November 4, 2020:
The apogee of my academic experience was a course on Ulysses in my third year.
We'd previously completed a fairly routine course on "Theory of the Novel" which I believe was part of the standard rotation. I say "fairly" routine because the reading was not the dominant New Criticism of a previous generation. Instead we encountered Northrop Frye, Ian Watt, Harold Bloom, and Erich Auerbach, a fairly wide exposure given the American context. To me it was useful primarily for Forster's Aspects of the Novel, a text which later became a cornerstone for understanding TriadCity. Yet it was nevertheless essentially conservative. We did not encounter Feminist criticism, Jameson, Lukács, Macherey, Eagleton, Barthes, Derrida or others who might have made the experience wider and more compelling. We did read Bleak House with its double narrators; Tristram Shandy with its anarchic subversiveness; but not Gravity's Rainbow, Naked Lunch, or other examples of literary Postmodernism. On the whole it was surprisingly tame given our previous undergraduate encounters with Freud, Marx, Darwin, and Einstein.
We did though read Ulysses, our only Modernist text that year. I read it, re-read it, read it some more. I read it for its humanity, the beauty of its language, its formalisms, but above all its Symbolist notion of matching form to content. It seemed radical to me, although the course did not do a strong job of explaining why. For that I had to encounter Brian McHale around twenty years later.
I wanted a deeper dive. One of the truly jawdroppingly great things about Johnston was its rule that if you could gather five students to commit to a shared interest, the appropriate professor was required to teach the course. I proposed reading Ulysses for an entire term, with criticism, Ellmann's bio of Joyce, and whatever else seemed appropriate. The timing was perfect, because many of us were traveling to Greece that winter, for which the Fall term was prep: intensive study of the Greek classics, plus Braudel on the Mediterranean. We were reading Homer, so that adding Ulysses to the mix was inspired.
I read the novel four or five more times, Ellmann twice. I took the novel and the bio to Greece, large books, part of the absurd traveling library I lugged, with the two volumes of Braudel, Freud, Passages From Antiquity to Feudalism, about forty pounds of pre-iPad ink-stained trees, reading and re-reading in my glacial, repetitive, and very thorough way, in chilly hostels without hot water, or onsite at ruins all over Greece and western Turkey and Sicily. I read it on the trip, yet again in San Diego in January. I'm not sure how many times I read it in 1979-80. Maybe twelve.
That was the most exciting intellectual adventure of my college career. It was the thing at which Johnston College excelled. Winging a new curriculum based on student interests, diving into an undergraduate course with graduate intensity, parallelizing the material to juxtapose Homer with Joyce, part of the time in Athens. Brilliant.
This is why I went to an alternative college, and I bless blonde rebellious teenage Kelly for bringing me those catalogs, one ugly drizzly Southern California day, at the very depth of my misery.