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Reading Ulysses in High School—For Fun!

Imagine a bunch of high school students staying after school in order to dig into Joyce’s Ulysses.  Although it sounds ambitious, that is exactly what a group of students are doing. Dylan Emerick-Brown is an English teacher at Deltona HS in Florida and he describes how he has managed to draw a surprisingly large group of students into this challenging literary odyssey.

As an English teacher, who teaches English II and AICE/Cambridge General Paper, I am always trying to find new and interesting ways to bring literature to life and engage my students. As such, I decided to incorporate my passion, the works of James Joyce, into some of the units. I was apprehensive, at first, given the daunting depth of Joyce’s works, but thought that the challenge was well worth the effort. I had proactive, talented students eager to learn; so, I created a few units that would throw them into the winding streets of early 20th century Dublin. To my surprise and joy, some of the students expressed an interest in Joyce and wanted to pursue additional opportunities beyond the classroom and dig deeper.

Following my first quarter unit on “The Dead” and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in my AICE/Cambridge 10thgrade class, I offered my students an ambitious and voluntary opportunity: spend the remaining three-quarters of the academic year meeting after school every Thursday, for an hour, to discuss an outlined reading of Ulysses, to be accompanied by written papers on topics of their choosing. Because I’m not a complete lunatic, I offered grade remediation in class for work completed on Ulysses to prove mastery of any missed standards. Permission forms were handed out and to my surprise about a dozen students signed up!

We average an episode per week, taking two weeks for some of the denser ones. Students read in their spare time, taking notes and jotting down questions. When we meet at the end of the day in our library’s Learning Commons, nestled in a horseshoe-shaped couch with a flat screen smart TV, we start going through the episode page by page. We discuss highlights, pose and attempt to answer questions, discover allusions between the novel and Homer’s The Odyssey, and marvel at all the parallax and attention to detail that went in to every character’s dialogue and behavior. I frequently use the TV, connected to my laptop, scenes in Dublin from the episode we are discussing, mini-narrations, brief synopses from YouTube, as well as other resources from the James Joyce Centre.

On Fridays, any students who would like to get a road map synopsis of the next episode can stop by my classroom during lunch. This way they know what’s coming up and have a resource to help them navigate some of the challenging curves and road blocks of Ulysses. When we got to the “Calypso” episode, introducing Leopold Bloom, in order to show the otherness of the protagonist who, despite being Irish and catholic (converted), is constantly seen as an outsider, I fed the students fried lamb kidney (hard to come by, easy to cook) just the way Bloom liked it. Their disgusted faces said it all. But they walked away understanding on a fundamental level how even subconsciously, through his choice of food, Bloom is definitely “other.”

I also engage by students through researching and writing papers of their choosing. I have a classroom library of Joycean books which I have collected over the years, including issues of the James Joyce Quarterly, that they can use for research. Some of their self-chosen topics include: an in-depth analysis on Stephen’s riddle from the “Nestor” episode; a study on the psychosomatic impotence of Leopold Bloom pertaining specifically to Molly; a look into Stephen Dedalus’s inherited poor sense of economics as symbolic of a colonized Ireland; and two papers delving into how Leopold Bloom, the perpetual “outsider” seeks assimilation while Stephen Dedalus, the native Irishman, rejects home, country, and God.

It is an incredibly rewarding and fun experience. I strongly suggest anyone interested in pursuing Joyce studies with high schoolers put aside intimidation and skepticism and welcome the challenge of creating a new generation of Joyce scholars.