On Teaching Joyce’s Ulysses

Ulysses Image

The past few years I had been mulling over whether I should teach a course on James Joyce’s Ulysses. During the last four years, I have been a humanities instructor at the Oakton Community College Emeritus program, which offers non-credit continuing education courses to, as the promotional brochures say, “students who weren’t born yesterday.”
I have taught courses on the short stories of Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Joseph Epstein, as well the newspaper columns of Ben Hecht and Mike Royko. I expanded my literary boundaries a bit by offering on what turned out to be a highly successful class on the Man Booker Literary Prize winning novels. But Joyce’s Ulysses would definitely pose my greatest teaching challenge.
I never doubted my expertise to teach the book. I had read it three times prior to my taking a course on the book with Steve Diedrich at the Newberry Library in 2007 which for me was a major breakthrough in my understanding of the text. Steve also emceed the Bloomsday readings at the Cliff Dwellers, and I soon became an annual attendee at that event. In 2009 I spent an intensive and highly educational Bloomsday in Dublin.
So last May the powers-to-be in the Emeritus program approved my proposal to teach Joyce’s Ulysses this fall. I would offer ten weekly sessions; each session being ninety minutes. I needed a minimum of ten students to enroll in the course. I truly worried that the perceived difficulty of the book would scare potential students away.
But to my pleasant surprise seventeen students enrolled. Then after the first class I was concerned that some students might drop out. One did, after the second class. The other sixteen remained, and fourteen had perfect attendance and two just missed one session.
It was a remarkable group of students. They were thoroughly engaged in the process of trying to understand the complicated structure and the textured cascading narrative of the book. My approach to teaching the course was similar to Steve’s, which meant that roughly 80% of the time in class was reading and explicating the text on my part, with the rest of the time answering the questions and the concerns of the students.
As I read out loud the final emphatic “Yes” of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy to conclude the book and course, the class spontaneously applauded. We had collectively finished a challenging literary voyage, the tide of words a bit choppy at times, but in the end we all felt the kind of joy and satisfaction that great literature can elicit in our hearts and minds.

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