Listening worksheet: David Foster Wallace’s commencement address (B2+)

Students can often surprise you with what they’ve read in English. I once taught a 14-year-old FCE candidate who’d enjoyed ‘Trainspotting’ by Irvine Welsh in the original ‘Embra’ dialect, and over the years I’ve met several dedicated fans of Nicholas Sparks and Paulo Coelho, one Margaret Atwood reader (yay!) and a particularly sulky and precocious Russian student who on the first day of the course simultaneously impressed and horrified me by proudly claiming to have read everything by Ayn ‘Medicare’ Rand. Choosing a particular long-form author to be your language teacher is, as Steven Krashen points out in this excellent essay (one which is also very good to use in class), a tremendous way to take your command of a language way beyond anything a coursebook can teach you.

David Foster Wallace is more of a challenge. Although I wouldn’t suggest ‘Infinite Jest’ to anyone with a CEF level of less than C9.9, his essays and short stories are so entertaining that the inherent language difficulties shouldn’t be insurmountable. If you happen to be teaching students with a very strong interest in issues of language usage his long essays ‘Tense Present: Democracy, English and the Wars Over Usage‘ and ‘Authority and American Usage‘ are worth pointing out to them.

But even for students who would never tackle his writing, this speech (audio here, full transcript here) is typically inspiring and engaging, particularly if you’re teaching university-age students. The format is one they should be familiar with – I start by showing them a google image search for ‘commencement address’, which brings up photos of Oprah Winfry, Barack Obama and Steve Jobs. His speech, which has been very widely shared and published and is known as ‘This is Water’, lasts 25 minutes, so it’s a very good idea to break it down into four sections – stop the recording after each four answers, allow the students to consult a partner and then share ideas. To extend the exercise/for homework you can get them to write, rehearse and perform their own five-minute commencement speeches, passing on the multifarious lessons that life has taught them, or, in the case of any Ayn Rand fans, telling the audience they’re all worthless subhuman filth :-P.

Listening worksheet

1. What is the point of the fish story?

2. What is the point of a Liberal Arts education supposed to be?

3. What, for DFW, is a more important thing to learn?

4. What does the eskimo story have to say about belief, according to DFW?

5. What do we need to bear in mind about a lot of the stuff we believe?

6. What is our ‘default setting’?

7. What is the most dangerous thing about a university education?

8. What does ‘learning how to think’ mean?

9. What is the point that DFW makes about suicides?

10. What is it that no one talks about in commencement speeches?

11. What is ‘the absolute voice of death’?

12. What is the point of the supermarket anecdote?

13. What is ‘the only thing that’s capital-T true’?

14. What is a great reason for choosing some sort of spiritual higher power to believe in?

15. Why will the world not discourage you from operating on your default settings?

16. What is ‘the really important kind of freedom’? 

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