Sarah L. Townsend, University of New Mexico
This assignment demonstrates how Twitter can be used as a creative platform to enhance students’ understanding of experimental literary forms.
James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses has a reputation for being notoriously difficult, and teaching it in the undergraduate classroom entails addressing three barriers: its extreme referentiality, its formal experiments, and its immersion in early twentieth-century Dublin culture. While the first of these barriers can be overcome by consulting the many reference resources available, the latter two barriers require a creative pedagogical approach. My Twitter-based assignment titled ABQUlysses, which I designed for an upper-division literature course at the University of New Mexico, led students to engage with the novel’s form and locale by creating a series of tweets that imitated Joyce’s form and updated the content to reflect contemporary life in Albuquerque. A subsequent critical essay prompted students to reflect analytically upon the process. Twitter served as a crucial foundation for the project. It provided a user-friendly platform for sharing student work, and it facilitated alternative routes of communication that complemented those forged in the classroom.
The ABQUlysses assignment fills a gap in available resources for addressing the novel’s formal and place-specific challenges. While many published and open-source introductory guides exist, they can be burdensome in the undergraduate classroom, adding an onerous amount of reading to an already time-consuming novel. More information is also not necessarily better for student comprehension. Instead, a creative approach enhances students’ understanding and appreciation of the novel. By leading students to study and imitate formal features of each episode, to read their classmates’ entries, and to update the novel just as Joyce updated his source text (Homer’s The Odyssey), the assignment improved their comprehension and investment in the work while also building a valuable sense of community.
The Difficulty of Ulysses
The novel’s formal difficulty stems partly from its conceptual structure—a single-day narrative comprised of eighteen episodes loosely based on Homer’s epic—and partly from the use of modernist devices like stream of consciousness, unusual punctuation, and extensive wordplay. Furthermore, Ulysses exceeds the complexity of other modernist novels because it introduces a new experimental form with nearly each episode. Joyce narrates episodes in the form of ironic headlines and corresponding newspaper stories, a music-inspired “overture” of barroom sounds, a playscript, a series of catechistic questions and answers, eight very long run-on sentences, and more. Students’ ability to navigate the shifting experimental forms is key to their motivation, as is their investment in the novel’s hyper-attentive focus on the culture of 1904 Dublin. Joyce’s stated intention was “to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of [the] book” (quoted in Budgen 1972, 69). While background instruction can familiarize the setting for students unfamiliar with Irish history, it is valuable to establish other ways for students to engage with the novel’s obsession with locale.
The assignment consisted of two major components: a series of eighteen imitative tweets (one for each episode of Ulysses), and a longer creative adaptation of one episode, accompanied by a reflective analytical essay.
[Figure 1. ABQUlysses Assignment Description (Link to Google Doc)]
I directed students to create Twitter accounts that were separate from their personal accounts and which they would use only for this project. I subsequently compiled them in a list. I chose to use Twitter as a platform for several reasons. First, roughly half of the students were already familiar with Twitter—several had even used it previously for class assignments—and the remaining students were fluent in Facebook, which operates similarly. The students’ familiarity with the platform significantly reduced the need for preparatory instruction, and it amplified their excitement about the assignment. Second, the built-in limitation of 140 characters ensured brevity, an important consideration when students are handling difficult material. Third, the platform allowed the class to interact by “liking,” commenting on, and retweeting one another’s work. Fourth, it encouraged students to share the project publicly, thereby amplifying their perceived stake in the assignment. In anticipation of privacy concerns, I outlined the public nature of the assignment on the syllabus, allowed students to create anonymous accounts, provided clear expectations for their conduct online, and established policies for inappropriate or offensive submissions. Finally, Twitter is consistent with the novel’s interest in the evolution of language. In episode 14 (“Oxen of the Sun”), Joyce traces the gestation of English, moving from Old English treatises all the way through early twentieth-century dialect and slang. If the novel were written today, the episode would very likely conclude in SMS language (text-speak), Facebook posts, and tweets. Using Twitter for the assignment thus prompted students to connect Ulysses to the forms of communication they use daily.
The pacing of assignments complemented the reading and class-discussion schedule. Students composed their tweets on the same day we discussed the episode, while it was still fresh in their minds, leaving more than a day to review and “like” their classmates’ tweets before the next meeting. Starting the subsequent session with a conversation about the most popular tweets offered an incentive for creativity and provided a pivot from one episode to the next.
The second component of the assignment extended the Twitter project to bridge students’ creative work with literary analysis. The longer creative paragraphs allowed more space to experiment with Joyce’s form, and reading them aloud together became an important class ritual. Students benefited from studying their classmates’ approaches to the assignment, and they developed admiration for one another’s writing that sustained them during the long process of reading Ulysses. The discussion of each creative paragraph also provided the author with valuable feedback, which informed their subsequent critical essay.
Assessment and Conclusions
The two components of the assignment were assessed separately. Because the tweets were designed as a preparatory exercise, they received scores based upon their timely completion (90 percent), with a small percentage reserved for originality and effort (10 percent). The paragraph and essay accounted for a larger portion of the students’ final grades and were assessed together using the following rubric.
[Figure 2. Grading Rubric for Assignment (Link to Google Doc)]
In addition to contributing to the course’s broader goals, the assignment successfully facilitated four learning objectives specific to the unit on Ulysses.
- The assignment aided students’ understanding of experimental literary forms through creative imitation. By identifying and copying elements of Joyce’s form, students read the novel with greater confidence and analyzed it more successfully in their critical essays. Furthermore, a few students advanced from imitation to transformation, thereby reimagining episodes by developing original formal structures that differed from, but captured the essential elements of, Joyce’s writing.
- The assignment demystified unfamiliar linguistic and literary structures by drawing on structures familiar to students, including SMS language and social media. By critically examining the construction of their own habitual modes of expression, students were able to identify common features between the novel’s modes of address and contemporary linguistic utterances, including irony, parody, hyperbole, sarcasm, and punning. Rather than provoke skepticism, using Twitter motivated the students to connect their reading to other facets of the cultural milieu.
- The assignment facilitated students’ investment in the location and time of Joyce’s novel by developing connections to local culture. By comparing the social dynamics of Joyce’s society and their own, students better understood the novel’s place-specific concerns. For instance, they noticed similar infrastructural debates (cattle-transport schemes in Ulysses resemble a controversial local rapid-transit project) and urban divisions (Dublin’s Liffey River, like Albuquerque’s Central Avenue, forms the geographic and socioeconomic boundary between north and south sides of the city). By immersing themselves in oft-overlooked elements of local culture, they better appreciated Joyce’s interest in everyday life.
- The assignment enhanced students’ collaborative learning and sense of community by incorporating social media in a pedagogically effective application. By “liking” and retweeting one another’s work, students engaged with different interlocutors than those with whom they interacted in the physical classroom. Twitter also bolstered the confidence of students who were reserved in face-to-face meetings. Finally, by learning from one another’s strategies for adapting experimental literature, students fashioned a supportive community for collaborative learning.
Blamires, Harry. 1966. The Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses. London: Methuen.
Budgen, Frank. 1972. James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.
Fargnoli, A. Nicholas, and Michael Patrick Gillespie. Joyce A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Gifford, Don, and Robert J. Seidman. 2008. Ulysses Annotated. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gilbert, Stuart. 1952. James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Study. New York: Knopf.
Kiberd, Declan. 2009. Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece. New York: Norton.
McKenna, Bernard. 2002. James Joyce’s Ulysses: A Reference Guide. Westport: Greenwood Press.
Tindall, William York. 1959. A Reader’s Guide to James Joyce. New York: Noonday Press.
 Gifford and Seidman (2008) offers the most comprehensive print volume of annotations for the novel, and it has been complemented in recent years by a variety of digital initiatives. Nevertheless, readers can obtain a sound understanding of the novel without extensively tracing references, and reference resources can be considered optional in the undergraduate classroom.
 Classic companion texts include Gilbert (1952), Tindall (1959), and Blamires (1966); newer noteworthy guides include Fargnoli and Gillespie (1996), McKenna (2002), and Kiberd (2009).
 A Twitter list allows one to collect, read, and share via URL the tweets posted by its members.
 Anonymous accounts prevent the public from accessing one’s personally identifying information, like name and location. However, students were aware that their classmates would know their usernames.
 Assuming a Mon-Wed-Fri or Tu-Th schedule. Deadlines can be adjusted to accommodate classes that meet on back-to-back days.