how dfw got me a c+ on a paper

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September 12 is the first yahrtzeit of my literary hero, David Foster Wallace. RIP.

I’m good at school. This isn’t to be confused with smarts; it’s a skill, knowing how to beat the system, realizing where to best deploy your time and effort, how to read just enough of the assigned material, how to participate, etc. I’m especially good at predicting my grade. So, imagine my unpleasant surprise when I got back what I thought was a masterpiece of film criticism decorated with a C+. I complained, I petitioned, I even resubmitted to the head of the film department — nothing. And they were right, I guess, in that the paper didn’t do what they wanted it to: be a boring and amateur pseudo-scholarly response to some canned question. But still, why hadn’t I realized that?? (For the final paper, I did exactly that: loaded it to the gills with citations and quotes and ridiculousness, e.g.:

This, in the 1970s, when vital, pressing political issues were rampant, is all the more striking. Walker “has avoided presenting the “harder” issues of racism and foreign policy. We, too, are forced into a kind of myopia in which fragments of common sense are substituted for issues.” (Abrahams 1975, pg. 7).

Gag.) Sure, I was to blame for my oversight, as were my teachers for being so gosh-darned narrow-minded. But the real culprit of my freeflowing, non-scholarly tour de force on the theme of adultery in The Apartment and The Graduate: David Foster Wallace. Seriously. At that point, I had devoured every piece of non-fiction that the man had written, and was slowly returning to his fiction, even starting to nibble my way through his opus, Infinite Jest. And all of it was clearly having an effect on me — and my writing. Look at this footnote — the use of which had the TA up in arms: “It’s only an eight-page paper! You don’t need footnotes!” Me: “What does length have to do with it?!?” — on the sentence “Indeed, infidelity (and its subsequent effects/damages) is so often used as a backdrop, conceit, or storyline that it’s almost – and often is – cliché.”:

Classic, overfamiliar scene: X has just found out that her husband, Y, has cheated on him with Z, her best friend.

I loved that footnote. Still do, in fact. But clearly, I’m not obeying the laws of academic papers. The footnote is not strictly pertinent, yet it really does illustrate my point. And then I used parenthetical footnotes (as in, footnotes in parentheses, not footnotes of a parenthetical nature):

(It is precisely this nonchalance with which the ongoing affairs are handled that provides – to great effect – much of the comedic force of the film.)

This drove the TA batshit-crazy. The head of the film department didn’t approve, either. She commented: “You use the footnote mechanism unprofessionally, elaborating on a point as opposed to incorporating support from critics or interviews.” Whatever. I may have used the ‘footnote mechanism’ unprofessionally, but I used it effectively and with style and fun. I used sentence-long paragraphs. I put whole sentences between em-dashes.

And that was just the stylistic DFW-inspired stuff that nearly destroyed my GPA. The whole essay eschews formal analysis and comment, and just kind of grapples with the subject matter; strands of argument not really left dangling as much as intricately (read: confusingly, but coherently) tied in a personal twist.

Adultery is nothing if not unpredictable. (If it were, it wouldn’t be nearly as popular as fun.) But the end results are usually rather unpleasant, and the wounds it almost inevitable inflicts may take a lifetime to heal — if they heal at all. But in the glorious Weltanschauung of the cinema, such concerns can be merrily tossed aside as we cheer our hereos and boo our villains and enjoy tidy, tight conclusions.  [Comment: This is amateur psychology, with little connection to film criticism.]

David Foster Wallace may have gotten me a C+ on a film paper, but I forgive him. I’m that grateful.


Written by menachemkaiser

12 September at 21:50

Posted in rants

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