Engaging with Ulysses in the Classroom

The superior, the very reverend John Conmee S. J, reset his smooth watch in his interior pocket as he came down the presbytery steps. Five to three. Just nice time to walk to Artane. (Episode 10, Wandering Rocks from Ulysses by James Joyce)

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There is no doubt that Ulysses is often referred to as a ‘difficult book to read’, described as confusing, perhaps elitist, not for the everyday man but for the lofty professor. For this reason, the idea of approaching it with a group of adults who are gaining more confidence with their reading can seem a risky prospect. Yet sometimes engaging with the ‘hard books’ can be the most rewarding and liberating of accomplishments. What an achievement to wrestle the animal that is Ulysses, tame it and shape it into something of your own!

Since December 2018, a group on Thursday mornings here in DALC have been working on an art piece that illustrates Episode 10 of Ulysses. The group worked independently for the last few months on creating a map that shows Father Conmee making his way around Dublin in the afternoon and the various characters he meets. It details the street as mentioned in Ulysses, from Gardiner Street, Mountjoy Square to Newcomen Bridge.

The project began from a workshop on Pre-Texts delivered by one of our tutors Lisa Kilbride. Pre-Texts is a method of engaging active readers through finding creative or artistic ways of tackling difficult texts. Here are Lisa’s reflections on using Pre-Texts on this project:

“Much of my focus in teaching literacy is on reading functional everyday texts, but people also need to be able to engage with more complex texts in order to deal with bigger issues affecting them.

The literacy aim of Pre-Texts is to get people to engage with complex texts, ones that are perhaps too difficult for them to read without support, in order to make them their own.
The title Pre-Texts is mischievous. If, instead of treating “important” writers with great reverence, we take their work and engage with it creatively, the power is shifted. In the process of making something new, we can think critically about the text, about ourselves and about our world.

The process is very engaging for students, and the tutors are participants rather than instructors. Pre-texts is an attempt to have tutors and students act together to find meaning in a text.

The map making activity was greeted with great enthusiasm and the participants got totally engaged in making a quite large model of the journey. We are all connected with the places in the text. DALC is in number 3 Mountjoy Square, so the journey in the text begins around the corner and passes along the square. One of the participants lived on Mountjoy square as a child and they all live in the areas mentioned – Fitzgibbon Street, along the North Circular Road, near the Five Lamps and the North Strand.

The students have been interested enough to continue with the creative work without the project being led by a tutor. It is useful to know about Ulysses and James Joyce if you live in this area. We often get stopped outside DALC by tourists lost on the Ulysses trail. The students enjoy knowing a bit about Joyce and being able to give directions to North Great Georges Street, which is nearby and the location of the James Joyce Museum. One of my aims was to diffuse the power of Ulysses as a high status cultural object. It is seen as difficult and unreadable by the ordinary person. I think that we have seen that it is only ink on paper and that we need not fear it. The students may not read any more of the book, but they can certainly discuss the early pages of The Wandering Rocks episode. The purpose of the using Pre-Texts here was also to take Joyce’s story and to use it to make our own story. Just as Joyce did, we can also create a story about the landmarks and characters of our Dublin. I hope that we are on our way to achieving this.”

 

 

The group interpreted it as their own from the words and images used by Joyce, mapping out the journey Father Conmee took in the text. The map below illustrates Episode 10 to include the streets, Mountjoy Square Park, the tram, the barge, the shops and buildings, the characters from Ulysses, dressed as described by Joyce:

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The group chose phrases and lines from the text and ‘layered’ it onto the piece:

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The text was used to prompt more writing and discussion about their own memories of the area, the places and people from their childhood:

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For more on pre-texts see:
http://www.pre-texts.org/