Just in case you’ve wondered what it would be like to take an “ordinary” course from an “extraordinary” celebrity writer*, a former student of David Foster Wallace has posted a syllabus from an introductory literature course she took with him in 2005 [Her site has a link to a PDF of the entire thing, but including it here exceeds my technological expertise. You can view it one page at a time from her blog post]. The syllabus is fascinating, especially at a moment when all Puget Sound faculty are creating, revising, tweaking, refining, and otherwise preparing their own syllabi. Much of what he says on this syllabus is, despite his reputation as a literary iconoclast, utterly predictable: the workaday details of attendance, paper format, student responsibility (mandatory attendance, extensions negotiated in advance). His attempts to demystify his own professorial authority, too, are familiar in substance if not in rhetoric: one grading criterium is “presentation,” which he describes as “care, adult competence in written English, […] compassion for your reader.” Elsewhere he reminds students that without their participation, the class will devolve into a 90 minute “half-assed ad lib lecture” and explains that he expects them to read “every iota” of the assigned work.
His description of the course goals, too, reflect on current discussions about what makes an “English department” a coherent entity. As more programs divide themselves into discrete “tracks”–creative writing, literature, rhetoric, culture studies, film, media studies, creative non-fiction–they raise the question of what, exactly, holds those fields together. DFW offers an elegant description of the central task of his course: developing a “critical appreciation of literary art,” which he glosses as “having smart, sophisticated reasons for liking whatever literature you like, and being able to articulate those reasons for other people, especially in writing.” Such appreciation, he notes, must be grounded in “interpretation”; that is, “a cogent, interesting account of what a piece of lit means, what it’s trying to do for the reader, what technical choices the author’s made in order to try to achieve the effects she wants…”
The reading list for the course he describes as “boot camp” is remarkably familiar, featuring such works as Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.,” Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” Ann Beattie’s “Janus,” O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and Carver’s “Cathedral” alongside lessons in things like “point of view,” “setting,” “theme.” The syllabus is a fascinating snapshot of the state of introductory literature courses in the early 21st century, and reflects an underlying coherence to the larger discipline of literary studies that perhaps resonates with the larger question of what it means to “study” English now.
*Of course, here at Puget Sound, one could describe virtually every course in this way…right?