Oxford Arts Blog | University of Oxford

Oxford Arts Blog

Kwame Dawes

Kwame Dawes, a leading voice in African and Caribbean poetry, has been appointed Visiting Professor at TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities).

Dawes is Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Glenna Luschei Editor of the literary magazine Prairie Schooner, and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

His many honours include the Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection, a Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry, the Musgrave Silver Medal for contribution to the Arts in Jamaica, the Poets & Writers Barnes and Noble Writers for Writers Award, and a Pushcart Prize. In 2009 he won an Emmy Award for Live, Love, Hope, a multimedia performance poetry and music piece that explores the lives of people living with HIV AIDS in Jamaica.

His works of poetry, fiction, plays, and criticism include City of Bones: A Testament (2017), Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems (2013); Bivouac (2010); She’s Gone (2007); A Far Cry from Plymouth Rock: A Personal Narrative (2006); and Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2003). He is co-founder and programming director of the biannual  Calabash International Literary  Festival in Jamaica, and founding director of the African Poetry Book Fund, which advances the development and publication of the poetic arts of Africa.

During his residency in Oxford in November 2018, Professor Dawes will launch an interactive exhibition that tells the story of the first five years of the African Poetry Book Fund, showing all that the fund has accomplished in its promotion and advancement of African poetry worldwide. The exhibit has been curated by Professor Lorna Dawes of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and features the work of award-winning artist Walter Kitundi.

Professor Dawes will meet with students, scholars, teachers, and members of the local community in Oxford to talk about African and Caribbean poetry and literary criticism, university and school curricula, and ways to encourage, support, and promote marginalised voices in poetry. He said: ‘I look forward to the chance to have fruitful conversations about what I believe are exciting times for poetry, especially poetry from Africa. Technology, advanced communication and the challenges of a global worldview present us with challenges and great opportunities. My hope is to bring a holistic view to the discussion of the poetry of Africa.’

Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature in English at the University of Oxford, who is hosting Professor Dawes, said: ‘TORCH is delighted to host Kwame Dawes on our Humanities and Identities programme. Professor Dawes is a true global intellectual with wide-ranging interests in the world literatures of the Caribbean, African America, and sub-Saharan Africa. He is currently involved in a history-making project to digitise African poetry past and present and bring this rich archive to global attention in ways that will traverse linguistic and cultural borders and draw in transnational communities of readers.’

Dr Katherine Collins, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Department of Education at Oxford, who is co-hosting the residency with Professor Boehmer, said: ‘Professor Dawes is often called “the busiest man in literature” and we are thrilled he is going to be with us this month. His creativity across a range of different forms, and his ability to communicate his messages to an astonishing breadth of audiences, will make a significant contribution to ongoing discussions between scholars, teachers, and community activists on important issues of representation.’

TORCH Director Professor Philip Bullock said: ‘Kwame Dawes brings a unique perspective to bear on TORCH's Humanities and Identities programme, and reminds us of the crucial role played by art and creativity in the cultivation of a responsive moral imagination.’

The TORCH Humanities and Identities Programme is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Image credit: OU

A new team of tour guides welcomed their first visitors at the Museum of the History of Science on Oxford’s Broad Street last week.

The volunteers, who have recently arrived in the city as forced migrants from countries including Syria and Iraq, will be running guided tours in Arabic of the museum’s famous collection of Islamic astronomical instruments.

The tours are part of Multaka-Oxford, a project at the Museum of the History of Science and the Pitt Rivers Museum, which creates volunteer opportunities in the museums and uses the collections as a meeting point to bring people together.

Multaka – which means meeting point in Arabic – aims to bring different perspectives to the presentation and interpretation of objects in two collections: Islamic Astronomical Instruments, and Textiles from the Arab World – recently donated by Jenny Balfour-Paul. It also offers people who have recently arrived in the UK the opportunity to practise their English, learn new skills and gain work experience.

Funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, and working in partnership with local community organisations including Asylum Welcome, Connection Support and Refugee Resource, the two-year project currently has a team of 26 volunteers, who have recently arrived from Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Sudan and Oman.

At the Museum of the History of Science, volunteer guides will deliver tours in Arabic, starting on 16 November at Oxford’s Christmas Light Festival. At the Pitt Rivers, volunteers will deliver tours from 2019 and will help select and label objects for a new exhibition, Textiles from the Arab World, which is due to open next April. Volunteers at both museums are also actively involved in collections research and documentation, organising events, writing a project blog and managing social media.

Multaka-Oxford builds on a long-standing partnership between the museums and local community organisations and groups. “Over the past seven years we’ve developed a good understanding of the role museums can play in supporting social inclusion and how we can collaborate with local organisations to support communities across Oxford,” says Nicola Bird, Project Manager for Multaka-Oxford.

Inspired by an award-winning project which has been running across four Berlin museums since 2015, Multaka: Museum as Meeting Point, the Oxford team have been working closely with their Berlin counterparts to create places where people can meet, share their experiences, knowledge and skills with each other.

Key to the success of the project has been a focus on what skills and experience the volunteers can bring and what they want to gain: an opportunity to learn and practise English, understand a new working culture, build self-confidence, meet new people and integrate into the local community.

'The project not only offers practical support such as on-the-job training, but also personal support such as providing a sense of inclusion,' says Nicola.

'We were delighted and happy when we found our heritage in Oxford,' says Abdullah Mohamad Alkhalaf, one of the volunteers. 'You gave us confidence in the practice of language and we are not just refugees but people working in their second homeland.'


By Professor Katrin Kohl, Professor of German Literature in Oxford's Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, and Director of the Creative Multilingualism project.

The report on the results of the Language Provision in UK MFL Departments 2018 Survey deserves to be read by everyone interested in the future of our discipline. It is the outcome of a collaboration between the AHRC-funded research programme Language Acts and Worldmaking, the Association of University Language Centres and the University Council of Modern Languages, and this in itself indicates welcome movement towards greater dialogue within the higher education system. The report is important not least because it highlights a conundrum that currently faces Modern Languages departments across the country (those which remain after years of attrition): what should our discipline be called?

The tradition of designating it ‘Modern Languages’ is rooted in the need to distinguish the young upstart from the ‘Classical Languages’ that provided the model for studying languages until well into the 20th century. Meanwhile schools prefer the name ‘Modern Foreign Languages’ – a designation appropriated in the title of this report. Is this what is being suggested as the solution? The focus on ‘foreignness’ buys into an agenda of ‘them’ and ‘us’ that is arguably unhelpful in a climate obsessed with borders designed to keep foreigners out.

Across the secondary and tertiary sectors, it is implicit that ‘ML’ or ‘MFL’ includes the cultures relevant to the languages taught, much as has always been the case with Classics. In universities, this distinguishes ML departments from Language Centres, which tend to focus especially on teaching practical language skills to students across disciplines. The difference in academic purpose often goes hand in hand with differences in perceived status and types of employment contract, and the picture is rendered more multi-faceted still by the fact that some Language Centres provide language teaching for ML departments. In schools, the tradition of teaching literature as part of MFL has weakened, and unlike university departments, which teach much of the cultural ‘content’ through the medium of English, school syllabuses focus on teaching in the target language.

And the complexity doesn’t stop there. Departmental names reflect not only academic traditions but also traditional hegemonies and colonial histories. To take Oxford as an example: the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages teaches only European languages and cultures, but it also embraces those countries in South America and Africa where the lingua franca is Spanish, Portuguese or French. Meanwhile a wide range of Asian languages is taught by the Faculty of Oriental Studies – a name that is justifiable only with reference to tradition and pragmatism. An African Studies Centre was established in 2005, but it does not offer undergraduate courses. And the Language Centre contributes significantly to the more than 50 ancient, medieval and modern languages taught across the University. 

In schools, too, ‘Modern (Foreign) Languages’ is traditionally associated only with European languages, although qualifications are available in a wide variety of ‘other’, ‘less-taught’ languages (fortunately, these qualifications were recently rescued from abolition). But the picture is beginning to change as schools become more obviously multilingual, and it is growing palpably illogical to distinguish between ‘Modern Foreign Languages’ as mainstream, and ‘community languages’ or ‘home languages’ as peripheral. Playgrounds are now audibly multilingual spaces where children are speaking languages from right across the world. This is not just the case in large cities – a local Oxford school has pupils speaking over 100 languages. Moreover, Mandarin is now supported by a prestigious government-funded Excellence Programme, and the report highlights that the ‘other’ languages, when combined, now show the highest numbers for A-level ahead of French, Spanish and German. This is not because they are ‘foreign’ languages but because they are rooted right here, in the UK.

So what’s in a name? Ultimately the identity, health and destiny of our discipline.

More than any other academic subject, Modern Languages suffers from a fragmented identity, unhelpful hierarchies and an inability to garner a true spirit of cohesion across sectors and language groups. If the discipline is to survive and make a vibrant contribution to schools, universities and society as a whole, the sectors and languages need to identify not just some common ground but a joint foundation. The discipline needs to address its identity crisis, reinvent itself, and find a unity that is strong enough to embrace diversity without falling apart.

Unpalatable as Brexit may be to many of us, it does provide incentives for promoting the value of all those languages that are spoken both beyond western Europe and within the UK. This need not mean sidelining the teaching of European languages for which we have the teaching expertise, and which underpin many of our closest intercultural relationships. Evidence suggests that fostering competence in one language will bring benefits for learning others, and indeed for one’s native language as well. But to enable our young people to enjoy those benefits, we need to promote language learning as such, and create a context in which every language matters, and can be a means of enriching one’s life, one’s career, and one’s potential to understand others. Languages are relevant to young people not because they are needed for booking a hotel, but because they are all around us, and fundamental to human relationships.

What, then, should be the name of our discipline? The Executive Summary of the report on Language Provision in UK MFL Departments concludes with a tentative preference for  ‘Languages’, and eloquently spells out the arguments for that choice:

“In an increasingly multilingual landscape, the survey responses present us with an invitation to reconceptualise our discipline, possibly under a unitary ‘languages’ label, dropping ‘modern’ and ‘foreign’ from its title to strengthen an agenda of inclusion and diversity, integrating all languages, ancient and modern, foreign and local, for those with and without disabilities, as well as a single voice for MFL and IWLP.” (p.7)

Settling on ‘Languages’ as the joint name and common denominator for the reconceptualised discipline would establish the foundation for a strong profile and vigorous public presence. The name would lend itself to embodiment in a website dedicated to promoting the interests of the discipline, providing essential information about ‘Languages’ across sectors, and establishing a hub for initiatives such as ambassador schemes and competitions.

Our model should be STEM – a unified concept coalescing around the promotion of the relevant disciplines in the education system, and formed from extreme diversity. It was invented in the 1990s, became established only in the 2000s and is now so successful that it is sweeping through schools and government policy-making as the only subject area worth studying. There is much that Modern (Foreign) Languages can learn from www.stem.org.uk. The first lesson is to rebrand itself with a simple name. ‘Languages’ even comes with the benefit of stating what’s in the tin.

Image credit: G.A Oxon

When is a picture more than a picture?

That question and many more were thoughtfully considered last weekend at the Re-imagining Cole symposium, held in celebration of Christian Frederick Cole, the first Black African student to graduate from Oxford University. His attendance at Oxford was a racial equality milestone for the University that opened the door for other Black students to follow behind him.

Although his legacy was widely celebrated last year, when a plaque was unveiled at the University in his honour, the image that was circulated as a representation of Cole gave many pause, and triggered a debate about race and representation at Oxford, that continues to this day.

Despite the fact that photography was introduced in 1839, apparently the only image of Cole is a cartoon illustration drawn, in 1878. The illustration verges dangerously close to parody, and some would argue, reinforces the racial stereotypes that Cole’s commemoration had been intended to help counter.

A gowned and open-mouthed Cole is shown on the steps of the Mitre Hotel on Oxford’s High Street, holding a banjo - though thankfully not tap dancing, swaying in a way that implies he could break into a dance at any moment.

Pamela Roberts, Director of Black Oxford Untold Stories, who campaigned for and unveiled Cole’s plaque, said: ‘It made me wonder, why is this the only image of Cole, who produced it and for what purpose?’

She trawled University archives and photographic cartoon catalogues, channelling her curiosity to find a non-caricature image or photograph of Cole into a body of research. This work formed the foundation of the symposium. The public event held at the Bodleian Libraries’ Weston Library, unpacked the background and context of previously unseen caricatures of Cole, and explored why his historic academic achievements were only portrayed as parody. What exactly is so funny about a black man being successful?

The event examined the broader issue of race and representation in art, how Cole’s image contributed to the reinforcement of stereotypes and how these stereotypes stimulate unconscious biases which shape the collective psyche of the University.

The programme brought together academics, historians, students and members of the local community to discuss and debate the ‘reimaging’ of Cole’s image. Some leading academics and artists including: Dr Temi Odumosu (Malmö University), Kenneth Tharp CBE, (Director of the Africa Centre),  Dr Robin Darwall-Smith (University College, University of Oxford), Robert Taylor (photographer of ‘Portraits of Achievement’) and Colin Harris (cataloguer of the Shrimpton Caricatures collection at the Bodleian, from which the caricatures of Cole are taken), took part in presentations and round table discussions which brought Cole’s legacy to life.

Attendees were then invited to share their personal perceptions of Cole and the impact that his legacy has had on them. During discussions Cole was described as an inspiration, and the event itself as ‘enlightening’ and ‘much needed’.

One student said: ‘As a Black Masters student it is important for me to hear about founding fathers and those who have gone before me, so a huge thank you for organising this!’

Another highlighted a broader need for events of this kind in academia and beyond: ‘More discussions like this need to be had on a wider scale. There is too much negativity in the media about diversity and representation especially regarding top institutions, so it was refreshing to be part of such an encouraging and celebratory discussion about such an inspirational scholar.’

Dr Alexandra Franklin, Coordinator of the Centre for the Study of the Book, at the Bodleian Library, said: ‘The Bodleian Libraries are grateful to Pamela Roberts for convening a symposium full of ideas, debate, and drama. These scholarly exchanges bring archives to life.’

Of the event’s impact, Pamela Roberts said: ‘I am delighted that the symposium reached such a broad, diverse audience. The roundtable discussion concluded that Cole was not only part of Oxford’s story, but Britain’s story and a re-imagined image will afford him the gravitas and greater meaning his achievement and legacy deserve.’

Image credit: OUComments from some of the students who attended the Re-Imagining Cole Symposium

'Dulce et Decorum Est'

By Stuart Lee

Often heralded as one of the finest poets of the First World War, Wilfred Owen has become a symbol to many of 1914-1918 encapsulating a sense of futility (the title one of his more famous poems), anger, and despair at the suffering endured by the soldiers. This is not without challenge of course. Owen’s was only one voice representing one point of view and cannot be seen to capture the myriad of views and feelings of all the combatants and his generation, but at the same time that is not sufficient reason to dismiss his work as irrelevant to the study of the War.

To commemorate the centenary of the last days of the First World War Poet Wilfred Owen, the University of Oxford’s Faculty of English is posting a daily tweet account of Owen’s last fortnight – @ww1lit using #OwenLastDays – from 22 October to 4 November. Each tweet will detail the activities of Owen and his battalion – 2nd Manchester – as they prepare for the attack. The posts highlight the wealth of free online resources the University has shared online based around Owen and the other war poets under the First World War Poetry Digital Archive and Great Writers Inspire, including podcasts, images of Owen’s manuscripts and letters, film clips, and online exercises.

Wilfred OwenWilfred Owen

English Faculty Library, University of Oxford / Wilfred Owen Literary Estate

Whilst Owen's work rises above that of many contemporary poets – and indeed works like ‘Strange Meeting’, ‘Exposure’, or ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ are some of the finest poems to have been written during the conflict – the circumstances surrounding his death at such a young age (25), and the news of his death, has added to the powerful emotions that surround Owen. Having been sent to Craiglockhart Hospital in 1917 suffering from neurasthenia (‘shell-shock’) where he famously met Siegfried Sassoon and his poetry took on a new direction and life, Owen spent the first part of 1918 in England training and recuperating. Rejecting offers by his friends to pull strings and arrange for him to sit out the rest of the war Owen chose to return to the front to help the men he felt he had left behind. Any doubts of his bravery arising from his breakdown in 1917 can be quickly dispelled by this decision. Moreover he was awarded the Military Cross (posthumously) for his actions on 1st October 1918 in taking a German machine-gun position.

Owen’s battalion was part of the spearhead used to break the final German defensive line after a series of Allied advances following success at Amiens in August. A key problem was to overcome the Sambre canal defences and gain the Eastern bank, and on 4th November at 5.45am Owen was involved in the attempt to cross. The exact details of that morning are hazy, and all that is known is that Owen was seen leading and encouraging his men in the early part of the struggle, but was killed, possibly as he crossed the water on a raft, sometime between 6 and 8.00am. Famously the telegram notifying his family of his death arrived mid-day on November 11th as the celebrations around the Armistice rang out.

The Faculty of English has also launched a nationwide competition for schools to present work (either a poster or recorded performance) on the Legacy of Wilfred Owen (closing date noon, November 30 2018). Prizes include books and vouchers, with the support of Penguin Books who have generously donated editions of Owen’s poems as prizes.

See website for Owen Last Days and competition details