Oxford Arts Blog | University of Oxford
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Oxford Arts Blog

Modern foreign languages

Professor Katrin Kohl of Oxford's?Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages has written a letter to The Guardian calling on Ofqual to 'urgently adjust grade boundaries and implement proper quality control for Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) exams'. The letter has been signed by 150 university teachers, and The Guardian has also published a report on the issues raised. Here, Katrin Kohl gives further details about how the design and grading of exams are affecting MFL subjects and the pupils studying them.

Languages have long been considered ‘difficult’. The reasons are obvious – you can’t make progress without learning lots of vocabulary, you have to get your mind round illogical grammar rules and avoid getting discouraged by mistakes when applying them, and you project yourself publicly as an ignoramus every time you open your mouth to practise speaking. Moreover, words and rules are almost as quickly forgotten as they’re learned. Add to this the fact that English native speakers already know the most useful language in the world including the language of the internet and dominant pop culture, and it’s hardly surprising that foreign language learning in the UK is suffering.

There are many joys and rewards in learning languages, too – cognitive benefits, cultural enrichment, communicative empowerment, sense of adventure, creation of a new identity. Yet these require careful nurturing, patience and time. And time is in particularly short supply in crowded school timetables.

Powerful measures are needed if the difficulties are not to win the day. The most effective one is making the subject compulsory at school. In other European countries that’s normal. In England, that battle was lost in 2004 when the Labour government made languages optional at GCSE. Further nails were hammered into the languages coffin with the intensive promotion of STEM subjects as a career advantage, the abolition of the fourth AS subject from 2016, and the push towards fewer GCSEs with the reformed qualifications. Counter-measures by the government such as the EBacc and compulsory language teaching at primary level have not succeeded in reversing the trend.

There’s now widespread alarm at the rapid loss of language skills as schools reduce provision and universities close language departments. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages has demanded a Recovery Programme; the British Academy has issued a Call for Action together with the Royal Society, Academy of Medical Sciences and Royal Academy of Engineering; and the Arts and Humanities Research Council has invested some £16 million in research programmes designed to give languages a shot in the arm.

Meanwhile the spotlight is on the GCSE and A level exams in Modern Foreign Languages – are they fit for purpose? This is all the more critical in a context where other factors are impacting negatively on the subject. Yet schools report that it’s primarily the difficulty of the course and exams that is prompting learners to drop the subject. There are two interconnected issues here. One is ‘severe grading’. The other is the intrinsic difficulty of the exam papers, which in turn generates courses that are too demanding and makes for stressed teachers and learners. The exam regulator Ofqual is ultimately responsible for both issues since it oversees the work of the exam boards and maintains standards across subjects.

After some ten years of complaints from teachers, five years of support from the higher education subject community, and several consultations and research studies, Ofqual acknowledged last November that grading in MFL A levels is indeed, as teachers had claimed, ‘severe’ and that French, German and Spanish A levels are ‘of above average difficulty’. Yet Ofqual decided not to make an adjustment to the grades.

A consultation is now underway for a similar exercise with GCSEs in MFL. The decision expected in the autumn. So what about the impact of severe grading? Ofqual has been amassing statistical proof to show that there is no causal link with falling numbers. But can that possibly be the case? Which learner, parent or school will go for a subject that has statistically been proven even by the exam regulator to be ‘severely graded’ and thereby put the student’s university place at risk?

A key factor underlying excessive difficulty of the language exams for English learners is the presence of native and near-native speakers of the language in the exam cohort. This factor is unique to Modern Foreign Languages and it was partially addressed by Ofqual in 2017 with a small one-off adjustment to A level grading in French, German and Spanish. But what hasn’t yet been acknowledged is their effect on the exam papers.

This is significant, especially for smaller languages where the proportion of native speakers tends to be highest. Research commissioned by Ofqual showed that in the German A level sample, almost half the students gaining an A* were native-speakers, while at grade A, they made up almost a fourth. These are invisible to examiners, exam boards and Ofqual when it comes to scrutinising marks profiles. So even if the exam is far too difficult for non-native speakers, there will be enough marks gained at the top end to suggest the exam is working.

In fact an examiners’ report for the 2018 A level in German indicates that there may be insufficient awareness of difficulty as an issue. In the case of a reading comprehension question concerning a grammatically highly complex sentence with a word very unlikely to be familiar to an English learner, the examiner comments that the question ‘discriminated well. A few candidates answered this correctly and gained a mark’. The sample answer given in the report for this part of the exam is likely to be by a near-native speaker.

Learners, then, face a triple whammy – a rushed, stressful course that can’t possibly prepare them thoroughly for the exam at the end of it; a demoralising exam experience that makes them feel failures; and a grade that is below what they would get in another subject for equivalent performance.

So what’s to be done? There’s a window between now and Ofqual’s autumn decision for a change of direction. Ofqual needs to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of anomalies in Modern Foreign Languages assessment – and act:

  1. Reopen the question of A level grading, and carry out the necessary adjustment to eliminate ‘severe grading’.
  2. Simplify the exam papers, and ensure that the exam boards start working with robust criteria for controlling the level of linguistic difficulty appropriately for non-native speakers.
  3. Gain better understanding of the impact of native and near-native speakers on exam papers, marking and grading, and make the necessary adjustments for all languages so non-native speakers are rewarded appropriately.

The subject community in schools and universities is keen to support this endeavour. If Ofqual does not address these matters now, language learning in the UK will face an inexorable further downward spiral caused by unrealistic expectations, exam difficulty, severe grading, irreversible loss of provision in schools and universities, and an intensifying teacher shortage.

You can read Ofqual’s response to the Guardian article and letter here.

Read Professor Kohl's letter to Ofqual, plus supporting documents on the Creative Multilingualism website.

Detail of the recto of Papyrus Berlin P. 8043, temple account in list form

This article was produced by the University of Würzburg and appears in its original form here. Researcher Dr Maren Schentuleit is incoming?Associate Professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford.

Imagine archaeologists working 2,000 years from now to decipher the account statements of a large commercial enterprise that ended up in the bin in 2018 and have been forgotten since. The majority of these notes are in a deplorable condition: eaten by mice, glued together, torn and fragmentary, and written in a strange script that cannot be found in any other place. What makes the work even more difficult is that the individual scraps of paper are not neatly collected in one place, but are distributed across many museums and libraries in Europe. Which is why, for example, no one has yet noticed that the upper half of a rather unfortunate note is in Vienna, while the lower half is in Berlin.

We must confess: The comparison with today's account statements isn’t quite correct. Nevertheless, it provides a good picture of the work that Egyptologists from the Julius-Maximilians-University of Würzburg (JMU) and their colleagues from Bordeaux will be doing in the coming years. DimeData: This is the name of the research project that the French Agence nationale de la recherche (ANR) and the German Research Foundation (DFG) have now approved. The two institutions will provide around €450,000 over the next three years, a good half of which will go to the JMU. The project leader there is Professor Martin Andreas Stadler, holder of the Chair of Egyptology, and Lecturer Dr Maren Schentuleit, research assistant to the Chair, will be responsible for the concrete work.

The aim of the project is to investigate the Egyptian temple economy from sources that are "rich in content, difficult, fragile at first glance, but then uniquely rich in detail," as Stadler says. At the same time, they will being publication of an online platform with the edition of around 40 representative texts. Under the keyword "Digital Humanities", ancient historians and Egyptologists will be provided with new sources that will put the knowledge about the economic life of Egyptian temples in the Roman Empire on a new footing. In fact, the researchers involved assume that the results of their investigations will force researchers to revise their understanding of the situation during this period.

"In this project we are concentrating on lists of accounts from the economic management of the temple of Dimê, which originated around the time from 30 BCE to the second century CE," explains Stadler. At that time Rome had taken power in Egypt. While older research blamed the Romans for the decline of the temples in Egypt, today it is believed that Rome even provided economic stimulation in Egypt. This controversy is one of the motivations of the research project that has now been launched.

Southwest of Cairo, in the middle of the desert, near the oasis Fayum, lie the remains of the temple Dimê. The temple was dedicated to Soknopaios, who was often depicted with a crocodile’s body and a falcon’s head. Around the middle of the third century BCE the place was abandoned and never populated again, which proved to be a stroke of luck. In the dry desert, ancient documents on papyrus remained well preserved until they were accidentally rediscovered at the end of the 19th century. Unfortunately, the text fragments were then sold without treatment by archaeologists and mixed with other finds; today they are scattered in museums and collections in Vienna and Berlin, London and Paris, as well as many other places.

These papyri can be up to two and a half metres long. Narrowly described in long columns, the editions of the temple treasury are recorded over many years in such papyri. "There, for example, people are listed who were paid by the temple," explains Maren Schentuleit. These are priests or scribes on the one hand, but also state officials and inspectors on the other. From such sources, a good picture of the contacts between Egyptian temples and Roman administration can be gained.

Wheat, bread, olive oil, olives – salted or marinated in water: The temple's expenses for everyday goods are also meticulously noted on the papyri and provide information about consumer habits in Egypt around 2,000 years ago. Ideally, they enable researchers to draw conclusions about price trends over centuries, and thus also about economic change during this period. Wool, beer, wine– the latter even in different qualities: The menu of antiquity hardly seems to differ from a modern one.

Philology is not simply a matter of “read and translate,” however, especially with the papyri from Dimê, because those fragments are written in demotic writing. "This was a handwriting used especially for everyday use. It originally derived from hieroglyphic writing, and emerges around 650 BCE," says Stadler. The deciphering of this writing is a challenge even for experts, especially because the writers in Dimê had also developed their own writing style. As if that weren't enough difficulties, there is also the fact that many of the ancient documents are full of holes, torn, and fragmentary, with parts of one and the same fragment kept in different collections without anyone knowing.

"Anyone who specialises in demotic texts must enjoy deciphering, and be patient, persistent, and be able to tolerate frustration (at every turn)," says Maren Schentuleit. Translating an entire column in one day already counts as a great success, remarks the Egyptologist. Of course, after years of working with this script, she has a rich set of skills at her disposal to help her decipher it. In demotic writing, for example, there is always a descriptive element at the end of the word that indicates whether it is a plant, a mineral or a type of material – helping to narrow down the search for solutions.

When trying to decipher completely unknown words, Schentuleit looks for a connection with words in the older Egyptian or later Coptic language, hoping that similarities will help her. Or, she remembers having already seen the same combination of signs in another text and can draw conclusions about the meaning in a new context. For this reason, too, the Egyptologist can come to appreciate researching accounting lists - a text genre that otherwise promises little reading pleasure. "They contain many repetitive elements and thus enable comparisons to be made across many text fragments."

The aim is, within three years, to edit 40 texts and produce an online database. "We are doing important preliminary work for younger scholars and laying the foundation for further research projects," explains Stadler. And, of course, the results will help to significantly improve our understanding of temples as economic centres in Egypt, their relationships with other temples, intellectual exchange within the country - and, ideally, the controversy over the influence of the Romans on these Egyptian institutions.

Image: Detail from Acts, Catholic Epistles, Pauline Epistles from 10th century (middle) ? Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford: MS. Canon. Gr. 110, fol. 001v

The University of Oxford is delighted to announce a major gift of £3 million from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) to support the consolidation and expansion of Late Antique and Byzantine studies.

SNF’s generous endowment of the prestigious Bywater and Sotheby Professorship of Byzantine and Modern Greek Language and Literature and the Associate Professorship of Byzantine Archaeology and Visual Culture ensures the long-term vitality of teaching and research in Late Antique and Byzantine studies at Oxford.

Additionally, SNF will provide support for the transformation and expansion of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research as a global centre of excellence in Late Antique, Byzantine, and post-Byzantine studies. Over two years, the new SNF grant will build the centre’s capacity with the introduction of a new Directorship, a core administrative operating role, and three graduate scholarships. This will allow the University to set a framework for the expansion of the discipline, while facilitating international engagement with research and teaching institutions and outreach to the wider public.

For more than a millennium, Byzantium sat at the heart of a huge network linking together Asia, Europe, and Africa. Consequently, the study of the Byzantine Empire’s influence in shaping Europe, Russia, and the historic relations between Christianity and Islam has the ability to yield transformative insights into today’s world. However, the area remains under-explored.

Oxford is a world leader in the field of Late Antique and Byzantine studies, which incorporates a range of disciplines, from history and archaeology to languages and theology. The concentration of Byzantine scholars at the University is no accident: the Bodleian Library and Ashmolean Museum house remarkable resources, including many relating to the Byzantine Empire, while Oxford’s excellence in the humanities provides a stimulating cross-disciplinary environment.

The Stavros Niarchos Foundation is a longstanding and generous supporter of the humanities at Oxford. SNF has contributed to the building of the Stelios Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies, and has funded graduate scholarships in Classics and the endowment of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Clarendon Associate Professor and Fellow of Ancient Greek Philosophy, held jointly by the University and Oriel College.

Professor Louise Richardson, Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford, says:?“The Stavros Niarchos Foundation’s generous gift to Late Antique and Byzantine studies will have a tremendous impact on the academic community here in Oxford, in Europe and across the world. We are enormously grateful to the foundation for their support, which will ensure that the field of Late Antique and Byzantine studies continues to thrive for many years to come.”

Professor Peter Frankopan, Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research, says:?“This magnificent gift is testimony to the work done in the field of Late Antique and Byzantine studies at Oxford. It is wonderful that one of the world’s great philanthropic foundations has chosen to support the community of distinguished scholars, early career researchers, graduate and undergraduate students. It sends a powerful message about the importance of the humanities and the role we can play in helping make sense of the past in the fast-moving 21st century.”?

Andreas Dracopoulos, Co-President of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, says:?“Understanding today’s world requires tracing the dots of history and connecting them through to the present. The Byzantine Empire sat at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa for over a thousand years. As a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, global empire, its legacy on our modern world remains far-reaching and continues to influence cultural and religious practices in Europe, Russia, and beyond. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation is proud to help Late Antique and Byzantine studies at Oxford, and the field as a whole, grow and flourish in the years to come. The grant to secure two important endowed academic positions and fund graduate scholarships is very timely, since support for the humanities in general and Byzantine studies in particular has declined in recent years.”

Joe Sacco

Cultures and Commemorations of War is an interdisciplinary seminar series that explores the practices and politics of war memory across time. Organised by?Dr Alice Kelly,?Harmsworth Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Oxford’s?Rothermere American Institute, the series was?initially funded by a British Academy Rising Stars Engagement Award.

The next event, held on Thursday 9 May, is the fifth in the series and focuses on the interplay between art, war and memory, with a keynote speech from the renowned graphic novelist Joe Sacco. Dr Kelly, who is also a?Junior Research Fellow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, talks to Arts Blog about the event...

What topics will this seminar explore?

The purpose of this interdisciplinary seminar is to explore the artistic and visual representation of war in many different contexts. Over the course of the day, we will hear from a range of academics (from professors to PhD students), artists and practitioners working on the artistic representation and memory of many different conflicts. In the morning there will be short talks on a new First World War video game, on art after Auschwitz, and on the political cartoons of the Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali (assassinated in 1987). In the afternoon we will hear about a project which links the Belgian refugee crisis in the First World War with contemporary refugees, and a project to photograph murals in Northern Ireland through the Troubles.

What role does art play in the representation of war?

Art and war have a complex relationship. In one way, the two are opposite: art is creative, war is destructive, but obviously it’s more complicated than that. Art, perhaps more than other media, has an immediacy which makes it highly effective in telling the story of a war. Art in wartime can promote war through propaganda, or it can protest against war. War inspires art, but it can also be looted in wartime or destroyed by war – think of, in recent times, the temples destroyed in Palmyra, Syria. Art can enable us to remember violence, recording the experience of people who may be forgotten by the historical record, and to rewrite the history of war, but it can also facilitate the forgetting of violence by censorship and photo manipulation. After a war, art can enable people to recover. There are also the complicated ethics of war art – what can be depicted and what can’t? What is reportage and what is exploitation? What constitutes ‘war art’? We’ll be thinking about some of these issues at our seminar.

Tell us about Joe Sacco’s significance in this area.

Joe is an award-winning cartoonist who combine eyewitness journalism and art, and is a pioneer within the genre of comics journalism. He is particularly known for representing conflict and violence, and their cultural and social memory. Some of his best-known books, for example?Palestine (2001) and Footnotes in Gaza (2009), have focused on the Israel-Palestine conflict, while in books such as Safe Area Gora?de?he focuses on the Bosnian War. His epic 24-foot depiction of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, called The Great War (2013), should be seen by everyone thinking about the war. The scope of Joe’s reportage and his ability to provide panoramic scenes while paying meticulous attention to detail, combined with his humane and sensitive journalism, constitute a body of work which exemplifies the key themes of this CultCommWar seminar.

What else have you covered in this seminar series?

This is the fifth workshop in the seminar series. Our previous four events have covered a wide range of topics related to the practices and politics of war memory across time. In the first year,?the series was funded by a British Academy Rising Stars Public Engagement Fellowship. In the two events held in Oxford and one at Imperial War Museum London, our keynote speakers were the journalist and writer David Rieff, the academic Marita Sturken, and the Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller (who told us about the process of creating We’re Here Because We’re Here, his Somme centenary piece). Our first event this academic year focused on American wars and American memory, and featured the anthropologist Sarah Wagner. Across the series, our conversations have considered the myriad ways that war has been remembered in unofficial and official contexts, from video games to baseball caps (shared between Vietnam vets); from old and new memorials to volunteers dressed as soldiers in Paddington station.

Most of the events feature a morning roundtable led by postgraduates and early career researchers, where the chairs are set in a circle to encourage an open and democratic exchange of ideas. I wanted to move away from the set structure of a conference and I think of these events more like a kind of thinktank, where audience members are encouraged to participate as much as possible.

You can read short pieces about the series on the?British Academy website?and the?Oxford Arts Blog, and I wrote a short article for?Times Higher Education?on how the series particularly champions emerging and early career scholars in these types of events.

There are still a few places available at the event:

To register for the full-day workshop, please click?here.

To register ONLY for the talk by Joe Sacco, please click?here.

Puerto Rico

Eduardo Lalo, Professor of Literature at the Faculty of General Studies at the University of Puerto Rico, and an artist and author, has been appointed as Global South Visiting Fellow at TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities).

Eduardo Lalo's literary oeuvre comprises novels, essays, poetry, graphic art and fascinating hybrids of all of these. He is the author of the novels La inutilidad (Uselessness, 2004), Simone (2015), and Historia de Yuké, which has just been published by Ediciones Corregidor in Argentina. For Simone, he was awarded the Rómulo Gallegos International Novel prize - an exceptional honour granted to the likes of Gabriel García Márquez for One Hundred Years of Solitude (1972) and Roberto Bola?o for The Savage Detectives (1999). Uselessness and Simone have both been translated to English and published by the University of Chicago Press.

The Global South visitor programme, which sits in TORCH, is part of a wider aim to diversify the curriculum in Oxford’s humanities departments. The scheme is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and is part of TORCH’s ‘Humanities & Identities’ series.?

Mr Lalo said: ‘I am looking forward to joining the Oxford academic community and working with Dr María del Pilar Blanco from the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages. I am grateful for the opportunity to be included in conversations on curriculum diversification and look forward to sharing my work and experiences with students, academics and staff.’

María del Pilar Blanco, Associate Professor in Spanish American Literature, is sponsoring Mr Lalo’s term at the University. She said: ‘I am pleased to see Eduardo join us here in Oxford. He is one of the most important cultural figures working in Puerto Rico today. He will offer our academic community a much-needed, urgent perspective on contemporary Caribbean arts and politics, as well as a unique view on hemispheric American and transatlantic cultural, political and social exchanges.’ ?

Through the Global South visitor scheme, academics from countries in the Global South are hosted by a University of Oxford academic for one or more terms. The programme also provides role models and increases awareness around diversity and inclusivity across the wider University. The scheme builds on and reinforces existing links between Oxford (including TORCH), Mellon and universities in the Global South.

Mr Lalo will be based at Oxford’s Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages and Trinity College during Trinity Term 2019.

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