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/
An exceprt from my term paper (which I wrote one year before taking a class from DFW at Pomona) about Infinite Jest:
David Foster Wallace’s portrayals of addiction and obsession in American culture send a warning to his readers about the fragility of life and the dangerous traps in the pursuit of happiness. Wallace describes obsession as “a very American illness, the idea of giving yourself away entirely to the idea of working in order to achieve some sort of brass ring that usually involves people feeling some way about you – I mean, people wonder why we walk around feeling alienated and lonely and stressed out?” (Miller). The view that people are simply “chasing a carrot” in a futile attempt at success and acceptance by others reinforces the initial feelings of loneliness and stress that catalyze the pursuit of addiction in the first place. It is a cycle that, as the novel shows, has no happy ending.
Miller, Laura. “Interview With David Foster Wallace.” Salon. March 9-22 1996.
"As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master."
From David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon