Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by D.T. Max.
This was the last book of 2014, and it was remarkable how quickly he dealt with the end of Wallace’s life. It was mostly his article in the New Yorker. The descent was so quick and deliberate that to dwell on it any longer would be to dig a deeper grave. It’s like he asked: Why dwell on something so morbid? Really, Max made a decision like so many friends, colleagues, and fans to focus more on the work and his relationships with his friends, family, and students. That’s the life stuff that really matters. The mental health, depression and substance abuse are parts of him, but those are small parts of what makes a person and what matters is his relationships personal and professional and how those work together. Were some of Wallace’s habits and weaknesses a major part of his relationships? Were they unhealthy? Absolutely, but that doesn’t make an entire life.
What I took away from the book was his teaching methods.
“He was aware that the teacher –student relationship was one of performer and spectator. The teacher was under constant pressure to entertain if he wanted to be liked—and no one wanted to be liked more than Wallace did. The bind was not just that he did not think he could do it, but that if he did do it, was he actually doing something he would admire himself for having done?”
“Teaching taught him a hard lesson, though: he had only a limited amount of energy. If he taught, that drew down the tank with which he wrote. ‘I leave at dawn and get home at night,’ he wrote Washington as the semester began, “promptly get drunk and fall into sweaty half sleep.”
At Amherst, he was a late addition, like every situation I’ve been in as a teacher. This happened this semester when I started teaching at Plattsburgh State:
“To the Amherst undergraduates, he was just a name on the syllabus. In fact, because he was a last-minute addition meant to fill a teaching hole, they knew less about him than about most of their instructors. The students who showed up for his class were surprised to find a man barely older than themselves, carrying a pink Care Bears folder and a tennis racket.” (81)
Max touches on Wallace’s thoughts on how working hard on teaching might zap energy from his writing, something I was very worried about for a lot of my life, but now I think teaching and grading can actually help me get better and works well together. As long as I keep a healthy diet of reading good writing, rather than a constant parade of freshman writing then it’s a good balance.
“Wallace knew that if he taught hard he wouldn’t be able to write, but he also knew that he wasn’t writing anyway, so he went at teaching with fervor, covering the students’ papers with pages of annotations, throwing himself into their work. Teaching brought focus and a sense of accomplishment and the knowledge that he was honoring his parents, and Wallace needed all that. The students were astonished at his intensity.” (102)
I can’t really do that. When you’re a “highway adjunct” as some colleagues have called me, working this way is just impossible to maintain some semblance of a life. I like my job, I don’t want to burn out, and this method would lead to burnout. Editing papers from three sections of English 101 where each class is capped at 25 students—I had one section that started with thirty students this semester—is just not in the cards. Max details that Wallace went through each student’s paper three times using different colored pens for each read. That’s hardcore, and not really something I can accommodate. Really, the only way he could do that is he was teaching two, at most three classes a semester with class populations of no more than fifteen to twenty students. He had the time to spend on their papers, which is great for them, but not a reality for a majority of English teachers. I don’t write too much on a student’s paper, because I’m not their copy-editor. The only way most of them will actually learn anything is if they see what’s wrong and make the change themselves. I’m a big believer in one-on-one time: when a student comes to see you and you go through their paper with them. That does more good for a student looking for improvement than me scrawling all over their paper in bad handwriting, when all they really care about is the grade of the first draft. Generally, I encourage people to make an appointment to see me for office hours so we can go through their paper. I leave that choice up to them, and rarely the ones who do need the help come see me. Though when I do write comments, I’ve started doing something similar to Wallace:
“Wallace made sure his comments were supportive and the tone of the class positive…He cautioned the student as one remembers, not to ‘tapdance in cleats’ on one another’s stories.”
I’ll draw a cartoon of myself with an encouraging statement and what they need to work on for the revision, that way they have a summary on their paper with a grade.
He also taught grammar lessons, which is not something I do, but believe that grammar is not a thing that should be taught once but taught constantly, no matter what level of education. It should be reinforced every year, because it’s a thing one needs regular practice to do well. I think that’s a real disservice American education does is there are a lot of high schools who do not make their English teachers teach grammar, and because those teachers don’t touch it in their higher educations they don’t feel comfortable teaching it so they avoid it. I understand that. It’s certainly how I feel and I think that’s something I’m going to work on next semester, because I love my job because it gives me the opportunity to pay forward what I’ve learned and it helps me improve as a writer. That’s something I learned while reading this book so I’ve ILLed The David Foster Wallace Reader, because it has a lot of his teaching materials that I’d like to incorporate into my class. My syllabus and paper assignments already borrow from quite a few of them. You can find them here.
[Image by Forsyth Harmon from this post.]