Lynda Barry’s Wonderfully Illustrated Syllabus & Homework Assignments from Her UW-Madison Class, “The Unthinkable Mind”

Lynda Barry Syllabus

Our reverence for cartoonist Lynda Barry, aka Professor Chewbacca, aka The Near Sighted Monkey is no secret. We hope someday to experience the pleasure of her live teachings. ’Til then, we creep on her Tumblr page, following with homework assignments, writing exercises and lesson plans intended for students who take her class, “The Unthinkable Mind,” at the University of Wisconsin.

And now, those course materials have been collected as Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, an old fashioned, tangible book. It’s like a paper MOOC!

(Yes, we know, MOOCs are free. This will be too, if you add it to your holiday wish list, or insist that your local library orders a copy.)

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Barry’s marching orders are always to be executed on paper, even when they have been retrieved on smartphones, tablets, and a variety of other screens. They are the antithesis of dry. A less accidental professor might have dispensed with the doodle encrusted, lined yellow legal paper, after privately outlining her game plan. Barry’s choice to preserve and share the method behind her madness is a gift to students, and to herself.

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As Hillary L. Chute notes in Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics:

 The decontextualization of cheap, common, or utilitarian paper (which also harkens back to the historical avant-garde) may be understood as a transvaluation of the idea of working on “waste” –a knowing, ironic acknowledgment on Barry’s part that her life narrative, itself perhaps considered insignificant, is visualized in an accessible popular medium, comics, that is still largely viewed as “garbage.”

Working on “garbage” must come as a relief for someone like Barry, who has talked about growing up under a hostile mother who saw her daughter’s creative impulses as a “waste” of paper:

I got screamed at a lot for using up paper. The only blank paper in the house was hers, and if she found out I touched it she’d go crazy. I sometimes stole paper from school and even that made her mad. I think it’s why I hoard paper to this day. I have so much blank paper everywhere, in every drawer, on every shelf, and still when I need a sheet I look in the garbage first. I agonize over using a “good” sheet of paper for anything. I have good drawing paper I’ve been dragging around for twenty years because I’m not good enough to use it yet. Yes, I know this is insane.

Sample assignments from “The Unthinkable Mind” are above and below, and you will find many more in Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Let us know if Professor Chewbacca’s neurological assumptions are correct. Does drawing and writing by hand release the monsters from the id and squelch the internal editor who is the enemy of art?

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Related Content:

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Lynda Barry, Cartoonist Turned Professor, Gives Her Old Fashioned Take on the Future of Education

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Ayun Halliday is an author, homeschooler, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday


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