Is Any Syllabus Better than David Foster Wallace’s?

A column about life, culture, and politics.
Nov. 23 2011 11:13 AM

The Extraordinary Syllabus of David Foster Wallace

What his lesson plans teach us about how to live.

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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.

And for a sane person: why comment? Why try to take on and disentangle the unspoken tensions that may or may not take place in a classroom some months in the future? Why not, in other words, let sleeping dogs lie, exhausted students lean on their hands after a weekend of parties?

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. Even if parts or sections of Infinite Jest made you feel that it should in fact be a doorstop, much as you loved other parts of it, these syllabuses offer a quick encapsulation of many good and practically useful things about Wallace’s thinking, his shorthand lesson plan on how to live. In his commencement speech at Kenyon he told a parable about a fish not knowing what water is, and his point here and elsewhere is that you need to always think to yourself, “This is water.” As he puts it in that same speech, “It is about making it to thirty, or maybe even fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.”

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There is in his syllabus no compromise with expediency, no taking for granted of power structures, nothing but rigorous honesty and tireless interrogation; there is some feeling or hope that if you could put every single thing under the sun into words you can head off sorrow, frustration, resentment, missed communication, thwarted ambition.

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.

Still, every time I write or tinker with a syllabus, acceptable, professional, workable, with exactly the usual amount of spark, I think of David Foster Wallace. Maybe I’ll do it a little better this time.