Interpolation: Some thoughts on Wallace in the classroom

Just a few moments in my classroom and it’s pretty obvious that I’m somewhat of a David Foster Wallace fan.  There is the poster from the “Work in Process” Conference on one bulletin board, a reminder of the many fond memories from my week in Antwerp.  There is the quote – one of my favorite of Wallace’s – above my whiteboard that reads, “Good art is a kind of magic. It does magical things for both artist and audience. We can have long polysyllabic arguments about how to describe the way this magic works, but the plain fact is that good art is magical and precious and cool.”  And then there is the big bulletin board in the back of my room that is covered with prints I made in my college printmaking classes and a variety of Wallace quotes.  Some of my students might say I’m obsessed, but I think that might be putting it a bit strongly.

Teaching AP English – and students that can handle some pretty difficult literature – I have over the last few years worked several of Wallace’s pieces into my curricula.  In AP Language, in which I teach mostly nonfiction, I read with my students “A View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” “Consider the Lobster,” and the opening section of the “Cruise Ship Essay,” “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”  I think the students – most of them at least – enjoy the essays, but I’m not sure they are experienced enough readers to truly appreciate them.

In AP Literature, I try to challenge my students with some of his more difficult short stories.  So far this year we have read “Good People,” “Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR,” which I know aren’t all that difficult, and “Brief Interview #46.”  We spent the better part of a week discussing the “Brief Interviews” story.  I wrote about it here some time ago.  The discussions of these stories were some of the best I’ve had in class – not just this year, but in my twelve years of teaching high school English.  I’m trying to decide what other of his stories to add to my syllabus.  “Little Expressionless Animals,” perhaps.  Maybe “Forever Overhead.”  We’ll see how the Spirit moves.

But as much as I enjoy challenging my students with such beautifully difficult literature I am beginning to have growing hesitations about bringing anymore of his works into my classroom for discussion and analysis.

See, one of the many things that draws me to Wallace’s writing – both fiction and non – is the complexity, the subtlety, the need to dig through the layers of narrative and character and theme to find the precious gems that lie within.  The process.  The journey to discovery.

Teaching these stories is about taking my students with me along that journey.  Together we dig deep into the text; we peel back the layers in search of a better understanding of the text and the human nature it describes.

The problem is we arrive at the destination.  We discover the meaning(s).  We figure it out.  We have to.  It’s part of the learning process, and more importantly, it’s what they have to be able to do to pass that damn AP test.

And the problem is that once you’ve journeyed down that road and come to the end of it, you can’t walk it again.  You can’t retrace those steps.  Sure, there are often new paths to venture down and new beauties to find, but you can never discover the same things twice.

In the essay about Kafka in Consider the Lobster, Wallace talks about how if you have to explain the joke, then it’s no longer funny.  The explanation itself ruins the joke.

And that is what I am afraid of.  I don’t want to “spoil the joke,” so to speak.  I don’t want to know all the answers; I want to venture down that road but never quite make it to the end.  I want to understand the stories, but I want them to remain just enough of a mystery that I am forced to reread them and dig into them again and find something new.

In a way, I guess my relative naiveté works in my favor.  There is still so much of Wallace’s canon that is undiscovered country for me.  There are still many roads to travel. There are still many beautiful gems to find.

2 thoughts on “Interpolation: Some thoughts on Wallace in the classroom

  1. Hi Ryan,
    This is a lovely meditation, but my suggestion is to not worry about it. It seems like developmentally, your students need to feel like they have the “answer” to the text. They need the confidence that comes with feeling like they got it right. With that confidence, they’ll keep reading and thinking on their own. And eventually they’ll come to feel that the work (and the world) is much more complex than they thought when they were 17. (At least, this is how it all worked for me.)

    Meanwhile, thanks to your class, they’ll be able to understand extremely different writing. They’ll get to college ahead of their peers. And they’ll be able to approach any difficult work believing it’s worth the work. I think you should keep teaching Wallace.

    I’m impressed! Keep it up!

    • Thank you, Elizabeth, for your encouraging words. I think it has been a very good thing to stretch and challenge them with difficult literature. And often times they will find something in there that I hadn’t noticed before (I love those moments). I will certainly keep teaching Wallace; I might just have to rotate the works around so they don’t grow stale for me.

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