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David Foster Wallace gets it-details matter

December 4, 2011
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A while ago, there was a spirited discussion on my blog about whether or not “someone has too much time on his/her hands” if they take time to craft a truly excellent syllabus. Really, the post wasn’t about the syllabus, it was about the sad tendency of people to dismiss truly excellent work and attention to detail with the “too much time on their hands” refrain, and how this holds educators back from becoming true professionals.

Two things have brought me back to thinking about this idea.

The first is the pretty famous anecdote from Walter Issacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, where he discusses how Jobs got his attention to detail from his adoptive father, who

implanted a lesson that his father implanted deeply in him. It was important, his father said, to craft the backs of cabinets and fences properly, even though they were hidden. “He loved doing things right. He even cared about the look of the parts that you couldn’t see.”

Second, is this great article from Slate about David Foster Wallace’s Syllabus for his Literary Interpretation class. The article describes DFW’s dedication to creating a syllabus that breaks out of the norm and design a document that sets forth a new order for the classroom. Slate describes it well:

Most of us operate on what Wallace elsewhere calls the “default setting;” we make a calculation about what is the right expenditure of energy for a syllabus; we make a sensible adult decision about preserving analytic brio for other things, and don’t think too much about it; we use the conventions, the years of worn-out tradition, as a shortcut to speed up communication. We assume we can just say “no late papers” or “class participation is 50% of the grade,” and everyone will know what we are talking about.


Is there something morally pure or preferable about David Foster Wallace’s painful intricate construction of a syllabus to the brisk, functional way most people toss off the task? I don’t know the answer to that. But there is a beauty in the documents, a seriousness that one can’t fail to be touched by.

It is way easier of course to walk past, to not examine, to not take apart: There is a social use in seeing an ambulance rushing by without imagining who is inside it, in buying a quart of milk without thinking too deeply about the guy behind the counter at the bodega, in not being David Foster Wallace, in other words. The fish who is thinking obsessively “What is water?” is, we pretty much know, a little less likely to swim very far.

And you simply must read the syllabus itself, embedded below.

View this document on Scribd

Here is a second syllabus.
One quote:

Because critical reading and prose fiction are such hard, weird things to try to study, a stupid seeming comment or question can end up being valuable or profound. I am deadly serous about creating a classroom environment where everyone feels free to ask or speak about anything she wishes. So any student who groans, smirks, mimes machine gunning or onanism, chortles, eye-rolls, or in any way ridicules some other student’s in-class question/comment will be warned once in private and on the second offense, will be kicked out of class and flunked, no matter what week it is. If the offender is male, I am also apt to find him off-campus and beat him up.

This does not mean we all have to sit around smiling sweetly at one another for three hours a week. No truths, about the form, content, structure, symbolism, theme or overall artistic quality of any piece of fiction are etched in stone or beyond dispute. In class, and you are invited (more like urged) to disagree with one another and with me–and I get to disagree with you–provided that were all respectful of one another and not snide, savage, or abusive. Historically, I’ve given the highest grades to students whose readings of and opinions about literature were different from mine, provided that the students could argue interestingly plausibly for their claims. In other words, English 102 is not just a find-out-what-the-teacher-thinks-and-regurgitated-back-at-him course. It’s not like math or physics–there are no right or wrong answers (though there are interesting versus Dalton, fertile versus barren, plausible versus wacko answers). (NB:I think DFW’s discussion of answers in literature is very similar to how I would describe answers in Physics).

This brings me back to the original point: attention to details—even those that most people don’t even notice (or read)—is the hallmark of a truly great professional. It’s something I want to strive for (even if that will never be evident from all the mistakes in this blog). And I’m not alone—just a few weeks ago, Dan Meyer was blogging about the difference between “how many birds won’t get a worm?” and “How many more birds than worms are there?”

Whether it be interesting syllabi, educational research, or crafting the perfect prompt to a math question, these details matter. They define us as professionals, instead hacks just trying to en tertian our classes. But only if we get past the “Too much time on their hands” and “I don’t trust education research” that hold us back.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 5, 2011 9:09 pm

    I love this post, thanks John. DFW was a fantastic author, and these syllabi are a neat view into his classroom.

  2. December 6, 2011 6:28 pm

    I can’t read these without thinking about all the amazing things we could do in my classes if everyone had an expectation of excellence in all things. I love seeing how DFW was focused on making that happen from Day 1. Great post

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