Re-Joycing in the Classroom
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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.”