I’ve been drowning in four separate syllabi I need to have perfected before my fall classes start up next week at the CC, to wit probably the last thing I need to see right now is one of David Foster Wallace’s making. Lucky me(?)…one of his students from Pomona College has scanned and posted a syllabus from Wallace’s fall 2005 literature seminar.
It’s striking on a number of levels, especially in how different (meaning: much more detailed…) it is from the one I remember receiving for a very similar class I took with him at Illinois State. The precision of his weekly reading assignments–the length of which runs nearly three full pages–borders on maniacal, and there’s (but of course) Wallace’s hallmark footnotes that are both funny and useful in the way that they always are. But the most revealing part of this document is an addendum Wallace included and titled the “Caveat Emptor Page,” in which he thoroughly and honestly describes his particular particulars, including a fierce warning against “whipping off papers the night before they’re due, running them quickly through the computer’s Spellchecker, and handing them in full of high-school errors and sentences that make no sense.” “Please be informed,” he continues, “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…If you won’t or can’t devote significant time and attention to your written work, I urge you to drop…and save us both a lot of grief.”
A big reason I’ve been moping over Wallace’s death so publicly here is because I was precisely the kind of student in his class that he warned others not to be. My final essay for the lit seminar I took with him at Illinois State was an absolute mess from top to bottom, rife with syntax and construction errors that–evidenced by his marginal and summary comments–clearly confounded and frustrated him. When I initially read his response (and, quite honestly, for several years afterwards…), I was outraged; I couldn’t at all believe he was taking me to the proverbial woodshed for being so careless in executing my ideas, and I spent quite a while believing I was justified in feeling that way. What I didn’t realize at the time is that he was teaching me a lesson I desperately needed to learn: bullshit prettied up in five-dollar words is still bullshit, and I didn’t have so much as a buck-and-a-quarter-worth’s ability to demonstrate I knew any better.
It was only a few years ago that I fullly realized how myopic and cavalier I had been about my education and writing in grad school. After a particularly brutal summer term of teaching in 2003, in which I had suffered through reading a lot of writing that undoubtedly resembled my own half-assed efforts as a student, I wrote Wallace a letter to thank him for taking me down a few pegs, and that I had learned an invaluable lesson from his comments. I mailed the letter to his department at Pomona, hoping it might find its way to him. I truly had no expectations that he would even see it. Merely writing and mailing that letter brought things full circle for me.
To my delight and surprise, a few weeks later I received a handwritten letter from him, the contents of which were brief yet gracious. Yes, in fact, he did remember my terrible essay, and explained that he worried for “some time afterwards” the comments might have been “too harsh.” He closed the letter by thanking me for reconnecting with him and offering the proverbial Best Wishes. This simple act on his part quite literally meant the world to me, and I hope to never forget that little piece of kindness, and with it, the realization of a vital lesson finally learned.
Reading Wallace’s syllabus tonight, then, reminded me (again) how much he cared about pairing strong ideas with equally strong expression, and how he did not just go through the motions of teaching when he could have very easily (and, perhaps, justifiably) done so. For many years, I had thought he was one of the worst teachers I’d ever had, but luckily I was able to pull my head out of my ass in time to not only realize I was completely wrong, but to tell him so. That he reciprocated just a little bit of that sentiment is one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received.
So thank you, Dave.
And yet again.