Tag Archives: lecturer interviews

A chat with Tim Markham

Tim Markham - Birkbeck - University of LondonDr Tim Markham’s email signature reads as the who’s who of Birkbeck.  Not only does Tim lecture at Birkbeck but he also holds several notable positions including Reader in Journalism and Media, Head of Department, Film, Media and Cultural Studies, Programme Director, MA/PGCert Journalism, BA Media and Business Applications, Director of Graduate Research, Film, Media and Cultural Studies and Assistant Dean for Retention, School of Arts.

Birkbeck is renowned for its excellence in research and Tim does his share of research, particularly in the field of war reporting.

Despite his busy schedule and many responsibilities, Tim’s passion for both learning and teaching remain unaffected.  More important to his students is that he is approachable and readily available to assist students reach their academic goals.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that Tim is a great film and music buff, but this is to be expected from a person who heads the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.  With his passion for popular culture and his in-depth understanding of media both present and past, along with a good grasp as to what to expect in the future, a chat with Tim could only be colourful.

What was your first job?

I had lots of jobs while in college: cleaner, waiter, that kind of thing.  My first academic job was teaching sociology to visiting American students in Bath, which was fun.

Has there been a pivotal moment in your career that is responsible for the course that brought you to where you are today?

Yes, it was actually when I applied to Birkbeck.  My PhD was in political philosophy and I always imagined that I would become a lecturer in politics … but this job came up in journalism.  There was an advertisement for a lecturer in journalism, and I applied for it.  From that moment, I’ve become a media academic.  Not what I intended, but very glad it happened that way.

What has been the best moment in your career/lifetime?

This will sound a bit vain.  When you receive a box full of your own books from your publisher to give away to friends and family.  It is very satisfying.

What has been the worst moment in your career/lifetime?

A few years ago when it was announced that tuition fees for undergraduates were being tripled.  At that point none of us really knew if universities would continue to exist in the current form.  Some of those fears have been realised, universities are becoming private institutions rather than public.  It was at the moment when it was announced that for all of us our hearts just sank.

Did you get a big break or have you had to create your opportunities?

I had a big break.  I got a job at the London School of Economics working on a big research project with two amazing people, Nick Couldry and Sonia Livingstone. They were senior figures in the field, really well known publicly, excellent researchers, great writers and simply fantastic people to work with. That was my big break, they were fantastic mentors.

What was your Plan B occupation?

If I’m honest, probably civil service.  I have a Masters in political research so I think I would have ended up being a policy worker.

If I told you to choose any career you wished starting tomorrow, what would you chose?

Novelist.  I’m so full of admiration for people who can do that.

Why have you chosen to work at Birkbeck?

I was just down the road at the LSE and it seems everyone knows someone who has been a student at Birkbeck.  I knew it by reputation more than anything else.  It just has a certain something about it, it’s known as being a bit different, it’s known as being a really human institution for students and also as a place to work.

What is the best thing about your job at Birkbeck?

Definitely the students.  I know that sounds glib but we say this to each other all the time.  When we go to conferences and things that’s when we talk to academics from other universities and realise how incredibly lucky we are.  Our students are interesting, challenging, they have experience and opinions, it just makes being in the classroom such fun.

What’s the most difficult thing about your job at Birkbeck?

Work-life balance.

What is your most memorable interaction with a student, students or class?

This is a tough one because we have them all the time.  I had a great one recently.  We were discussing “celebrity”, which is one of those subjects that is really tough to get right, because it can sound really superficial.  We had the best interaction.  We started talking about the Kardashians and we ended up talking about phenomenology.  I love it when class interaction goes like that.  We start with something which appears superficial but the students get it.  It is just beautiful when a room full of students get that and actually get there.

How has Birkbeck changed since you first walked through the doors?

As an institution we haven’t changed in that we are still very distinctive with our admission – widening participation.  We are meant to be a college that is open to everyone and we really do have something for everyone.  I think it would be fair to say that we have become a bit more professionalised, as all colleges have, a bit more polished in our managerial structures.

You have several responsibilities here at Birkbeck, including being Head of Department, Film, Media and Cultural Studies, and Assistant Dean for Retention, School of Arts; you also lecture.  Does a more mature student body influence the way in which you approach your responsibilities; for example, have they opened up new ways to approach old ideas?

They are both managerial roles.  Head of Department means that I am line manager, boss if you like to other academics.  The Assistant Dean for Retention role, that just means that I work on various things for keeping students at Birkbeck.  So it means student support, making sure, especially for new students, that after a couple of terms they have everything they need to be confident students.  That first deadline sometimes results in panic, they think I can’t do this, so that role is all about making sure the students get all the help they can.  It is very interesting.

What’s the most exciting project you have worked on to date in your career at Birkbeck?

What I’m doing now, I go to different parts of the world and talk to journalists.  So I am off to Beirut in a few weeks’ time.  I am going without an agenda.  I just want to go and find out what life is like for journalists there at the moment and you just find out the most amazing things.

What is your favourite movie?

This is a question which I can’t answer in universal terms.  I think you will find that most of us can’t.  I don’t have a favourite film of my life.  It doesn’t work like that.  Favourite film at the moment:  The Great Beauty.  It is an Italian film that just won the Oscar for best foreign language film.  The Great Beauty is a fantastic film. It is kind of a love letter to Rome.

What did you learn from it?

Enjoy yourself and don’t take people (critics) too seriously.

What’s your favourite book in the Birkbeck library?

There is a book by a professor I knew, Alan Ryan.  It is called The Philosophy of the Social Sciences.  It was one of the first books I read as an MA student.  It does what it says on the tin.  It sets out exactly what it means to look at human behaviour in an analytical critical way.  It is a book everyone should read.

Where is your favourite place to hang out at the college?

Gordon Square. It’s a lovely square if the weather is nice.

Have you had an opportunity to take a look at the newly launched Lamp and Owl Digital?  Will you now/continue?

I have, it’s great.  I like the strapline “An unconventional magazine for an unconventional university”.  I didn’t spot any typos, which is brilliant.  I thought it looked really impressive.  It’s the first time that the Lamp & Owl has had such a strong, striking visual presence online.  It looks good, it looks appropriate and it looks like a website for Birkbeck students.

A chat with Gavin Evans

dr-gavin-evans-birkbeckGavin Evans is not only a lecturer at Birkbeck where he teaches students the ABCs of journalism but he is also a freelance journalist who writes for such publications as The Guardian, The Independent and the Mail & Guardian (South Africa) to highlight a few.

Gavin was born in London but grew up mainly in South Africa where he extensively covered the progress and demise of apartheid, and was deeply involved in anti-apartheid activities from the late 1970s until the early 1990s.  He has also conducted numerous interviews with sports personalities, celebrities and many high-profile individuals.

Has there been a pivotal moment in your career/life that is responsible for the course that brought you into journalism?

I wouldn’t say there is any pivotal moment.  It was just that I enjoyed writing and I enjoyed the adventure of journalism so that when it came to choosing a profession it just seemed to be the natural place for me to go.  I was living in South Africa at the time and I applied for a job at the Rand Daily Mail.  They put me on a training course and I started there in 1984.  I had done a bit of journalism before being involved on the student newspaper in both high school and university.  I had also been writing for several activist publications.

Has there been a low point in your career journey?  What was it and what did you learn from it?

The most difficult point was at the beginning of 1993.  I was born in London and returned to England, mainly for family-related reasons.  This introduced me to freelance work.  It was difficult to establish connections and to get regular work.  I learnt as I went how to work on a freelance basis.  There was a while when income was very erratic.  It took me a couple of years to get into the swing of it.

During this time, I learnt that if you want to work on a freelance basis you have to be extremely self-disciplined and you have to keep a production process of writing going.  The other thing I learnt was that you don’t stick with one newspaper group, which I had done with the Guardian Group.

Another thing I learnt was that you don’t stick with one or two topics.  I had been writing a bit on politics, South African politics and on sports and that was just too narrow, so I started writing on everything, just everything.  You don’t turn your nose up at anything.  When trade publications, managerial publications asked me to do things, I just said “yes”.  Once I learnt those lessons then things went fine.

What has been the best moment in your career/lifetime?

I won the South African sports writer of the year award, I think it was in 1990, but actually the best moment of my journalistic career, I guess, was about 12 years ago I had a memoir published called Dancing Shoes is Dead and that got good reviews and it sold well. I was quite pleased with the results of that.  Also what was nice about it was that the publishers then sent me on a tour of South Africa to promote the book, which was fun.

Did you get a big break or have you had to create your opportunities?

It is always a mixture of both things.  I guess the break I got was right at the start where I applied for a job at the Rand Daily and got taken on because that then led to all sorts of other things.

Being a journalist in South Africa in the late 1980s was opportune. South Africa was in the news very much at the time, it was a huge story. High conflict, low-level civil war and in the beginning of 1990 Nelson Mandela was released.  All those things were happening, so it was very good time career-wise to be a journalist. In addition to having my full-time job, I was a foreign correspondent for a world-based news agency, I was stringing for The Guardian and doing a bit of television work and so on.  There was a lot of demand for journalists who knew the situation who were based there.  That, I guess, you may call a break.  It was just being in the right place at the right time.

What has been the biggest surprise to you with respect to your career/life?

It’s not a surprise for me but for other people that my interest now in terms of writing has turned to the area of biology.  I just finished a book which is called Black Brain White Brain.  It is an attack on scientific racism. I am going to follow that with another one which is a similar attack on genetic determinism when it comes to gender, in other words arguing against men are from Mars and women are from Venus, saying that we are all from Earth and we are not that different.  For a lot of people they are quite surprised, as they are used to me being either a sports writer or political writer, but this is the area that interests me at the moment.

What was your Plan B occupation?

That was to be an actor.  I actually did a bit of acting.  I had an agent when I was living in South Africa.  I did a couple of courses and a little bit of acting over here but I decided it really wasn’t for me.  I needed to dip my toes into it, to see, but I decided I did not want to do that.  If I hadn’t got into journalism, I think I probably would have gone into acting.

If I told you to choose any career you wished starting tomorrow, what would you choose?

It would depend on me having the ability, I would become a full-time author, I would drop everything to do that.

Why have you chosen to work at Birkbeck?

Birkbeck has a fantastic reputation.  It is an institution with a very noble history because the whole idea behind it was altruistic.  What I really like about Birkbeck is that it is teaching people that are almost all working people who want to learn.  Most of the students at Birkbeck are not people with silver spoons in their mouths, they are people who are excited about learning.

The second reason is just from a purely practical point of view, Birkbeck classes are at night so I can write and teach.

What is the best thing about your job at Birkbeck?

Lecturing and interacting with the students.

What has been your worst experience as a lecturer at Birkbeck?

The marking.

What is your most memorable interaction with a student, students or class?

There was one student who came from a very posh background which was immediately clear from her accent.  One of the pieces she delivered, she had quoted Lord so-and-so and Lady so-and-so and I had a little bit of doubt and I wondered if she actually got this off the internet, so I asked her and she said “no, no, that is Mummy and Daddy” and I said who does that make you? and she said “I’m Lady so-and-so but please don’t tell anyone else in the class.” At the end of the course she came to see me for some advice and she said “Mummy can get me a job on Tatler, what do you think I should do?” and I said “I cant tell you what to do, but do you want your first job in life to be like everything else in your life (e.g. something that Mummy or Daddy got you) or do you want to do things for once on your own?”, which is quite a harsh thing to say to somebody. She said she would give it some thought.  The next thing I heard was that she had got a job on a publication called Engineering News, She had not taken the job at Tatler she had got it just like everybody else, sending out her CV to hundreds of places and finally getting a job. She stayed there for a year and a half.  She is bright and she could write well and she is now working in a very good position at Reuters, and that is not a job that Mummy had any sway over at all. In the end it worked out well for her, which is good because I would have felt bad if it hadn’t.

Has your teaching approach had to change with the changing demographics at the college?

One thing with having mature students is that many of them have a lot of experience in the world of work so the kinds of ideas that they have can be stimulating for lecturers.  There is quite a lot of engagement with the students which doesn’t have to be on the ‘I’m the lecturer and you’re the student’ basis, it’s a much more even thing. You can chat about life as well and sometimes the students are even older than me, so it is not like other places I teach like London School of Journalism. Most of the students there are postgraduates, but they are young, so I have a different kind of relationship:  there is a generation gap, which isn’t the case at Birkbeck.