Remembering David Foster Wallace


Taking a class from David Foster Wallace was one of my best academic experiences at Pomona. I was already in awe of his work, and when I had the opportunity to take a Literary Interpretation class from him my Senior year at Pomona (a rare opportunity for a Biology major), I jumped.

Even though he was the most genuine, modest, and awkward person, I couldn't help but be intimidated. How could you not be intimidated when writing something to be read and graded by THE David Foster Wallace? On a short story by an author who is a personal friend of the certified genius David Foster Wallace (He wanted to be called Dave, but that seemed so irreverent...which was probably the point -- he actively deflected all reverence when possible.)? But I got over the intimidation, at least during class. He corrected our stuff with three color-coded pens and typed 3/4 page, 10pt-font responses, full of constructive criticism, praise (!), and humor. If anything, he was intimidated by us (a class full of mostly freshmen and sophomores), and was greatly devoted to our learning, even though we weren't the advanced creative writers for whom his classes were usually reserved. His seven-page, footnoted syllabus contained a caveat emptor ("let the buyer beware") section, the first point stating that he was not a "real" professor because he did not have a Ph.D., so his course would most likely be filled with "pedagogical clunkiness," in case that changed our minds about taking the class. He told us to think of his teaching as, rather, his dispensing "avuncular advice."

This "advice" included abundant grammar (of course -- see "Authority and American Usage" in Consider the Lobster, or the original article in Harper's HERE), vocabulary (also, of course), and Latin, in addition to literary interpretation. He wrote in "And" and "But" in front of a lot of my sentences, which was one of his own writing habits ("And but so..."). He encouraged me to stop using fancy words and phrases when I should have been using the accurate, simple words (In his case, the accurate, simple word is the one everyone else has to look up, but, sure enough, is right on target.), a practice that is very relevant to scientific writing (oh yeah, he was also a genius in math and science which he incorporated into his books, and he had an article in Science). He taught me how to use commas. He had us read and interpret Silence of the Lambs among the D.H. Lawrence and A.M. Homes literature. He chewed tobacco (a glimpse of his own addiction) and brought his dog to class. He never used email, and he gave us his cell phone number to call whenever we had a grammatical question, "even after you graduate." He offered to subsidize the cost of a good dictionary for any student who didn't already have one. He was a very dedicated SNOOT (see "Authority and American Usage" again).

Our class discussions were always interesting, but whenever a theme that is common in his writing (such as addiction or the media) came up, I wouldn't even blink should I miss any new insight from him. There was an unspoken rule at Pomona to never mention his work. He spoke just like how he wrote, which was really cool. Critics often accused his writing of being too show-off-y, but, the fact is, he was the last person who would ever try to show off -- that was just the way he communicated. He was incredibly self-conscious, which [sense of self] is another big theme in his writing. I can't fully articulate the experience of taking a class from him, but it was unparalleled. If you haven't read anything of his yet, I highly suggest you do. Start with A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (read this story online HERE) to get a feel for his style, and then delve into the rest.

He has impacted me, as all good teachers do, not only through his class but also through his books, which have and will continue to impact thousands more.

I was so lucky to have seen him when I visited Pomona last semester. I stopped by his office to thank him for teaching me grammar, because I had realized that too many scientists slip through the cracks in that area. He heartily agreed and we discussed grad school and other things. He didn't look the same as he did when I took his class, or as he does in all the stock photos being circulated in the news articles online. He looked thinner and pale and I think his signature hair was chopped (woah, biblical ref.). Apparently he had gone off of his depression medication in July '07. I am so glad I got to thank him, even just for that one little aspect of his impact (any more and he probably would have just cut me off and left), and I think (and hope) that he appreciated it.

I feel so much better after writing that out. These are the things I would have been remembering at the vigils and memorials going on at Pomona right now that I am getting the emails for but cannot attend. Thank you for listening, internet.

** Some DFW online:
Short stories in Harper's, including favorites "Ticket to the Fair" and "Shipping Out"
The McCain piece
One of many tennis articles
Consider the Lobster

More remembrances: http://mcsweeneys.net/


Ashley said...

Thanks for sharing your memories, Sophia.

Matt said...

Were you a Pamona Panther?

Sophia said...

what is a Pamona Panther??

Matt said...

Sorry, its a school...

I dont think you have ever mentioned where you're from...

hint, hint.

Sophia said...

Ah... Pomona = Pomona College (Go Sagehens!) in southern California.
(It is often confused with Cal Poly Pomona and, sometimes, a junior college in the town of Pomona, CA.)

but I'm from the SF Bay Area.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sophia,

I wonder if you might consider posting a copy of DFW's 7-page syllabus? I imagine it would demonstrate pretty fabulously his deep dedication to his students and to teaching. And I'll bet it's a hoot to read.

Thanks very much for your consideration, Holly

Amanda. said...

This was great!

That is soooo cool
that you got to
take a class taught by
him! How amazing is that!

Sophia said...

Hi Holly,

You're not the only one who has asked me about that - some people just want to know what stuff he assigned (before his death, too). I will try to get it up here within a week or so, so check back.


Ryan said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. I count DFW as a personal hero but it's important to be reminded that he was just a guy trying to make his way through life like all of us. That he suffered so terribly is a great injustice and something that will take me a long time to come to terms with.

Thank you again.

cmihalo said...

thank you for posting that. it is good to know that he lived the ideas he taught in his fiction.

Peter said...

A thank you for the syllabus. It's both heartening/heartbreaking to hear his voice so clearly. In terms of dreams that have faded into the mysts of impossibility, taking a DFW course is near zenith--thus the painful wrench in the myocardium in reading this.

Thanks again.


Benjamin said...

Thank you very much for putting this up. I've run into a number of people who attended Pomona, and the first thing I have asked all of them is whether they took a class from DFW. None of them had, so I haven't been able to glean what it was like to be in the same room with him a couple times a week for a whole semester.
One question, though: Do you recall what book he culled those readings on "Rhythm," "Form,"Reading Long Stories and Novels," etc.? Were those written by him? Did they come from a variety of sources? Would you mind putting posting the names of those sources? I'm just thinking that if it was good enough for DFW it's stuff that's probably worth reading.
Thank you again. Best wishes.

Sophia said...

Benjamin: Sorry, I can't remember what text he took those readings from, but he did not write them. Some literary definitions book? We just got photocopied pages from it (assuming they were all from one book). If I find out from someone else I'll post it.

And that's a funny thing about Pomona -- either you know a bunch of people who went there or you've never heard of it...

David Von Behren said...

He had the radiant soul of a Sierpińsk gasket and the infinite generous heart of an illuminated angel....

Mark said...

Sophia, wonderful piece, as is your syllabus. I find myself strangely moved at the oddest times when I think about DFW and his untimely demise.

It is a sad world that has no place for such a wonderfully communicative person who helped so many...what a pity that all of us who were delighted by his work couldn't give just a little of that back to him.

I envy you your experience and thank you again for sharing it.

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