Learn from the Best: 10 Course Syllabi by Famous Authors

Every once in a while, one of eminent professor and author David Foster Wallace’s syllabi emerges on the Internet, and countless devotees head to their local bookstores. In case you’ve already read through DFW’s favorites (or want another look), we’ve taken this opportunity to pull together a series of famous authors’ syllabi and reading lists for your convenience. Hey, who needs to go to college when you’ve got a list of texts from the best and a public library (you should still go to college)? After the jump, read through ten syllabi from famous writers — who knows, you might just learn something.


David Foster Wallace’s syllabus, English 102 — Literary Analysis 1: Prose Fiction, 1994 [via]




Donald Barthelme’s reading list for students. [via]

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, David Foster Wallace
Catholics, Brian Moore
The Complete Stories, Franz Kafka
Crash, J.G. Ballard
An Experiment in Love, Hilary Mantel
Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, David Lodge
The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis
My Loose Thread, Dennis Cooper
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
The Loser, Thomas Bernhard
The Book of Daniel, E.L. Doctorow
A Room with a View, E.M. Forster
Reader’s Block, David Markson
Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov
The Quiet American, Graham Greene

Plus: George Saunders’s Pastoralia, Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, JG Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, readings from Orwell, and Richard Yates’s Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.

Course Description:

What does ‘having a sensibility’, literary or otherwise, mean? Is it something one acquires, something innate, or something else again? We’re going to read a selection of very good 20th century novels (and one book of poems) concentrating on whatever is most particular to them, in the hope that this might help us understand whatever is most particular to us. The reading list is long* and heterogeneous in the hope of encouraging sympathy for a broad range of literary sensibilities regardless of what our own natural inclinations may be. Students will give short presentations, and at the end of the course will write a piece of fiction, or a piece of literary criticism, of at least five pages.

The course will be punctuated by secondary readings of literary criticism and philosophy.

* Most of the novels are short.

Zadie Smith’s syllabus for her Spring 2009 Writing R6212 section 001. [via]


W. H. Auden’s syllabus for English 135 at the University of Michigan during the 1941-42 academic year. [via]

SYLLABUS English 3 9 : Professor Susan Howe. Spring 1996. Thursdays 3:30-6:30 pm.

Though we wander about,
find no honey of flowers in this waste,
is our task the less sweet–
who recall the old splendour,
await the new beauty of cities?

The city is peopled
with spirits, not ghosts, O my love:

Though they crowded between
and usurped the kiss of my mouth
their breath was your gift,
their beauty, your life.

H.D. from “Cities” (Sea Gardens)
Who knows the curious mystery of the eyesight? The other senses corroborate themselves, but this is removed from any proof but its own and foreruns the identities of the spiritual world. A single glance of it mocks all the investigations of man and all the instruments and books of the earth and all reasoning.

The great poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is. He drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them again on their feet. . . . he says to the past, Rise and walk before me that I may realize you. He learns the lesson. . . . he places himself where the future becomes present.

Walt Whitman–from Preface to Leaves of Grass

We will begin by examining the literature of Puritan New England. During the 17th century, women, figured as converts, heretics, captives, goodwives, and witches.; indeed Puritan women and young girls were simultaneously represented as embodiments of exemplary virtue and deplorable deviance. We will explore a variety of genres–conversion narratives, captivity narratives, heresiographies, trial transcripts, diaries.

During the second half of the semester will concentrate on the powerful subliminal influence these issues and texts exert on certain 19th century American works. Concentration will be on primary texts but I want to enter our discussions of Hawthorne, Dickinson, and James via two books: Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, and Sexuality and Space, edited by Beatriz Colomina.

Required Texts:
Two Packets containing much of the reading. The first one available the first day of class checks to be paid to the UB Foundation. David Hall ed., The Antinomian Controversy 1636-38. Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Ninteenth Century. Beatriz Colomina, ed. , Sexuality and Space, Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown,” “The Gentle Boy,” Alice Doane’s Appeal,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” The Marble Faun, Henry James, “The Ghostly Rental,” “Maud-Evelyn,” ” The Turn of the Screw,” What Maisie Knew, The Golden Bowl.

There will be a group of recommended but not required texts on reserve in the library. Most importantly The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson edited by Ralph Franklin.

1. A class presentation on a subject that I will assign (10-15 minutes no more no less). Although I will assign research subjects to each member of the seminar how you chose to present your research to the group is up to you. This is a poetics seminar and If you wish to take an experimental approach to your oral presentation . You are welcome to do so however you will need your strategy with me first. Keep in mind “experimental” is the process of trying or testing something. Something specific.

2. Two copies of a 1-2 page weekly written free-form response to some aspect of the material read and or discussed each week. One copy should be handed in to me at the beginning of each session, the other is for each member of the seminar.

3. A final research paper or video production due on the last day of class April 25 (latest possible due date April 30).

1. Th. 1. 25. First Lecture. Overview, intentions for the semester etc. Slides of Dickinson prose fragments and letters. Discussions of issues these slides of her manuscripts raise when we come to consider the Antinomian Controversy.

“The Poems” will ever be to me marvellous whether in manuscript or type.

Susan Gilbert Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
2. Th . 2.1. Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomian Controversy.
3. Th. 2. 8. Conversion Narratives and Thomas Shepard “Autobiography.”

4. Th. 2. 15. Captivity Narratives. Mary Rowlandson, Hannah Dustan (Thoreau and Mather versions).

5. Th. 2. 22. Witchcraft in NE. Trials and cases of possession. Cotton Mather, historian, minister and doctor. “Brand,” “Ornaments for the daughters of Zion,” exerpts from Magnalia Christi Americana.

6. Th. 2. 29. The Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards “A Faithful Narrative, “Narratives of Surprising Conversions” ” Personal Narrative.” Sarah Edwards Narrative of Conversion and Esther Edwards Burr, excerpts from Narrative and Journals in second packet..

7. Th. 3. 7. Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century . Hawthorne. “Young Goodman Brown,” “The Gentle Boy,” “Alice Doane’s Appeal, ” “Rappaccini’s Daughter. ”

8. Th. 3. 14. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun . Henry James, Hawthorne.

9. Th. 3. 28. Emily Dickinson. Alice James, excerpts from the Diary (in second packet. )

10. Th. 4. 4. Henry James, “The Ghostly Rental,” “The Turn of the Screw, ” “Maud-Evelyn.” “The Question of our Speech. ”

11. Th. 4. 11. Henry James. What Maisie Knew.

12. Th. 4. 18. Robert Duncan Conference. You should plan to go to the panels.

The dead
are the departed therefrom. Whose
leavings. Reading we partake of.
A lamp of letters, a ladder of
divine signs,
a substance of ourselves lost, lost
in a world lost waste lost that we must gather

Set like a crying girl to sift cinders
out of old passions. For a first fire.
For a light in old age to burn in the skull
that lit youth’s loins?
Covetous brain!

But read further, read further.
Beloved Shakespeare, beloved Lao Tse,
beloved Virginia Woolf!
My heart is submerged as I read.

the swarming radiance.

These that I never saw I see.

the boundless waters.

“The Human Communion. Traces”
13. Th. 4. 25 The Golden Bowl . Papers due.

Just why they came=Is the same way=In which they waited=In liking having bought it=Which made them go=They went away at once.=XIX=It is easy to keep count.=One two three all out but she.= It is easy to keep count and make a mistake.=Slenderness keeps them busy.=Ought they to be kept busy=
With it=anything artificial is an annoyance example artificial silk.=All history is cautious.
Gertrude Stein- from “We Came. A History.”

Susan Howe’s syllabus for Poetics: Sexuality and Space in 17th – 19th Century American Literature, 1996. [via]

ENGL 574 Syllabus

COURSE DESCRIPTION: This will be an intensive graduate workshop. I am working with a different model, one that emphasizes both generative practices and revision. You will be required to write three new stories very quickly (during the first nine weeks of class), which we will workshop, then we’ll spend the last five weeks of class workshopping one revision. It doesn’t take a mathematician to realize that we will be “flying” through the stories in the first part in order to focus our time on the revision.

COURSE GOALS: Part of the challenge of being a successful writer is writing under deadline. As you gain recognition as a writer, journals will begin soliciting your work. Editors and agents will require that you work efficiently. This class is modeled on your future success. As such, you will generate three new stories: one every three weeks, which will be workshopped very quickly.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of being a successful writer is knowing how and when and what to revise. The last third of the semester, we will workshop a revision of one of the stories submitted. For the revision, I will not accept line edits alone. I would like structural changes. Especially because you are generating these stories at perhaps a more rapid pace than you would otherwise write, I understand that they will not be the “cleanest” stories. Hence, the revision workshop.

Because this class is so writing intensive, I am not requiring any additional readings for class, but writing is about much more than just writing in a vacuum. You have to participate in a larger conversation. For your final portfolio, you are required to write three book reviews, responses to eight literary journals, and four community activities. (More on this later.)

FINAL PORTFOLIO: Rather than have you write or revise even more, your final portfolio will reflect your involvement in the writing world. Your portfolio will contain: three book reviews, responses to eight literary journals, and responses to four cultural activities, two of which should not occur on campus.

Book Reviews: as a rough template, please see the attachment for The Review of Contemporary Fiction’s book review guidelines. Every review venue has different requirements. If you would like to submit your review for publication at another venue, please use that journal’s guidelines and in your portfolio, give me a copy of what they want. The books you review must have been published no earlier than 2010.

Literary Journals: This can be print or online, but the point is that you start becoming conversant in what journals are publishing right now! Responses can be brief, but I want to know what you think about what you read, what the journal’s aesthetic is, etc. You should see this as an opportunity to gain knowledge about future publication options.

Cultural Activities: This can be readings, art openings, indie films, etc. Most of you know I am pretty lax about what constitutes a cultural activity.

GRADE BREAKDOWN: No one here needs to worry about grades, unless you don’t come to class, don’t do your work, or don’t talk. But here it is anyway:

Participation 50%

Final Portfolio 50%

Participation includes attendance and an active engagement with the workshop. It also includes the work you submit, both stories and notes to other workshop members. Don’t be late.

COOKIE POLICY: If your cell phone rings or buzzes, you will bring cookies in for everyone. If I catch you texting, the same.

CALENDAR BREAKDOWN: Because this is a workshop and we’re not reading anything, I’m not giving you a silly blank sheet of paper with empty slots. Here’s the way we’re running it:

Weeks 1-9: We will workshop five stories per week. You will need to write a new story every three weeks. You will submit your story to us electronically one week before it is to be workshopped.

Week 10 (4/2): Conferences

Weeks 11-15: Revision workshops, three per class. Again, you will submit your story electronically one week before it is to be workshopped.

ENDNOTES: Given the brisk nature of our workshops this semester, I don’t want to kill you with endnote work. So, this is what I expect on manuscripts: detailed and smart line edits and marginalia. I want very concise endnotes, more of an outline of what works and what doesn’t. (At the bare minimum, I expect three things that work and five suggestions, on a macro-level, for the revision process.) I will not accept banal comments like:

I like your characters, or

Your pacing is off, or

Nice descriptions, etc.

These are things that can go in your marginalia. I want macro-level comments and suggestions in your endnotes. This is a graduate workshop. If you don’t know what this means, I suggest you go buy a book on fiction.

CLASSROOM ETIQUETTE: I will not tolerate impolite behavior in the classroom or on the manuscript. Period. If I find your behavior inappropriate, I will ask you to withdraw from the class. This classroom will be a safe space for people to write whatever they want. The stories submitted may or may not fit your aesthetic. Get over it. I expect endnotes and comments to reflect what the writer wants from her story, not what you would do if you were the author.


Lily Hoang’s MFA fiction workshop syllabus, 2012. [via]

Scientists and Writers on Writing about Science

In the 17th century, Sir Thomas Browne, the son of a silk merchant, wrote essays on unicorn horns, doxa, whales, and the discovery of some buried bronze age urns; those writings remain among the most beautiful thinking of our age. What does writing about science and nature look like today? In this course, we’ll consider a diverse syllabus of works by contemporary writers, including Siri Hustvedt writing about neuroscience, Oliver Sacks on hallucinations, James Gleick on the information age, and Lauren Redniss on Marie Curie and the weather.

One of the main features of this class will be visits each week from the authors of the discussed works.

The writing requirement for the course will consist of three thoughtful written questions for the author submitted each week before class.

Readings will include:
Long for This World by Jonathan Weiner
Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks
The Information by James Gleick
The Shaking Woman or a History of My Nerves by Siri Hustvedt
Out of Eden by Alan Burdick
Radioactive by Lauren Redniss
Essays by Freeman Dyson
Essays by Edward Hoagland
Essays by Rachel Aviv
Journalism by Julia Kagan
Moby Duck by Donovan Hohn
The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene

Rivka Galchen’s course description for “Scientists and Writers on Writing about Science” at Columbia University, 2013.



Lynda Barry’s syllabus for her class “The Unthinkable Mind” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. [via]

Professor Roiphe G54.1281.01

This is an advanced course in the reading and practice of criticism, with a rigorous focus on the mechanics of the critical essay. How does a great essay work? We will examine the elusive elements of precision, originality, and style. Over the course of the semester students will focus on developing and refining their own critical voice. Critics under discussion will include: Vladimir Nabokov, Kenneth Tynan, Elizabeth Hardwick, Randall Jarrell, Virginia Woolf, Janet Malcolm, John Updike, and James Wood.

READING: (Books will be available at Shakespeare & Co.)

Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman.
Virginia Woolf, A Room Of One’s Own.
James Wood, The Broken Estate.
The Irresponsible Self.
All other essays will be in the course packet.

There will be one long paper (3,500 words) due at the end of the semester on a topic of your choosing. No late papers will be accepted. Grades will be based in equal parts on the paper and on class participation.

Toward the end of the semester there will be a Contemporary Criticism Project in which each student will make a brief presentation analyzing the criticism surrounding a current book, exhibit or movie.

1/28 Introduction

2/4 Virginia Woolf
“Mr. Bennett and Mr. Brown”
“Jane Austen”
A Room of One’s Own

2/11 Vladimir Nabokov: Lectures on Literature
John Updike’s Introduction
“The Metamorphosis”
“The Walk by Swann’s Place”
“The Art of Literature and Common Sense”

2/25 Randall Jarrell
“Against Abstract Expressionism”
“Poets, Critics and Readers”
“On Preparing to Read Kipling”
“The Development of Yeats’ Sense of Reality”

3/3 The Partisan Review
Leslie Fiedler, “ The New Mutants,” “An Almost Imaginary Interview”
Mary McCarthy, “Introduction to the Theater Chronicles”

3/10 Kenneth Tynan
Selections from Curtains, and The Sound of Two Hands Clapping.

3/24 Elizabeth Hardwick
“Mary McCarthy”
“America and Dylan Thomas”
“Sylvia Plath”
“Bloomsbury and Virginia Woolf”

3/31 Janet Malcolm
The Silent Woman.

4/7 James Wood
The Broken Estate

4/14 James Wood
The Irresponsible Self

4/21 Contemporary Critics Project

4/28 John Updike
“Atwood and Murdoch”
“John O’Hara”
“Saul Bellow”

5/5 Closing Thoughts

Katie Roiphe’s syllabus for her Advanced Criticism Seminar, 2008.

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David Foster Wallace’s syllabus for English 67 — Literary Interpretation, Section 02 Spring 2005 [via]