Posts Tagged ‘David Foster Wallace’

A recent Rolling Stone article by Alex Morris focuses on Marlon James, who recently received the Man Booker Prize for his book A Brief History of Seven Killings. So far, so good. The third sentence of the article states that James came to the U.S. “with $200 in cash and the promise of a one-year teaching position,” which didn’t prompt much of a reaction until I read the following five paragraphs later:

By the time he began writing his second novel, The Book of Night Women, about a slave revolt on an 18th-century Jamaican sugar plantation, James was “full set that I was going to write my way out of Jamaica. My ambitions when I moved to the States were pretty simple: I just wanted to not kill myself.” When he was offered a teaching position at Macalester, a small liberal-arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota, he immediately accepted.

Okay, so the teaching position was at a highly-ranked liberal arts college and not a high school like the phrase “teaching position” might imply. Teaching is, after all, a big part of the job at liberal arts colleges (even the highly-ranked ones) and there are certainly one-year positions that would involve nothing but teaching. Wait, though, why is James still in Minnesota (Morris makes several references to this fact) if this was a one-year position? Does he still work at Macalester or is he a full-time writer now? Morris doesn’t say, though there is a party with “Macalester faculty and friends.”

And what about his educaton? I know that famous authors sometimes teach at liberal arts colleges (David Foster Wallace taught at Pomona, after all), but Morris doesn’t give the impression that James was a big writing star when he got the position. Wouldn’t he need at least a master’s degree (even David Foster Wallace had an M.F.A.)? Let’s see what Morris says about this: “College at the University of the West Indies, where he studied literature and politics and fell in with creative types, was a reprieve, but after he graduated and got a job in advertising, the old insecurities returned.” Hmm.

Curious about this, I decided to check out James’s Macalester bioSurprise! James isn’t just a “teacher,” he is an Associate Professor of English. His bio also states that he “graduated from the University of the West Indies in 1991 with a degree in Language And Literature, and from Wilkes University in 2006 with a Masters in creative writing.” So it appears that James didn’t so much “write his way out of Jamaica” as “got an advanced degree and a corresponding job,” though I’m sure that the publication of his second book in 2009 helped with the transition to a tenure-track position.

So, to recap, James earned a Master’s degree and got a one-year position at a highly-ranked liberal arts college and then, at some point, not only transitioned to a tenure-track position but received tenure. Readers of Morris’s article, however, could easily presume that James earned a bachelor’s degree and became a “teacher” at a liberal arts college, since anybody can teach at liberal arts colleges and there is nothing else that professors do (if he even is one!). When an entire article can be written about a tenured college professor without even mentioning that he is anything other than a “teacher” it is no wonder that Americans have a poor understanding of what professors do!

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When starting out as a teacher I was often told that a syllabus is a sort of contract. (This doesn’t make a syllabus sound very exciting, but we can’t all be David Foster Wallace.) As I’ve prepared for classes over the years I’ve always kept this in mind. Although my syllabus notes that the class schedule is tentative, it also notes that exam dates will not change. In line with this I’ve also never added, removed, or changed the deadline for assignments once a class has started. After an advisee’s recent experience, I’ve learned that not all faculty members follow this approach.

The student in question was in a course where the professor first pushed back and then cancelled a paper, with the cancellation occurring after the original deadline. For many students, this was not be a problem since they had not started the paper yet anyway. For students with busier schedules (and/or students who like to get things done ahead of time), however, this cancellation meant that the work they had put into the paper up to that point was wasted. The cancellation also had ramifications for students’ grades. Those who were doing well in the course may not have minded, but others who were struggling may have seen the cancelled paper as a chance to improve their grade. Instead, the relative value of their previous work was increased.

In my experience, some students are very vocal about their desire that course requirements be delayed or cancelled altogether, but this situation highlights the often unforeseen and unintended consequences of doing something that seems, on the surface, like it will merely reduce the workload for all involved.

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As the fall semester winds down I find myself thinking about how to improve the less-than-perfect aspects of my courses for the spring.  Unfortunately, I still haven’t found the perfect method for motivating my students to come to class prepared to engage in intelligent discussions of the reading (and it is increasingly evident that daily quizzes in 50-minute classes have a number of drawbacks).  To this end I am considering a range of options including providing discussion questions ahead of class and taking some of the control over who participates and who does not away from students.  I am also thinking of stealing some lines from a syllabus by David Foster Wallace.

Katie Roiphe at Slate notes that Wallace’s section on participation notes that:

Even in a seminar class, it seems a little silly to require participation. Some students who are cripplingly shy, or who can’t always formulate their best thoughts and questions in the rapid back-and-forth of a group discussion, are nevertheless good and serious students. On the other hand, as Prof — points out supra, our class can’t really function if there isn’t student participation—it will become just me giving a half-assed ad-lib lecture for 90 minutes, which (trust me) will be horrible in all kinds of ways.

As you might expect, he also has some words of wisdom for students’ typical approach to writing:

If you are used to whipping off papers the night before they’re due, running them quickly through the computer’s Spellchecker, handing them in full of high-school errors and sentences that make no sense and having the professor accept them ‘because the ideas are good’ or something, please be informed that I draw no distinction between the quality of one’s ideas and the quality of those ideas’ verbal expression, and I will not accept sloppy, rough-draftish, or semiliterate college writing. Again, I am absolutely not kidding.

While I don’t have the reputation of David Foster Wallace (nor am I teaching at Pomona), giving students a clearer picture of expectations upfront is a key component of holding them to those expectations near the end of the semester.

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