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Vikings

A new character in the popular TV series Vikings has been inspired by an Oxford University historian’s research.

Michael Hirst, creator of Vikings, read The Silk Roads by Dr Peter Frankopan, Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research at the University of Oxford. He was inspired by the book to create a new character called Astrid, who will appear in the fifth series of the drama which is watched by millions in the USA and Canada.

‘Talk about academic impact!’, says Dr Frankopan. ‘There is nothing more exciting as a historian to know that things you’ve written are being read far and wide – and completely thrilling when they have are brought in to mainstream media.’

In The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, Dr Frankopan showed the importance of the east and the role it had in shaping modern Europe. It was a bestselling book, praised for shifting the centre of world history to the east.

He says: ‘It is rather wonderful that Astrid, the new character who has been introduced in part thanks to Silk Roads, is going to show off some of the main themes of my book: the way the world is connected; the extent of cultural and commercial exchange across the spine of Asia; the sophistication of the east – and the role it had in shaping Europe.

‘What used to be called ‘The Dark Ages’ in the west were nothing of the sort elsewhere. I’m so excited Michael Hirst is going to incorporate this.’

‘I think it’s terrific that TV series like Vikings work so hard to be accurate,’ he says. ‘I’ve been contacted in the past by those involved in the series to ensure that lines in Arabic and Berber are correct, so I am not surprised that those behind the show are on top of the latest scholarship in the field.’

Mr Hirst, who created the TV series, said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly: ‘I’ve read this great book, called “The Silk Road,” which was showing that  in the Dark Ages, it might have been the Dark Ages to the western culture, but to the east, there was trade, cultural exchange. The Vikings were on Silk Road. So a character like Astrid, who appears to be slightly more modern? She is more modern.’

Vikings is screened by the HISTORY channel and it was renewed for a fifth series in March.

The Silk Roads is published by Bloomsbury Publishing.

Crossroads

Today is international languages day. But in the UK, modern languages is “at a crossroads”, according to an Oxford University professor. Katrin Kohl, professor of German Literature, says the perception of languages in schools and society is suffering.

Today, she and her fellow researchers have launched a major four-year research programme to investigate the interconnection between linguistic diversity and creativity. The project, called Creative Multilingualism, will explore how being able to speak more than one language can make us more creative. There is much more information about the planned research on the project’s website.

Professor Kohl tells Arts Blog a bit more about the project:

"Modern Languages is at a crossroads, and an ambitious research project will seek to give new impetus to the subject by putting creativity at the heart of it. This runs counter to the way languages are currently perceived, both in schools and in society – as a subject that consists merely of a bundle of practical skills. Research on Creative Multilingualism is designed to open up and showcase the cultural and cognitive riches associated with linguistic diversity, in order to reinvigorate the subject across the educational and academic spectrum and in society.

The researchers will be working on projects that are designed to investigate the creative roots of Modern Languages in the humanities, and explore the role of creativity in the interdisciplinary reach of languages as the communicative medium that characterises us as human beings.

In schools, Modern Foreign Languages has been suffering attrition for years, with the Government’s decision in 2004 to make inclusion of a language at GCSE optional leading to a significant and ongoing drop in take-up and in progression to A level. Together with league table pressures and the complexity and teaching-intensive nature of the subject, this has impacted negatively on Modern Foreign Languages departments in schools, and in turn caused some fifty university departments to close.

The falling number of Modern Languages graduates has contributed to an intensifying teacher shortage, with Brexit uncertainties now impeding recruitment from France, Spain and Germany. These factors have contributed to an unprecedented crisis in the subject, with a danger of meltdown especially in the state sector.

But we also need to ask ourselves why children and young people have been voting with their feet, and what’s been happening with the subject itself. We need go no further than the A level syllabus in force until this summer to find that the subject has been drained of academic substance. It restricts assessment to the ‘four skills’ of speaking, listening, reading and writing while reducing cultural content to a ‘carrier’ of language that is not assessed. This is like calling an A level subject “Maths” when actually it only consists of Applied Maths.

Moreover, at a time when the rise of global English has reduced the incentive to learn languages for native speakers of English, it has restricted the subject to its driest parts, with too few lessons per week to ensure sufficiently swift progress to sustain motivation. This reductive development has also opened up a gulf between Modern Foreign Languages in schools, and Modern Languages as they’re taught and researched in the humanities sections of Russell Group universities.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council is now investing an unprecedented £20 million into multi-institutional and interdisciplinary research as part of its Open World Research Initiative. This is designed to transform and invigorate Modern Languages research, and incentivise academics to work with partners that can help to raise the status of languages across UK society.

Four major collaborative research programmes led by Cambridge, King’s College London, Manchester and Oxford are being funded over the next four years to build a stronger and more vibrant identity for the subject, and to open up Languages to include ‘lesser taught’ ones in schools such as Mandarin and Arabic, and encourage cooperation between university departments in (European) Modern Languages and departments that teach Asian and African languages.

The Oxford-led programme entitled Creative Multilingualism includes researchers from Birmingham City University, Cambridge, Reading, SOAS, Pittsburgh, and the University of California, Santa Barbara. Together they have expertise in over 40 languages, which they will draw on as they conduct their research on the interaction and interdependence of linguistic diversity and creativity. They will be focusing on different aspects of language, ranging from the relationship between language and thought through to the interaction between languages in literary texts and theatrical performances.

A project on translation will investigate how moving from one language to another not only results in a transposed text, but also opens up new dimensions of meaning that lay hidden in the original. An empirical study conducted in UK classrooms will compare learning outcomes between functionally oriented tasks and tasks involving linguistic creativity.

A vital part of Creative Multilingualism is its work with partners including the British Council, the Association for Language Learning, English PEN, GCHQ, Business in the Community and a wide range of schools. In conferences, workshops, a Multilingual Music Fest, after-school clubs, a Linguamania event in January 2017 and a Road Show planned for 2019, participants of the programme will collaborate to showcase and explore linguistic creativity, make the value of community languages more visible, and give a more imaginative dimension to career choices involving languages.

Above all, they will seek to generate enthusiasm for the value of languages as a fascinatingly diverse medium of communication that allows us to express our cultural identities creatively, individually, and in original ways."

Rodin

Philosophers take on the world

Matt Pickles | 22 Sep 2016

Philosophers take on the world. This isn’t a doomsday news story, but the title of a new book which has been published by Oxford University Press today.

The chapters have been adapted from pieces written for the popular Practical Ethics blog, run by the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics in Oxford University’s Philosophy Faculty.

The authors are experts in ethics, medicine, politics and current affairs – and many are academics at Oxford University.

To mark the launch of the book, its editor Dr David Edmonds has written a guest post for the Arts Blog.

Dr Edmonds is a Senior Research Associate at Oxford’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, as well as a BBC documentary-maker, podcast producer and author. Here is his post, which is titled 'In defence of moral experts':

I’m no expert. Still, I reckon the notorious claim made by Michael Gove, a leading campaigner for Britain to leave the European Union, that the nation had had enough of experts, will dog him for the rest of his career. In fact, he wasn’t alone.  Other Brexit leaders also sneered at the pretensions of experts, the majority of whom warned about the risks – political, economic, social - of a Britain outside the EU.

Those who dismiss experts have a habit of using the prefix “so-called”. Time will tell (probably not much time) whether Gove was right to dismiss the anxieties of “so-called experts”. Still, despite the beating he received in sections of the press, his was on politically safe ground. There is a suspicion of experts in Britain, part of a more general suspicion of elites and of the establishment.

The world of philosophy suffers from a similar malaise. There are few philosophers who can claim to be public intellectuals, at least in the Anglo-American world. As we know, the French are willing to embrace and celebrate their philosophers in a way that the British find uncomfortable. We have one or two philosophers with the flowing locks of Bernard-Henri Lévy but none with his profile or standing.

It’s not just that the British public has a strain of anti-intellectualism, and a weaker appetite than the French for philosophical input to the national debate. It’s also that the few philosophers who do attempt to contribute to the world beyond the Academy risk ridicule within the profession. No doubt this is driven in part by an unworthy, if natural, envy.  “They’re not serious” is the sotto voce (and sometime not so sotto voce) verdict of colleagues who appear in print or on TV or radio.

Within my sub-genre of philosophy – practical ethics – the suspicion of public engagement has a more specific cause.  It’s often asserted that moral philosophers can’t claim expertize in ethics in the same way a chemist, for example, can be an expert on a molecule.

That’s a concern that puzzles me.  Certainly there’s some evidence – from the UC Riverside philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel - that those who write about and teach courses in ethics are no more ethical than anybody else.  And it’s true that specializing and so commanding authority in trichloro-2-methyl-2-propanol is disanalogous in various ways to being an authority in some corner of practical ethics – not least in how this expertize can be tested.

Still, I want to defend the expertize of moral philosophers, to maintain that their views in their chosen field merit respect and at least a degree of deference.  We should heed attention because they have mastered the relevant information on their topic and brought to bear the philosopher’s chief tools, depth and clarity of thought. They have marshalled arguments and ironed out inconsistencies.  And practical ethics is tough.  To take just one example – trying to work through the metaphysics of what gives human beings moral status, and the implications of this for a variety of non-standard cases, is hugely complex. 

I endorse what the White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford, Jeff McMahan, says: “Questions about abortion and termination of life support, and euthanasia, and so on, are really very difficult. We are right to be puzzled about these issues, and people who think that they know the answers and have very strong views about these matters, without having addressed these issues in metaphysics and moral theory are making a mistake. They should be much more sceptical about their own beliefs.”

Sometimes the philosopher’s arguments about an issue merely shores up common-sense. But the role of the philosopher cannot merely be to describe the standard position. That would reduce philosophy to a branch of psychology, or anthropology, or sociology. The moral philosopher does not just ask how much people give to charity, or want to give to charity, relevant though these questions are, but how much should they give to charity.

But whether it be John Stuart Mill on women’s rights, or Peter Singer on animal rights, philosophical reasoning can produce results that the then majority find objectionable, even repugnant. My appeal is that in such cases we should pay close attention to the philosophy, to how conclusions are reached. Our prima facie position should be that the philosopher has a good case.

There is some evidence that in their quiet way, British philosophers are beginning to assert themselves. I was delighted to see that in a recent week of five BBC essays devoted to post-Brexit Britain - three of the authors, John Gray, Onora O’Neill and Roger Scruton - were philosophers. In the book I’ve just edited, Philosophers Take On the World, over forty philosophers address stories in the news and argue for often counter-intuitive positions.

Counter-intuitive perhaps, but my starting position is that we should take ethics experts seriously. Who knows, Mr Gove, they may even be right.

Infinity

An Oxford University professor will be taking Radio 4 listeners on a journey through the history of the concept of infinity for the next fortnight.

Philosopher Professor Adrian Moore will present a 15-minute programme at 1.45pm from Monday to Friday this week and Monday to Friday next week.

In today’s episode of A History of the Infinite, Professor Moore explores why the idea of infinity made the Ancient Greeks so uncomfortable.

Oxford University academics contributing to the programmes include Ursula Coope, Professor of Ancient Philosophy, Cecilia Trifogli, Lecturer in Medieval Philosophy, and Professor Richard Sorabji, Honorary Fellow of Wolfson College.

Professor Moore says: 'This series is based on my book The Infinite (Routledge, 2nd edn 2001).  The first four programmes are concerned with the remarkable turnaround between the time of the early Greeks, when various puzzles and paradoxes associated with the infinite had made it an object of abhorrence and distrust, to the early modern period, by which time it had come to be associated with the divine and had become an object of veneration and awe. 

'In the next three programmes listeners are introduced to some of the extraordinary mathematical results concerning the infinite, including the discovery that some infinities are bigger than others. 

'In the final three programmes attention shifts to the cosmos and our place in it. I consider questions about the age and size of the universe, about death and immortality, and about our basic urge to seek meaning for our lives in something infinitely greater than us.'

All programmes will be available to listen to or download from the BBC website over the next month.

Dons of Oxford

Many academics have recently come back to Oxford after a summer holiday. But Professor Liz Frood’s return to work (part-time) as Professor of Egyptology last week is a much more remarkable story.

Professor Frood contracted sepsis in August 2015. Her cousin Jane Wynyard picks up the story: ‘She spent ten days in the ICU, five months in hospital, had her legs amputated below the knees, lost her hearing in one ear, her nose collapsed and her hands were damaged almost beyond repair,’ she says.

This left Professor Frood severely disabled, with both legs amputated, no dexterity in my hands, partial deafness, and a reconstructed nose.

Miss Wynyard adds: 'Before Liz’s illness, none of our family had ever heard of sepsis or understood the life-changing and devastating effects this terrible infection could have.

‘In just one year, Liz has totally inspired and humbled us with her amazing will to survive and courageous battle to live a normal life despite her terrible injuries. Her bravery and determination have been matched by the incredible work of the NHS staff, doctors, surgeons and specialists whom we will always be indebted to for saving Liz.’

Some of Professor Frood’s family and friends set off today (Friday 9 September) on a bike ride beginning at the Ashmolean Museum and due to end in Cardiff. They are due to arrive in Gloucester this evening after completing the arduous first stage of their trip.

‘It’s been brilliant so far,’ Professor Frood reports. ‘We had a great send-off! The cyclists have been riding through gorgeous countryside, which seems to have them all very excited.’

The team, called the Dons of Oxford, hopes to raise awareness of sepsis and to raise money for the UK Sepsis Trust. They would welcome donations here.

Dons of Oxford'The Dons of Oxford' cycling team, with Professor Frood (front), set off from Oxford

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