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Re-Joycing in the Classroom

One of our trustees recently told me of a conversation he had with a friend of his, the president of a selective liberal arts college. Acknowledging that all of higher education is suffering in this economic climate, he said something rather striking: In difficult times, having a distinctive “product” is enviable, and Sarah Lawrence offers just such a distinctive, even unique, education.

It is hard not to envy his institution’s billion-dollar endowment, reduced as it may be these days, but he makes an important point. Ours is a highly accomplished and productive faculty, and although they are often cited nationally for their creativity and research, the clear mission of our college is to offer inspired and inspiring teaching, delivered largely through small seminars, conference work, and an open curriculum, with students wisely guided by the donning system. That’s our signature.

I chose to teach a course this year— my second as president—to try to gain a real understanding of what it is like to be a teacher and a student at Sarah Lawrence. Admittedly, one course is a small sample, but there seemed no better way to understand this singular education, to get to know at least some Sarah Lawrence undergraduates as students, to have a sense of the rewards and challenges our faculty experience, and to charge my own batteries, since I love teaching.

The particular challenge of teaching at Sarah Lawrence is the intensity of the experience for both students and faculty. I definitely did not want to shortchange my students in my own desire to experience the Sarah Lawrence classroom. And I realized that if I went halfway in teaching “the Sarah Lawrence way,” it would be worse than not teaching at all.

I sought advice from colleagues— other new college presidents; the dean of the College, Pauline Watts; and literature faculty members, including Joe Lauinger, who became my don. In the end, I decided to teach a fall seminar titled “Who’s Afraid of James Joyce?” The one concession to my role as president was the size of the class—nine students rather than 15—but everything else was the same as in other courses: the interviewing process (a little like speed dating, I thought, although I have never done that), the biweekly conferences, the papers, and the conference work.

One of my students, India Nicholas ’09, wrote a funny (and slightly embarrassing) piece about the course in the Sadie Lou Standard. To rebut one of her claims: No, I do not have a tattoo of James Joyce anywhere on my person. And I did fulfill my promise to wear a different James Joyce symposium T-shirt at every class. Lest I shred any semblance of presidential gravitas with these disclosures, let me move on to more academic aspects of the course.

The class of two sophomores, one junior, and six seniors convinced me that Sarah Lawrence students are as billed—smart, independent, and intellectually adventurous. Everyone indeed participated in class discussions around the table in Westlands 104. From the spare style of Dubliners, which Joyce described as “scrupulous meanness,” to the comically voluble pages of the later chapters of Ulysses, the students grappled with modernist difficulty and seemed to thrive.

One of the pleasures of spending 10 weeks on Ulysses was watching students develop a thorough intimacy with the text, both its characters and its phrases. If you mention an event, a thought, or a particular sentence, they can usually tell you on what page you will find it. Arthur Miller wrote of Willy Loman that “attention must be paid.” I have always thought that in studying Joyce, the quality of “attention” students develop is quite extraordinary and will stand them in good stead no matter what they go on to study.

I have taught Joyce many times before, but had never experienced the conference system. Although I have been accustomed to healthy attendance during office hours, this was a new opportunity to engage each student in a sustained intellectual conversation over the duration of the course. I was intrigued by the topics of the conference papers—the power of food in Ulysses; Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses as circadian novels; Joyce and dramatic form—and eagerly watched students draw on their other courses to formulate a paper or conference topic. A course on the philosophy of aesthetics helped one student consider Stephen Dedalus’s religion of art; reading Flannery O’Connor in a writing workshop shed light on the different ways writers use detail. A cross-fertilization among courses, in action.

My previous teaching occurred within the quarter system, and I always found it frustrating to teach the 20th century novel according to such a fast-paced academic clock. An entire semester seemed a luxury. But by the end of the course, even a semester felt too short. The idea of a yearlong course—a staple at Sarah Lawrence—seems tempting, even making it possible to teach all of Finnegans Wake! However, I don’t want to push my luck.

Though it was too short, I found my semester of teaching as challenging, intense, and rewarding as reading James Joyce. Just for fun, our final class was devoted to a few pages of Finnegans Wake, and I am hopeful there is no one left who is still “afraid.”

Lawrence signature

Karen Lawrence
President

students in class

President Lawrence taught a course on James Joyce fall semester.

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