Without really knowing it, I’ve been waiting a long time for Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, which is tailor-made for someone like me — an educator who has written extensively about the role of imagination in the creative process.
Syllabus is a collection of notes (in notebook form) that the legendary cartoonist kept while teaching for several semesters at the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin. It is not a graphic novel per se, but the cartoon equivalent of free-form jazz; there is a structure, but that structure is just something on which to hang big philosophical questions, such as “If the thing we call ‘the arts’ has a biological function, what is it?”
Barry, she of the long-running Ernie Pook’s Comeek, isn’t interested in teaching her students how to draw — she wants them to think about thinking — although what she accomplishes here is to elevate the kinds of doodles we all used to make in the margins of our school notebooks to an art form. This is a fun, playful, colourful volume that also provokes thought.
The accidental professor, as she calls herself, also has some fascinating theories about teaching. For example, in her college courses she didn’t merely take attendance; instead, students were instructed to draw a self-portrait in 120 seconds at the beginning of every session. That exercise counted toward their attendance grade.
And although I love the original Bad News Bears movie, I have never thought of watching it as a treatise on creativity. Or how about this: In what other class would one of your guest speakers be Simpsons creator Matt Groening?
If you get the feeling I’m jealous of Barry’s students, you’re absolutely correct. I would love to take a class taught by her.
Barry even details those times during the semester when her class goes off the rails, documenting her struggles to keep students focused on thinking about where their imaginations come from.
Syllabus confirms what those of us who have been longtime fans of Barry’s work have known all along: In addition to being a cartoonist of the highest order, she is also a formidable thinker. If you’re at all interested in investigating the very deep questions Barry takes on in Syllabus, you must read this book.