'Consider all aspects thoroughly'

By Jolanta Wawrzycka

SCHEV Outstanding Faculty Award recipient and Dalton Eminent Scholar Jolanta Wawrzycka, Ph.D., reflects on her evolution as a teacher and scholar.

Jolanta Wawrzycka, Ph.D.

In July 2019, I participated again in the Joyce Summer School at the University of Trieste in Italy, attended by dozens of students from all over the globe. I lectured on music in James Joyce’s ”Ulysses,” specifically on the “Penelope” chapter. It is written as a continuous stream of thoughts that run through the character Molly’s head. I focused on phrases that disrupt her thoughts and make the chapter difficult to read. Molly is a singer and, by now, Joyce scholars have discovered most of the songs that enter her mind. But I speculated that some of the strange phrases are still unrecognized as songs. My research confirmed this. I built media slides with quotations synched to music and played the newly discovered songs to show how they deepen our understanding not only of Molly’s character but also of Joyce’s technique of indirect representation.

Feedback from students made me truly happy. One of them, Shinjan, a young woman from India, wrote:

“Both Joyce and music are fascinating to me. Your lecture has changed the way in which I read ‘Penelope’ — not just because of your arguments but also because of the way in which you presented it. It has definitely enriched my reading of Joyce and has inspired me to study this aspect, the interface between music and Joyce, more carefully.”      

Shinjan closed by asking for a copy of my lecture; she said she wanted to study the details of my research and “to consider all aspects thoroughly.” That clear articulation of her wish touched me because “considering things thoroughly” is what I have been doing for nearly four decades since my arrival to the U.S. from Poland to pursue a Ph.D. My thorough focus saw me through grad school, and luck brought me to Radford University, where I began serving my adoptive country in one of the most fundamental ways — by teaching.

Honestly, I never thought I’d be a teacher. With interests in translation and theatre, I was on a different path. But that changed after I switched departments from theatre to English and became a teaching assistant. I quickly discovered that the classroom is both a translation forum and a stage, where language and performance come with mandatory rehearsals, stage fright and strict audiences. I loved the challenge of that environment and, always a lover of books and libraries, I also fell in love with research. I remember being sorry to have defended my doctorate because a great chapter of my life had come to a close.

Keep searching. Keep mining. Keep minding." Jolanta Wawrzycka, Ph.D.

But Radford University opened another chapter where my teaching and research continued, supported by grants and awards that tacitly recognized my effective synthesis of what Ernest Boyer calls scholarships of teaching, discovery, integration and service. I have grown to understand them in terms of teacherly learning, best achieved by teacherly doing. Unlike that rookie assistant professor I was 34 years ago, I stopped hiding behind content-heavy lectures, learning instead to balance my delivery by turning the tables and giving students a stake in my classes.

I teach a variety of courses, from Irish studies and modernism to literary criticism and Nobel Prize literature/the legacy of Alfred Nobel. I ask myself lots of questions about how to make writers like Tagore, Mahfouz, Gordimer or Szymborska speak to my students. I don’t have the answers but discussing with them the nuts and bolts of how literary language works helps. We consider the fact that, when we read world literature in English, we read the translator, not the author —something obvious enough and yet not readily realized. In my criticism course, for example, I select foundational texts by Plato or Aristotle based on who translated them: for some passages, I favor Richard Janko’s rendition of “Poetics,” and for others, S. H. Butcher’s — they use different wording for Aristotle’s concepts. We also do a lot of close readings to study how and why words/metaphors can please or deceive or mislead us. Or why our first encounter with writers like James Joyce frustrates our assumptions about plot, meaning, or reading process that calls for research — and it’s difficult to read Joyce without research, which may be why Shinjan wrote to ask for a hard copy of my findings so she can “consider all aspects” much more thoroughly than my lecture could have done.

Shinjan’s request confirms my long-standing belief that it is reading-with-research that brings students to “our” side of the student-teacher equation. My work as a translator and my teaching in a third language help me stay tuned to my students’ need for what I call incubation time — the time it takes to absorb new findings and challenging content. I never forget that forming responses to new readings is a slow process, prone to the vagaries of attention and comprehension and often demanding a change of one’s language habits. Regardless of students’ future careers, language will always be the tool of trade for them.

In my own scholarship, I deal with all aspects of language/languages, literature as cultural memory and translation. Like other scholars of translation, I operate on the atomic level of words to speculate why a word, a phrase, or a concept may be impossible to translate into other languages and cultures — which is why, in the shrinking world of globalism, translation scholarship matters in broader, non-academic terms. So much is riding on using language responsibly. Many instances could be cited to illustrate how tenuous our understanding of linguistic and cultural otherness can be, on national and international levels. Both my teaching and my scholarship pivot around these richly fascinating topics.

A student once asked me what advice I would give to incoming freshmen. I answered: “Keep searching, keep mining, keep minding.” Now I can see that it is just another way of saying: “consider all aspects thoroughly.” I believe that striving to know anything thoroughly can keep us content and on the path to the betterment of all of us. As a teacher, I know that there are enough Shinjans all over the globe who follow this drive. By doing so, they live by Alfred Nobel’s creed: “Contentment is the real wealth.”


Jun 21, 2021