Welcome to Saturday Syllabi, where we’ll take a look at some of the texts from college courses around the world to bring the best of higher education right to you. It’s just like the first day of class without the awkward introductions or student loans you pay off eight years after you die.

Last week we looked at some literary heavyweights who decided to take a crack at teaching the literally indebted college masses a thing or two about books and learning and book-learning. Today is a David Foster Wallace two-for-one.

In honor of next week’s release of The End of the Tour, the film adaptation of author David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which chronicles the five-day tour he took with Wallace as the prickly writer was promoting his 1996 magnum opus, Infinite Jest, we’ll highlight a few of Wallace’s professorial contributions. First we’ll focus on Illinois State University, and then we’ll move to Pomona College in Claremont, California.

Class: Literary Analysis: Prose Fiction

Course Description: After citing the university’s catalogue description, Wallace gets a little more personal. “In less narcotizing words,” he writes: “English 102 aims to show you some ways to read fiction more deeply, to come up with more interesting insights on how pieces of fiction work, to have informed intelligent reasons for liking or disliking a piece of fiction, and to write — clearly, persuasively, and above all interestingly — about stuff you’ve read. We’ll use the basic analytic categories of plot, character, setting, point of view, tone, theme, symbol, etc., to take the books apart, rather than heavy-duty lit-crit or Literary Theory. For the most part, we’ll be reading what’s considered popular or commercial fiction, and from a variety of genres, including mystery, horror, cop, western, noir, and fantasy. If the course works, we’ll end up being able to locate some rather sophisticated techniques and/or themes lurking below the surface of novels that, on a quick read on airplane or beach, look like nothing but entertainment, all surface.”

For the most part, we’ll be reading what’s considered popular or commercial fiction, and from a variety of genres, including mystery, horror, cop, western, noir, and fantasy. If the course works, we’ll end up being able to locate some rather sophisticated techniques and/or themes lurking below the surface of novels that, on a quick read on airplane or beach, look like nothing but entertainment, all surface.”

Warnings: “Don’t let any potential lightweightish-looking qualities of the texts delude you into thinking that this will be a blow-off-type class. These ‘popular texts will end up being harder than more conventionally ‘literary’ works to unpack and read critically. You’ll end up doing more work in here than in other sections of 102, probably.”

Reading List:

  • Where Are the Children by Mary Higgins Clark
  • Rock Star by Jackie Collins
  • The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy
  • Black Sunday by Thomas Harris
  • The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
  • Carrie by Stephen King
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

There’s nothing more terrifying in a class than when you think you know what you’re going to get but the professor pulls the rug out from under you. I could see many unsuspecting students throwing their names on the class list for Wallace’s Prose Fiction course simply because they recognize Mary Higgins Clark from grocery store checkout aisles or maybe in the dollar bin at used bookstores and thought, “This class is gonna be cake.” But Wallace pre-empts the snobs. Also, bonus points for the “probably” at the end of his warnings paragraph.

The variety of the books for the class are a fascinating look into what kinds of texts Wallace felt would be worth a deep dive, and the double bill of Thomas Harris would be a great time if only to hear Wallace pick apart Hannibal Lecter. But the real textual treat has to be McMurty’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove, the layered western tome that the notoriously scrupulous Wallace could illuminate.

The entire syllabus is worth checking out above or here, especially for Wallace’s guarantee/potentially facetious threat on page 4 that says: “So any student who groans, smirks, mimes machine-gunning or onanism, chortles, eye-rolls, or in any way ridicules some other student’s in-class question/comment will be warned once in private and on the second offense will be kicked out of class and flunked, not matter what week it is. If the offender is male, I am also apt to find him off-campus and beat him up.”

Class: Literary Interpretation

Course Description: “The goals of this section of E67 are to survey certain important forms of modern literature — short stories, novels, poems — and to introduce you to some techniques for achieving a critical appreciation of literary art. ‘Critical appreciation’ means having smart, sophisticated reasons for liking whatever literature you like, and being able to articulate those reasons for other people, especially in writing. Vital for critical appreciation is the ability to ‘interpret’ a piece of literature, which basically means coming up with a cogent, interesting account of what a piece of lit means, what it’s trying to do to/for the reader, what technical choices the author’s made in order to try to achieve the effects she wants, and so on. As you can probably anticipate, the whole thing gets very complicated and abstract and hard, which is one reason why entire college departments are devoted to studying and interpreting literature. Accordingly, part of E67’s raison d’etre is to serve as a kind of boot camp that helps prepare you for more advanced and/or specialized lit courses down the line.”

Vital for critical appreciation is the ability to ‘interpret’ a piece of literature, which basically means coming up with a cogent, interesting account of what a piece of lit means, what it’s trying to do to/for the reader, what technical choices the author’s made in order to try to achieve the effects she wants, and so on. As you can probably anticipate, the whole thing gets very complicated and abstract and hard, which is one reason why entire college departments are devoted to studying and interpreting literature. Accordingly, part of E67’s raison d’etre is to serve as a kind of boot camp that helps prepare you for more advanced and/or specialized lit courses down the line.”

Caveat Emptor Page: “In the interests of full and up-front disclosure, here are some reasons why a student might plausibly decide not to remain enrolled in this section of English 67:

Your instructor is not a professional literary scholar. In fact, though my job title at the college says ‘Professor of English,’ I am not a professor, because I do not have a Ph. D.

Your instructor has taught intro lit courses before, but not for several years, and never before at a college this selective. The upshot is that there may be certain pedagogical clunkiness about this section of English 67. You will, in effect, be helping me learn how to teach this class. The level of our discussions may have to be adjusted up, or down, depending on how well-prepared you guys are and how quickly you catch on to the concepts and techniques or ‘close reading.’ Certain approaches might turn out to be a waste of time. There may be abrupt changes in the syllabus. Extra work may be added. Let me say that again: Extra work may be added…”

Reading List:

  • Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coatzee
  • The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
  • Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form by Matthea Harvey
  • What Narcissism Means to Me by Tony Hoagland
  • Per Wallace’s note: “All other readings will be provided to you in Xerox handouts. Some of the Xeroxes I may have to make myself at Kinko’s, in which case you’ll get to reimburse me for them (total cost to you will be < $10.00).”

Surly! It’s as if he’s tempting students to challenge him; likely, he’s fed-up with kids who aren’t into the subject as much as he was. Make no bones, as a professor he seems like a hardass, especially with the comments on his Latin “let the buyer beware” warning (the rest of which can be read above or here. But aggressive prof-speak like this is sometimes meant to scare off the straphangers.

The book selection fits with the different literary angles, and I’ll admit I’d never heard of Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form before. But the esoteric, off-the-canon choices are what makes Wallace’s choices so tantalizing. He also seems to love The Silence of the Lambs, but who doesn’t?

Photos via www.flickr.com/photos/ari