One of the most alluring characters in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is Madame Psychosis, a mysterious radio DJ whose identity is unknown even to the engineer of her long-running midnight-to-one radio program. Madame Psychosis uses her airtime to read strange texts aloud and offer her opinion on obscure pop-cultural subjects. For instance, she discusses “the home-lab process for turning uranium oxide powder into good old fissionable U-235,” and offers “a critique of the Steeler defense’s double-slot secondary.” There are many other oddities to the format of the program: she begins each episode with five minutes of silence; she introduces guests but never interviews them; and many of her “readings” take several shows to complete. Even so, her program finds a large and devoted audience in the fictional Massachusetts of Infinite Jest. One can easily imagine Wallace himself being a part of that audience. The late novelist found popular culture mesmerizing even as he considered its pace and invasiveness oppressive.
“The cliché turns out to be true: the teacher learns a lot more than the students.”
When I think about David Foster Wallace in the context of teaching undergraduates, I recall a 1997 interview he did with Charlie Rose in which he spoke about his simultaneous fondness for and exhaustion with higher education. “You learn an enormous amount [when you teach],” Wallace told Rose. “The cliché turns out to be true: the teacher learns a lot more than the students. You do for about two or three years, and then the curve drops off sharply.” He went on to criticize universities for hiring writers to teach and then granting them tenure based on their writing — teaching and writing being two things Wallace considered fundamentally incompatible.
I find myself agreeing with Wallace as to the flaws of the tenure process while disagreeing with him on the question of how teaching and writing interact. And yet, I think both of Wallace’s observations owe something to the author’s fascination with Madame Psychosis and what she represents. Madame Psychosis’ radio program delivers to its listeners far too much information for them to process, but nevertheless they find the ceaseless stream of data intoxicating. Television is much like this, as is the Internet, as is — for introverts like Wallace and myself — too much social interaction.
For some, Wallace included, teaching creates the same risk of self-exhaustion as a radio program like Madame Psychosis’. When you teach undergraduates, you are buffeted by their seemingly boundless energy and curiosity, and this is a wonderful feeling. But also, sometimes simultaneously, students may resist instruction due to self-doubts, anxieties, and preconceptions that arise naturally during the maturation process. These two extremes, which fill the classroom with an endless stream of contradictory emotional and environmental data, can be exhausting for a teacher. They can even — Wallace’s biggest fear — cause teachers to develop rigid classroom formats as a defense against this exhaustion. Sometimes, it makes writing on the same day you teach feel a little like whiplash.
“Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being”
As a teacher whose professional writing is also creative writing, I’m luckier than most. Creative writing, like the best creative writing workshops, is inductive — it’s an exploration both of possibilities and the exciting problems that possibilities generate. It isn’t, or shouldn’t be, merely an attempt to turn abstract principles into a series of hard-and-fast rules. What I mean here is that Wallace probably did his best teaching in his novels, and I don’t know that he’d disagree with that assessment. His fiction is “maximalist” in the sense that it’s ornate both in its language and the volume of often confusing data it offers readers. I think the best teachers find ways to bring Wallace’s radical openness to unexpected juxtaposition — whether it’s an overlap of optimism and cynicism, sincerity and irony, adventure and stasis, or comedy and tragedy — into the classroom. As Infinite Jest demonstrates with Madame Psychosis, fiction permits the creation of data-streams that are mesmerizing even when they’re exhausting and internally contradictory. In this sense, Wallace’s work is deeply instructive: in its desire to look at the whole of a thing without glossing over any of its complexities, it teaches teachers to be tireless and, hopefully, fearless.
“Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” Wallace once said, and, another time, “I want to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff.” Both of these comments describe admirably the role of not just the writer but the writer who teaches writing to others — whether it’s in a classroom setting or through his own hard-won narratives. In part because of Wallace’s influence, I now teach and write not as a means of simplifying difficult concepts, but rather to show how vast networks of information can produce exhilaration and illumination even as they retain their daunting complexity.
Seth Abramson is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire and the series co-editor of the Best American Experimental Writing, whose next edition will be released by Wesleyan University Press in late 2015. His most recent book is Metamericana (Blaze Vox, 2015).