Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor is a collection of syllabi and class notes from cartoonist Lynda Barry published by Drawn & Quarterly. While that may seem overly academic on the surface, it is actually a multi-tier exploration of thought, art, and pretty pictures. It brings together several courses and workshops dealing with questions of creativity that will stir the wonder in all of us.
On its basest, which is in a way deepest, level, Syllabus is beautiful. The production of the book gives it the form of a Mead Composition Book, something we have all seen and a few of us have filled up with notes from college courses. In the notebook from Professor Lynda, the pages are covered with doodles, sketches, collages, quotes, and plenty of eagerness. It may look like a cacophony at first glance, but Professor Lynda makes a captivating point: “Liking and not liking can make us blind to what’s there.” As one gets into the book, the recurring characters of Professor Chewbacca, the Near-Sighted Monkey, and unnamable things are a delight for the eyes. Each page is wildly different, making it an excellent book to return to again and again when feeling the need for inspiration.
Anyone with aspirations toward art, which Professor Lynda believes we all are as part of our human condition, will love flipping through the snippets of exercises and examples included inSyllabus as well as Tumblr accounts for each class. Rather than stick figures, students are encouraged to explore the thick-bodied, bulky-headed characters of Ivan Brunetti. Even people who call themselves “not artists” are capable of those, yet we somehow refuse to do something that most all of us did as kids: draw. She comments in a journal entry that “There is something beautiful in the lines made by people who stopped drawing a long time ago… how scared they are.” Once the difficulty is overcome, however, a whole new piece of life is awoken. Professor Lynda shows the struggles of college students coloring with crayons, both in the mechanics of working with wax and escaping the social norm that such things are for kids. She asks, why did we ever give that up?
Amid the dozens of individuals’ sketches of Batman, there is also powerful thoughts and demonstrative pedagogy that will inspire academics as well as lay-learners. Classes follow topics like “What It Is,” “Is Creativity Contagious?” and “The Unthinkable Mind.” Professor Lynda quotes Horace and Dickinson and discusses the paradox of creativity, how it can be so draining to the point of fatigue and yet revitalize a creator with energy and focus rarely felt. In addition to doodling for homework credit, students are also required to give presentations on parts of the brain such as the pons and hippocampus to show the complexities of the brain, showing significance of both the artistic and the scientific in thought.
Syllabus is an excellent read for fellow teachers, art enthusiasts, and philosophers of visual images. As Professor Lynda discusses toward the close of the book, “One thing I didn’t expect: that my students’ work would have such an influence on my own work. They drew things in way I would never have thought of and it made me both braver and more relaxed about drawing in general.” These are the simple, powerful things lurking within us and between us that we miss on a daily basis.