St. Lynda, Pray for Us

I spent part of the day re-reading Lynda Barry’s book Syllabus for my ENG 102R class. I am asking my students to do an in class presentation on a source. I have an unwritten policy to always complete my own assignments, to see what sorts of issues or difficulties I encounter in doing the assignment. I offer my completed assignment up to my students- as a means of showing them “one way of solving the problem of the assignment.” I learned this from Barry.

I had first encountered Barry in college. I hung around with lots of people who liked comics and graphic novels. I spent a lot of time with my boyfriend in indie comic book shops, looking around at stuff while he flipped through boxes of old superhero comics. I found myself drawn to the thicker books against the back wall. I paged through Julie Doucet and raised a fist. I loved Chris Ware’s tight and fearsome stories. But I wanted Lynda Barry to be my mom.

She is so human. She asks big questions. She draws her syllabus. She  loves her students unapologetically. I dream of being a teacher in the realm of her.

What I appreciate so in Syllabus is the way she starts her classes. She wants to know an answer to a question- not an easy question- and she wants a bunch of smart and fun people to help her figure it out. Instead of asking professional artists or academics or research scientists, Barry asks her students. They work together to find answers.

She also resists simple judgement. No one makes a good or bad drawing. No one writes something bad or good. Rather, the mark on the page is and we must contend with it.

I feel like this connects to Frank’s post on writing workshops. As an MFA student- I sat through hours of workshops and critique sessions, of written and visual work. My work never just existed, it existed to be judged.

I know my students come to class with real fear of judgement. Rather than telling them they are doing something wrong, or that their work doesn’t measure up, I want to honor the fact of its existence. I want ask them big questions about their thinking. I want to my students to see what is alive in their work- and make it as close as they can.

The very act of connecting with another person, in words or images, can be so startling. The experiences I have as a reader and a writer and a maker have formed the teacher I am. There is nothing more radical and terrifying than asserting your existence on a blank sheet of paper. Lynda Barry reminds me of this.

Here is a link to my own critical reading presentation on Barry’s Syllabus.


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