David Foster Wallace’s 1994 Syllabus: How to Teach Serious Literature with Lightweight Books


Note: click here to see the full syl­labus and oth­er relat­ed teach­ing mate­ri­als.

As any­one who’s ever done it knows, the art of syl­labussing is a fine one. (Yes, it’s a word; don’t look it up, take my word for it—Syl­labussing: cre­at­ing the per­fect syl­labus for a col­lege-lev­el course). It requires pre­ci­sion plan­ning, stel­lar for­mat­ting and copy-edit­ing skills, and near-per­fect knowl­edge of the col­lege-stu­dent psy­che. For one, the syl­labus must explain in clear terms what stu­dents can expect from the class and what the class expects from them. And it must do this with­out sound­ing so dry and pedan­tic that half the class drops in the first week. For anoth­er, the per­fect syl­labus (there’s no such thing, but one must strive) should func­tion as both an FAQ and a con­tract: need to know how to for­mat your papers? See the syl­labus. For­got when the paper was due? Too bad—see the syl­labus. And so on. Most teach­ers learn over time that a class can stand or fall on the strength of this doc­u­ment.

Which brings us to the syl­labussing skills of one David Fos­ter Wal­lace, ency­clo­pe­dic lit­er­ary obses­sive, mod­ern-day moral­ist, Eng­lish pro­fes­sor. Love his work or hate it, it may be safe to say that Wal­lace was per­haps one of the most care­ful (or care-full) writ­ers of his gen­er­a­tion. And giv­en the cri­te­ria above, you might just have to admire the fine art of his syl­labi. Well, so you can, thanks to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin’s Har­ry Ran­som Cen­ter, which has scans avail­able online of the syl­labus for Wal­lace’s intro course “Eng­lish 102-Lit­er­ary Analy­sis: Prose Fic­tion” (first page above), along with oth­er course doc­u­ments. These documents—From the Fall ’94 semes­ter at Illi­nois State Uni­ver­si­ty, where Wal­lace taught from 1993 to 2002—reveal the pro­fes­sion­al­ly ped­a­gog­i­cal side of the lit­er­ary wun­derkind, a side every teacher will con­nect with right away.

The text in the image above is admit­ted­ly tiny (you can request high­er res­o­lu­tion scans on the UT Austin site), but if you squint hard, you’ll see under “Aims of Course” that Wal­lace quotes the offi­cial ISU descrip­tion of his class, then trans­lates it into his own words:

In less nar­co­tiz­ing words, 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.

Hav­ing taught my own ver­sions of such a class, I’m a lit­tle jeal­ous of his (unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly?) infor­mal con­ci­sion.


Wallace’s choice of texts is of inter­est as well—surprising for a writer most detrac­tors call “pre­ten­tious.” For his class, Wal­lace pre­scribed air­port-book­store standards—what he calls “pop­u­lar or com­mer­cial fiction”—such as Jack­ie Collins’ Rock Star, Stephen King’s Car­rie, Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, and James Elroy’s The Big Nowhere. The UT Austin site also has scans of some well-worn paper­back teacher’s copies, with the red-ink mar­gin­al notes, dis­cus­sion ques­tions, and under­lines one finds behind every podi­um. In the image above, Wal­lace has under­lined a line of dia­logue in Car­rie, anno­tat­ing it with the word “vic­tim” in all-caps. Of the books Wal­lace requires, he writes in a sec­tion of the syl­labus above called “Warn­ing”:

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.

Some­thing about that “prob­a­bly” at the end grabs me (again: the pre­ci­sion… the col­lege-stu­dent psy­che). I admire this brave approach. Hav­ing taught con­ven­tion­al­ly “lit­er­ary” stuff for years, I can say that some so-called lit­er­ary fic­tion is for­mu­la­ic in the extreme, all but con­tain­ing check­box­es for the stan­dard lit-crit cat­e­gories. The com­mer­cial stuff isn’t always so care­ful (which is why it’s so often more fun).

UT Austin’s Har­ry Ran­som Cen­ter hous­es David Fos­ter Wal­lace’s library and papers, but you’ll have to make a trip to Texas (and present some aca­d­e­m­ic cre­den­tials) to access most of the archive. They have scanned a few oth­er choice pieces, how­ev­er, such as the hand­writ­ten first page from a draft of his lit­er­ary mas­ter­piece/­dorm-room doorstop, Infi­nite Jest.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load 55 Free Online Lit­er­a­ture Cours­es: From Dante and Mil­ton to Ker­ouac and Tolkien

W.H. Auden’s 1941 Lit­er­a­ture Syl­labus Asks Stu­dents to Read 32 Great Works, Cov­er­ing 6000 Pages

Don­ald Barthelme’s Syl­labus High­lights 81 Books Essen­tial for a Lit­er­ary Edu­ca­tion

What Books Do Writ­ers Teach?: Zadie Smith and Gary Shteyngart’s Syl­labi from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty

30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web

David Fos­ter Wal­lace: The Big, Uncut Inter­view (2003)

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, musi­cian, and often­time Eng­lish teacher to eas­i­ly-dis­tract­ed under­grad­u­ates. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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Comments (8)
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  • TRM says:

    As a for­mer Illi­nois State under­grad, what strikes me most about this syl­labus is that the books were to be bought at Bab­bit’s which is the local inde­pen­dent book­store. I am not sure if cir­cum­vent­ing the uni­ver­si­ty book­store is com­mon for Eng­lish pro­fes­sors (it cer­tain­ly was­n’t for my majors but who knows), but nev­er­the­less I think that it is cool.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Yes, it’s very com­mon. Since the ear­ly 90s, most uni­ver­si­ty book­stores have been pri­va­tized (most­ly B&N), and they tend to gouge stu­dents since they think they have a cap­tive cus­tomer base.

  • Tom says:

    Yep. Recent­ly our Shake­speare teacher told us one way to obtain the texts was sim­ply the “five-fin­ger dis­count”.

  • wakuia says:

    He was a mas­ter onanist.

  • RY says:

    At the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia (before Dave Fos­ter Wal­lace) I took a sim­i­lar “Lit­er­a­ture & Pop Cul­ture” Soci­ol­o­gy class. We read genre fic­tion of Beech­er Stowe, Stephen King, LeGuin, Dashiell Ham­mett, etc. It point­ed out how books that start as pop fic­tion (Dick­ens’ works, for exam­ple) often grow into Clas­sics over time, or encap­su­late the mores of their time in their mes­sage (Uncle Tom’s Cab­in) look­ing back.

  • Andy says:

    Did david fos­ter wal­lace teach while in grad school at u of a? In 85–86 I had an Eng­lish teacher who wore a ban­dana

  • Jake says:

    I think he taught from 93–02.

  • Ana Bee says:

    the full syl­labus link no longer works

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