I had some fine professors in my very long tenure as a college student, including an author who would later be poet laureate of California (Al Young) and the author of one of my favorite non-fiction books (Simon Winchester). They were writers of formidable talent, and I learned from them in their classes, Contemporary English Literature and Literature and Empire.
However, I don’t know if I could have come to terms with taking a lower division English composition class from David Foster Wallace. Every time I used a footnote, I would feel self-conscious.1 Katie Roiphe examines his syllabuses2 from his classes at Slate. I especially like this excerpt, from a syllabus for a course called “Literary Interpretations”:
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.”
In this syllabus, he also encourages shy or introspective students who think best by themselves to talk to him one-on-one about their analysis of the reading: “Clinically shy students or those whose best thoughts whose best, most pressing questions and comments occur to them only in private, should do their discussing with me solo, outside class.”
Very few professors that I knew took the differences in learning or participation style into account. Al Young, in fact, expressed surprised when I made a comment about Snow Falling on Cedars (about the symbolic function of the eponymous snow) that he found especially cogent, saying that because I had been so quiet up until then, he thought I wasn’t “getting” the material.
The reply that popped into my head — and that I didn’t say — is that I am like Mr. Ed: I don’t speak unless I have something to say. The inference of this unspoken declaration was that my classmates did not have something to say, so I thought it best to keep it to myself. My classmates, if I recall, spent a good deal of time talking about their personal lives as it related to the texts, something I wasn’t interested in as a structure for discussion of literature.
Though, I must admit, I also wasn’t inclined to talk to professors one-on-one very often, either. My preferred method of proving myself was in writing. It’s the medium I’m most comfortable in. It was in that medium that Al Young discovered that I am a “quintessential Californian,” as he put it.
1. I should note, that using footnotes is not part of Modern Language Association format, which most universities use, though I did use them from time to time, mostly — now that I think of it — to insert Pre-Raphaelite paintings that I found tangentially relevant to the point I was making.