News from Virtual Nowhere

In a recent article in the Journal of William Morris Studies, ‘Hope and Change: Teaching News from Nowhere, David Latham wrote of the difficulty of teaching Morris’s utopian novel today.  In particular he highlighted what he regarded as the overly-cynical response of his students: “‘He [Morris] can’t be serious; it’s Nowhere because it will never work; even the sunny weather would scorch the earth; I mean, get real’” (p. 6). There is perhaps  thus a tendency to be slightly defensive when teaching News from Nowhere, almost anticipating the negative responses.

However, this is largely not my experience.  Just before Easter my Level 3 Fin de Siècle class read the novel.  It’s always a session I enjoy teaching, not least because there is a sense in which I can ad lib about Morris’s life and work reasonably well, and generally I hope I’m accurate!  I offer the class a potted resumé of Morris’s life, with a more detailed focus on the emergence of his politics in the 1880s.  Our seminar discussion was engaged, and I had no sense that my students were simply dismissing Morris’s vision as Latham suggests some of his might do.  I write this as in two weeks we are all going to vote in the UK, and talk of ‘hope and change’ are being everywhere co-opted by politicians (some of whom Morris wouldn’t have had a lot of time for).

 The online session which results from our News from Nowhere class gives my students ample opportunity to explore Morris’s ideas in more depth.  I ask them to pick a chapter of the work each, to reread it, and to write up a summary of the main points of the chapter in our ‘Nowhere’ discussion forum.  In a class of 20+ students this means we get about two thirds of the novel covered and discussed.  They are then asked to offer their views of whatever it is that is being consdiered in that chapter.  This leads to detailed discussions of education, gender roles, crime, work, capitalism, human nature, issues around choice versus coercion … and much more.  I also invited the class to read their chosen chapter via Florence Boos’s online edition of News from Nowhere and to comment on it.  Several students appreciated the images in the online version, which aided with giving a sense of nineteenth century contexts, but one student started a discussion strand entitled ‘Electronic vs. Books of the old-fashioned variety’ which set off a lively eight-post thread.  Almost all contributors ultimately argued in favour of the smell and feel of physical books, although e-books as helping to get more people reading were thought of as a good thing.  As I had been bringing in some of my 1890s books into our classroom sessions (including a Kelmscott edition of Morris’s 1891 volume of poems Poems by the Way), one of the students brought in this week a number of books that had been passed down to her by her grandfather, including what I think was a first edition of Mary Barton.  It’s great to see my students sharing a continuing love of books-as-made-things.  Morris would be pleased with that, I think.  Harder to know what he would make of online editions, perhaps … but cannot websites also be aesthetically pleasing and well made too?