Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages

Proclamation of the Abolition of Slavery in the French Colonies, 27 April 1848 by François-Auguste Biard (1849)  


The Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages has long resisted the idea of being renamed ‘European Languages’ because of the inter-continental nature of many of the languages that we teach, particularly French, Portuguese and Spanish. Several members of the Faculty work in specialist research areas that examine the role of colonialism in European culture or engage directly with postcolonial cultures that use the languages of the coloniser for their own purposes.

Diversity and the Student Body/Access and Outreach

Modern Languages unfortunately attracts a low proportion of BME students: 14.3% of UK students admitted in the three years 2016–2018, compared to 18.3% in the University as a whole in 2018 (we do not yet have statistics on ethnic diversity for the student body that include overseas students). This may be partly because there has been a decline in modern languages teaching in the state sector since foreign languages are no longer compulsory at GCSE level, and partly because the excellent rates of progression into graduate-level jobs are not sufficiently well known and BME students apply in greater proportions to more obviously vocational courses. We hope to address this problem by offering more beginners’ language courses and attracting students who have experience of second language study via heritage languages. In addition, the AHRC-funded Creative Multilingualism research programme has run a number of public engagement activities, including with schools, which aim to make home/community languages more visible and valued. Examples are ‘We are Children of the World’, a multilingual song project with primary schools using Arabic, Mandarin, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Swahili and Urdu and ‘Yoruba Sonnets’, a unique performance of ancient Nigerian verse incorporating Afro-beat music and the contemporary sound of Western Funk, bringing together spoken word poetry and mime from Dr Olu Taiwo with live music from Lekan Babalola's Sacred Funk Quartet. As part of the same Creative Multilingualism programme Prof Hiddleston and Dr Lonsdale ran two series of workshops with London schools for pupils taking French or Spanish GCSE, which were designed for pupils who speak another language at home, including Arabic and a range of African languages. We are aiming to run a study day for prospective students of African and Caribbean descent in collaboration with other faculties within the Humanities Division and would like to work more with BME parents to encourage the study of languages well before sixth form. We feel there is a significant and important overlap between ethnic diversity and linguistic diversity.

Colonialism and Postcolonialism in the Curriculum

The French Sub-Faculty has included postcolonial authors in its teaching syllabus since the late 1990s, when Aimé Césaire’s watershed 1939 poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal was first set as one of the compulsory texts for study on the Prelims course. From 2019-20 that course will also include a play, Papa doit manger, by Marie NDiaye, a contemporary French writer of part Senegalese heritage. The first-year course also foregrounds issues of colonialism and intercultural encounters with set texts by Montaigne and Diderot that look at Brazil and Tahiti respectively (both authors can be studied in more detail for Finals as part of the early modern papers). In later years of study students have a wide range to choose from. Within the modern period paper many students read Francophone literature, while in the early modern period paper (sixteenth to eighteenth centuries), students often study the New World and the beginnings of colonial projects. The Francophone Algerian writer Assia Djebar is one of the authors studied within the modern special authors paper. There are dedicated lectures on Djebar and on other Francophone Postcolonial writers and theorists. In addition students could, for many years, opt for a final-year special subject on Francophone writing, which has now been replaced by two courses: one on ‘Discourses of Race’, covering approaches to race and ethnicity from the sixteenth century to the present, and another on ‘Travel, Exile, Migration’ with a similarly wide chronological span. There is also an MSt special subject on Francophone literatures, and many DPhil students opt to work on topics related to colonialism, decolonisation and the non-French Francophone world (recent examples include Moroccan writers; anticolonial African journals; Caribbean theatre; Caribbean poetry; colonial literature on ‘Indochina’).

Challenging the enduring epistemological hangover of Portuguese imperialism informs much of the teaching of the Portuguese Sub-Faculty. It actively monitors which authors and texts are taught to ensure that syllabuses reflect the vibrant diversity and the multiple voices of the postcolonial world in which we live. Since the 1960s, it has taught Brazilian authors, including the nineteenth-century literary giant and grandson of freed slaves, Machado de Assis. Since the 1990s, African texts have become increasingly embedded in both for the first year and finals courses. The Sub-Faculty explicitly considers issues of colonialism, coloniality, and race in the majority of its papers, be they pre-modern or modern, and most obviously in final-year options like ‘The Portuguese Expansion in Asia’; ‘The literature of colonial and postcolonial Africa’; ‘Lusophone Women Writers’; ‘Brazilian Cinema’ and ‘Postcolonial Literatures of Portuguese-expression: From Camões to the Present’. At the taught postgraduate level, the Portuguese Sub-Faculty runs a methodology seminar that discusses key texts in Lusophone postcolonial theory and contributes to the MSt in Women’s Studies with a special option on ‘Race and Gender in Brazil, Mozambique and Portugal’.

The Spanish Sub-Faculty has energetically addressed questions of colonialism and coloniality in its teaching. The undergraduate lecture list has included series on ‘Literature of the Spanish Caribbean’ and Modernismo; these offer lectures on debates surrounding colonialism, with the figure of José Martí looming large, alongside other authors with important things to say about colonial relations between Latin America and Europe, and Latin America and the USA. Also on offer is ‘Travel and Discovery in Spanish American Fiction’, which addresses both fifteenth- and sixteenth-century and more recent colonial encounters. Students of the early modern period paper can study a topic on representations of the “New World,” and another on cultural minorities in Golden Age literature. Related lectures explore the villancico de negro, which offers insights into the relationship between Spain, the Americas, and Africa in the colonial period. Gabriel García Márquez is now one of the modern authors on the special authors paper, and those who study him get to engage closely with his anti-imperialist stance. We have recently included perhaps the most important figure of the colonial period, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, as another special author. In addition, the mixed-heritage Peruvian poet César Vallejo now enjoys his own final-year special subject. At MSt level, students can study a special subject on Latin American Cultural Studies (with questions of sub-alternity and (de-)coloniality very much to the fore). Furthermore, we are currently revising our first-year programme, and the inclusion of authors such as Carpentier and Campobello will introduce students at this early stage to issues around colonisation, slavery, revolt and resistance in the region.

Colonialism and Postcolonialism: Research

In the French Sub-Faculty research on colonial and postcolonial issues spans several centuries. The era of European exploration is the subject of Dr Raphaële Garrod’s book Cosmographical Novelties in French Renaissance Prose: Dialectic and Discovery (Brepols, 2016), while Professor Katherine Ibbett is working on her third book, Liquid Empire, drawing together work in environmental history and histories of colonialism. Professor Jennifer Yee’s latest book is The Colonial Comedy: Imperialism in the French Realist Novel (OUP, 2016) and she has also published an edited volume on France and ‘Indochina’, as well as books on exoticism (Exotic Subversions in Nineteenth-Century French Fiction, Legenda, 2008) and on the colonial stereotype (Clichés de la femme exotique, L’Harmattan, 2000). Professor Jane Hiddleston has published widely on francophone postcolonial literature and theory, including an introduction to postcolonialism, Understanding Postcolonialism (Acumen, 2009) and a study of poststructuralism and postcoloniality published in 2010; Decolonising the Intellectual: Politics, Culture, and Humanism at the End of the French Empire (Liverpool University Press, 2014) and an edited volume on postcolonial poetics and genre in 2012. She is also a specialist on North African literature in French, having published a book on the francophone Algerian writer Assia Djebar in 2006 and a monograph entitled Writing After Postcolonialism: Francophone North African Literature in Transition (Bloomsbury, 2017), and she is currently working on a study of Frantz Fanon. For a long time the Sub-Faculty has also had a dedicated series of Francophone seminars in which invited speakers or researchers based in Oxford give presentations. From Autumn 2019, this is being replaced by a ‘Transnational French’ seminar focused on France’s colonial and postcolonial histories from the sixteenth century to the present.

Postcolonial and feminist critiques are central pillars of the research undertaken by members the Portuguese Sub-Faculty. From Professor Simon Park’s work with the Ashmolean on Renaissance objects that speak back to and complicate Portuguese narratives of empire, to Professor Claire William’s research on contemporary Brazilian women writers’ rebellious inflection of slave discourses, members of the Portuguese Sub-Faculty share a common interest in interrogating the pernicious grip of racialized modes of thinking and in foregrounding the voices imperial men have sought to marginalize. Portugal’s five-hundred-year colonial enterprise came to an abrupt end in 1974 with the simultaneous collapse of a dictatorship in Lisbon. The nature of this end marks the cultures and literatures not just of the five Portuguese-speaking African nations that gained independence in the 1970s but also of contemporary Portugal itself. Professor Cláudia Pazos Alonso’s edited work on the Portuguese writer Lídia Jorge – Portuguese Literary and Culture Studies (1999) – and Professor Phillip Rothwell’s monograph on the Mozambican author Mia Couto – A Postmodern Nationalist (2004) – speak to two distinct, yet intricately linked, sides of that legacy. Both writers visited Oxford in the last academic year attracting large audiences, as did the Angolan women writers Ana Paula Tavares and Djina, the Cape Verdean Dina Salústio and the Brazilian writer-activist Anderson França (also known as Dinho). Rothwell’s work on paternity in Portuguese Literature – A Canon of Empty Fathers (2007) – drew attention to the cognitive dissonance of emasculation and hyper-machismo that undergirded the Portuguese imperial endeavour. His recent work on the Angolan author and liberation fighter Pepetela – Pepetela and the MPLA: The Ethical Evolution of a Revolutionary Writer (2019) – underscored the extent to which Angolan nationalism inherited a patriarchal mentality from white colonial men. Other examples of seminal publications that tackle the legacies of Portuguese colonialism involving members of the Portuguese Sub-Faculty include the edited collections Sexual/Textual Empires: Gender and Marginality in Lusophone African Literature, edited by Professor Hilary Owen & Rothwell (2004), to which Williams contributed, and Blacks in Renaissance Europe (2005) co-edited by Professor Thomas Earle, as well as a dedicated volume of the Bulletin of Hispanic Studies on Mia Couto (2007) edited by Pazos Alonso  and Rothwell (to which Williams contributed). The forthcoming Transnational Portuguese Studies co-edited by Williams examines colonialism and its legacies across multiple continents. Pazos Alonso is one of the Series Editors for Reconfiguring Identities in the Portuguese-Speaking World, in which more than half of the volumes published to date engage with aspects of Lusophone Africa. In sum, tackling the legacies of racialized patriarchy and Portuguese colonialism traverses the research activities of the Portuguese Sub-Faculty. The Sub-Faculty’s reputation in the field has attracted postdoctoral fellows who have worked on representations of domestic workers in Brazilian culture, and the ways in which they are haunted by slave narratives (Rachel Randall); postcolonial cinema (Carolin Overhoff Ferreira); and the intersections between history and fiction in postcolonial Africa (Dorothée Boulanger). Currently, DPhil students in the Sub-Faculty are pursuing a wide range of subjects that dialogue with debates within post-colonial theory, including the politics of post-colonial translation, trauma in the wake of the Colonial Wars and transnational poetry written in the interstitial space between Portugal and Mozambique.

Research related to colonialism and coloniality in the Spanish Sub-Faculty includes publications such as Dr Alice Brooke’s The autos sacramentales of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (OUP, 2018) and Dr Imogen Choi’s recent co-edited collection The Rise of Spanish American Poetry 1500-1700: Literary and Cultural Transmission in the New World (Legenda, 2019), both dealing with colonial encounters and exchanges, and which question the euro-centric approach to colonial literature. Professor Ben Bollig’s research on contemporary Argentine poetry – in particular works by Martín Gambarotta and Sergio Raimondi – has questions of post- and neo-colonial struggles at its heart. Dr Diana Berruezo-Sánchez is currently undertaking a project on the poetry of enslaved black Africans in the Iberian Peninsula in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It aims to uncover unheard poetry and close a gap in the field, as well as to interrogate, from a post-colonial perspective, black slaves’ previous invisibility. Members of the Sub-Faculty have organised talks and events dealing with questions around colonial relations: visits by the Argentine poets Sergio Raimondi and Cristian Aliaga (the latter an expert in struggles for indigenous land rights in the far south) and the researcher Analía Gerbaudo (who works on transatlantic power dynamics in critical theory). Dr María del Pilar Blanco organised the symposium “Puerto Rico After Hurricane María: Culture, Politics, Place” in June 2018 at the Rothermere American Institute; in Trinity Term 2019 we had Eduardo Lalo as TORCH Global South Visiting Fellow. He offered three seminars on “The (Mis)Invention of the Caribbean” (all on colonialism) and we also hosted the exhibition of his photographs – Deudos/Death Debt – at St. John’s College. The exhibition depicts Puerto Rican scenes before and after Hurricane María, with a focus on the effects of austerity in what is “the oldest colony in the world”. Further afield, colleagues have conducted outreach work and have set up new undergraduate exchanges in Latin America.

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