Oriental Institute considering name-change

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The Faculty of Oriental Studies will conduct a survey of students and staff, before establishing a working group to consider changing its name. Applications are being sought for a student to join the working group and represent student views. If applications are not forthcoming, then an Undergraduate Student Rep will likely join the working group. The working group will be organised by Professor Ulrike Roesler, Faculty Board Chair and Professor of Tibetan and Himalayan Studies.

An Undergraduate Representative told The Oxford Student that the Faculty had been considering the name-change for some time and that it wishes to listen to the opinion of staff and students, with many opportunities for involvement in the discussion. According to their post on the ‘Undergraduates at the Oriental Institute’ Facebook page, “[the Institute] is looking for a student to represent student opinion in the group. We are more than happy to do so, but I wanted to extend the opportunity to the wider student community first, in case anyone wants to be part of this conversation!”. The consultation will be held over the course of this academic year. There will be an online survey of staff and students followed by further opportunities for comments and discussion.

The working group will consult other stakeholders across the University and conduct a survey of the names of similar departments around the world. A proposal will then be brought to the Faculty Board towards the end of the academic year.

Opened in 1960, with its library following in 1961, the Oriental Institute building is home to students across a variety of disciplines, its most well-known and popular degree perhaps being the BA in Oriental Studies. There is also an MSt and DPhil offered in the subject. The establishment of a working group was the recommendation of the Faculty Review in 2019. The University said that the name of relevant degrees will be considered in parallel with the discussion about the name of the Faculty.

Orientalism was originally a scholarly discipline of the study of Asian languages, literatures, histories, religions, arts and more. Orientalism came to also encompass enthusiasm for things Asian or “Oriental”. The term “Asian Studies” came to replace “Oriental Studies” from the mid-20th century. Edward Said’s Orientalism, published in 1978, coined a new meaning of the term, referring to stereotyped, demeaning or simplistic depictions of Asian cultures held by scholars in the West. The word ‘Oriental’ is considered by some to be out-of-date. The University of Cambridge chose to drop its Oriental Institute in 2007, opting instead to adopt the name the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Undergraduates typically take a BA Hons in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. There is at this stage no indication that the BA and other degrees in Oriental Studies will be replaced in a similar fashion.

Other universities and academic organisations have not followed Cambridge’s lead in removing ‘Oriental’ from their titles. SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies (founded in 1916 as the School of Oriental Studies, adding African studies in 1938), is renowned for linguistic excellence in a variety of African and Asian languages. The University of Chicago also has an Oriental Institute and has not indicated that it is desirous of change. Other famous organisations featuring the term oriental include the American Center for Oriental Research, whose work includes providing opportunities for field-work in archaeology, and the American Schools in Oriental Research, which supports the study of the history and culture of the Middle East.

The consultation on renaming the Oriental Institute and associated Faculty follows recent news of discussions by Oxbridge colleges regarding their associations with controversial figures. This month, following a Legacy of Slavery Working Party, Jesus College, Cambridge, proposed to the Church of England authorities that Tobias Rustat’s memorial should be removed from the College Chapel. All Souls College, Oxford, at a recent meeting of its Governing Body, decided to stop referring to the College Library as “the Codrington Library”. While it will not be removing the statue of Codrington, it has pledged donations to Codrington College, Barbados, and has funded three graduate studentships at Oxford for students from the Caribbean. There is also a large memorial plaque at the entrance to the library, “In memory of those who worked in slavery on the Codrington plantations in the West Indies”. The College has indicated its wish to investigate further ways to memorialise and contextualise within the library, drawing attention to the presence of enslaved people on the Codrington plantations, whilst expressing the College’s abhorrence towards slavery.

A lecture series entitled “The Middle East in the Age of Empire, 1830-1971” given by Prof. James McDougall and Prof. Eugene Rogan, is held every Hilary Term at St Antony’s College, with exact details for this year to be confirmed. This is an opportunity for readers who wish to learn more about the history of the terms used to describe what is now the Middle East, including the origins and nature of “Orientalism” as a concept. Attendees should contact Prof. Rogan in advance to secure a place.

A University spokesperson commented: “The Faculty of Oriental Studies was established in the 19th century and since then the areas studied and taught by its academics have grown and developed significantly. Over the coming year, the Faculty will consult with academics, students and other stakeholders on whether it should change its name to reflect these developments.”   

This article was updated at 12:44 28/11/20 to include a statement from the University and further information they provided. 

Image Credit: Faculty of Oriental Studies, Youtube. 


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