Book Review “Syllabus”

At first glance, a book that could be described as a collection of syllabi does not sound exciting. As those of us who just went through syllabus week can attest, when we think of a syllabus, we think of a dull four-page document about class expectations, when you are and aren’t allowed to look at your laptop, a homework schedule if you’re lucky and some legal-sounding phrases about accessibility that every professor seems to copy word for word. While clearly important to academic survival in a collegiate learning environment, they are usually not the most thrilling documents to peruse. This is not the case for Lynda Barry’s “Syllabus.” Barry’s syllabi are more like manifestos for learning; they are more so maps for creation than they are lesson plans.

The book collects syllabi and notes Barry made during her first three years as a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In her introduction, she explains that she started keeping her first notebook when she was a student at Evergreen State in the ‘70s, under the direction of her teacher and mentor Marilyn Frasca. She writes that her notebook is her method of “being present and seeing what’s there.” Barry says that what could be considered “works of art” are “side effects” of this journaling process, not the goal. The classes she taught at UW-Madison were her way of discovering how to teach this practice.

The classes were varied and interdisciplinary, usually cross listed between art, English and the sciences. They had titles like “What It Is,” “The Hand,” “The Unthinkable Mind,” “Image Lab” and “Write What You See.” Barry intended to learn from her students as much as she intended to educate them. She described that for her class, titled “What It Is,” she chose eight humanities and arts students, eight STEM students and four “wild cards.” This was done so she could work together with her students and their diverse perspectives to uncover what it was she wanted to know.

As I read and reread, what thrilled me most about “Syllabus” is the feeling of ownership over creation. Not only do I feel like I am learning at the hand of an incredible artist and educator, and that she is giving me great tools for using my imagination and my hands, but she challenges the reader’s mindset about art and hard work. In order to create with total freedom, she encourages her students and readers to lose preconceived notions of what is “good” or “bad” art. She encourages them to draw like they are kids again. Children don’t have restrictions; they just create. This advice and its subsequent mindset can be valuable to an artist, but I also try to apply it to all areas of my life. I choose not to judge myself or those around me for what we think or feel, and instead for what we do.