hideous teachers

Just finished Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, and am left with a compulsion to write about it combined with a nauseating (not nauseous) sense of my incapacity to really do so. I am self-conscious writing about DFW, because a deep relationship with his stuff is almost required among hyperarticulate white men of a certain age (mine, to about ten years on either side). Debates among us about whether or not many of us “get” him is one of the practices that make us so insufferable: we are so sure that he spoke just to us, I think, that we bristle at someone else saying what he meant to them.

In any case, his work meant a LOT to me. This is not my first attempt to write it: just after his suicide in 2008, I worked with the friend who turned me on to him to write a hastily-assembled tribute that got down a lot of the personal pain but missed much reflection on what his work made possible in my own life.[1] So let me come in a different door here: what DFW tells me as a teacher, and maybe from that apercu on to deeper considerations. (Will also try to lighten up on words like “apercu,” though they are sort of a baked-in hazard of reading the guy.)

He taught a lot, at several institutions: his alma mater Amherst, briefly, maybe at Arizona State, I don’t remember, but definitely then on to more sustained gigs at a state college in Illinois (much like mine) and, finally, Pomona. Philosophy at first, then creative writing for years, and finally literature (which he mostly did through popular novels like Carrie and The Silence of the Lambs, not Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor).

As a seminar teacher, he was apparently astounding. There’s a whole cache of internet stuff out there from previous students who reflect on his generosity and intense focus on the quality of their expressions, their engagement with ideas. He completely shunned any reference to his monolithic status as voice of a generation, the post-pomo wunderkind, the Genius Grant recipient and official Next Big Thing, maintaining that he was to be “Dave” and talk about their work, not his. I cannot yet find evidence of anything else anywhere, really: his RateMyProfessors profile (cursed artifact of these panoptic times) has been pulled, of course, but it was reported to concur, in the bald terms that platform always invites (“one of the best teachers I’ve ever had,” “tough as shit and can hurt students’ feelings,” “very neurotic and tends to chew tobacco and spit in a cup while lecturing”). A few more telling comments:

He never talked about his work. Not once in the three workshops I took with him. I’ve had numerous professors force their students to read their own work in courses, but he would have been mortified by the idea. There wasn’t a bone in his body that wasn’t humble.

He was the first professor to treat me as something other than a student. He said he was learning something from us, too. He was the kind of mentor whose unassuming personality warranted visits, even when the class was finished and there was nothing academic to discuss. I remember there was always a line of students by the bench outside his office in Crookshank. Those conversations were always rich and I will miss them, almost as much as I will miss him.

As a reader of student writing, he was monstrous. Max’s portrait of his teaching of writing shows someone simply unwilling to let people work beneath their potential. DFW read student work more closely than many of us read our most precious writing: three times, once each for general impression, for literary quality, and once for markup as if it were going to press (in a different color ink each time), and ended with a ton of handwritten or small-font-typed response (here’s an example).

Perhaps part of his hyperfocus was pathological (his tics and obsessions included grammar “SNOOTiness” as well as revulsion against self-consciously artistic or ironic prose). Maybe it was part avoidance of The Work Itself: the task of finding and maintaining the rhythmic discipline to write productively that challenged him his whole career. How else can we understand Max’s reporting of a heartrendingly personal correspondence with Don DeLillo about how to actually DO the work of writing:

Do you have like a daily writing routine? Do you set off certain intervals as all and only time for fiction writing? More important, do you then honor that commitment, day after day? Do you have difficulties with procrastination / avoidance / lack of discipline? If so, how do you overcome them? I ask because I am frustrated not just with the slowness of my work but with the erratic pace I work at. And I ask you only because you seem at least on this end of the books, to be so steady – books every couple of years or so for over two decades and you don’t seem to have an outside job or teaching gig or anything that might relieve (what I find to be) the strain of daily self-starting and self-discipline and daily temptations to dick around and abandon the discipline. Any words or tips would be appreciated and kept in confidence (pp. 235-236).

When taken together with his legendary output of  letters, perhaps the opportunity to lose himself in student work and other lower-impact writing was a way to feel productive while not having to belly-up to the project that was so much harder (I certainly would recognize that behavior, compassionately). Or maybe it’s overly simple – and unfair – to characterize his relationship to teaching as avoidance. Some wonder if his students, and the demands of responding to their work, were part of the structure that enabled him to write:

His attentiveness to his students in particular was beyond generous. I think he needed us, too. We gave him a tangible purpose and a routine: things that writing didn’t always offer (emphasis mine).

All this reflection is prelude to a more serious inquiry I would like to make into Wallace as teacher. I am grateful to Paula Salvio, whose groundbreaking scholarship on the pedagogy of Anne Sexton invites further considerations of other “limit cases of exemplary teachers”: teachers whose pathology (or, perhaps, humanness that refuses to be constrained and disciplined by teacherly role expectations) is both threatening and somehow deeply part of the power of their teaching.

Sexton was a well-documented hideous creature, by most lights: alcoholic, mentally ill, prone to violence, disrespectful of boundaries personal, sexual, and social. Most of these same qualities plagued DFW – differences in degree, but after reading in both lives, not really in kind –  and the act of imagining either of them in the classroom is initally disturbing. Salvio works to get her hands around the nature of that disturbance through Freud (and Lacan’s) description of “uncanny” experience:

The uncanny is really nothing new or alien. Rather, it is something that is ordinary, familiar, “old established in the mind and which has become alien to it…something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light”… (p. 12)

And the project of reading Sexton’s excesses as being of a piece with her pedagogy leads her to great discomfort as she reads Sexton’s papers in the archive at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin:

The uncanny provokes anxiety because something appears that was already there, something closer to the house, the heim, the host. What suddenly appears at the door of the house, or on the stage, is at once hostile and expected, foreign to and yet embedded in the house. This dangerous conjunction, teacher+addict, teacher+mental illness, transformed the archive into a panic space where all the traditional limits I had clung to as I began to render her teaching life became blurred (p. 45).

I must note a parallel experience – fear of finding something terrifying has been right in front of you the whole time, the Face in the Floor – as I write DFW as teacher. How to reconcile the dangers and damages he apparently wrought, the deep terrors of depression, addiction, and bad boundaries, with the teaching persona his students, without exception, affirm? How to locate the compassionate reader and annotator – paidagogos extraordinaire – within the selfish and self-loathing nature he worked a daily program to overcome but that (according to those who must have best known) still seethed beneath the surface of his serenity?

I am only beginning to make sense of Salvio’s whole argument, but what most moves me right now is how she reckons Sexton’s final assignment, wherein she had her poetry students “write an interview in which they fabricated a persona from the details in Sexton’s poems and lectures”:

You are to fabricate my reply and we will see how close you come as the term moves on….for the first eight classes, there will be in-class assignments. Written work that will let you live the life of a poet. I realize you are not all writers, but you will know a lot more about writing and the way a writer thinks after doing them. And thus will know me better (pp. 40-41).

This assignment, at first blush an appalling exercise in self-absorption or outright narcissism, is unpacked as a risky articulation and subversion of the unspoken expectations that all pedagogues hold that their students come to mirror themselves. When Sexton foregrounds the expectation that students “give the teacher what she wants” (i.e., that they give her back herself) and exaggerates its most-repellent features, she is exploiting the power of “too much” to invite transformation:

By asking to students to approach and then incorporate pieces of her “grotesque” body, and to incorporate aspects of a composing process that contain striking elements of a gross materialism, Sexton raises important questions, not only about the ways that our student imbibe, through spoken and unspoken exchanges, formal and informal, our culture’s body habits, language systems, memories, values, and anxieties, but also how we determine what is normal and what is perverse, what will come in and what we will spit out…the expressed anxieties about this assignment, many of which I also shared, point, I believe, to our reluctance to consider the extent to which we, too, may be complicit in composing a curriculum that is tainted by our own narcissistic attachments (pp. 41-42).

What fascinates about Salvio’s frame as an approach to Wallace is that the difficulty of slipping the bonds of “our own narcissistic attachments” is the one of the core themes of Wallace’s fiction, and arguably (given his long struggle with addiction, and a dozen years of sobriety before his death) of his life. What then do we make of a another monstrous pedagogue who renders his teaching persona as completely – even obsessively – NOT about himself, but scrupulously about the Other, the student?

This is not a benign platitude in DFW’s hands (though that noun wouldn’t scare him: he frequently acknowledged that the deepest lessons of a culture seem like trite platitudes at first). This business of being about the other as a way of finding oneself, of the decentering of oneself being the core challenge of making genuine connections with others. Wallace’s work is littered with characters whose self-obsession leads to inability to interface: see Hal Incandenza’s muteness in the admissions interview that opens Infinite Jest, and more vertiginously (sorry) characters in his work whose self-knowledge is hindered by inability to acknowledge the role of one’s own pleasure in the giving of pleasure to another. We are left with a host of characters who are hermetically sealed within themselves, while striving to appear anything but. The several narrators of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Max notes, are characters who “not only seem to feel nothing; they seem to feel nothing about feeling nothing. They have creepy amounts of self-awareness but no ambition for catharsis. Their hideousness is beyond question” (p. 247).

I think Salvio’s excellent work makes space to consider the teaching of DFW as a study in the outcomes of fastidious focus on the Other; a “limit case of exemplary teaching” as yielding to exploration, I think, as Sexton’s focus on the Self. Likewise adding, then, to the overall critique of what education’s norms allow and disallow as knowing, as connecting, as being – what those cultural structures afford, and what they limit. Which is the crucial ambit of curriculum theory, generally.

Or something like that. There’s a whole gang of something to be done here. I hope to do it.

Image from New York Times.


[1] I sell the piece short, a little: “We faced the fact that The Jest was making us look in a gargantuan mirror that we’d been avoiding for the better part of our tentative and clearly provisional adulthoods.” Will wrote that, and it’s still true. And I think I nailed this bit: “I do remember that—before there were critical treatments of the Jest and its legacy had really gelled, as it is finally beginning to—my first reading perceived the leitmotif of a shapeless head within a frame. Here’s the woman born without a skull and her impossible wheeled prosthesis; there’s that little guy, what was his name, upside down on the Eschaton court with his head buried in a computer monitor; here’s a therapist framing his analysand’s face with a cage made from his fingers; there’s Himself slumped in the kitchen with his head immolated in a microwave. I took all this to suggest our ultimate paucity of intrinsic fiber or substance as humans, that we are only as strong or rigid or resistant as that against or within which we have decided to buttress ourselves. That we make ourselves, in other words, in terms of the things against which we choose to strain—and, of course, that we pull to us weight that exceeds our own weight at our great peril.  That humble and sane proposition remains about the truest thing I know after my near-40 years. It helps me choose the weights against which to pull. And it is no less true because the one who taught it to me has elected to leave.”

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3 thoughts on “hideous teachers

    1. Perhaps, but I was making a smartypants reference to a DFW tic (“Also I was bothered all through Infinite Jest with the way he made characters say “nauseous” for “nauseated” and it brought tears to my eyes that this was a grammar thing that he was very much aware of and was always correcting other people about. He mentions it at several different times in several different convos and letters in this bio and it always makes me tear up. God, everything in IJ is totally on purpose”).

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