Humanities Division

Humanities - Divisional Statement

Engagement with colonialism lies at the heart of disciplinary developments and debates within Humanities faculties.  Our academic subject-matter is inflected by long and varied imperial histories. Disciplinary boundaries and academic canons themselves began to be formed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in ways which were intrinsically shaped by gender, class and race. Humanities faculties in Oxford trained people to run the British empire, and contributed to the construction of racist languages and practices. At the same time, they produced outspoken critics of empire. Although the starting assumptions have of course shifted fundamentally in a post-colonial world, the exercise of critical practices - of reading, thinking, writing - is not new. There are indeed now more subtle but no less damaging risks of complicity in the perpetuation of racist perspectives which we think we have left behind.  A highly self-critical lens needs to be turned on the present as well as the past.  The study of empire, colonialism, colonial and postcolonial literature and cultures, from the empires of the ancient world to the recent past – much of which focuses on the agency and resistance of colonial subjects – is a core part of our intellectual project. But there is still scope for further integration, cross-fertilisation and intersectionality. The humanities have a particular role in confronting historical assumptions and categorisations; in articulating debates on memory and memorialisation; in reflecting on constructions of community; in exploring understandings of tradition and the use of particular terminologies.  Inherently pluralistic and interdisciplinary, the Division is intellectually committed to fostering conversations across boundaries, and to challenging existing norms and lines of demarcation.  Encompassing the study of an extraordinary range of world languages, in addition to literatures, histories, philosophies, theologies, music and art, the Division emphasizes the critical role of language, and of translation, in both literal and metaphorical terms.  Its creative practice-led work challenges received narratives across different modes and media of response.  It is dedicated to the shared intellectual pursuit of what makes us human – and what could make us more humane.

These aspirations are given tangible form in a variety of ways.   The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities (TORCH) draws together some of the cross-cutting and innovative work from across our faculties.  It offers an extensive cultural mosaic of talks, podcasts and themed networks.  Particularly pertinent networks in this context include Caribbean Studies; Conversations on Identity, Ethnicity and Nationhood; Migration and Mobility; Oxford and Empire; and Critical Theory. There are diverse programmes ranging from Comparative Criticism and Translation, to Creative Multilingualism, to Race and Resistance across Borders in the Long Twentieth Century.  TORCH operates in a dynamic online space, as well as supporting in-person events.

As part of the Division’s commitment to Equality and Diversity, it provides support to faculties in reflecting on their values, and developing policy and practice.  Each academic year, a newly-established Humanities Equality and Diversity Forum will prioritise different areas of intersectional work.  In 2020-21 the focus is on a Race Action Plan, with some very practical immediate targets, as well as medium- and longer-term goals (including fund-raising for scholarships and post-doctoral positions to enhance diversity; and the development of a quality assurance scheme to act as a vehicle for benchmarking and sharing good practice).  The emphasis is on creating an atmosphere of trust within which uncomfortable questions can productively be raised, and within which people will have the humility to listen and learn from others.  In close collaboration with students and staff, a platform on Microsoft Teams has been launched which is designed to facilitate broad-based discussion, the sharing of ideas, and the making of connections which could lead to independent collaborative projects.  Discussions have been initiated on the politics of naming, and the inappropriateness and risks of putting different individuals and groups under descriptive umbrellas which flatten out distinctive histories and identities.  Decolonisation and diversification of the curriculum are central concerns for students and staff, and it is hoped that conversation and exchange of suggestions on this platform will help facilitate a systemic rather than merely additive approach to this process.  In addition, the Division is highlighting lectures and events across the University which address critical methodologies and challenge received opinion. The Division works closely with Oxford’s SU, as well as with the Bodleian Library, colleges and other divisions.

The Division acts as an advocate for the humanities within and beyond the University.  This role becomes more urgent by the day, as the critical perspectives, tolerance and profound cultural insights that our fields of study bring to the public sphere are under ever greater threat.  Moreover, acknowledging the need to improve ethnic diversity amongst Humanities academic post-holders across the UK, and recognising our own responsibility in (inadvertently) reinforcing historical inequities, the Division is also trying more effectively to facilitate help change in this context.  The initiation of a studentship scheme for ethnically-diverse UK students, which has since been expanded within the wider University, represents an acknowledgement of our potential (as a major hub of postgraduate training) to help to contribute to a long overdue shift in the configuration of the academy.  This process is distinct from but works alongside the goal of designating more posts within non-white/non-Global North fields of study – not as an appeal to particular constituencies, but as intrinsic to expanding the breadth of approach appropriate to a global university. Consideration of Oxford’s colonial past and its present responsibilities in the context of anti-racism is fundamental to reinforcing the centrality of the humanities in cultural debate and public policy at an extraordinarily challenging moment in world history.


The Humanities Faculties currently represented on the Oxford & Colonialism website are: