In Class: Tale Teller

James Joyce scholar and English Department head Vicki Mahaffey on singing Ulysses, teaching fairy tales and the brilliance of older learners

UI English Department head Vicki Mahaffey. (Image by L. Brian Stauffer)
James Joyce scholar and English Department head Vicki Mahaffey on singing Ulysses, teaching fairy tales and the brilliance of older learners

My experience of teaching Ulysses is that it takes almost two-thirds of the semester to get students in the mood because the resistance is very strong. It involves a certain amount of exuberance on my part.

Ulysses was modeled on Homer’s Odyssey. And the Odyssey is an oral epic. In some ways, Ulysses also is an oral epic. The challenge is to make it jump off the page. To have all of its tonalities, all of its styles, all of its shades of humor come to life for students, singing helps.

A few years ago, Random House listed Ulysses as the most important book of the 20th century. People immediately got on the Internet and voted Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead their choice—which I think is an hysterically funny contrast.

I also teach a class on fairy tales. In a way, it’s the very opposite of teaching Joyce. People think Joyce is too hard; people think fairy tales are going to be easy.

I take a fairy tale, like Sleeping Beauty. I give students the versions from Charles Perrault and Grimm. I give them the Disney version. I give them an Irish version. I give them an Italian version, which is one of the earliest. It’s a rape tale in which a king finds a sleeping woman in a locked house when he’s looking for his hawk. And she’s beautiful, so it’s okay to “gather the fruits of love.”

(Image by L. Brian Stauffer)

The students also look at recent feminist revisions, which are shocking, very adult. In Angela Carter’s retelling, Sleeping Beauty is a vampire who’s cursed to suck the blood of men who come to stay in her house.

I teach Irish literature, and what’s interesting is that lots of people are of Irish descent, but almost no one is taught Irish history in school. Students know there was a French Revolution. They know there was an American Revolution. They do not know there was an Irish Revolution at the same time and that the Irish were put down in a really bloody set of battles. They do not know, mostly, that Ireland was under British rule for 900 years. And that the Irish were essentially in the same subservient position relative to the British as former slaves were in the U.S.

I’ve been teaching courses at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which is really fun. I just did the fairy tales course there this fall. I’ve also taught Joyce and Yeats. It’s been really rewarding.

The older learners understand what a privilege learning is. They know it changes the way in which they live their lives. And they’re willing to talk. They say brilliant things. They say heartfelt things. For the undergraduates, a lot of this is academic. It’s not academic for the older learners. And that’s delightful.

I think it’s really important to advocate for the liberal arts. Because liberal, of course, means “free.” And one of the things that a liberal arts education was designed to do is to help people think with more independence and originality. And that’s happening less and less.

Edited and condensed from an interview conducted on Dec. 6, 2017.