The Faculty of Oriental Studies engages with the languages and cultures of the Middle East, South Asia, and Central and East Asia in their historical depth, from the earliest written testimonies from Mesopotamia and Egypt to contemporary Asian societies. The history of our subjects goes back a long way: A broad range of non-European languages and literatures were taught in Oxford by individual professors and tutors, including native speakers of these languages, from the 16th century on. The first Chairs were the Regius Professorship of Hebrew (established 1546) and the Laudian Professorship of Arabic (established 1636).
The Faculty has continued to grow and develop, not only in its areas of specialisation, but also in its rejection of colonial and Euro-centric ideologies. Since the publication of Edward Said’s book “Orientalism” in 1978, the word “Oriental” has often become associated with colonial Western scholarship that looks at “the Orient” from an imperialist point of view. However, the Faculty attempts just the opposite in its teaching and research. We consider it essential that we try to understand the cultures we study from within, by treating them as independent agents and understanding what they have to say about themselves, as documented in their own oral and written literatures and material cultures.
Our staff and students form a highly international community. At a time when Oxford Professors were typically white and male, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan – who later became the second President of India – took up a College post in 1929 and was appointed Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics in 1936. Among our current staff, the proportion of BAME to non-BAME colleagues is approximately 1 : 2, which is a relatively high level of ethnic diversity for a UK institution.
We maintain close relations with the regions we study. Students of Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Chinese, and Japanese attend a Year Abroad in our academic partner institutions and return to Oxford with new first-hand experiences, and often with newly established friendships abroad that last long after they have completed their university degrees. We invite speakers from abroad and regularly host a wide range of academic visitors, who add to the international climate of the Faculty and enable a dialogue about research and methodologies in a cross-cultural perspective. Within the past two years alone, 57 academic visitors have joined the Faculty, all but four from abroad.
Diversity and inclusivity are a major theme in our courses, which address issues such as Orientalism, and gender and identity.
Triggered by the Black Lives Matter movement, the Faculty’s Equality and Diversity Officers organised a townhall meeting for staff and students which will be followed by further activities in the coming academic year. We reflect on issues of diversity in the curriculum, and our reading lists include both primary sources and secondary literature from the regions we study, thus avoiding a bias towards Western scholarship in our fields. The same is true for the research carried out in our Faculty, which includes collaborations with colleagues in Asia and addresses issues of colonialism, gender, and diversity. One of our colleagues combines research on Egyptology, colonialism, and LGBT rights and has shared his work in an exhibition. Faculty members conduct research on social and gender issues, including for example Persian women poets, the cult of female deities in India, and language use in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
We are actively reaching out to the local communities through workshops, cultural events, and language tasters, and we take part in access initiatives such as Open Days and the UNIQ summer school. The Faculty offers support across all groups of society.
Connecting with the wider globalised world in the post-colonial era, and engaging with the richness of the cultures and languages that students can study in this Faculty, is at the heart of our activities.