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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

Liz Frood

By Elizabeth Frood, Associate Professor of Egyptology in Oxford's Faculty of Oriental Studies

An Egyptologist undertaking fieldwork in Egypt? It doesn’t sound very surprising, does it? Perhaps the subject of that research – ancient graffiti scribbled on temple walls – might be a little more startling. But I am that Egyptologist, and, as I sit in my office in the Sackler library in Oxford a few days after returning, I’m not just surprised, I’m completely stunned. Three years ago I didn’t think it would be possible to return to my work in Oxford, let alone go to Egypt. But I did it, and I still can’t quite believe it.

In August 2015 I went into septic shock due to an infection of unknown origin. The resulting damage to my body was catastrophic: I lost both my legs below the knee, the hearing in my right ear, the internal structure of my nose, and, I reckon worst of all, almost all the function in my hands. My major research project in Egypt, ongoing since 2010, has been to record, analyse and publish graffiti inscribed on the walls of the temple complex at Karnak, on the east bank of the Nile in Luxor. For me, epigraphic recording by drawing had been crucial to understanding the meaning of the graffiti. By drawing I could begin to access an individual’s decision to scribble their name, their image, or a picture of a god, at a particular time and in a particular place. For the longest time I thought my loss of manual dexterity would spell the end of this project.

Thanks to an invitation from Marie Tidball to speak about my fieldwork as part of her TORCH Disability and Curriculum series in October 2017, I began to tentatively explore possibilities for access and recording. It seemed completely abstract to me then – I think I used the word “fantasy” at least two or three times – but it got me thinking and moving forward. I started planning to go.

On September 17 this year I boarded a plane to Luxor, together with my husband Christoph and my three-year-old son Emeran. This first step was really only possible because of very recent radical improvements in my mobility on prosthetic legs and the increased stability and adaptability of what is left in my hands. And, of course, like any fieldwork project, it took a team – my “superteam”, which also included my photographer cousin Jane Wynyard, and two research assistants and coinvestigators, Chiara Salvador and Ellen Jones, postgraduate students in Egyptology at Oxford.

I tried to keep my expectations low (I can hear members of the superteam guffaw as they read this). I wanted to get a sense of the possibilities of Karnak for me as a site. This included testing different methodologies that would enable me to continue working on the graffiti, from ways of collating the drawings I had done before my illness to how we might make future recording possible.

Liz and ChiaraLiz and Chiara collating and discussing the graffiti.

Image credit: Jane Wynyard

The first few days were overwhelming. It was incredible to be able to see friends and colleagues whom I hadn’t seen since before I got sick. I cried a lot. I laughed a lot. And I walked a lot, into and around the temple.

I’m lucky that Karnak is a relatively flat site. Wheelchair access has also been made a priority here, thanks to the efforts of the Ministry of Antiquities and dedicated local campaigners. This afforded me smooth, even pathways to one of my project sites – the eighth pylon, a massive gateway in the south of the complex with a graffitied staircase inside. The sandy route to my other project site – a small temple dedicated to the god Ptah bearing many hundreds of graffiti – required a little more concentration and work, but I managed it.

One of the biggest physical challenges for me was, unsurprisingly, the heat. Temperatures could soar to 45 degrees. Prosthetic legs are heavy, hot and clammy under normal circumstances. So getting to my graffiti was a triumph. I had to keep reminding myself of this as I gradually lost perspective over the coming days.

Once I was there, standing in front of the graffiti, anxious about how much work there was left to do, I felt completely and utterly useless. If I couldn’t physically do anything to record, was there any point in me being there? Was I wasting time and money just to make a point? Grief is a sneaky beast – I knew it would hit while I was there, but I didn’t expect it to keep hitting.

Consultation with my team was needed, emotionally and analytically. We talked things through, strategised carefully, and decided to try different ways for me to work. At Ptah, Chiara and I examined our drawings against the originals, and discussed what changes and corrections were needed. I gradually became better at articulating what I saw and how I would have drawn them, so that she could write and draw for me. I struggle so much with feeling dependent. But I began to see this simply as a brilliantly productive extension of the collaborative process that is at the heart of archaeological fieldwork.

I even managed to assist Christoph, my archaeologist husband, to begin digitially mapping the location of the graffiti using an instrument called a “total station”. Incidentally, after 13 years together this was the first time he and I have collaborated in the field! 

Ellie undertook photogrammetry to create 3D models and orthophotographs of graffiti whose readings are still problematic, or those which are too high for me to access (I’m not up to climbing ladders just yet). Perhaps all this digital recording is a first step towards creating some virtual reality reconstructions of these graffitied spaces that I, or anyone, can move around in and explore via a computer screen? This was one of my fantasies from the TORCH seminar. It is most certainly an extremely efficient and effective way of creating images that we can now manipulate and work with here in Oxford.

Ellie was also responsible for surveying and checking some of the graffiti at the eighth pylon. As part of this work she took photographs of some highly unusual yellow painted graffiti that I had identified back in 2014. In the course of processing these photographs through a computer program called D-Stretch, Ellie discovered new yellow painted graffiti in the same area. We couldn’t quite believe it, although I should have known better... there is always more graffiti! Such a buzz!

There is no doubt that our work on the graffiti in Karnak has been moved forward significantly by our two weeks there. And I no longer harbour doubts about my role in the field. I need to be there for the continuation and completion of the project. I need to be standing before these walls, climbing these stairs, moving through these gateways, with my team, discussing, observing, feeling…

Some 3,000 years ago very many priests and scribes, even the temple “chef-pâtissier”, sought out shady places or places with good views of processions, festivals or just the temple itself, and decided to leave their names or draw a picture. Often they carved deeply into the stone, and at least one or two thought to use bright yellow paint. Every time I go to Karnak and find their names, I understand a little bit more about what they were trying to do. And I now know that I can continue to go to Karnak to do this. This is both extraordinary and exactly as it should be.


In fast-changing Western healthcare systems, to what extent has the idea of a ‘market’ come into play? And how has this affected and redefined healthcare?

A new book edited by Oxford academics – Marketisation, Ethics and Healthcare: Policy, Practice and Moral Formation – attempts to answer these questions.

The book’s three editors, Dr Joshua Hordern (Faculty of Theology and Religion), Dr Therese Feiler (formerly of the Faculty of Theology and Religion) and Dr Andrew Papanikitas (Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences), talk to Arts Blog about their work, which was highly commended in the recent British Medical Association book awards.

The project forms part of the Oxford Healthcare Values Partnership.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

The idea for the book came out of conversations with doctors and others working in healthcare. We wanted to work together on understanding the changing ethos of the NHS and other health and care institutions nationally and internationally. So we formed a partnership with the Royal Society of Medicine and approached the British Academy for funding. They were excited about the project and awarded funding which was then renewed for a second year to enable us to bring the different strands of our work together in the book. We ran a conference and some workshops to bring people together and set up some conversations.

Core emphases for us and the British Academy have been on involving early career researchers at every stage and on developing enduring partnerships between healthcare practitioners, social science experts and humanities researchers, drawing especially on those working in theology and religion. From the start we wanted to find out the real issues which were shaping the practice of healthcare and then resituate them in ways which would open up new lines of inquiry. 

How do you define a ‘market’ in relation to healthcare?

In the book we tend to talk about marketisation and market-type processes operative in health and care. Broadly speaking, we’re talking about mechanisms of packaging, selling and paying for healthcare that are neither state-distribution nor solidarity- or charity-based forms of exchange. These are always mixed in with each other. So the key is to discern by which principles a given policy or system is governed.

Examples perhaps bring this out best – more obvious ones include the changing face of general practice with GPs running pharmacies to the role of private hospitals or doctors offering their services in private practice. But there are other important factors in the mix, including the efforts to create a functioning market in personalised social care through initiatives like personal independence payments; the role of pharmaceutical companies in contributing to and shaping the culture of healthcare; and the significance of diagnosis-related groups as a form of financial coding which has all sorts of intriguing implications for the ethos of healthcare.

What were your aims in carrying out this work?

We asked 12 authors from round the world – influenced by everyone from Marx to free market economics; Christian moral theology to analytic moral philosophy – to think together about the place and influence of market-type processes on policy and practice in healthcare. We wanted to look at institutions as organisations and examine the kind of ethic they embody and depend upon; but we also wanted to examine the way that people’s moral outlook and behaviour are shaped by marketisation processes within those institutions – questions of personal and professional formation. Think of trends like ‘defensive medicine’ which emerge for a variety of factors, but which impact medical professionalism at a deep level. All in all, we wanted to stimulate a conversation about policy, practice and moral formation which is worthy of the deep and existential questions that healthcare raises.

What were the key findings?

There weren’t any findings which all the authors shared. We as editors gave our own views in the epilogue of areas for further research. There’s a further clue, though, in the aphorism in Greek we quote at the start of the book – check it out to see what we think. If we are sincere in our respect for people, which is the ostensible basis for democratic society and healthcare ethics, then money should be a means and people should be ends in themselves. And if we understand how the things that should never be bought and sold connect with the material world, there is a chance they remain visible – even to those who now see the price of everything and the value of nothing. 

One overall point which Muir Gray highlighted in the foreword was the question of what will keep money and markets in position to serve health and care rather than distort people’s attention from what matters. A conceptual and policy theme which emerges is the idea of a healthcare covenant, akin to, but distinct from, the military covenant between the people of the UK and armed forces. That’s an idea to be taken into practice in the future. Other approaches include incentives and education.

How can the humanities interact with the medical sciences?

The best way for humanities researchers to make a contribution is in close learning partnerships with medical science researchers and others working in healthcare. Where that is happening, humanities researchers are increasingly in demand for the ways they frame challenges in healthcare. This is partly because of broad cultural transitions in healthcare ecologies which represent a turn from a dependence on a largely or even exclusively biomedical model of conceiving healthcare towards a greater balance between biomedical and social conceptions of healthcare. At the same time, the trajectory towards an ever more high-tech approach to healthcare, with a particular emphasis on the biosciences as key to the UK’s offering to the world post-Brexit, is provoking critical reflection on the very purpose of healthcare. In this context humanities disciplines have the capacity to provide historical perspective, conceptual understanding and other kinds of insight into what helps sustain and restore health for people and communities. Humanities scholars are able to examine and question an entire conceptual edifice that is often taken for granted. Not: ‘How can we solve problem X?’ but rather: ‘Is this even the right way to put the problem?’ When that kind of questioning is done in partnership, everyone may be prompted to try a different path.

All this means there’s a tremendous opportunity for healthcare and humanities researchers to find new and creative ways of understanding the challenges of our time. Humanities researchers are becoming more capable in developing these partnerships and shared agendas with colleagues in healthcare locally, nationally and globally. Mutually beneficial collaborations are enabling more focused and better-informed research which can target the needs and concerns of healthcare organisations. But there remains the strategic need to interweave the agendas of humanities researchers and medical researchers, alongside colleagues in other relevant disciplines, to address challenges which are best tackled in interdisciplinary ways, in partnership with patients, public bodies and private enterprise.

The book's editors express particular thanks to the British Academy for the British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award which made this project possible. They are also grateful for funding from the AHRC (grant AH/N009770/1) and the Sir Halley Stewart Trust.