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The latest Big Tent event is the launch this week of the ambitious TIDE Salon – a collaboration between the university’s researchers on Travel, Transculturality, and Identity in England, 1550 – 1700 (TIDE project), the novelist Preti Taneja and six intern

Anything can – and very often does - happen in Oxford’s ‘Big Tent’, where academics emerge from research and teaching to engage with the public, work with creative artists and discuss major issues of today.

The Big Tent was supposed to be a...er big tent with live events and activities happening throughout the year. Organisers were actually poised to sign for a massive marquee, on the site of what will be the new Humanities Centre, when the pandemic struck. And, as with everything else, the Big Tent had to transfer online. This had obvious problems for a series of live events, but the pandemic led to the instant availability of people who might not have been available, had it actually had been under canvas.

Backed by the Humanities Cultural Programme, since last April, the Big Tent has seen almost 30 events, involving conversations with internationally well-known performers (such as Ben Whishaw) and special musical performances (for instance, of a recently discovered piece by Delius) – and some very big issues and ideas being debated (it is a university, after all). And, because it was online, it is still available, no tickets required.

We make it possible for research to benefit a wider audience....both knowledge and understanding can be exchanged in all sorts of unexpected ways

Professor Wes Williams

The academic impresario, who was ready to put the final touches to the in-real-life Big Tent, is Dr Victoria McGuinness, head of cultural programming and partnerships at TORCH (the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities). She says, ‘We sent out a call for ideas, expecting a few, and 30 quality projects came forward...but when we saw what was happening in Italy [in terms of COVID], we knew we would not have the literal big tent.’

It was a huge shame after everyone’s work, but, says Dr McGuinness, ‘We tried to find the opportunity. Everyone is at home. We were able to get world-leading performers and creative people and we also maintained the live element with our ‘Live From’ events.’

But why is Oxford, the world’s leading research-based university, putting on shows?

According to Professor Wes Williams, TORCH Director, it is an obvious move.

‘It is an essential part of being Oxford,’ he says.

‘At TORCH we make it possible for research to benefit a wider audience. Some things obviously lend themselves better to public engagement than others,’ he maintains. ‘But both knowledge and understanding can be exchanged in all sorts of unexpected ways.’

The latest Big Tent event is the launch this week of the ambitious TIDE Salon – a collaboration between the university’s researchers on Travel, Transculturality, and Identity in England, 1550 – 1700 (TIDE project), the novelist Preti Taneja and six internationally-acclaimed musicians and spoken word artists.

It is ambitious, it is imaginative and it has brought deeply-academic research into a new open space, giving access to creative artists and members of the public. Intended to evoke the creative atmosphere of an early European or Mughal salon, the project was inspired by Professor Nandini Das, whose research focuses on travellers’ accounts from the 16th and 17th centuries.

‘It was utterly terrifying,’ says Professor Das. ‘It is not often you get to talk about early 16th century political theory with contemporary artists and musicians... and find that your throwaway reference to the Tudor ‘Register of Aliens’, which recorded immigrant presence in the country during the times of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, was picked up by the artists and has inspired some surprising and amazing work.’

Even in these difficult times, the Big Tent has been an amazing example of what people can do when they all come together. Originally, it was going to be a one-off thing, but it is fundamental that we will continue to welcome everyone into our Big Tent

Dr Victoria McGuinness

As part of her research, Professor Das and the ERC-TIDE team has put together a list of 40 key words, found in the sources of the time, which show how contested issues of identity and belonging were in this early period of British imperial ambition. The artists, working in pairs, were invited to choose three and create works for the Salon. But the academics worked closely with the artists in the early stages. The six, working in pairs, chose the words: Alien, Traveller and Savage.

‘It was entirely up to them how they used those words’, says Professor Das, ‘they had carte blanche.’

As Professor Das explains, the artists working on the word ‘alien,’ for instance, reflected on TIDE’s research into the term (which meant foreigner in the 16th century), with their own memories, of growing up as a person of colour in late-twentieth century Britain and taking refuge in the diverse world of sci-fi literature.’

The result of these conversations was the creation of three musical pieces, in collaboration with curator and creative producer Sweety Kapoor, and critically-acclaimed filmmaker Ben Crowe (ERA Films). Preti Taneja produced an entirely new piece of writing to frame the work, presenting each collaboration as fragments of archival records puzzled over by a traveller/researcher of the future, trying to make sense of history.

‘This is one of the most radically experimental things we have done throughout the project,’ says Professor Das. ‘The installation reflects the process of collaboration but also the views of the artists...they chose their own adventures and the Salon visitor is invited to take their own journey, creating their own narrative ‘.

Dr McGuinness reflected, ‘Even in these difficult times, the Big Tent has been an amazing example of what people can do when they all come together. Originally, it was going to be a one-off thing, but it is fundamental that we will continue to welcome everyone into our Big Tent.’   

Orangutans are iconic, frequently used by advertisers and film-makers as representatives of thoughtfulness and wisdom. But the fate of former captive apes is throwing up a multiplicity of dilemmas

Could it ever be better to keep a wild-born, formerly captive orangutan in a cage? Should they be released into the ‘wild’? If so, which wild, and how should they be prepared for life in the forest? Should conservationists turn down much-needed donations, because they do not like or approve of the donor? Hardest of all: are efforts to rescue apes facilitating the destruction of habitats, with rescuers acting as a clean-up service for companies involved in deforestation?

Could it ever be better to keep a wild-born, formerly captive orangutan in a cage? Should they be released into the ‘wild’?

Conservation is anything but simple and, according to Dr Alexandra Palmer, a researcher with Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, in her recent work, Ethical Debates in Orangutan Conservation, there are important ethical questions raised by conservation activities, which may not be immediately apparent but which cannot be ignored.

Focusing on her qualitative research into orangutan conservation, Dr Palmer's book looks into conservation efforts and ‘rehab’ programmes all over Sumatra and Borneo, where orangutans who have been kept in captivity, often as pets, in the region and beyond are prepared for release into the wild. After visiting most of the centres, Dr Palmer says she found a far more complex debate than the public often hears.

She insists that there is good reason for conservation of ‘our critically endangered great ape relatives’, but Dr Palmer discovered a diverse and, in some ways, a conflicting world of conservation groups. All may be engaged in trying to help great apes, but the conservation community’s methods and ideas are diverse.

For example, some groups refuse money or collaboration with certain donors such as palm oil companies, while others see this as ethically acceptable or even desirable, at least in some circumstances. And there are debates about whether rehabilitation is even a good use of scarce resources. On the other hand, if formerly captive orangutans aren’t sent back to the forest, what should be done with them? Is it ethically acceptable to kill them, or keep them in a cage? What constitutes good conservation practice is up for debate in the depths of the Indonesian and Malaysian forests.

According to Dr Palmer, conservationists across the two islands are caring for perhaps 1,200 formerly captive orangutans. They are doing this against a background of limited funding, competing charities, government involvement, and big business. And they are coming up with a lot of different answers to ethical questions.

Most orangutan rehabilitators working in the region concur that captive orangutans can learn to prepare for life in the wild through ‘forest schools’, where they get a taste for forest life under supervision from their human babysitters

Orangutans are iconic, frequently used by advertisers and film-makers as representatives of thoughtfulness and wisdom. But the fate of former captive apes is throwing up a multiplicity of dilemmas – starting with whether, why, and when it is in the interests of conservation efforts or former pets to devote large sums to sending individuals into the wild. What if they are unlikely to cope? Would the money have been better spent trying to stop apes being evicted from the forest in the first place? Is rehabilitation really necessary, given that perhaps 70,000 wild apes remain on Borneo?

Although orangutans have often been described as ‘semi-solitary’, they do have social links with others. Females, for example, tend to settle near their mothers and sisters. Given the problems posed by releasing strangers into their midst, modern-day rehabilitation projects usually aim to release orangutans into empty (or near-empty) forest. But, if the forest is empty, perhaps there is a reason for that, which means it is not a great home for orangutans? Maybe there are poachers there or other dangers? And what do you do if you can’t find any ‘empty’ forest, given the rapid conversion of orangutan habitat into palm oil and other plantations?

One thing most orangutan rehabilitators working in the region concur about is that captive orangutans can learn to prepare for life in the wild through ‘forest schools’, where they get a taste for forest life under supervision from their human babysitters. Differences in approach creep in at other stages, however. One bone of contention is whether hands-on, affectionate care for infants harms or helps them. Some argue hands-on care contributes to ‘humanisation’ (dependence on and attraction to humans), creating problems after release. Others say affection gives infants the confidence they need to explore the forest and learn from peers, and that their bonds with human caregivers ultimately do not stop their progress.

Other questions emerge around the sort of monitoring needed, after release. Is it necessary to monitor orangutans closely, to make sure they are all right? Or is it enough just to check radio antennas occasionally to make sure they are still moving? And how much scarce time and money needs to be devoted to monitoring?

Heartbreakingly, there is a serious dilemma over the fate of older apes, especially males, who are potentially too dangerous for forest schools. While younger animals can be cared for in forest schools, larger males pose a significant physical threat to conservation staff. If a male orangutan reaches an age where he’s too dangerous to handle, he may become one of the ‘unreleasables’, says Dr Palmer.

But how exactly should ‘unreleasability’ be defined? Rehabilitators give different answers, according to Dr Palmer. While some rehabilitators are mostly interested in physical health, for others psychology is hugely important. This is a difficult issue because unreleasables will probably stay in cages for the rest of their lives. Because of the need to target funding, to where it can do the most good, they are usually not very big cages. Would life in a small cage be better than an uncertain life in the forest? Some conservationists are starting to come up with comfortable long-term homes for their unreleasables, but these are expensive and not an option for all groups.

Rehabilitation, says Dr Palmer, is often presented as sending former captives ‘home’. But, she asks, ‘Where is home? What does home mean?’

If a captive ape has been kept in a cage for 10 to 15 years, they might see that as home. Is the forest home? In which case, which forest?

There are other ethical dilemmas too. Occasionally, large groups of orangutans have been ‘translocated’ from a conflict situation, in a village or a palm oil plantation, to a safe area of forest. Sometimes, this can also happen because of forest fires.

If formerly captive orangutans aren’t sent back to the forest, what should be done with them? Is it ethically acceptable to kill them, or keep them in a cage? What constitutes good conservation practice is up for debate in the depths of the Indonesian and Malaysian forests

But, if conservationists agree to move the apes, or even accept funding from palm oil companies to help with translocation, are they facilitating the industry’s deforestation?

If they refuse to help, will they be condemning the apes to a certain death? What would happen to the apes if they refused? More fundamentally still, is moving apes to somewhere they do not know a good solution for them? It could lead to overcrowding, conflict, and social dislocation. And is one bit of forest the same as any other, from the orangutan’s perspective?

Most conservationists agree that rehabilitation should not mix with tourism, and most of the projects will not engage in any activity which involves tourists ‘hugging’ young apes. But, in some parts of the region, the authorities allow precisely this, using tourist funding to underwrite their programmes and to boost the local economies. It may seem to be the antithesis of everything the rehabilitators are working towards, since tourism tends to ‘humanise’ orangutans and means they never become fully ‘wild’. But how can conservationists deny impoverished local populations, who may benefit from tourism income? Maybe it is ethically justified to compromise the well-being of a few ex-captive orangutans to keep forests standing and help local people make a living?

By setting out these and other tough dilemmas, and the diverse approaches conservationists take to dealing with them, Dr Palmer illustrates the importance of thinking through the ethical puzzles presented by the important, urgent, and complex task of saving the charismatic red ape.

Kids Latin

A new campaign to make the case for languages has been launched by Oxford Humanities. 

Languages are a core part of teaching and research across Oxford University. Our researchers look at languages from many different angles. They teach and study modern and medieval languages, as well as ancient languages like Latin, Greek and Egyptian.

They explore the link between culture and identity in languages like Celtic, and help to keep endangered languages alive in Indonesia. They study how languages developed over millennia, and what that means about our past.

They investigate the evidence for language learning: from their impact on creativity to their benefits for children’s cognitive development. They are at the forefront of understanding the role of language in computer programming, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

Introducing Talking Languages

Talking Languages is a new campaign from Oxford Humanities that seeks to tell all of these stories and more. It is hosted on a new Medium site.

Taken together, these stories aim to arm readers with the evidence for why languages are so important. The intended audience is wide and includes schoolchildren and their parents, teachers and heads, employers, and policymakers. The campaign provides an emphatic answer to questions like "why should the UK stay in the Erasmus scheme?” or “is knowing languages useful for my employment prospects?"

The first stories to be published reflect the depth of Oxford’s engagement with languages across its Humanities faculties. They include:

The race to save the Enggano language

We meet Professor Mary Dalrymple (Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics) and hear about her project to save the endangered language of Enggano, which is spoken on an island off the coast of Indonesia. Only 1,500 speakers remain, but Professor Dalrymple’s team is working with the local community to ensure it is learned by the next generation, and preserved for future generations. She and her team say that their project “will allow the data to be preserved for future research and, for the Enggano community and its descendants, as a record of possibly the last generation of fluent Enggano speakers.”

The language of lockdown

We hear about the words most commonly used by staff and students at Oxford in written reflections about the first lockdown earlier this year. Dr Stuart Lee (English) and his team carried out linguistic analysis on this archive, which will be invaluable for future historians studying the current pandemic. “If we only had photos of lockdown experiences, like you have on Instagram, we would not have a record of how people were thinking and feeling at the time,” he says.

FroodLDr Liz Frood in Egypt (photograph by Jane Wynyard)

Can classical languages boost children’s cognitive development?

A project led by Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson (Classics) is on the verge of providing hard evidence for the benefits of teaching Latin and Ancient Greek to primary schoolchildren. The findings, which will be published soon, will feed into the policy networks developing the national curriculum. “Classics education is vastly understudied: we needed to rectify the gap in the evidence base,” says Dr Holmes-Henderson.

Towards a National Language Strategy

Professor Neil Kenny (Modern and Medieval Languages) outlines his campaign with the British Academy to arrest the decline in language learning in schools, and why language learning is more important than ever for Britain’s prospects after Brexit. “We want this to be a strategy that stands the test of time and survives even if it does not attract continuous financial support from governments,” he says.

Why employers want linguists

Nan Gibson, Chief Human Resources Officer at Lidl GB, gives an insight into why employers value language skills so highly. “It is a massive advantage to have language skills, and in order to progress to the most senior levels at Lidl GB you are required to understand German,” she tells us.

In the coming week, several new stories will be released each week. These will include:

  • Oxford’s Egyptologists explaining insights into life in ancient Greece that only come from studying the language.
  • A Modern Languages professor unpicks the link between multilingualism and creativity.
  • A theologian assessing how the use of language by political leaders can affect our behaviour, beliefs and morality.
  • Representatives of the British Council and the British Academy unpicking their experiences of campaigning for languages in the national policy arena.

You can follow the campaign on Medium, on Twitter, on the Humanities website, and here on the Arts Blog. We also want to hear from our readers. When were you first exposed to another language? What do languages mean to you? What role should universities like Oxford play in promoting them? Let us know on Twitter or Medium.

We hope you will join us on this journey in the coming weeks.

Talking LanguagesTalking Languages is Oxford Humanities' first communications campaign

Whatever bad news emerged, as the virus swept the western world, there seemed no end to share price enthusiasm

It is a well-known fact that one of the things financial markets hate most is uncertainty. There are a lot of other things the market hates, but the ‘devil-they-know’, will almost always be preferable to the one they don’t know, even if the ‘fundamentals’ are not there.

This year, the markets have, by and large, underlined their love for certainty – surging on promises of government support from the US Fed and from Chancellor Rishi Sunak, propelling stock market prices higher, despite the ravages of the pandemic and the anticipated economic fall-out to come.

Whatever bad news emerged, as the virus swept the western world, there seemed no end to share price enthusiasm...towards the end of October, the reckoning finally seemed to have come

Whatever bad news emerged, as the virus swept the western world, there seemed no end to share price enthusiasm. Many observers were perplexed over how long this apparently counter-intuitive bull market could go on, considering the tax rises anticipated to follow. And, towards the end of October, the reckoning finally seemed to have come.

Share prices in London and New York tumbled to their lowest levels since March, when brokers took fright over COVID, before the regulators stepped in with reassurances. So, was this long-awaited end to market ‘madness’? In short, no.

According to the Associate Professor of Finance at Oxford’s Said Business School, Bige Kahraman, last month’s down-tick in share prices was a reflection of that market bête noir: uncertainty.

‘There was a lot of uncertainty prior to the US election,’ she said. ‘In the US, the market was uncertain about what was going to happen and that had an effect on prices.’

Traditionally, on entirely business grounds, the markets have preferred a Republican in the White House. It generally means low taxes and a benign business environment. But that old enemy ‘uncertainty’ trumps everything. And, since the election, the Dow Jones has risen consistently – even more since it became clear that President-elect Joe Biden is heading for Pennsylvania Avenue.

Traditionally, on entirely business grounds, the markets have preferred a Republican in the White House....But that old enemy ‘uncertainty’ trumps everything. And, since the election, the Dow Jones has risen consistently – even more since it became clear that President-elect Joe Biden is heading for Pennsylvania Avenue

Professor Kahraman said, ‘The markets are now back up to pre-COVID levels...the falls in October were just market uncertainty.’

But can this really go on for much longer? Will the reality of COVID economic havoc ever bite for the markets?

‘The indices do not represent the whole economy,’ explained Professor Kahraman. ‘Hard hit firms in the small and medium sectors are not represented in the markets...In fact, many of the really big firms which are represented have done very well recently.’

According to Professor Kahraman, big tech companies now account for some 30% of the equities markets and represent a safe haven for investors, who do not see any returns from interest-bearing accounts. Plus, many ‘tech’ firms have seen revenues going up during the pandemic, even if advertising revenue has gone down for the likes of Facebook and Google.

‘Amazon has worked really well,’ said Professor Kahraman. ‘Its business model is proving more successful than ever.’

The tech firms have emerged as the new ‘blue chip’ investments, ‘safer, whatever the fundamentals’, according to Professor Kahraman. ‘If investors want to put their money somewhere, these tech firms seem unlikely to go down that much.’

But, she said, ‘Prices are inflated right now. In a couple of years, there may be a return to real interest rates and that could have the effect of correcting the market.’

There is no sentimentality in the markets. Professor Kahraman said, ‘The falls were just election uncertainty. With a Democrat elected, the market is relieved, but not celebrating.’

when it comes to video games, conventional wisdom, not science, forms the basis for our thinking

Conventional wisdom has it that too many cooks spoil the broth. But such judiciousness is not usually considered the basis for scientific pronouncements or international rulings on the need to limit the number of people in kitchens. But, when it comes to video games, conventional wisdom, not science, forms the basis for our thinking and even pronouncements from global authorities, according to Professor Andy Przybylski, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute.

The World Health Organisation, no less, weighed into the debate over gaming, pronouncing that ‘Gaming disorder’ is an addictive behaviour and has classified gaming addiction as a disease. Yet, according to Professor Przybylski, there has been no scientific study which takes account of industry data and sentiment – until now. The professor has just completed a formal scientific study into the impact on players of video gaming – Video game play is positively correlated with well-being. And it has some surprising results, which suggest the old wives were wrong, yet again.

The study suggests that experiences of competence and social connection with others through play may contribute to people’s well-being. Indeed, those who derived enjoyment from playing were more likely to report experiencing positive well-being.

The study suggests that experiences of competence and social connection with others through play may contribute to people’s well-being. Indeed, those who derived enjoyment from playing were more likely to report experiencing positive well-being

According to the research, ‘We found a small positive relation between game time and well-being for players of both games. We did not find evidence that this relation was moderated by need satisfactions and motivations. Overall,  our  findings  suggest  that regulating video games,  on  the  basis  of time, might not  bring  the benefits  many  might  expect,  though  the correlational nature of the data limits that conclusion.’

So, stopping gamers from gaming is not necessarily a good thing. But the research is not a universal thumbs up, or perhaps down would be more correct, for a gaming analogy. Professor Przybylski emphasises the team looked at just two games and 3,000 adult players. But the study suggests there is a need to find out if the ‘moral panic’ over gaming is just that.

‘It’s fine to have an opinion about video games,’ says Professor Przybylski. ‘But, without research, you cannot know if this is a real thing or just your own ‘facts’. You can have your own opinion but you cannot have your own facts.’

It’s fine to have an opinion about video games...But, without research, you cannot know if this is a real thing or just your own ‘facts’. You can have your own opinion but you cannot have your own facts

Professor Andy Przybylski

Although games have been with us for the best part of four decades, the Oxford expert says this is the first study of its type, because it draws on data only available to the gaming industry.  According to the report, ‘Policymakers urgently  require reliable,  robust, and credible evidence that illuminates the influences video game may have on global mental health. However, the most important source of data, the objective behaviours of players, are not used in scientific research.’

Contrary to conventional wisdom, using this method, Professor Przybylski’s study shows that the players involved in his study believed they benefitted to some extent from enhanced mental well-being as a result of lengthy games sessions on two specific games, Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville and Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Both are online ‘social’ games, where players engage with others at remote locations, and neither are in the 18+ ‘violent’ category.

 Working with ‘blind’ data of gaming time provided by the games manufacturers, Electronic Arts and Nintendo of America, Professor Przybylski’s team surveyed the game players and ‘explored the  association  between objective  game  time  and  well-being,  delivering  a  much-needed exploration of the relation between directly measured play behaviour and subjective mental health’.

 The study does not mean, he says, that all video games are ‘good for you’ or that ‘all players benefit’. But, he maintains, his research should be a first step in carrying out a proper scientific study of the impact of gaming on players and their effects over time; he is keen to see more studies follow.

What worries Professor Przybylski is that, earlier this year, in an extraordinary volte face, the WHO’s US ambassador, suggested that young men be given video games, to ensure they stay indoors and comply with the lockdown, thereby limiting the spread of COVID. Wouldn’t this be another leap of logic, to add to the last one? If gaming really is an addition, as the WHO claimed, wouldn’t that be like giving an alcoholic a bottle?

‘This was a serious suggestion....But it’s an unlabelled bottle,’ says Professor Przybylski. ‘We don’t know what’s in it.’