Award-winning teachers find the unexpected
By Sara Olkon
Photo courtesy of Johanna Winant
Ulysses is a book that has recurred in my life. Every four or five years I read it, and I find more in it.”
This past Winter Quarter, Johanna Winant had a teaching offer she could have refused.
A PhD candidate in English, Winant already had fulfilled her doctoral teaching requirements. Moreover, she lived almost 1,000 miles away in Boston, with her husband, a high school teacher.
So when when department heads asked if she was interested in teaching a course, Winant took pause. Only her dream course could justify the separation. She thought long and hard; and “yes she said, yes she would, yes” teach James Joyce’s Ulysses.
“Ulysses is a book that has recurred in my life,” she says of the classic modern novel. “It's been like a pivot. Every four or five years I read it, and I find more in it.”
Students took note of her evident passion, nominating her for the 2011 Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prize for Excellence in Teaching.
“Johanna is a truly incredible instructor,” wrote one student in a class evaluation. “She was enthusiastic, funny, intensely dedicated to her students and really conveyed her love of Joyce, making it contagious.”
Another student took it a step further: “I think I learned how to be a better person.”
As a scholar, Winant is focused on the fields of lyric poetry and poetics as well as 20th-century literature. She returns often to particular problems such as the lyric speaker, figurative language, and aesthetic and epistemological questions about poetry.
A year earlier, she earned another round of rave reviews for a course she taught on the poets Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath.
“[She] was extremely enthusiastic about these poets, and I found this infectious,” a student wrote of the winter 2010 course. “It has showed me how to think about poetry, but also raised concepts and ideas that help me to think about the world in a new way.”
For Winant, teaching in the College has helped her deepen her own doctoral work, sometimes in unexpected ways.
“It reminds me what the fundamental questions are,” she says. “It always picks me up out of a writing slump.”
Winant says she was drawn to teach Ulysses for its complexity.
“Initially, I found it to be beautiful and strange and wonderful and difficult,” she says.
On subsequent readings, Winant uncovered layers of sensitivity and seriousness, crediting the work for helping to develop patience and generosity.
“It really challenges you in ways that aren't just intellectual,” she says. “It reminds us of how to read, and why we do.”