What Was David Foster Wallace Like As a Teacher?

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Michael Krebber's Bruce Jones (2008). Photo: Getty Images

One of David Foster Wallace's former students has posted the syllabus from the author's 2005 Pomona College Literary Interpretation class. It's a pretty dry, standard document which gives the impression that this was probably a pretty great, straightforward class: Students read Faulkner, J.M. Coetzee, and Thomas Harris, and were responsible for three five-to-ten-page papers throughout the course. Wallace sounds as anal as any given teacher about the proper format on title pages and the importance of proper legibility, and recommends purchasing "a large, roomy pocket folder that's just for this class."

There are, of course, a few more interesting bits for DFW nerds, like how Wallace drops the "Foster" in the "instructor info" blurb. And then there's the "caveat emptor," on the last page, which more or less attempts to talk kids out of taking his class:

(1)Your instructor is 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.


(2) Your instructor has taught intro lit courses before, but not for several years, and never before at a college this selective. The upshot is that there may be a certain pedagogical clunkiness about this section of English 67. You will, in effect, be helping me learn how to teach this class. The level of our discussions may have to be adjusted up, or down, depending on how well-prepared you guys are and how quickly you catch on to the concepts and techniques of "close reading." Certain approaches might turn out to be a waste of time. There may be abrupt changes in the syllabus. Extra work may be added. Let me say that again: Extra work may be added.

(4) Your instructor has high standards for the written work you turn in. Take another close look at Course Rules & Procedures Items 4 and 7 on page 3 of the syllabus. I know that many professors say this kind of hard-ass stuff at the beginning of the term but don't actually mean it or enforce it as the course wears on. I, however, do mean it, and I will enforce it — feel free to verify this with students who've taken other classes with me. If you want to improve your academic writing and are willing to put extra time and effort into it, I am a good teacher to have. But if you're used to whipping off papers the night before they're due, running them quickly through the computer's Spellchecker, handing them in full of high-school errors and sentences that make no sense, and having the professor accept them "because the ideas are good" or something, please be informed that I draw no distinction between the quality of one's ideas and the quality of those ideas' verbal expression, and that I will not accept sloppy, rough-draftish, or semiliterate college writing. Again, I am absolutely not kidding.


Also, DFW has his own profile on RateMyProfessors.com in which students remember him as "one of the best teachers I've ever had," "tough as shit and can hurt students' feelings," and "very neurotic and tends to chew tobacco and spit in a cup while lecturing."

David (Foster) Wallace's Syllabus [a la Sophia via Buzzfeed]
David Foster Wallace [RateMyProfessors via Fimoculous]