Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor
written and illustrated by Lynda Barry
published in Oct. 2014 by Drawn & Quarterly
Lynda Barry is best known as an illustrator who created Ernie Pook’s Comeek, a comic strip that ran for decades. It featured Marley, and I typically think of it as the Marley comic. Later, the strip was collected in a book called The! Greatest! of! Marlys!, so it’s easy to see why I think of it as the Marley strip. I was somewhat charmed by the book, but it was when I discovered Lynda Barry’s novel Cruddy that I absolutely fell in love with the author. Cruddy is the darkest yet most beautiful book I’ve ever read. Reading Cruddy is like driving just a bit under the influence and wondering what will happen if you push the accelerator just a bit more and then a little more and then you went off-roading and your car caught fire. I identified with the raggedness of the narrator, the bare-your-teeth-to-show-you’re-crazy nature she possesses. The narrator is a teenage girl unlike any you’ve ever met. Seriously, I would not compare her to anyone.
But I’m here to review Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Barry explains that her former teacher, Marilyn Frasca, taught her how to keep a black and white comp book and to use it every single day to explore the world and what an image actually is. These comp books are the “most reliable route to the thing [Barry’s] come to call [her] work….” Barry has been carrying these notebooks for 20 years now. Syllabus is “a collection of bits and pieces from the many notebooks [Barry] kept during [her] first three years of trying to figure out how to teach this practice to [her] students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.” I wanted to see how this innovative woman approached the classroom to perhaps learn something for my own teaching. One main difference I must note is that Lynda Barry is so desired as a professor that students must submit applications to be in her class, and I teach freshmen in college.
Syllabus is a rare book whose physical form matches its content. Barry shares pages from a standard black and white marbled composition book. In pictures, you can’t tell but Syllabus is bound like a comp book, and its pages are thin like a comp book. Here is a large picture so you can see the cover better:
However, the book itself feels a bit delicate, and I was worried my new present (I got this gem for Christmas (thanks, Mom!)) would get easily banged up or have pages torn–much like a comp book. I liked that the design made me feel like I was peeking into Barry’s personal unpublished work, but I didn’t like that I fretted over damage.
Upon opening Syllabus, I immediately felt overwhelmed. What had I asked for?? The pages, if you flip through, look chaotic and unorganized, and I was worried that the book would have no direction and would consist only of pages scanned from Barry’s personal comp books. You’ll see things like this:
Whoa! I mean, is she really just going to photocopy things out of her notebook, or will there be more to it? To be honest, I was fairly hesitant to start Syllabus. It is a book that takes a little bit to get into. Even the copyright page is handwritten and disorganized, but I can definitely see how it adds to the aesthetic to make the form and content match.
Syllabus starts with Barry explaining how she wasn’t even sure how to make a syllabus at first. Some of her friends who teach had 30 pages, and others had one sheet of paper with information on the front and back. Barry ended up drawing her syllabus to explain what she expects from her students, which is neat to see.
My fears of unclear messages and images were assuaged when I realized Barry would explain what she was up to in many places. The reason it looks chaotic on the page is because she is a comic artist who isn’t using panels (those nice, neat squares that typically contain images and words). Good comic artists will lead you around the page carefully so that you don’t get lost, and Barry is a master at getting your eye to follow her words and images where she wishes. Panels are cool, but she doesn’t need them.
That Barry is an encouraging instructor comes through clearly. She reassures students that to be in the class they do not need to be able to draw. In fact, when she goes through the applications for her class, she choose a variety of students from the arts and sciences departments so that she doesn’t get a bunch of people who already draw. The best are people who used to draw (like, when they were children) and have not done so in a long time. There are interesting exercises, like spend 60 seconds drawing a robber. The images are all a bit “childish” but interesting, and Barry writes, “In a classroom of students with varying levels of drawing experience, this way of drawing brings us to a common starting place that is like the starting place we all share: our first drawings of people made when we were little.”
My excitement for this book perhaps stems from my background: I had a fantastic art teacher in high school who emphasized history, technique, style, etc. so that students built up a knowledge of art and didn’t just move from one project to the next with no strands to connect them. I also love graphic novels (I’m not as big into comic books because it’s really an endurance game that costs a lot of time and money). I have three degrees in fiction writing, so I am very interested in where ideas come from and why we like some better than others. Barry points out that we made art before we had a word for it, but why? She asks big questions that blew my mind, like is there a biological function of art. So much of my interests in creativity are shallow compared to what Barry poses! Here is an example:
“How do images move and transfer? Something inside one person takes external form–contained by a poem, story, picture, melody, play, etc.–and through a certain kind of engagement, it is transferred to the inside of someone else.”
She also points out what it means to like or not like art (especially in the context of the rudimentary drawings students make):
“Liking and not liking can make us blind to what’s there. In spite of how we feel about it, it is making its way, from the unseen to the visible world, one line after the next, bringing with it a kind of aliveness I live for: right here, right now.”
Barry addresses my question about where creativity comes from. Ever had writer’s block? Barry makes an interesting point:
“We know that athletes, musicians, and actors all have to practice, rehearse, repeat things until it gets into the body, the ‘muscle memory,’ but for some reason, writers and visual artists think they have to be inspired before they make something, not suspecting the physical act of writing or drawing is what brings that inspiration about. Worrying about its worth and value to others before it exists can keep us immobilized forever. Any story we write or picture we make cannot demonstrate its worth until we write it or draw it. The answer can’t come to us any other way.”
Wow. I mean, wow, right? For all those who suffer from not knowing what to write or who lose interest in their art because they don’t know what to make–will it be unique? cool? liked? important? timeless?–these are all questions that hinder us, and until Barry said it in just those words, it didn’t strike me that writing is a physical act. You can say duh, sure, but Barry doesn’t allow tech devices in her class; it’s all pencil, pen, and paper (and crayons, colored pencils, and water color paints). The idea is to get people back to the physical act of writing in a specific way. The more I read Syllabus, the more it made sense, and not in a grumpy “kids and their technology! humph!” sort of way.
The one criticism I have of Syllabus other than the delicate construction of the book is that I wanted much, much more. I wish Barry had added more about her intentions with each assignment. For instance, in the beginning, students must color with crayons on different types of paper, completely filling the whole page. Just… scribbling, not images. Next, students color pages (I think she means pages with images that are on a variety of styles of paper?? The instructions say that students should choose 3 pages from those pinned to the wall. Is Barry bringing the pages in?) and the rule is that no white can show through. The students must use up their crayons. What is the purpose of this? I think part of it is getting students to notice what it means to use (and wear out) their hands, to focus on one task for a long period of time. The students get frustrated, and Barry notes that crayons are a hard medium to work with.
But what is her theory about the value of this exercise? The author does mention several times that certain activities are modified versions of other people’s ideas, and she lists the books so that readers can go find them. Perhaps I’m just greedy and want more Barry.
The one thing I especially wish Barry explained better was the use of the comp book. Sometimes there are what she calls “X” pages. Then there are diary pages. What is the difference? I felt jealous; Barry’s students are ridiculously privileged to be able to work with her, and the rest of us are left trying to figure it out ourselves. I am going to Google around and see if I can find interviews with Barry during which she talks more about the comp books.
Aside from my wishes to know more, I cannot recommend Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor by Lynda Barry enough. She asks pivotal questions about art and its function for humans and gives enough ideas to get your brain heated up and ready to think differently about your own creativity (and teaching).