What Would William Morris Do? A Letter to Jane

As an educator, I am always looking for new ways to inspire students and to make the ideas, art, and politics expressed by Morris over one hundred years ago relevant to the 21st-century digital scholar.  I occasionally teach a class titled William Morris and His World that examines Morris in the context of the Arts & Crafts movement worldwide with a major emphasis to connect the values of the Arts & Crafts movement to today’s world.  I do this by using a variety of active learning assignments based on problem solving and creative thinking.  In my class students learn by doing and as a result come away (or at least I hope that they do) with a deeper understanding of the period while at the same time completing assignments that fall outside of the traditional research paper. 
For example, students are required to keep a Design Inspiration Journal.  They are asked to think of themselves as a “design muse” for William Morris.  In the class we talk about how Morris and members of the Arts & Crafts period found inspiration in nature.  They are expected to look for examples of Morris in everyday life, which as we all know are not hard to find, but the concept can be daunting. I ask students to observe design patterns in nature, to spend time walking around campus and think about how designs in nature could serve as inspiration for a wallpaper or a fabric. 
Students must also observe the built environment.  This means walking around our campus and the neighborhood.  As a follow-up to class sessions on Arts & Crafts architecture and the evolution of the bungalow style (so prevalent in the Pacific Northwest) students are asked to identify design elements such as stained class, fonts used on buildings and other decorative elements.  The final category of images I call “wildcard,” and these images may be from books we have examined in the Archives & Special Collections, from museums sites, or from materials shared by the guest speakers, who include local artists, printers, papermakers and architects that have joined the class. Students are asked to present these images in their own design journal and prepare reflective statements that relate to the themes of the Arts & Crafts movement. 

Below are some of the examples from past Design Inspiration Journals. As you can see, students not only captured the spirit of the assignment, but used their own artistic and creative flair to present the content. I think William Morris would be impressed!

Perhaps the most engaging assignment is the final one, which takes the form of a writing prompt.  My goal was to find a way for students to truly reflect upon Morris and his contributions.  While a term paper can offer a scholarly analysis of a topic and showcase writing and research skills, it does not always demonstrate deeper understanding and reflection.  The final assignment in the class is a reflective response to a writing prompt I developed titled A Letter to Jane.  The letter opens with a reference to the novel News from Nowhere in which the narrator wakes up in the future.  In my letter William Morris wakes up in Tacoma, Washington and students are asked to prepare a response to the letter, including references to guest speakers, class discussions, presentations, and lectures.  Some of the questions they must address in the response include:

  • If Morris were to visit Tacoma, Washington what do you think he would say about our city and community?
  • What would he find that is beautiful and useful?
  • What would he think about a big box store like Target or Ikea?
  • What would he say about the architecture on campus and in our community?
  • What would he think about the current political activism on campus and in the community?  How might this relate to his Socialist political ties?
  • Would Morris relate to any of the visiting artists we met in class and if so, why?
  • Are there parallels in our society that reflect some of the principles of the Arts & Crafts movement?
  • As a result of taking this course, how has your own understanding of Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement evolved?
  • How have the values of Morris and the movement affected your own personal thoughts on the value of art in our society?
  • Finally, if you were to describe to your friends what you have learned in this class, what would you say?
Students are free to express their responses in a creative manner.  For example, some students wrote a second letter by Morris to Jane, while another student prepared an interview with Morris that would be published in a local newspaper.  Only a few students opt for the traditional essay.  Students are expected to back up their responses with references to scholarly articles and resources discussed in class, including individuals, specific works of art, and primary source documents.
The Letter to Jane is reproduced below and makes specific references to our local community.  I am a great advocate of problem-based learning (PBL), and one of the key elements of PBL is that it is important to connect with the student’s real world.  By referencing the local community, students are drawn in to the story Morris tells in his letter and can make connections with the university, the speakers and the area we live in. This type of assignment can be modified to fit your own local community and provides a new and engaging way to encourage reflection and demonstrate learning through making connections with the past and present.
–Jane Carlin, University of Puget Sound


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