‘Syllabus’ Explores the Unconscious Mind in a Composition Book

"Accidental professor" Lynda Barry's Syllabus is a graphic novel lesson plan, one that invites readers to reflect on their unconscious perceptions.

Lynda Barry might call herself an accidental professor in the title of her graphic syllabus, but she’s clearly just being modest. Whatever Barry didn’t know before being a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she made up for in sheer talent and creative thought. An unusual and unorthodox book that refuses to fit squarely into any category (is it a syllabus? graphic novel? memoir?), Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor, is a talent-filled examination of how the arts and humanities can provide relevant and powerful thought within the university setting.

Barry has collected and captured parts of her syllabus, drawings from her students, her own drawings and musings and condensed several courses worth of material into a single compositional notebook. The physical design of the book mirrors a store bought, black and white compositional notebook (the kind that we most often see serial killers scribbling in while divulging their incoherent ramblings), the same notebooks she requires her students to fill with work for her classes. The notebooks are supposed to be a combination journal, sketchbook, diary, and general dumping ground for students’ observations and inner thoughts.

Her classes are guided by readings and lessons, most notably from Ivan Brunetti, noted graphic artist, designer, and New Yorker cover artist, and are light on design aesthetics and traditional art lessons. Her courses, refreshingly, do not require artistic ability from many of her students. The classes are taught lab-style and are broken into unconscious drawing, coloring, and storytelling. Barry makes time for all her students to write, draw, and think about their work, but she keeps criticism in the classroom at a zero level. In fact, much of her teachings tend to be focused on what is “good” versus “bad” art and how we come to that perception by creating unconsciously.

Much of Barry’s Syllabus takes us through the course assignments given out to her different classes. In terms of exercises for artists and thinkers, they are purely crafted and seek to strip the notions of “art” and how the brain thinks creatively, down to their most base elements. Rudimentary exercises in color (e.g., students must use crayons to fully color pictures as one of their first assignments) stimulates patterns and perceptions. While other exercises, such as one where Barry asks students to draw spirals while reciting certain poems and other works silently in their heads, seek to tap into the unconscious mind, removing criticism and judgement from the artistic process.

Barry shares some of her student’s work, and her own, as well; she seems to work every exercise out in her head well ahead of time and often participates with her students. The results are often surprising and can spur alternative ideas for writers and thinkers. Barry shies away from specific artistic terms and commonplace “art” exercises such as model sketching and color wheels, eschewing the most tried and tired forms of “teaching” art.

Although her classes are freewheeling in thought and exercise, they are far from unstructured. Barry expects a lot from her students; a full investment, if her exercises and theories are to be understood and utilized. Of course, there are a few mistakes along the way. Barry encounters a few activities that leave the students uncertain or irritated. But she always takes the time to examine and explore the “why” rather than simply jamming another regimented idea on top of another.

Additionally, her classes are built on observation. She requires her students to fill up their composition books with overheard conversations, random thoughts, notes from other class lectures (outside of her own), and doodles drawn when boredom hits. With the conscious and unconscious mind working in tandem, yet separately, paying attention to the unconscious thoughts and activities we encounter can be much more productive and creative than simply focusing on a problem or setting out specifically to create art.

Many of her exercises are ones that I’ll continue to use myself as I seek to work and create. Which, I suspect, is one of the goals of publishing a graphic novel like Syllabus. Flipping through the pages of Barry’s composition book and reading the anecdotes and thoughts from her and her students is inspirational to the reader — as long as they’re open to unconventional methods of creativity. And her activities are applicable to other disciplines, as well. Engineering and science students comprise parts of her classroom, not simply creative writing or art majors. Understanding the unconscious mind (or the “unthinkable mind”, as Barry titles her class) offers benefits for nearly everyone who requires problem-solving skills and creativity to complete their work.

Barry’s art is a mix-up of comic, Brunetti-styled figures, gorgeous handwritten text, and colorful designs that cram everything her mind can hold onto the page. The back book cover asks two vital questions: “What is an image?” and “How far can a pen, a composition notebook, and a burning question take you?” As a creative, left-brain specimen, I’m most interested in the latter question, rather than the former. Judging from Barry’s Syllabus, if her text provides us a blueprint for what can be achieved with the most basic of tools, the answer to that question is this: a pen, a composition notebook, and a burning idea can take you farther than we thought possible.

RATING 7 / 10