'The Road Less Travelled': Out with the New, in with the Old? Thomas Hardy in the News

Article excerpt

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Perhaps it is inevitable in the early years of a new millennium that polite public discourse is filled with talk of epochs and ages, and accounts of late twentieth century decades that history has caught up with. In the world of ICT, it is out with the age of print and in with the digital era. And in schools of all sizes, shapes and kinds, we are just beginning to understand some of the implications this might have for teaching and learning.

One of these implications is that the use of ICT in the classroom changes space, time and regulative authority. Where time is concerned, instantaneous communication via email, webcam or online chat creates many new opportunities for the kinds of here-and-now learning that students are familiar with and enjoy in their out-of-school digital lives. We can tap into that as we find useful, engaging students in opportunities that arise to email questions or comment on blogposts by scientists, adventurers, journalists and poets, or to watch live webcam streaming of African water-holes and New York streets. It is a marvel that we can do these things, but one of the downsides for teachers is the way this kind of multimodal 'breaking news' experience can over-value the immediate, rendering anything old or in books as, ipso facto, insufferably dull.

Take Thomas Hardy as an example. His novels and poetry are amongst the most widely specified texts in the school English curriculum, 'classics' reinterpreted by succeeding generations in literary criticism, film and stage adaptation. Teachers, librarians, government curriculum authorities and parents might all regard the study of such a writer an important part of a young person's cultural formation, but given the expectation of immediacy and the more visually dynamic demands on a young person's attention in a digital age, how do we get beyond mere dutiful submission to the requirements of external assessment, and into the kinds of personal engagement with the text that might instead fuel them for a richer experience of life?

One way that we can start to bridge between these diverging interests is to draw on that enthusiasm for the here-and-now, but to shift it back in time. Digital newspaper archives provide exactly this kind of time travel. We might be looking at a block of plain text, written in the more elaborate journalistic style of the 18th or 19th centuries, about people long gone and events almost forgotten, but there is something very special about seeing this in a digital approximation of the way it appeared in its own day, in facsimile, and in a form--the newspaper--that we more usually treat as ephemeral. In the case of Thomas Hardy, or any other writer, he was not always 'Thomas Hardy the Great Writer'. His reputation was something worked at and contested, his novels advertised not as classics but as new books that might or might not succeed, and reviews in his own lifetime new knowledge not received wisdom.

Exploring The Times archive, we see Thomas Hardy in his own time, and his work as judged in relation to contemporaneous literary and moral values. Below is an excerpt from a review of Hardy's last novel, Jude The Obscure. Dated December 18, 1895, it is a pungent critique by one of the many critics who objected to it on moral grounds, including a bishop who publicly burned it.

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To read in an authoritative national newspaper the words ' "Jude the Obscure" is, to speak plainly, a somewhat dull novel' can be a revelation to students, a liberating path to finding their own critical voices. It might also come as a surprise to students that reviews of this apparently ephemeral kind might make a difference to the course of literary history: Hardy claimed that the negative reviews he received for Jude the Obscure led him, at least in part, to abandon the writing of fiction.

What we also see here, side by side, is a list of donations to a poor-box and an account of a bankruptcy hearing for The Turner Pneumatic Tyre Company (Limited), both helping to embody Hardy and his work in an everyday world students can find points of connection with, rather than asking them to leap straight up into the rarefied air of Eng Lit, the academic subject. …