a culture, is priceless. Even though some British students already enjoy an international environment in their home institutions, it seems that others are starting to understand the profound value it can have, and the enrichment it can provide.

The Erasmus programme makes you feel like a European citizen, giving a good experience and without the somewhat superficial view we get from high school two-week foreign exchange programmes. It is an experience that stays with you forever.

*Editor's note: Birkbeck has an International Office as well as the International Student Administration (ISA). For general queries, contact the International Office at international-office@bbk.ac.uk, and for information post-enrolment, contact the ISA at isa@bbk.ac.uk.

LGBTQ Historical Tour of Soho

One thing I love about London is that there is always history right around the corner. You might think you know a lot about this beloved city, but there is still more to learn.

Even as a learned queer history student, I was delighted by the new knowledge I found on the LGBTQ Historical Walking Tour of Soho.  Volunteers from the organisation centred have run this tour for over 10 years.  As you’d expect they’re not shabby guides — the volunteers go through thorough training to make sure you have knowledgeable tour guides.  Mine had led the tour for 3 years and were clearly knowledgeable as well as passionate.

The tour covered a variety of interesting titbits, incorporating general (read: non-queer specific) historical knowledge. For example, our first stop was the only remaining French Huguenot church in London. Why, you ask? You’ll have to go on the tour and see for yourself! I won’t divulge too much detail and lessen the value of the tour.

The tour lasted for almost 2 hours, despite the cold, taking us to the oldest French bakery in London, one of the longest running restaurants, a very queer church and a theatre where Josephine Baker debuted, to name just a few. Baker was among a handful of queer characters noted on the tour –- some living in Soho and others merely stopping by.

Learning about LGBTQ figures gives us (lgbtq people) something to be proud of and also something to connect to and better understand ourselves. Josephine Baker was a bisexual woman of colour and one of the greatest performers of all time, as well as being incredibly courageous — she risked her safety as a spy. It can be alienating thinking you’re the only queer person, but if I was a young queer woman of colour and learned about Ms Baker, I’d be inspired.

There are many more reasons queer history is important. The developers of the queer history mobile app Quist ran an online campaign asking why it’s important to “preserve, teach, and learn” LGBTQ history. This article published last year highlights many important reasons expressed by the contributors. To sum it up: Queer history has been written out of history and we need to write it back in; Queer identity is largely misunderstood and learning about it would improve everyone’s lives, especially queer lives. Here are two contributions from the article:

  • Because it really helps to know that behind me is an incredibly strong and proud history of trans people, and if they can do it, so can I. (potato-chips-in-the-bath)
  • Because I had a (Cambridge student) friend who was convinced that Lesbians didn’t exist until the 60s. (arightpigsear)

There’s a Wiki website for gay history of the U.S as well as a mobile app. Someone please make a similar app for London.

I have wanted to do this tour for a while.  It was even suggested as homework for my Queer Histories, Queer Cultures module at Birkbeck last spring. Now that I’ve done it, I feel more connected to Soho – the buildings, the spaces, the places where inspiring individuals carved out space for the queer Soho of today.

Queer history is of course not unique to Soho. As the tour guides explained, they chose to locate the tour in Soho because it has become a notably queer space today. Queer history is everywhere: you just have to know what questions to ask to find it.

Take the tour and see what bits of history you’ve been missing out on. We could all do to learn more queer history.

The tour runs about every other Sunday at 2pm, and is £5 for students, £10 for non-concessions.  Proceeds go to centred. Check their events calendar for updated tour dates.

Journalists: New Tools for Privacy and Decoding Encrypted Emails

Used under CC license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode
Credit: flickr – Elvert Barnes

We have heard about the Snowden revelations on privacy and security. Nevertheless, have we really taken time and thought about what this threat from government and non-government agencies means? What we know is that government organisations, such as the NSA and GCHQ, want to have every bit of information there is to know — this was what Edward Snowden revealed. The NSA is collecting phone records and web usage data, seemingly from everyday people. Following the Snowden revelations, journalists in particular face a complicated situation.

Contemporary civilization is immersed in technology and especially social media.  It’s a truism that human civilization is transcending with the aid of machines. We are entering a vast new territory of “massification.”  This new sociological  structure and its criteria of civilization seem both inevitable and undeniable. It has thus become imperative to reconsider the situation of oneself in the world.

The problem for journalists is that you need to be aware of what information you are sharing on your devices and with whom — especially if you are doing investigative journalism. As I wanted a visual presentation and theoretical perspective to understand the extent of this revelation, I decided to attend an information, security, and surveillance lecture organised by the Centre for Investigative Journalism at Goldsmiths College the other week.

The situation is pretty grim: I found out we are very open and susceptible to hackers. The technological revolution of the so-called big data analytics of the 21st century, whereby our intimate data stored on Facebook, Gmail, and YouTube is sold to third parties, is real and threatening. Furthermore, iPhone users are the most effected because their phones have built-in tracking devices.

Credit: flickr - EFF Photos
Credit: flickr – EFF Photos

This means the NSA can check emails and text messages through GPS tracking  tools with the click of a button.  Nobody wants to take precautions because it’s made to sound trivial and complex to do.

History shows that new technologies often present unforeseeable effects which are much more disastrous than if the technology had not been developed at all. The problem is, modern man is obsessed with ‘keeping up with the Joneses’; everybody wants immediate gratification and the next shiny object. There’s no caution, until it’s too late, and something’s gone wrong.

Privacy and surveillance are big issues in a technological society. The Centre for Investigative Journalism aims to educate journalists in particular about the measures available for their own safety and the safety of their sources.

Does this mean journalists should do away with Facebook, Gmail, and iPhone for privacy? The answer might be YES!

For journalists, if you go to a source, the best advice is to leave your phone several miles away. Better still, leave it at home, because otherwise you will not have a private conversation. The NSA obtained access to the systems of a number of US technology giants, including Apple, and allowed GCHQ to eavesdrop via this access as well.  Apparently these companies have to comply with US intelligence.  Although, Apple has denied their involvement in the PRISM surveillance programme.

Basically, the irony is, all these devices are like asbestos because they are convenient, strong, and safe in the short-run but show themselves in the long-run to be horrible material with very real negative consequences.

If privacy and confidentiality are issues for you then you need to be conscious and knowledgeable about the Internet. Journalists ought to take precautions. Firstly: start using encrypted emails. Secondly: surf the internet on a TOR browser

Here are some cheap software options for journalists on a shoe-string budget:

  1. Encrypting data TrueCrypt is open source encryption software. Download: https://truecrypt.ch/ TrueCrypt works the same on Windows, Mac and Linux systems and the encrypted containers are cross-compatible between these systems.
  2. Encrypting email for Mac, you will need to download:
    • An email client/mail manager for your desktop – I recommend Mozilla’s open source “Thunderbird.” Download: http://www.mozilla.org/en-US/thunderbird/
    • GPG – Gnu Privacy Guard, which is encryption software. The first pink download box, “Download GPG suite” will be the latest version – click on it to download at https://gpgtools.org/ When the downloads are complete, open Thunderbird from your Downloads folder and drag the Thunderbird icon into the Applications folder.
  3. For Windows, you will need to download:

There’s also a handbook for journalists  to read, which gives a detailed explanation of my overview.  It provides more information on how to surf safely on the internet.

This interview with Arjen Kamphuis, co-founder of Gendo and publisher of the attached handbook, Information Security for Journalists, also provides some great insights.

Gendering the Financial Crisis

When you think of the financial crisis, do you think of The Other Guys, theatre, and gender?  Maybe not the first two, but what I bet you are thinking of is gendered, whether you realise it or not: Men (probably white) in suits, playing guesswork in front of a graph at a big desk in a big office in the City or on Wall Street.  How much does gender have to do with the crash?  A number of bankers and financial experts blamed testosterone for the crisis, including the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, who postulated: “If Lehman Brothers had been Lehman sisters, today’s economic crisis clearly would look quite different.”  Birkbeck’s Kate Maclean disagrees.  This quip is based on quickly-accessed gender stereotypes that coloured mainstream descriptions of the crisis, and not a thorough analysis of the gender dynamics.  The truth is more complicated.

In the lecture theatre tucked away on Birkbeck’s 4th floor on 28 November – the night’s lecture was Gendering Representations of the Financial Crisis, a BiGS (Birkbeck Gender & Sexuality) event. It was meant to be the first seminar in a BiGS series on gender and austerity. If the first event is indicative of the rest of the series, I will certainly be in attendance.

The main stage showed Birkbeck lecturers Louise Owen and Kate Maclean presenting their work on the topic. Owen came from a theatre perspective, looking at two popular theatre productions on the financial crisis, Enron and The Power of Yes, and Maclean took a broader sociological perspective, focusing in on two films, Margin Call and The Other Guys. Lecturer in psychosocial studies, prolific writer, and force-to-contend-with Lynne Segal chaired the evening.

You can listen to a podcast of the evening here.

Maybe I’m just not much of a theatre person, but I was really taken by Maclean’s presentation. (If theatre interests you, do check out the podcast link, which also has the slides from both presentations.) Maclean was engaging, funny, and interesting. And, her presentation made me really want to re-watch The Other Guys.  The Other Guys is a hilarious parody of masculinity.  Maclean deemed it “postfeminist” for the way it puts masculinity under the microscope, poking fun at extreme representations of masculinity.

Credit to Kate Maclean
Credit to Kate Maclean

Before the crisis, risk-taking was valued and considered masculine.  The two feedback upon each other: risk-taking was valued because it was masculine, and it was

masculine because it was valued.

Credit to Kate Maclean
Credit to Kate Maclean

Masculinity often defines itself by negation, by being what is not feminine, so, the contrapositive is that risk management was deemed feminine.  In The Other Guys, Will Ferrell’s character embodies this.

He is the uber-orderly, rule-following “paper bitch.”  It’s not subtle.

In the film, like after the crisis, the “other guys,” the risk-managers, come to be valued.  They’re seen as the way forward, to fix the crash or at least prevent another one from happening.  Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg’s characters become “The Guys”:  they prove their masculinity.

So what if women had been running the financial world?

Slide courtesy of Kate Maclean
Credit to Kate Maclean

Some women (e.g. see above) had power and influence, but were fired near the crash because they were thought to be “too soft,” not risky enough. Let’s step back for a second. What does it mean to be risky, anyways? What is risky is defined by what is masculine. Giving birth is very risky practice yet women are not seen as aggressive risk-takers when they choose to give birth. Society easily overlooks risky practices when they are done mostly by women; they’re re-coded as ‘natural,’ ‘biological,’ or ‘motherly.’  Are office workers, like many of the men who were cogs in the financial crisis, really that risky? Or even that masculine? Why then, Maclean asked, was the crisis attributed to masculine risk-taking?  The crash needed an explanation, and the explanation readily got caught up in gendered tropes.

It is a limited view of femininity that assumes women at the top would have prevented the financial crisis. The idea that perpetuated this postulation is that women would play the role of mother at work, keeping the naughty, risky boys in check.  Many depictions of women’s roles in the crisis were constrained to the age-old stereotypes of virgin, mother, and whore.  For example, in the play Enron, a sexy woman character named Claudia Roe is a co-higher up to Enron‘s President. Her main plot points include seducing the president (whore) and quitting to go home to her children (mother).  She was based of a combination of high-up women in Enron. One was Sherron Watkins, the key whistleblower, who went on to a similar job post instead of home to her “beautiful children” like Claudia Roe.

Despite a faith that women could have prevented the crisis, women were the main victims of austerity as a result of the financial crisis. Segal pointed out that older women in particular were heavily effected, with a combined effect of ageism and sexism. She said, women over 50 have been forty times as likely to lose their jobs since the crisis. Despite masculinity being blamed for the crisis, it’s women who lost more jobs because of it. Men and masculinity made it through the crisis with a slight redefinition of masculinity – risk management is ‘cool’ now. Femininity continued to be posed within out-dated tropes, and women, did not make it through.

Maclean just had an article published on this topic, “Gender, risk and the Wall Street Alpha Male,” which you can see here.

You can sign up to the BiGS mailing list to receive updates on their upcoming events, or have a look here.

Reclaim the Night – #YesAllSurvivors #RTN14

Saturday, 22 November — women marched through the streets of London, from Whitehall to Camden, in a demonstration calling for women’s right to feel safe walking the streets at night.

emancipation-155792Before I came to the UK, I helped organise my college’s Take Back the Night in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, USA. In the United States, everyone is welcome to take part throughout the event. In fact, during my final year, we made sure some fraternities and men’s sports teams attended the event (yes, we carried out targeted advertising). We marched across our campus, mostly women and some non-binary individuals, but we had a few steadfast male allies chanting beside us too, and more men budding in their role as allies. It felt supportive, united, and allied.

Reclaim the Night in London only allows women-identified people to participate in the march itself. Reasons cited for this are women’s, especially survivors of domestic violence, comfort and safety. The march is a fight against male-dominated violence against women and, as is often the case, survivors of men’s violence want to create a space for themselves without fear. This is an important consideration, but I find it incomplete and antithetical to the mission of the march.

Excluding men from the march feels a bit like excluding them from the movement. The march is about fighting for women’s right to be safe at night, to be free from undue blame for sexist acts of violence, but it is also about coming together to support each other in our fight and to invigorate the movement. Men need to be part of the movement. Everyone needs to be part of the movement. The fight to end violence affects everyone and needs to be on everyone’s agenda. There is, at least, a men’s vigil held to cheer the march on, giving men the opportunity to come together and get excited about being our allies in this fight. Further, everyone was allowed at the rally and celebrations that took place after the march. However, I would like to see men hosting important discussions about their role in ending violence – like discussions held on the night that are women-only. After all, they’re half the problem. They can be half the solution.

More importantly, allowing only woman-identified people to march reinforces the image of man as abuser, woman as victim. While most cases of domestic violence (DV), especially sexual violence, are perpetrated by men against women, DV can and does happen to anyone. Excluding survivors who are not women erases the myriad other dynamics of domestic violence from general awareness.

Is the march a safe space for women who experienced violence at the hands of other women, in a same-sex relationship, or from a woman relative? Assuming an all-woman space is a safe space is heterosexist. LGB folks face stigmatization that extends to DV services. Their experiences must be acknowledged if we want to ever eradicate the stigma. As for victims who are men, we can forget about them, just like we forget about gender non-conforming, genderqueer, and non-binary individuals. Gender non-conforming individuals are the targets of violence as often as women and never recognised in DV statistics or services. Trans* individuals face obstacles in accessing DV services because they are often based on the strict binary of women/men and may not help them if their ID doesn’t ‘match’ their presentation. As feminists, we should be fighting to end all violence, not just violence by men against women.

Untitled design
Image Credit: Howl Arts Collective – flickr

At least the march includes trans women in its definition of women – because hello, trans women are women and also face the highest levels of violence. While to me trans women are an obvious inclusion in any feminist act of sisterhood and empowerment, it is not obvious to all feminists. Rather, “feminists.”

I had planned to write only about the exclusion of men from the march, but the events of the night brought up a more pressing issue. There was a group of self-titled ‘radical feminists’ who were handing out transphobic leaflets at the march, calling for trans women to be excluded from the march because they are “males” who make it an unsafe space, and this is against ethos of the night. No, no, no. First of all, judging someone’s sex is not that straightforward and this group of unfortunate feminists were making assumptions. We all know what happens when you assume. Secondly, a person’s sex does not determine their gender presentation or identity. Trans women do not benefit from male privilege and so do not have the same power as men in the patriarchy.  Quite the contrary.  I am frankly in awe. I am awestruck at how ignorant some ‘educated feminists’ can be. I identify whole-heartedly as a feminist, but never wish to be confused with the likes of these.

Transmisogyny’ describes the denigration of the feminine based on the assumption that femininity is inferior to masculinity and is targeted towards trans women and gender non-conforming people who present feminine characteristics.  It’s like misogyny +1.  Trans women are targets of violence because they are women and because they are trans, and thus they should have a space in the women’s movement.  This is important to the feminist struggle to end violence against women, or to end gender-based violence because it is based on the patriarchal power structures the disadvantage not just all women, but all femininity.  This brings me back to my point that we should include more than just women in the march, because it’s about more than just women.

We march to end violence perpetuated by the patriarchy.

End violence.png
Image Crdit:  openDemocracy – flickr

 

Fourwalls film project @fourwallslondon

The launch of the FOURWALLS film project aims to give Londoners a voice on the housing crisis. Commissioned by David Lammy MP, the project appeals to people across London to create their own three-minute videos about their experiences and perspectives on living in London for the chance to win up to £1,000.

If you are interested and would like to enter, further information can be found at www.fourwalls.london.