My Letter about the writing class that David Lipsky visited and wrote about in AOCYEUBY sparked a bit of a discussion on Wallace-l about some of our favorite and most inspirational writing teachers. In response to that discussion, Lipsky posted a link to a website that contained DFW’s syllabus for English 67 – Literary Interpretation. Reading the syllabus made me even more jealous of those lucky students who sat under DFW’s tutelage and inspired me to find more ways to share my passion for good literature and good writing with my own students. But mostly it left me wondering, what kind of teacher was he that he could make even an English course syllabus sound cool?
Dear Mr. Wallace,
In August of 2005 I was preparing to start a teaching job at a new school. I spent several long mornings with the English department chair as she explained the ins and outs and do’s and don’ts of teaching English at this particular school. Our conversation moved to book titles and what my options were for the sophomore and junior level classes I would be teaching. As she showed me books she had stashed away in a cabinet, something she said struck me as kind of funny. I don’t remember the book, but she said that if I wanted to teach that book I should wait until I’m tenured because it has the word “f***” in it. I only spent one year at that school, so I never got the chance to be tenured or to teach the book I know longer remember the name of.
Reading your English 67 – Literary Interpretation syllabus reminded me of that conversation because there are things you write in the syllabus that I would love to put in my own syllabus, but would only have the guts to do so if I was tenured. I will enumerate those phrases and sentences below:
- Refers to the Course Description as “Basic Course Spiel.”
- In a footnote after a rather eloquent explanation of what “critical appreciation” is, writes “Here’s a somewhat sexier riff on “interpretation” from Prof. _____’s syllabus.
- In the paragraph on Writing Assignments, writes “’Revise’ does not mean merely fixing the typos and clunkers that I marked on the first version.”
- “You [students] are required to do every last iota of the reading and writing assigned, exactly in the format requested, and it needs to be totally done by the time class starts. There is no such thing as ‘falling a little behind’ in the course reading; either you’ve done the homework or you haven’t.”
- “Even in a seminar course it seems a little silly to require participation… 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.”
- “Part of your grade for written work will have to do with your document’s presentation. ‘Presentation’ has to do with evidence of care, of adult competence in written English, and of compassion for your reader… You are totally permitted to make neat handwritten corrections to your essays’ final versions before you hand them in… Papers that appear sloppy, semiliterate, or incoherent will be heavily penalized, and in severe cases you’ll be required to resubmit a sanitized version in order to receive credit for the essay at all.”
- The final page is titled “Caveat Emptor Page” and begins with the following statement: “In the interests of full and up-front disclosure, here are some reasons why a student might plausibly decide not to remain enrolled in this section of English 67:”
- Reason #2 to drop the class is “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 it again: Extra work may be added.”
- “Your instructor has high standards for the written work you turn in… I know that many professors say this kind of hard ass stuff at the beginning of the term but actually don’t 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 don’t make 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 not kidding. If you won’t or can’t devote significant time and attention to your written work, I urge you to drop E67-02 and save us both a lot of grief.”
Mr. Wallace, thank you for actually putting in print all the things we English teachers have wanted to say to our students. Maybe someday I’ll have the courage to do the same.
 Which I am thinking I will have to borrow and write into my own course syllabus for AP Literature, properly citing it of course.
 Who besides David Foster Wallace uses the word “sexier” in a course syllabus?
 Doesn’t like to beat around the bush, does he?
 I love the juxtaposition of these two words together; the marriage of high-brow and low-brow language.
 Note this is the second time he has used the word “ass” in this syllabus.
 I only had one professor in grad school who tried to use these scare tactics at the beginning of the class. She sent out a rather lengthy email telling us how difficult the class was, and how fast the pace was, and how high the expectations were. A number of students dropped the class, not because they were scared but because they were offended and insulted by the insinuation that they couldn’t hack it. I think this was just her way of decreasing her grading load.
 Preach it, brother.