Professor Wu's Rulebook

David Foster Wallace: the teacher’s spiel

David Foster Wallace. Photograph via Wikipedia Commons

By now, David Foster Wallace has acquired a quasi-mythical status among followers of both literature and pop-culture. That there has recently been a film made about him, The End of the Tour, starring Jason Segal, has only fuelled the fascination and discussion that follows the late writer around. He is certainly no longer seen as “just a penis with a thesaurus”, as John Updike dismissed him in a 1997 review.

With his 2005 speech to students at Kenyon College, This is Water, having gone viral, and a plethora of articles and blogs written about him, it seems we just can’t get enough of a man we have elevated from tortured literary genius admired by an intense cult following into a huge presence in our cultural and public consciousness – a man seen by some as a sort of modern literary saint; a professor of sustaining wisdom who is there to shine a light to guide our way forward, and also who can help us make sense of a world, which so often seems senseless.

But what was he actually like as a teacher, as a professor? His various novels and essay collections aside – we gain intriguing insights through the collection of interviews Wallace took part in that are available online. And we can now gain an extraordinary look at what those students he taught might have encountered, via the course syllabus he wrote for the class he taught at Pomona College in 2005 – available to us all via Scribd.

DFW Syllabus

We totally recommend you check out the full text, but we thought we’d pick out some of our favourite bits, including what Wallace describes as the “basic course spiel”:

“The goals of [this course] are to survey certain important forms of modern literature […] and to introduce you to some techniques for achieving a critical appreciation of literary art. “Critical appreciation” means having smart, sophisticated reasons for liking whatever literature you like, and being able to articulate those reasons for other people, especially in writing. Vital for critical appreciation is the ability to “interpret” a piece of literature, which basically means coming up with a cogent, interesting account of what a piece of lit means, what it’s trying to do to/for the reader, what technical choices the author’s made in order to try and achieve the effects she wants, and so on. As you can probably anticipate, the whole thing gets very complicated and abstract and hard, which is one reason why entire college departments are devoted to studying and interpreting literature.”

Some other gems:

“There is no such thing as ‘falling a little behind’ in the course reading; either you’ve done your homework or you haven’t.”


“Our class can’t really function if there isn’t student participation – it will become just me giving a half-assed ad-lib lecture for 90 minutes, which (trust me) will be horrible in all kinds of ways.”

It’s also fascinating that Wallace tackles the question of himself as teacher head on in this syllabus. He writes: “[I am] not a professional literary scholar. In fact, though my job title at the college says “Professor of English”, I am not a professor, because I do not have a Ph.D.”

And, in an admonishing statement, he also notes that his experience as a teacher is limited – in fact is something he is essentially learning as he goes along: “There may be a certain amount of pedagogical clunkiness about this section of [the course]. You will, in effect, be helping me learn how to teach this class.”

Yet there’s no doubt that Wallace takes his teaching seriously – and for anyone who likes to think of him as the sort of spiritual mentor or teacher you might find in the swamps of Dagobar, think again. Wallace warns students: “I draw no distinction between the quality of one’s ideas and the quality of those ideas’ verbal expression, and I will not accept sloppy, rough-draftish, or semiliterate college writing. Again, I am absolutely not kidding. If you won’t or can’t devote significant time and attention to your written work, I urge you to drop [the course] and save us both a lot of grief.”

Whether we like it or not, David Foster Wallace sits securely within the epicentre of our culture. There is no shortage of “virtue signalling” carried out these days when we discuss modern society – and there is an eagerness often encountered by people keen to show they know about him (and perhaps even have Infinite Jest – read or otherwise – on their bookshelves).

Yet Wallace would perhaps never himself thought of himself as the teacher or guide that we have made him become – and this syllabus provides us with intimate, tangible glimpses of that.



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