For English studies, decolonising the syllabus involves rigorous and iterative reflection on the diasporic reach of the English language and literatures in English in the past and present. It is important that diversifying and decolonising does not simply reassert the history of colonial expansion and the hegemony of English languages and literatures.
The English Faculty at Oxford has committed itself to just this process. Our strategic priorities were agreed in January 2019 after a year-long process of debate and consultation. They are built on three agreed values of excellence, inclusivity, and diversity. These values inform and support our work as a world-leading faculty in the study of literature in English around the world and the linguistic history of the British Isles: in the syllabuses we teach, in the research and scholarship we undertake, and in the different communities we serve. We have redefined our mission as a faculty in the following terms.
The English Faculty’s teaching and research covers literature in English from works in Old English of the 7th century to the current period of what has been called global English. The spread of historical expertise places the Faculty in a unique position to speak authoritatively about the long history of the literatures and languages of the British Isles, as well as the diaspora and interchange of literatures and languages that emerged from that history and is related to it. Students have opportunities to trace the development of literature from early manuscripts to current digital and hybrid forms as well as exploring the history of performance from Norse sagas to the contemporary screen.
There is much activity in the Faculty in the area of decolonising our subject broadly defined: public lectures, research groups, conferences, performances, careful review of our lecture and seminar provision as well as the ways in which we describe and deliver our syllabus. We can only provide an indication of the range here:
Our first agreed strategic goal with regard to our size and shape as a Faculty is to ensure that our teaching and research addresses the diversity and complexity of literatures and languages in English and related cultures; to ensure that this diversity is reflected in the undergraduate and graduate taught syllabi; and to improve intake and (in the case of graduates) funding for BAME students and those from disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds. We have taken a number of steps so far in this direction:
In 2018, we created a new Faculty post of an Outreach Officer with a remit to deliver access and widening participation activities for the Faculty and support our goal of encouraging BAME students to apply to undergraduate study, including holding open events directed toward Black candidates. We know we have more to do. The three year total 2017-2019 (latest figures) of UK domiciled BME students admitted to read the undergraduate degree in English is 14.3% and for Black African or Black Caribbean heritage 1.4% The English Faculty, Magdalen College and the Oxford African and Caribbean Society (ACS) were thrilled to welcome students from across the country to the first English Study Day for Year 12 students of African and/or Caribbean heritages, on Monday 15th April 2019. The event was designed specifically to encourage Year 12 school students of African and/or Caribbean heritages who are interested in studying English at university, to consider applying to Oxford. A second event planned for April 2020 had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 lockdown and will be run virtually in summer 2020.
Syllabus, teaching and appointments
- period and subject convenors who have oversight of core undergraduate lecturing provision have responsibility to ensure that diversity is addressed in the lecturing provision, and all paper descriptions were rewritten in 2018 with attention to ensuring students are aware of opportunities to student writers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds as well as approaches informed by attention to race and critical race studies. 2020 will be the third year of an annual introductory lecture session for all 1st year students in first week of term. We ask ‘How Global is English Literature and language?’ with short talks covering the English language, the earliest literatures and languages of the British Isles, 19th century, and post 1900 literatures. Debates about colonial, postcolonial, decolonial approaches are introduced by leading professors in the Faculty. Over the summer of 2020, period and subject groups within English reviewed the reading lists on ORLO (Oxford Reading Lists Online) with regard to ensuring the inclusion – if not there already – of primary and secondary/critical works by Black/BAME authors, including works addressing race, colonialism, post-colonialism, empire (as appropriate to the field they cover). From 2020 we have ensured that the short ‘taster’ lectures supporting each core paper in Prelims and FHS includes at least one lecture which introduces topics of race, empire, colonialism/post-colonialism, and/or writings by Black/BAME authors. Lecture ‘circuses’ given by a series of lecturers in support of a Prelims or FHS paper (on a theme or a genre) will also have at least ONE lecture in that circus which also addresses such/some of such topics.
- over the summer of 2020, the English Faculty, we collected and collated information on what actions are taking place in colleges around teaching English and anti-racism in order to share good practice. Every college was asked to identify an English tutor to send an agreed 500 word summary to the Faculty Board Chair: a report of good practice was circulated before the start of Michaelmas term 2020 and discussed in an all-Faculty strategy meeting, along with other planned actions to counter racism and to explore ways better to understand the history of our discipline and our own Faculty in relation to race, colonialism and imperialism.
- we have recruited Faculty academic teaching posts toward literatures in English in their global and postcolonial contexts. Four Associate Professor posts have been advertised since October 2017, covering all periods of literature and language from the earliest to the nineteenth century. The posts were advertised with a preference for candidates with a research interest in literature in English in its global contexts, and some specifically invited interests in race, region and nation. Three of the four of those posts were taken up by postholders who met this preference. We intend for future posts to continue to indicate this preference in line with our strategic priority in order to improve and enhance our capacity in postcolonial and Anglophone literatures. These posts add to our existing significant strength in World Literature/colonial and postcolonial literatures and support the very successful World Literature in English Masters that has run since 2013 as well as ensuring that we have postholders bringing this expertise to periods of literature before 1900. The English Faculty has been very involved in the design and delivery of a new interdisciplinary Masters course which recruited to begin in Michaelmas term 2019 in Comparative Literature and Critical Translation. It requires students to work with two languages and literatures, out of Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Modern Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Turkish. The MSt is attached to Oxford’s research centre in Comparative Criticism and Translation (OCCT) and builds on the recent growth in scholarly awareness of the importance of translation to comparative and world literary study.
In the summer and autumn of 2020, events have been designed to support and educate ourselves as teachers and learners. The Early Modern Graduate Seminar and Forum will hold a joint session for early career colleagues teaching Shakespeare and paper 3, to discuss practical suggestion and share readings and assignments for a more diverse and inclusive curriculum. The Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture Research Seminar has an in-house seminar on ‘Black Lives Matter and studies in 18th century literature and culture at Oxford: a debate about Questions, Methods, Sources’; the Victorian Period Group held a Paper 3 Teaching Colloquium on writers of colour for all tutors on Monday 7 September 2020 with 8 presentations from tutors/lecturers introducing key materials, methodologies, approaches.
We have also sought to disseminate the expertise and thinking in postcolonial writing and theory within and beyond the Faculty.
Open Educational Resources
We launched in 2017 a new series of Open Educational Resources exploring Black and Asian writing in Britain. A further £5000 fund from the VC’s Diversity Fund secured in September 2020 will allow us to expand and develop this resource increasing from 40 to 60 the number of writers covered. The work of these writers, many of whom have talked in the English Faculty or at The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities, ranges from poetry to plays, novels and short stories; from historical epics to intimate memoirs.; and from stories that explore very local experiences to those whose scope is global. Writers Make Worlds demonstrates how these writers give us dynamic new ways of thinking about post-imperial Britain and British identity, and ask us to develop new forms of national and global awareness in the light of growing concerns over racism, migration, and inequality. It is a part of our ‘Great Writers Inspire’ (https://www.writersinspire.org/) is a project owned by the English Faculty and hosted on the University server which is making a substantial collection of literary themed learning resources available for global reuse. Thousands of resources are available through the site, including audio and video lectures and short talks, downloadable electronic texts and eBooks, and background contextual resources.
The English Faculty has released a new online resource since August 2020. Ten Minute Book Club provides a short literary extract every Friday with an introduction by an expert from the Faculty. Writers to highlight for the project were selected in the context of a commitment to recognise the colonial values still inherent in the canon of English literature, and to the urgency and importance of working to decolonise curriculum. They were chosen on the following principles to : foreground the historical importance of writers of colour in English; ensure our approach to literature in English is global, including writers in the Caribbean and India, for example; choose texts that demonstrate the very long history of calls for justice in relation to race; showcase work in this area already undertaken within the university, choosing for our book club writers whose work is taught within our Faculty curriculum.
Our Physical and Virtual Environment
We have introduced a set of display boards in the English Faculty Foyer at the St Cross Building where we invite researchers and groups of researchers to present their work in poster form. We commission poster displays for Black History month (October) and for LGBT History month (February). The Faculty secured start-up funds of £16,00 from the Vice-Chancellor’s Diversity Fund for a project to run 2019-2020 ‘Telling Our Story Better’ . This is a creative, collaborative pilot project, replicable across the University, in which the English Faculty will work with its alumnae and other faculties to demonstrate its commitment to equality and diversity. It involves an experiment in storytelling and in representation located in the physical space of the English Faculty building.
Public events, seminars, workshops, conferences
We host many seminars, workshops, conferences and public lectures. And we are committed to keep under regular review the range of speakers we invite and present as role-models and inspiring thinkers (in terms of gender, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, culture) in our regular research seminars in literary periods and subjects (from medieval studies to twenty-first century literature). There is a long-established research seminar in Postcolonial Writing and Theory; it hosts public lectures and seminars in alternate weeks in term. Talks have included include a conversation between Linton Kwesi Johnson and Professor Paul Gilroy (28 April 2018 ‘Reading Bass Culture’); in 2018, Reni Eddo-Lodge in conversation with Rebecca Surender, on her prize-winning book Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race; and a lecture by Sara Ahmed (6 May 2019 ‘Closing the Door: Complaint as Diversity.
All our committees that have responsibility for inviting visiting speakers to deliver (funded) lectures have taken care in issuing invitations to pay attention to bringing expertise about race and the expert voices of Black academics to Oxford. In Spring 2022, we will host Professor Simon Gikandi, Robert Schirmer Professor of English at Princeton University, to deliver a series of Clarendon lectures entitled ‘English From Below’. Our next visiting professor of creative media in 2021 (postponed from May 2020 due to coronavirus closure) will be Zing Tsjeng, Executive Editor of Vice UK. The next Wells lectures in 2023 will be delivered by Professor Kim Hall, Lucyle Hooke Professor of English at Columbia University on ‘‘Immortal longings’: Shakespeare, Yearning, and the African Diaspora’. Research seminar convenors have sought to invite a wider range of BAME and BIPOC scholars.
It is impossible to capture in one short digest all the events and activities under the aegis of the English Faculty. We give a flavour of them here:
- ‘World Literature: For and Against’ Thursday 9 November 2017 and Wednesday 7 March 2018– two workshops presenting the work of Professor Rosinka Chaudhuri, Mellon Visiting Professor under TORCH Global South visiting scheme and English Faculty associate
- ‘What is a Decolonial Curriculum?’ Wednesday 26 November 2018 , day workshop with invited speakers Professor Supriya Chaudhuri, Kwame Dawes, Jok Madut Jok, Mia Liyanage and Blue Weiss from Common Ground, Professor Peter McDonald, Nana Oforiatta-Ayim. The workshop included soap-box talks by graduates and postdocs making a case for individual works of literature important to the task of decolonisation.
- ‘A State of Risk: Humanities in Crisis’ Friday 30 November 2018 – an afternoon workshop led by Professor Supriya Chaudhuri, Mellon Visiting Professor under TORCH Global South visiting scheme and English Faculty Associate with the English Faculty. Speakers included Professor Helen Small, Professor Ros Ballaster, Professor Elleke Boehmer and visiting speaker Professor Pablo Mukherjee (Warwick) and respondent Professor Stefan Collini (Cambridge)
- ‘Global Hungers: The Problem of Poverty in Postcolonial Literature’, Monday, June 25, 2018. A one-day international conference with keynote lectures by Professor Leela Gandhi and Professor Gayatri Spivak. The conference was part of a programme of research and events supporting English Faculty Professor, Ankhi Mukherjee, in her AHRC Leadership Fellowship THE PSYCHIC LIFE OF THE POOR: A CITY UNSEEN IN MUMBAI, LONDON, AND NEW YORK (January 2017- June 2018). The project examined the institution of psychoanalysis in its inadequate engagements with urban poverty, race, and migrancy.
- Queer Black Performance event, 21-23 February 2019, free and open to the public with talks and performances by and about queer black performance. Presenters included Malik Gaines, Jade Montserrat, Daphne Brooks, Kara Keeling, Tayia Nyong’o, Zinzin Minott, Lasana Shabazz, Ama Josephine Budge, Ruth Ramsden-Karelse, Kyla Tompkins, Dagmawi Woubshet
- ‘Queering Spaces: Transnational Perspectives’ Wednesday 2 May 2018 run by TORCH queer studies network which is led by two Oxford English doctoral students – Ruth Ramsden-Karelse and Eleri Watson.
- ‘Queer Modernisms III’ , April 25-6th 2019, conference co-organised by graduate students at Nottingham Trent University, the University of Oxford, Goldsmiths University and the University of Liverpool. After the resounding success of the first Queer Modernism(s) conference at Nottingham Trent University in 2017 and the University of Oxford in 2018, the University of Oxford again hosted the conference in 2019 (theme ‘Queer Networks’). An interdisciplinary, international conference, Queer Modernism(s) explores the place of queer identity in modernist art, literature and culture, with an emphasis on intersecting identities. Panellists question, discuss and interrogate the social, sexual, romantic, artistic, affective, legal and textual relationship between queer identity and modernity.
- ‘Making History: Christian Cole, Alain Locke, and Oscar Wilde at Oxford’, Trinity term 2019, led by Professor Michèle Mendelsson, English Faculty and Mansfield College, and co-funded by the English Faculty. An exhibition from May-October 2019 told the story of the University's first Black African undergraduate, first African-American Rhodes scholar, and greatest Irish wit and dandy. These three were undergraduates at University, Hertford and Magdalen College, respectively. By drawing these exceptional men together, the exhibition highlighted the surprising shared histories of Oxford's Queer, Black and First Generation undergraduates. The exhibition ran from May-October 2019 displayed in the Library of Magdalen College, Oxford. It was supplemented by three headline events: a dramatization of Christian Cole’s life by professional actors + a talk by Black history expert and independent scholar Pamela Roberts, author of Black Oxford; a public lecture on Alain Locke by Prof. Jeffrey Stewart (Prof. of Black Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara), author of a magisterial Oxford University Press biography of Alain Locke, The New Negro. The book won this year's National Book Award; a public lecture by Merlin Holland, Oscar Wilde’s grandson and a distinguished independent scholar. In August 2020, a website was launched with videos, resources, and information from the exhibition and the research underpinning it.