Every so often a person is gifted with both wonderful skill and the skill to teach. David Foster Wallace was such a person. Not only was Wallace a wonderful novelist and essayist (known best for his novel Infinite Jest and essays such as “Shipping Out”), but he also taught writing and literature with passion. Even before he was known as an acclaimed writer, he was shaping a future generation of writers. From his syllabi, we can piece together certain keys that made Wallace a great teacher.
Wallace cared about details. While he experimented in fantastic ways with the limits of writing fiction—with the limits of the page itself—he knew the importance of mastering the basics of the craft. And, while some of these standards must have been institutional, most seem aimed at motivating students to think charitably about their classmates and respect the language in which they write. As one of his former students put it:
“To fail the language, through a half-hearted peer critique or an overlooked comma, was to fail the writers we wished to become.”
For instance, all through college I was asked to turn in papers with one-inch margins. But never once did a teacher include a note as simple and helpful as Wallace did for his students:
“For writers: One reason to double-space your essays and to give them generous margins is to give us space to write marginalia. For readers: Make sure that your margin comments are legible and lucid, and that they’re directed to the author . . .”
It’s a small note on a smaller detail. But these tiny notes show how seriously Wallace took students and their work.
Wallace’s courses focus on student-to-student interaction. His classes relied heavily on class discussion, one-on-one feedback, and personal interaction with the texts. It seems Wallace was determined to burst whatever bubble of isolation these budding writers would be tempted to create around themselves.
Wallace required students to give detailed feedback on their classmates’ work. His aimed for this critique to help the original writer and the critic:
“This class operates on the belief that you’ll improve as a writer not just by writing a lot and receiving detailed criticism but also by becoming a more sophisticated and articulate critic of other writers’ work.”
In short, he taught his students by letting them teach. He taught by giving them room to make mistakes. He didn’t see himself as The All-Wise Knowledge Keeper coming down from the mount to impart Truth from which no student could deviate. He saw himself as a gardener, ready to cultivate and direct.
Wallace set clear and aspirational learning goals. In fact, one of the strengths of his learning objectives is that they don’t feel like learning objectives at all. They feel like a conversation—like Wallace telling you what he expects from you and hopes for you.
This is one of my favorite examples of his conversational tone and clear objectives. In his syllabus on Creative Nonfiction, he tells students:
“[A]n essayist’s goal is [not] to ‘share’ or ‘express herself’ or whatever feel-good term you got taught in high school . . . In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing.”
In these two sentences Wallace simultaneously breaks down myths and lays out clear expectations for what his students will learn and learn to do.
You won’t find a lot of easily-skippable bullet points in Wallace’s syllabi. He spoke to his students simply and, because of this, they could take him at his word and work toward a definite end.
Not many teachers would grade students on their “alacrity of carriage,” but Wallace did. The phrase simply means that Wallace expected his students to carry themselves with an apparent joy and enthusiasm for learning.
Wallace taught energetically, sprinkling class discussions with movement and jokes. It’s clear that in asking his students to come to class with energy and enthusiasm, he intended to do the same.
Wallace’s energy and expectation created an environment in which it was easier to learn — a kind of vortex of positive peer-pressure that propelled students toward rigor and joy.
The result of Wallace’s blend of enthusiasm and charity created an environment in which students could be happy about taking their work seriously. Each student would’ve understood that dumb ideas might be picked apart, but that critique was for their building up. Wallace created an atmosphere in which joy and responsibility could give way to the kind of humility that learning requires.