David Foster Wallace's amazing fiction syllabus: "We can talk about whatever you wish to — provided that we do it cogently and well"

EXCLUSIVE: Take a class with David Foster Wallace. Here's his syllabus, reading list, rules -- and even footnotes

Published November 4, 2014 12:00AM (EST)


Excerpted from “The David Foster Wallace Reader”


CLASS LOGISTICS Mondays and Wednesdays, 1:15–2:30, Crookshank 10

INSTRUCTOR David Wallace, 206 Crookshank, 607-8357

INSTRUCTOR’S OFFICE HOURS Mon. 8:00–9:00 AM, Tues. 4:30–5:30 PM, & by appt.

COURSE DESCRIPTION It’s a 170-grade Advanced Seminar, meaning it’s “speaking-intensive” and presupposes the basic set of lit-crit tools taught in English 67. Structurally, the course is meant to be more a colloquium than a prof.-led seminar. We are going to read and converse about nine novels (some of which are kind of long) dating from the 1930s–1970s. They’re books that are arguably good and/or important but are not, in the main, read or talked about that much as of 2003. At the least, then, English 170R affords a chance to read some stuff you’re not apt to get in other Lit classes. It would also be good to talk this term about the dynamics of the Lit canon and about why some important books get taught a lot in English classes and others do not — which will, of course, entail our considering what modifiers like “important,” “good,” and “influential” mean w/r/t modern fiction. We can approach the books from a variety of different critical, theoretical, and ideological perspectives, too, depending on students’ backgrounds and interests. In essence, we can talk about whatever you wish to — provided that we do it cogently and well.

REQUIRED TEXTS All but a couple of the following are available in paperback at the Huntley Bookstore:

(1) Renata Adler, Speedboat ( * )

(2) James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

(3) Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

(4) Richard Brautigan, Trout Fishing in America. . . In Watermelon Sugar

(5) Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays

(6) Paula Fox, Desperate Characters ( * )

(7) Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

(8) Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

(9) Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children

N.B. (1) The two books marked with asterisks are not at the Huntley; you are responsible for tracking these down and getting a copy. They’re not hard to find at used-type bookstores or through the Internet (abe.com, amazon.com, etc.). Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters (1970) is in print in a new paperback edition from W.W. Norton & Co; its ISBN is 0-393-31894-X (please get that particular copy if you can). Renata Adler’s Speedboat (1976) is apparently out of print right now, but there are lots of copies floating around the marketplace, especially of the Perennial Library trade paperback; that edition’s ISBN is 0-06-097143-6.

N.B. (2) Please do not buy William Gaddis’s The Recognitions even though Huntley’s got it on 170R’s Required Texts list. (Meaning feel free to buy it if you like, but it’s not really on our list.)


ATTENDANCE AND PARTICIPATION Because the whole breath and bread of this course is discussion, your presence and involvement are required. You are allowed one unexcused absence without penalty; each additional unexcused absence will lower your final grade by one numeral.1 For an absence to be excused, there must be an excellent reason and I must be notified in advance. Gross or chronic tardiness will quickly start counting as unexcused absences.

HOMEWORK, PREPARATION, AND RESPONSES TO READING As you can see from the SCHEDULE below, there’s sometimes a lot of reading; and for the course to function, everybody’s got to keep up all the time. A blunter way to say this is that you are required to do every iota of the assigned reading, on time and with care. Schedules and energies vary: please drop this course if you anticipate having difficulty keeping up when things get heavy. You will be required, moreover, to submit a one-page2 response to each of the books we read this term. These minipapers should deal with some critical question about the book’s meaning, technique, quality, etc., and should use a close reading of the text to support its points. They will usually be due on the last class-day we discuss each book, but the minipapers must not be mere rehashes of the class discussion — they need to represent your own thoughts/theses about some feature of the book. The minipapers also need to be clear, typo- and basic-error-free pieces of college-level writing.3 They’ll be graded. You’re allowed to skip one of the nine minipapers without penalty; if you turn in all nine, I’ll count only the eight highest grades. Note: No late minipapers will ever be accepted — if you have to miss class on the day one is due, you need to turn it in early.

LEADING CLASS DISCUSSIONS Once it’s settled who’s really enrolled, I will divide the class into two-member teams. Each team will be responsible for taking the lead in class discussion, at least twice, on a rotating basis. “Taking the lead” means giving a brief presentation and preparing topics and questions that will facilitate discussion of the day’s material. Handouts and (brief) excerpts from outside sources are OK. I will be available for voluntary consultation with squads about their presentations either during office hours or at breakfast sometime early on Monday morning.

MAJOR ASSIGNMENTS4 There’s a 4-7-page midterm paper in which you’ll do a close reading of some technical or thematic element in one of the books we’ve read so far. The final paper, due at the start of the last week of classes, will be 10-20 pages, will involve at least some outside research, and will need to make a complex, well-defined argument. You’ll have to submit a proposal and annotated bibliography for the final paper several weeks ahead of time; and shortly before the paper is due, you’ll submit a finished draft to a peer reviewer. By department rules for Advanced Seminars, the final paper must be in 100% MLA format, and late papers can be accepted only by prior arrangement with the instructor.

FINAL COURSE GRADES Here’s a percentage-type breakdown:

• Attendance and Participation = 15%
• Eight minipapers = 15% total
• Leading class discussions = 10% total
• Midterm Paper = 20%
• Final Paper = 40%

FYI (1) I use numerals in computing grades, according to the following scale:

13 = A+ = Mind-blowingly good
12 = A = Extremely good
11 = A- = Very, very good
10 = B+ = Very good
9 = B = Good
8 = B- = High-average
7 = C+ = Average to low-average
6 = C = Mildly subpar
5 = C- = Severely subpar
4, 3, 2 = D Markedly poor; we need to talk
0 = F = Obvious.

FYI (2) As far as I can determine, my own grading standards are somewhat less inflated than the Pomona College norm. Of the 306 final grades I’ve given since 1987, the average (mean) is currently 7.375.

COURSE SCHEDULE (Subject to possible change as we proceed)

Day 1. Wed., 1/22: Intro, syllabus, student info sheets, etc.

Day 2. Mon, 1/27 Stead, TMWLC. Read Jarrell’s “An Unread Book” (pp. v-xli), and Chs. One through Five (pp. 3-198). [Leading class: Instr.]

Day 3. Wed., 1/29 Stead. Read Chapters Six through Eight (pp. 199-365). [Leading class: Instr.]

Day 4. Mon., 2/3 Stead. Finish book. [Leading class: ]

Day 5. Wed., 2/5 Stead. [Leading class: ]

Day 6. Mon., 2/10 Barnes, Nightwood. Read Eliot’s Intro and Weird Note to 2nd Ed. (pp. xi-xvii), and up to “WAT CHMAN, WHAT OF THE NIGHT ?” (pp. 1-78). [Leading class: ]

Day 7. Wed., 2/12 Barnes. Finish book. [Leading class: ]


Day 8. Wed., 2/19 Didion, PIAIL. Read first 47 chapters (pp. 3-125). [Leading class: ]

Day 9. Mon., 2/24 Didion. Finish book. [Leading class: ]

Day 10. Wed., 2/26 Baldwin, GR. Read Part One (pp. 3-72). [Leading class: ]

Day 11. Mon, 3/3 Baldwin. Finish book. [Leading class: ]


Day 12. Mon, 3/10 Brautigan, In WS. Read up to “Something is Going to Happen” (pp. 1-75 in Huntley B.S. edition). [Leading class: ]

Day 13. Wed., 3/12 Brautigan. Finish book. [Leading class: ] Midterm papers due.


Wed., 3/19 DITTO

Day 14. Mon., 3/24 Percy, Moviegoer. Read Part One (pp. 3-63). [Leading class: ]

Day 15. Wed., 3/26 Percy. Read Parts Two and Three (pp. 64-166). [Leading class: ]

Day 16. Mon., 3/31 Percy. Finish book. [Leading class: ]

Day 17. Wed., 4/2 Adler, Speedboat. Read up to “SPEEDBOAT ” (pp. 3-68 in Perennial Library edition). [Leading class: ]

Day 18. Mon., 4/7 Adler. Finish book. [Leading class: ]


Day 19. Mon, 4/14 Lessing, TGN. Read ’93 and ’71 Intros (p. vii-xvii), and “FREE WOMEN : 1” (pp. 3-243). [Leading class: ]

Day 20. Wed., 4/16 Lessing. Read “FREE WOMEN : 2” (pp. 245-353). [Leading class: ]


Day 21. Wed., 4/23 Lessing. Read “FREE WOMEN : 3” & “F.W.: 4” (pp. 355-580). [Leading class: ]

Day 22. Mon., 4/28 Lessing. Finish book. [Leading class: ] Final-paper drafts due for peer review.

Day 23. Wed., 4/30 Fox, DC. Read Franzen’s “No End to It” (pp. vii-xiv), and Chs. One through Four (pp. 3-48 of Norton edition). [Leading class:]

Day 24. Mon., 5/5 Fox. Finish book. [Leading class: Instr.] Final papers due; copy of peer-review document due.

Day 25. Wed., 5/7 Final musings if any.


If I remain enrolled in this course, I hereby promise to attend class faithfully, to complete all assignments in a timely and conscientious way, to participate fully in class discussions, and to contact Dave W. promptly about any problems or concerns.

SIGNATURE & DATE _________________________

618 • The David Foster Wallace Reader


Besides commenting by hand in the margins of the working draft itself, you need to type out a coherent general response — let’s call it a letter. The letter and marked-up draft are due back to your partner at the start of class on 30 April. Make sure either to Xerox or print out a second copy of your letter, which you must hand in with your own final paper on 5 May. I will not grade these letters per se, but if it’s obvious that you did a slight or shoddy job of reviewing your partner’s draft, I will penalize your own paper.

A helpful letter on your partner’s draft will probably include comments on all or most of the following issues, which I’m listing here for your convenience. You needn’t address each item one after the other in the order they’re listed here, though you may do so if it makes things easier.

1. Identify what appears to be the present draft’s thesis or overall point. If you aren’t sure just what it is, list the most likely possibilities.

2. Tell the author whether her thesis is interesting to you or not. Like, whether it adds anything substantive to your own reading(s) of the novel(s) in question. If it doesn’t, you might suggest ways to make the thesis more interesting.

3. If, on the other hand, the overall thesis seems to you implausible, or unconvincing, or if you can see serious objections to it that the author hasn’t addressed, tell her about them.

4. Describe, in no more than one short paragraph, the overall argument that’s advanced in support of the thesis. If this seems impossible, explain why — try to identify areas you find confusing or unclear.

5. Identify two parts of the overall argument that seem comparatively strong/persuasive/effective.

6. Identify two parts of the overall argument that seem comparatively weak/unpersuasive/ineffective.

7. Does the author use any abstract terms or phrases (e.g., “despair,” “gender,” “happiness,” “discover who she is”) whose precise meanings in the paper aren’t clear to you?

8. Tell the author how well the draft’s parts fit together. Is she doing a good job of moving the reader coherently from one part of her argument\ to another? If not, try to identify some places where you got disoriented or couldn’t figure out quite where in the discussion you were.

9. Tell the author whether her use of quotations from the novel(s) and/or secondary sources seems effective. Do some of the quotations seem stuck in merely to satisfy the “Research” requirement? Are any quotations unnecessarily long? Are quotations introduced well, woven smoothly into the author’s own prose, or do they just seem to hang there awkwardly? If you’re already conversant with MLA format, are the quotations cited correctly?

10. Identify (in the margins of the draft if not in the letter) any basic syntactic errors you spotted that violate the Dept. Format and Style Sheet, or that have been covered in class during the semester. (Since final drafts that contain these sorts of errors will be severely penalized, you have a chance to do your partner a real service here.)

11. Keeping in mind that the author will have five days to revise this working draft, give at least two general suggestions for making the paper better.

* * *

1 That’s one numeral of your overall term grade, not just of the A. & P. component. See p. 3 for the relevant percentages and my numerical grade-scale.

2 meaning one typed, single- or 1.5-spaced, 12-point-font page on 8.5 X 11 paper.

3 Written work with excessive typos, misspellings, or basic errors in usage/grammar will not be accepted for credit. At the very least, you’ll have to redo the work and incur a penalty. If you believe this is just the usual start-of-term saber-rattling, be advised that some of the students in this course have had me as an instructor before — ask them whether I’m serious.

4 There are currently no quizzes or exams for this course; but I hereby reserve the right to begin quizzing and/or testing you in class if either (a) a sufficient number of students are not doing the assigned reading completely and carefully or (b) a sufficient number of students are not participating actively in discussions. If you remain enrolled in this course, do everyone a favor: come prepared, participate vigorously, and avert the possibility of a very nasty couple of in-class exams.

Excerpted from “The David Foster Wallace Reader” by David Foster Wallace. Copyright © 2014 by The David Foster Wallace Literary Trust. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Co. All rights reserved.

By David Foster Wallace

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