An awareness of the larger structures of power that have shaped Oxford’s long history of inclusion and exclusion is part of the fabric of St Hugh’s. Founded as a college for poorer women in 1886—it went mixed a century later—it was from the start intended as a new kind of place for a new kind of Oxford student, a tradition it maintains today. Like all Oxford colleges, it still has some way to go when it comes to attracting minority ethnic students from the UK but there is no doubting its record of, and commitment to, creating an hospitable, cosmopolitan academic community—a place anyone can make their own—and to addressing the legacies of the colonial past both in the teaching it offers and the research it supports. As part of this, the College recently unveiled a photographic portrait of Kofoworola Ademola Moore, who came to St. Hugh's in 1932 and was the first black African woman to achieve a degree at Oxford. Lady Ademola, as Kofoworola would become, was an engaged advocate for women’s education and social reform throughout her life both in Nigeria and the wider world. In addition to celebrating Lady Ademola's life and achievements, the College hopes to establish a scholarship fund in her name that will support black African students’ studies at Oxford.
Re-thinking the history and legacies of colonialism is central to the college’s teaching as well. In English, for instance, the tutors have made the most of the Oxford Faculty’s decision, implemented in 2012, to define the scope of the course in linguistic terms, moving from the political and geographical categories of the past. Students now have the opportunity to study ‘literature in English’, rather than ‘English literature’ (plus bits of ‘American’, ‘Scottish’, etc) and since it is the college tutors, working together with the undergraduates, who give the course its content—with the exception of Shakespeare, English has no prescribed authors—this means the subject is especially open and explorative. The St Hugh’s version not only includes a wide range of black voices from Phyllis Wheatley in the late eighteenth century to Linton Kwesi Johnson in the late twentieth, it addresses the history of their exclusion by, for instance, considering David Dabydeen’s and Claudia Rankine’s responses to John Ruskin’s response to J. M. W. Turner’s ‘Slave Ship’ and it creates space for the many surprises a more inclusive approach to literary history affords, tracing W. E. B. Du Bois’s connections to Matthew Arnold, for example, or T. S. Eliot’s influence on Kamau Braithwaite and Ezra Pound’s on Arvind Krishna Mehrotra.
Similarly, students studying French at St Hugh’s examine various narratives of French colonisation and post-independence Algeria, comparing Camus’s tragic figuration of the Algerian War of Independence in the late 1950s, for example, with the recent re-writing of The Stranger by Algerian novelist and journalist Kamel Daoud. In their tutorials, they discuss how, with Meursault contre-enquête (2013), Daoud both echoes and critiques prevalent postcolonial readings of Camus and satirizes the establishment of a new, hegemonic nationalist narrative as well as a certain political cynicism put in place by the Front de Libération Nationale. They also investigate Algeria’s and France’s past and present through the extensive reading of historian, writer, and film-maker Assia Djebar who dissects the violence and alienation that characterize key moments of her country’s history, paying particular attention to the role women played in and after decolonisation. Another contemporary Algerian novelist, Leïla Sebbar, gives students the opportunity to examine the representation of an event that has become one of the most prominent symbols in France (and internationally) of the memory of colonial violence and of Algerian immigration: the massacre of Algerian pro-independence demonstrators by the Parisian police on 17 October 1961.
These themes also feature prominently in the extensive programme of academic events the college runs every year often in conjunction with other groups and bodies across the university. St Hugh’s recently collaborated with TORCH to host Kolkata-based Professor Rosinka Chaudhuri, Oxford’s first Andrew W. Mellon-funded Global South Visiting Professor, who gave a series of talks and workshops questioning the terms in which the category ‘World Literature’ has been revived in recent years. The college also strengthened its already close association with the China Centre, inviting Professor Michael Ng of Hong Kong University to showcase his work on the colonial legacies of press censorship in Hong Kong. And throughout 2018, the college celebrated the centenary of Women’s Suffrage in the UK together with the Women in Humanities group, one of the primary aims of which is to create knowledge that develops new perspectives on gender equality in and across cultures (see https://wih.web.ox.ac.uk/women-humanities). Professor Senia Paseta, a St Hugh’s History Fellow, is co-director of this group.
In addition, St Hugh’s devotes substantial resources to supporting world-leading researchers of its own across a wide range of disciplines for whom the colonial past, its afterlife and the larger task of decolonizing knowledge are central preoccupations. These include:
- Professor Thomas Cousins, Fellow in Anthropology, who works on health and labour in South Africa, looking at how practices of the self and techniques of well-being respond to the challenges of HIV and hunger. His work engages with growing debates about the decolonisation of anthropology in Africa, particularly with respect to the history of anthropology in southern Africa and long-standing debates about citizenship and belonging, the phenomenology of experience, and the politics of health and healing.
- Professor David Doyle, Fellow in Politics, who is currently working on a project about the political economy of remittances. Remittances, money sent by migrants to their families in their country of origin, are now the largest capital flow to developing states. Development economists have long hailed the positive economic effects of these payments, but this project focuses on the perverse political consequences that remittances can generate. They can have serious implications for remittance dependent states and, in a way, perpetuate the dependence of migrant-sending countries on migrant-receiving states.
- Professor Joshua Getzler, Fellow in Law, who is working as a legal history expert witness on the Six Nations case, a major litigation in Canada concerning the property rights of Iroquois First Nations peoples who were settled by the Crown in Ontario after fighting for the Crown against the American Revolutionaries in the 1780s. His legal findings are expected to illuminate similar longstanding issues of colonial power in, among others, Australia, New Zealand, USA, Israel/Palestine, South Africa, and Kenya.
- Professor Peter D. McDonald, Fellow in English, whose book Artefacts of Writing (2017) reflects on the challenges cultural and linguistic diversity pose for states of all kinds whether colonial or post-colonial—think only of Burma before 1948 and Myanmar today—and on literature’s place at the centre of some of the most fraught public controversies that defined the long twentieth century and continue to haunt us today. The book includes a substantial chapter on the part Oxford played in this tangled history (see also https://artefactsofwriting.com/).
- Professor Peter Mitchell, Fellow in Archaeology, who is an internationally-recognized expert on the hunter-gatherer past of Southern Africa whose work contributed to the foundation of Lesotho’s Heritage Network, a key body in a country that still has no functioning national museum of its own.
- Professor Ève Morisi, Fellow in French, who is currently working on Camus’s understanding and critique of terrorism which has a particular application to the Algerian War of Independence, inviting a reconsideration of the legitimacy and illegitimacy of terrorisms in anticolonial struggles.
- Professor Biao Xiang (项飙), Fellow in Anthropology, who works on intra-Asian migrations from an inter-Asia perspective, analysing developments in one Asian society by taking experiences and ideas in another as a reference point. His work forms part of a collective effort to theorize the world based on non-European experiences, yet doing so in a self-reflexive way, rather than replacing Eurocentrism with another self-universalizing centrism. Among other things, this involves using Chinese idioms as conceptual tools for general social inquiry, including the notions of 系 (‘xi’, clusters of relations), of 归 (‘gui’, literally to return but also to declare allegiance), and of the 基地 (‘base’, a mode of governance)—see https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17450101.2017.1292775?src=recsys&journalCode=rmob20.