Oxford Arts Blog | University of Oxford

Oxford Arts Blog

Persepolis

In the summer of 2015, Peter Frankopan published his book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, described by Bloomsbury as ‘a major reassessment of world history in light of the economic and political renaissance in the re-emerging east’.

Just three-and-a-half years later, the book has been named one of the 25 most important works translated into Chinese over the past 40 years. The Silk Roads takes its place on the list alongside literary classics including Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye and One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Professor Frankopan, Professor of Global History at Oxford and Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, described himself as ‘flabbergasted’ to be chosen for the list, which was compiled by Amazon China on the 40th anniversary of Chinese reform and opening-up.

He said: ‘When I was told about it, I thought it was a wind-up. Many of the books on the list are ones I admire hugely, and to be mentioned in the same breath as The Great Gatsby, One Hundred Years of Solitude, or A Brief History of Time is genuinely astonishing. I realise that tastes come and go, so who knows if it will still be mentioned in 25 years’ time. But it is a great testimony to the importance of the humanities in general, of history, and of the impact that historical writing can have far beyond the Senior Common Rooms of Oxford.’

The Silk Roads challenged Eurocentric views of world history, shifting the focus east of the Mediterranean. It became a bestseller in a host of countries and categories, and was met with widespread acclaim. A follow-up work, The New Silk Roads, was released last year and explores more recent events.    

In Professor Frankopan’s own words, by writing The Silk Roads he was simply ‘trying to explain how the past looks from the perspective of the Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East, Central Asia and beyond’.

He added: ‘I’ve been a Senior Research Fellow at Worcester for nearly 20 years, and Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research since it was founded nearly a decade ago. I simply wanted to explain why the regions, peoples and cultures that I work on are not just interesting, but also important. It was not easy to write at all and I spent many, many late nights at my computer trying to work out if it was possible. I never thought for a moment about whether lots of people would read it. But I did think it was worth trying to write!’

Reflecting on the book’s success, Professor Frankopan – who has just published an illustrated version of The Silk Roads for younger readers – said: ‘It’s been a lovely – if sometimes strange – experience. This week alone, I’ve had tweets or Instagrams from people sending pictures of my book from bookshops in Norway, Indonesia, Nigeria, India and Pakistan, and lots of emails from all over the world, often asking questions about what to read next, or for more information about a specific location, which I always try to answer if I can. But I don’t think it has affected me – we have four children, who do a pretty good job in keeping my feet on the ground. And because, like most academics, I always have deadlines for articles or chapters in books, there’s never a great deal of time to bask in the sunshine as I’ve got too much to be getting on with as it is.’

Orchestra

Dr Toby Young, Gianturco Junior Research Fellow at Linacre College, writes for Arts Blog about the Displaced Voices project. Read the previous blog post on Displaced Voices here.

Displaced Voices is an initiative that brings together school and university students with the professional musicians of the Orchestra of St John’s, community members, refugees and asylum seekers through musical collaboration, and raises awareness about refugee issues in Oxfordshire through the medium of artistic expression. Together with conductor, researcher and activist Dr Cayenna Ponchione, I have been working over the past term with four creative, intelligent and emotionally mature refugee students from the Oxford Spires Academy to help give voice to their lived experiences of forced migration.

Through the creation of live orchestral ‘backing tracks’ to underscore spoken word performance of their own poetry – developed as part of an award-winning poetry programme developed by Kate Clanchy – we have been exploring how music might help magnify the strong emotional content of these unique and moving stories, creating a musical experience somewhere akin to the accompaniment of a rousing or emotional speech in film music. As well as offering technical and aesthetic discussions of the ways in which music can support, enhance or even subvert spoken text, our group sessions have involved a certain amount of discussion about the student’s experiences. Even reflecting on these stories now, months after first hearing their shocking accounts of living in brutally war-torn countries and undergoing distressing journeys to seek protection in the UK, gives me chills.

Displaced VoicesDr Toby Young and Dr Cayenna Ponchione-Bailey with students from Oxford Spires Academy.

As well as a direct collaboration on the students' spoken performances, I have been writing my own setting of one of the student’s poems to be sung by the mezzo-soprano Charlotte Tetley. Compared to my other experiences of working with text (by both historical and living writers) this process has thrown up a lot more challenges: for example, techniques and methods I might have used to engage with to texts in the past – perhaps by trying to empathise with the text through connection to my own lived experiences (in this case my homesickness or experience of injustices), or by trying to think of the poem as a sort of atmospheric backdrop to key words or phrases – feel unethical and unfair. These stories are hugely personal and poignant to the students, with every word being critical for an authentic and unfiltered representation of their stories in specifically the way they need to be told. In contrast to historical texts where adding my own meaning, experience and ownership to a text is taken for granted, my role here is of translator, not re-interpreter.

Running alongside the creative component of Displaced Voices is a research project that seeks to methodically and critically understand the impact of these activities and concerts on not only the students, but also other individuals who might come into contact with the music (for example the orchestral musicians, teachers, audiences and so on). As well as trying to evaluate how effectively students feel that the music has enhanced or detracted from the emotional meaning of their poems, we are interested in understanding how the whole process – both the challenges and rewards – might impact on the students’ lives. Watching the students’ develop into confident and talented young public speakers has been truly inspirational, and seeing how music has afforded them an increased confidence in their stories and identities has been deeply moving. Through this and future projects, it is our hope that we are able to help support the development of these unique young people as future leaders and agents of social change, amplifying their powerful stories to new parts of society so that their experiences might help those in power to better consider how they might support the cultural integration and wellbeing of young migrant children all over the country.

To date no research has been conducted on an orchestral engagement project like this one, and it is our hope that the findings of this study will inspire and inform other orchestras to create similar projects. I cannot emphasise enough how strongly I recommend other organisations consider using the methods we have piloted here to engage with refugee and migrant communities near them. It has been one of the most inspiring, moving and valuable experiences of my life, and I leave the process a transformed musician and human being.

Displaced Voices will be performed in Somerville Chapel, Oxford on 18 January, preceded by a panel discussion exploring the issues facing refugees in the UK and a showcase of poetry on the subject of displacement, migration and home. For further information, and to book, click here.

careers

'What are you going to do with a degree in Classics / English / Maths?' is a common question, often from parents, and particularly when compared with apparently more vocational degree subjects. The question becomes particularly loaded when the prospective student is from a non-traditional background, and perhaps is the first in their family to consider going to university.

Analysis of the first career destinations of the Oxford undergraduates who left in 2017, shows that there is no statistically significant difference in career outcome associated with any of seven different measures of social background. This result is contrary to the national picture; it also confirms the result that we found for the Oxford leavers of 2015.

By career outcome, we used three measures: the proportion of students unemployed and looking for work, the proportion in a 'graduate-level' job, and the average starting salary. While there are, of course, other measures of career success, including satisfaction, happiness, feeling of doing something worthwhile, and intellectual challenge, all of these are difficult to quantify – so we use what is widely and reasonably reliably available. The career measure is taken from the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey of all leavers, six months after leaving. Again, we all recognise that higher education can equip graduates with life skills – and surveying five, 10 or 20 years later would be more helpful. As an aside, the DLHE is now changing to a Graduate Outcomes Survey, taken 15 months after leaving.

By social background, we used seven measures: two post code assessments (ACORN, a postcode-based tool that categorises the UK's population by level of socio-economic advantage; and POLAR, a similar tool that measures how likely young people are to participate in higher education based on where they live); ethnic background (black and minority ethnicity (BME) and white); school type (state and independent), Oxford's 'Widening Participation' (WP) flag (which is used to determine students who are from disadvantaged backgrounds); Oxford bursary holders; and household income (£0-£16,000, £16,000-£25,000 etc.).

Effectively we found no association between social background and initial outcome. While there are some differences in starting salary for some groups (for example, a higher proportion of BME students than of white students, start work in higher paying sectors such as banking and consulting), once the analysis controls for the industry sectors each group enter, that difference is not significant.We analysed whether there was any statistically significant difference in the three outcome measures (unemployment, graduate-level work, average salary) for the different populations of students on all seven measures. For example, BME versus white students, state versus independent school students, WP-flag versus non-WP-flag students, and so on. We ran the analysis for the whole University of Oxford and for each division (Medical Sciences; Maths, Physical & Life Sciences; Social Sciences; and Humanities) separately.

In particular, it's worth noting that there is no difference in outcome for students from households with incomes below £16,000 per year versus everyone else.

This is a very welcome and reassuring result of which Oxford can be rightly proud. The University can confidently tell all prospective students, regardless of their school type, ethnic group, postcode, or household income, that their career prospects are not significantly affected by their background.

At Oxford, the answer to the opening question, 'What are you going to do with a degree in Classics / English / Maths?' is 'almost anything.'

Jonathan Black is the director of Oxford University's Careers Service.

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.'