For this installment of our “Clever, Very” series, we interviewed Dylan Emerick-Brown, an English teacher at Deltona High School in Florida who frequently teaches Joyce to his students. His essay, “Engaging Today’s High School Students with ‘The Dead,’” which appears in JJQ 56.3-4, outlines the fundamentals of his his methods for introducing Joyce to contemporary high school students.
James Joyce Quarterly: Joyce is a notoriously difficult writer to understand due both to the form and context of his writing. What made you think that high school students would benefit from an in-depth section on Joyce?
Dylan Emerick-Brown: I’ve always believed in teaching what you’re passionate about and for me that’s the works of James Joyce. When a teacher engages students in something they care about, know about, and are excited to share, it’s contagious with the students. So that was my initial interest in teaching Joyce. I teach the General Paper course of our school’s AICE/Cambridge program and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that a lot of what I had to teach the students was already buried within Joyce’s works. These topics included literature, media, philosophy, history, economics, moralism, politics, sociology, and more. Plus, works such as “The Dead” or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man would provide perfect texts from which to engage in these analyses and criticisms, helping the students to develop their reasoning, interpretation, and evaluative skills. There is so much with Joyce’s works that spans from the literary to non-fictional and an entire range of themes. I couldn’t resist. And when the students really responded positively, I knew I had something here.
JJQ: Is it true that your Ulysses reading group is actually growing? Why do you think that is?
Emerick-Brown: Yes, our Ulysses Reading Group started with around seventeen students last year. This year we started with twenty-six. After our unit on “The Dead” and then A Portrait, the Ulysses Reading Group is a voluntary hour per week, after school, that spans three-quarters of the school year. The students have the option of writing papers that can remediate class work so there are academic benefits, but most students simply stay for the discussions and enjoy reading on their own time. It is worth mentioning that the number of students in the group dwindles a little by the end due to their other priorities, but so far, this year’s group members are hanging in there.
I’d venture to guess that the group is growing because each year I get better at teaching Joyce. The students see me having fun and they want to be a part of that. We have a good time with “The Dead” and A Portrait; so, I tell the students if they want to follow Stephen Dedalus and keep this going, join up. Plus, I’ve helped them a bit more this year with creating TeachingJoyce.com which has guiding PowerPoint slides for each episode, helpful links, resources, pictures, and more. I even have real objects from the novel to give the students a more tangible experience, such as a ceramic container of Plumtree’s Potted Meat, a bar of lemon soap from Sweeny’s Pharmacy, an early twentieth-century Jacob’s biscuit tin hurled straight from the Citizen episode, and even the genuine and rare one-hundred-year-old Bolivian postcard Murphy the sailor passes around the cabman’s shelter.
Perhaps the real secret for the group’s growth though is that the students love it when I cook them up some pork kidneys to try when we review the “Calypso” episode. Though they gag and suck on about thirty Tic Tacs afterwards, it certainly makes the novel come alive. Nothing shows the “otherness” of Bloom quite like his diet.
JJQ: How does Joyce speak to young people today? What kinds of connections do you find them making to the world of Joyce’s Edwardian Dublin?
Emerick-Brown: A big part of the AICE/Cambridge General Paper course I teach focuses on the context of contemporary topics and issues in regard to the texts we read. So, when we talk about the social and class differences in “The Dead,” or Gabriel Conroy feeling out of place among his family, or Gabriel feeling the pangs of jealousy over his wife’s former love, these are all familiar themes to my students on a very real level. It’s all very high school. Even Stephen Dedalus has been referred to as a slightly less whiny Holden Caulfield with an Irish accent. People forget that for a good portion of A Portrait, Stephen is either close to or exactly the age of the high school students reading the novel.
Edwardian Dublin may be distant in time and space, but some things in Joyce’s world are all too familiar to my students: Gabriel Conroy being outed by a contemporary for a secret hobby (as Miss Ivors does with Gabriel’s literary column in The Daily Express), Stephen Dedalus being teased by schoolmates for not knowing whether or not it’s right to kiss his mother, or Bloom enjoying a morning bowel movement or picking at his toenails in the evening. Early twentieth-century Dublin becomes a background character while the students feel their way through the dark and discover there’s more relatability in these texts than they initially realized. Then, once they’re comfortable and picking up momentum, Dublin shines and they start to explore the unknown with more confidence.
JJQ: Joyce’s Dublin sometimes seems impossibly distant from our world. How do you go about providing meaningful historical context for high school students? Have you been surprised by what they don’t know? Or what they find through digital media?
Emerick-Brown: I’ve often thought that if Joyce’s Dublin was impossibly distant from our world, only early twentieth-century Dubliners would read Joyce’s works. As I said above, there’s so much richness in Joyce’s stories that’s timeless. There’s not even much difference between the political scandal of Charles Stewart Parnell with Kitty O’Shea and contemporary political scandals and affairs. As the adage goes, history repeats itself. And it all carries over into other texts we read. For example, the English colonial presence in Ireland introduced in Joyce’s works sets up a great foundation for the English colonization of Nigeria in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which we read at the end of the school year.
I’m rarely surprised by the lack of global historical knowledge my 15-year-old come in with. However, I am routinely taken aback by their eagerness to learn and engage in new texts, both the literature and the non-fiction for historical context. What they don’t know is made up for in their tenacity to overcome such deficiencies. And to that end, I find myself playing Virgil guiding my lost Dantes through the hell of the internet, avoiding Wikipedia and random .com’s in order to steer them towards JSTOR, Google Scholar, and the .edu’s. No other generation in human history has had so much information at their fingertips, but imagine the swirling headache of being a teenager attempting to navigate it all. It’s nearly as daunting as reading Ulysses.
JJQ: You mention that you hope to instill core practices of literary criticism in your students. Why is it important to you to teach these practices and theories?
Emerick-Brown: My students need to develop independent reasoning skills, interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and persuasion as part of their course syllabus. Utilizing literary criticism is an effective and fun way to hone these skills. We review various types of literary criticism such as moral, gender studies, Marxist, structuralism, formalism, and psychoanalytic. Then the students get to dip their toes into these criticisms by writing columns for their own newspaper following the biggest social event of the season: The Morkan sisters’ annual Epiphany feast at 15 Usher’s Island. The student reviewing Gabriel’s speech does so from a formalist perspective, focusing solely on the speech and its effectiveness for Gabriel’s purpose toward that audience; and the student reviewing the partygoers and their interactions does so from a gender studies perspective, noting any traditional gender roles such as Gabriel’s embarrassment in the closet with Lily or unorthodox gender roles such as the staunchly independent Miss Ivors lancing Gabriel (both in dance and wit).
Then when we get to A Portrait, I let the students choose what criticism interests them and develop a thesis for their paper. So, a student interested in psychology can trace Stephen’s cognitive development through the novel as his id, ego, and superego compete for dominance; a student interested in economics can draw connections between the Dedalus family’s financial decline and its impact on Stephen’s views of the world and relationships; a student exploring their own sexuality within the social constructs they find themselves in can interpret the impacts of various women on Stephen’s life such as his mother, Emma from the tram, Mercedes from The Count of Monte Cristo, and the even the Virgin Mary. Literary criticism can be a powerful and engaging way for students to explore a text in depth.
JJQ: You propose using a number of role-playing activities, such as playing the roles of Gretta and a marriage counselor as a means to examine the characters’ psychology in “The Dead.” I’m wondering why you find these attempts at role playing to be more effective than traditional methods of teaching critical approaches?
Emerick-Brown: So, this segues perfectly from the literary criticism lesson from “The Dead.” I don’t want to throw these cautious and intimidated students into the deep end of the pedagogical pool by giving them a literary criticism paper in the first few weeks of school; so, we start with a short newspaper column from a narrow critical perspective. Then, in A Portrait we go full throttle into literary criticism. I couldn’t expect students to initially see the depth and complexity of the characters Joyce created, so I figured that role playing might help them to let their guard down. It would feel more entertaining than evaluative. They really start to empathize with the characters when they look at them through a marriage counselor’s perspective, treating them like real people. And if there’s one age group interested in delving into other people’s relationships, it’s teenagers. From there, they go back into the text and start to see the dialogue, body language, and subtle behaviors differently. This allows the students to really see why and how these characters develop throughout the text the way they do. Getting the students out of their comfort zones and trying new approaches to a text like this really takes away the intimidation of reading Joyce and allows the students to connect with what they’re reading. Times change; settings can be foreign; but people are simply people and my students have at least that in common with the least familiar piece of literature. And nobody writes realistic people quite like Joyce. Once the students realize they can engage in literature in ways new ways, it sets them up nicely for the other texts we read throughout the year.