The syllabi of David Foster Wallace … I’ve just found a new personal hero.

Wallace is a bit “fashionable” these days but the following passage rang true in a way few comments on the art of teach have in recent years:

Wallace refuses the habitual patterns and usual fictions that govern a classroom. His syllabus warns: “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.”

If you expect mediocrity, you get mediocrity. If you demand excellence, you still get mediocrity, but you do not have to give it more than a “pass”. Acknowledging a student’s worth as a person is not the same as acknowledging their ideas as something more than what they are. We are not all unique snowflakes, some of us are quite unexceptional. In the seminar room you get my full attention, but you get my expectation as well that you will be fully prepared to work.

David Foster Wallace’s syllabus: Is there any better?


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