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January 23, 2013 5:29 AM   Subscribe

This year, cartoonist Lynda Barry is Artist in Residence at the Arts Institute of the University of Wisconsin, and her class "The Unthinkable Mind" starts today. This is the poster. This is the introduction to the class. This is the first handout.
posted by Horace Rumpole (57 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is her poster for Counterfactual Campus at UW. This is a page for the upcoming Conference on the Public Humanities featuring a short video of Barry. This is me saying Lynda Barry is one of my childhood culture heroes and I got to have coffee with her here in Madison and it was amazing, even though she criticized me fror writing the strokes in the number "5" in the wrong order.
posted by escabeche at 5:34 AM on January 23, 2013 [8 favorites]


I've always liked her from a good ways away. Reading the classwork and homework tasks I would so hate to be her student.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:42 AM on January 23, 2013 [9 favorites]


Yes, what meatbomb said, that handout made me irrationally angry.
posted by The Whelk at 5:43 AM on January 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Don’t be frustrated by the frustrating parts" is my new mantra.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 5:44 AM on January 23, 2013 [4 favorites]


Well if you see her again you can point out that there's a typo in her first handout. It says "lean" instead of "learn." Maybe she was watching Carl Sagan while she was making it.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 5:44 AM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's such a thing as whimsical handouts, and there's such a thing as good teaching.

The overlap between the two is narrow.

This does not fall in that overlap.

[That said, I personally would love to take this class.]
posted by etc. at 5:47 AM on January 23, 2013 [3 favorites]


Here's a charming interview with Lynda on Late Night with David Letterman from 1988.
posted by item at 5:47 AM on January 23, 2013


I'd love to take this class. I would also hate to have to take this class.
posted by echo target at 5:55 AM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, "Emily Dickenson wrote at least 1700 poems. Why?" is a disarmingly interesting question.
posted by echo target at 5:56 AM on January 23, 2013 [5 favorites]


I don't consider myself an aficionado of the whimsical. Nevertheless, I really love her two latest books (What It Is and Picture This), which are kind of like these handouts writ large. And I had a terrific time at a talk Lynda Barry gave in Madison around the time What It Is came out. From the talk and her interaction with the audience, I think I got a sense of her approach/demeanor as a teacher, and it seemed to suit the audience very well. It didn't come across as...what, twee? Is that the word I want? She wasn't scattered or airy-fairy, although she was funny and could come at things from unusual angles.

I'd find the class very challenging, I expect, being kind of a write-words-in-order/worrying-about-structure sort of person, but I'd still love to take it.
posted by theatro at 6:00 AM on January 23, 2013


I would also hate to have to take this class.

Nobody has to take this class. My understanding is there was a long waiting list.
posted by escabeche at 6:15 AM on January 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


I would have loved this so much as an undergrad! Luckily, I have SQL to write all day, to keep my intellectual hungers satisfied.

*sobs*
posted by thelonius at 6:26 AM on January 23, 2013 [5 favorites]


I would take this class in a heartbeat, but then I've loved her stuff forever. I am surprised that it angers some of ya'll. The presentation is deliberately childish, true, but as with her last few books on art, surprisingly dense in layers of meaning; her last few books persistently try to get at why we create art, what memory is, how do we experience time, and other meaty questions.
posted by emjaybee at 6:42 AM on January 23, 2013 [8 favorites]


There was a time when all class notes used to look like this.

Well, with more Metallica logos. And dragons.
posted by mazola at 6:53 AM on January 23, 2013 [7 favorites]


There was a mandatory first-year course in the University of Calgary engineering dept. which was co-run by the faculty of visual arts. This course was instituted after my first year, so I only heard about it second-hand. The course was designed to foster creativity, and had unusual "mashup" assignments, like creating an engineering drawing, by hand, of some kind of machine you later had to build, that was correct to scale, but also visually pleasing.

The instructor marked these assignments with rubber stamps of either a boot, a heart, or a kitten. She refused to tell the students which stamp was the "highest" mark. The A-type engineers were pretty much irate about this because they really wanted to know how their work ranked.

As with most first year engineering courses, the intent was to challenge the students to the core of their being, and dispensing with specific external validation was critical. The world is full of strange unknowns and engineers must learn to accept this to get any useful work done.

Judging by the intense feelings generated by this course, I think it worked really well. I suspect the course described in this post is in the same vein.
posted by sixohsix at 7:19 AM on January 23, 2013 [9 favorites]


*cough* LAST year she taught a class, and her class started LAST January. *cough*

I was a huge fan of hers from a young age, mostly because my mom had books of hers that she hid away in her Special Not For Kids Drawer which I of course found. Marlys and I... we were simpatica. Then I met Lynda when I was in college in 1998ish, and she was of course awesome.

So it was super-interesting to see the change in her work to what she does now. Her chat with longtime pal Matt Groening was fascinating.

Groening (pointing at a Life In Hell drawing, which is... simplistic): I learned how to draw the sun and clouds like that in the first grade.

Barry: Those early solutions are still good. They still work. When you get older, you think, ‘I should have grown out of this.’ It’s like saying you should have grown out of liking bananas: you don’t.
posted by Madamina at 7:20 AM on January 23, 2013 [7 favorites]


*cough* LAST year she taught a class, and her class started LAST January. *cough*

I don't understand---it all says January 2013.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:23 AM on January 23, 2013


There was a January 2012? How did I miss this?

She's teaching a class this year, January 2013. She also taught a class in this mythical "January 2012" that I have heard people speak of.
posted by item at 7:29 AM on January 23, 2013


Ah, I see, the first link refers to last year's class, but the rest are from this year's. As you were.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:37 AM on January 23, 2013


Goodness, you're right! Her official residency was last year, which is why I was confused.

At any rate, she obviously made a strong relationship with the university, which is why she's still around, and that's pretty dang awesome.

The More You Know!
posted by Madamina at 7:52 AM on January 23, 2013


That handout makes me livid...that I can't take her class. (Seriously, if you're ever in a rut, read What It Is. She's fantastic.)
posted by roger ackroyd at 8:14 AM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


We hosted Ms. Barry at my previous University, in the Art Department. She is definitely not twee or airy-fairy. I had her do a workshop in my 2D Design class.

The marginalia in the handouts and the seemingly-from-left-field questions are things she is asking in a serious way. Or serious enough. She definitely feels strong emotions and enjoys connecting to students. I would recommend a class of hers. I would be curious, as a professor in a creative field myself, to see how she scales these things up to a full semester.
posted by Slothrop at 8:16 AM on January 23, 2013


There's such a thing as whimsical handouts, and there's such a thing as good teaching.

Handouts aren't teaching--they are supplements to teaching. It's really not possible to judge how effective or ineffective these handouts would be without seeing how they relate to the context of the class.

I find it interesting that people read these as "whimsical" or "airy-fairy"--I guess when you know how devastatingly honest and clear-sighted Barry's actual work can be you respond to her visual style in a different way.

(All I can say is that if I had Lynda Barry as a teacher I'd take all my handouts home and frame them.)
posted by yoink at 9:34 AM on January 23, 2013 [9 favorites]


This class seems awesome and I would take it in a heartbeat.
posted by shoesietart at 9:52 AM on January 23, 2013


I teach university art classes, and in some places that I've taught hand-drawn class materials like this would not be allowed, because they would not meet university requirements on making class materials accessible. I find this frustrating because I agree with the accessibility policy but I think there's certainly a place for imaginative class notes like this, especially in a class about creativity, personal expression, and unconventional thinking.
posted by oulipian at 10:25 AM on January 23, 2013


I'm not memorizing an Emily Dickinson poem. Zero on the first assignment!
posted by cjorgensen at 11:11 AM on January 23, 2013 [2 favorites]


I met her years ago in very tragic circumstances. She is a wonderful, wonderful person, regardless of her talent, which is great.
posted by miss tea at 11:17 AM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


> I find it interesting that people read these as "whimsical" or "airy-fairy"--I guess when you know how devastatingly honest and clear-sighted Barry's actual work can be you respond to her visual style in a different way.

I introduced myself to Lynda Barry's work by reading Cruddy. Holy crap did my eyes get ripped open to people who grew up differently than me. Holy crap did I want to hug my parents and thank them for loving me and caring for me. And holy crap did I want to hug some of my junior high friends who, looking back now, quite possibly came from homes like that.

That being said, at first, yes, it is tough to read her handouts when I am used to reading bullet points in a standard 12 point font, double spaced, on white paper. And then you get to the meat of it. It forces your brain out of linear thinking. It livens up the eyes because they are seeing creatively displayed text and pictures. And then her supposedly off-the-wall, open-ended questions really make you stop and think for a second. I can only imagine her follow-up questions that would twist and turn every nuance into completely new ways to see things and think about things.

Hot damn, I want to move to Madison.
posted by jillithd at 11:17 AM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


See also: John Baldessari presents several classroom art-making ideas.

"Defenestrate objects. Photo them in mid-air."

More here and here.
posted by oulipian at 11:48 AM on January 23, 2013


I find it interesting that people read these as "whimsical" or "airy-fairy"--I guess when you know how devastatingly honest and clear-sighted Barry's actual work can be you respond to her visual style in a different way.

I think the handouts and poster are beautiful, and pretty well done as far as conveying information. I still have to throw in with the people who'd be looking to drop the class right out:

You don't have to memorize the punctuation, capitalization, or line breaks. You just need to be able to recite it on January 23, 2013 during our first class.

Spend 1 hour coloring re-listening to the McGilchrist interview

I'll be sending each of you a separate email letting you know which part of the brain I've assigned to you randomly. This will be your "identity" for the rest of the semester.

The class is composed of 21 graduate and undergraduate students; eight with interests in the sciences, eight with interests in the humanities, and five wild cards.


As a student, I'd find this all kind of stunty and frustrating. Maybe that's the point? Maybe my aversion to being assigned seemingly arbitrary tasks without explanation is what's wrong here. I guess I could blame that on being a student of the sciences for too long, but I hated it all the way back in elementary school as well. The first day lesson plan is go over the syllabus, go over the first assignment, video, video, audio interview. Not really what I think of as being earthshakingly insightful, but first days are always hard, I guess.

There is something probably quite interesting to be said about teaching as "performance art", and I guess if I thought of enrolling in the class as being a participant or co-performer, I might feel differently. (Again, maybe that's the idea?) But from a pedagogical perspective? No.
posted by kagredon at 12:21 PM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


In some places that I've taught hand-drawn class materials like this would not be allowed, because they would not meet university requirements on making class materials accessible.

I think, though, that she'd probably be quite responsive to those concerns. She's using this format in response to her own needs, and she's encouraging people to find the ways that work for them.

During her residency, she focused a lot on the biological processes involved in making art: the ways in which our hands move and are connected to our brains, the evolutionary imperative that has kept us making art over all of human history. One of her public events (with Ivan Brunetti) addressed myopia; another involved “author, screen-writer, teacher, and bad ass blind guy” Ryan Knighton.

So I'd imagine that in the first place, a course on visual aspects of art might be difficult -- but not impossible -- for someone who literally sees things differently than other students. But I also think that this might be the perfect place (with the explicit prior agreement of both the student requesting accommodation and the teacher) to explore these issues.
posted by Madamina at 12:37 PM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh god I want to take this class so bad.

Y'all scientists get to complain about having to memorize 4 lines of a poem when I get to complain about having to memorize atomic numbers and taxonomic ranks. :P
posted by Myca at 12:46 PM on January 23, 2013


Maybe my aversion to being assigned seemingly arbitrary tasks without explanation is what's wrong here.

I assume the explanation will come in class. As I said above, handouts need not be designed to be comprehensible outside of the context of the class. I assume she is assigning the exercise of memorizing the poem because she will draw upon that experience to raise some points about how memory works, just as the drawing-while-listening-to-the-video exercise is designed as a kind of experiment in the interference/interrelationship between activities that are under the control of very different parts of the brain--the point will be to think/talk about how the experience/memory of learning from the video is altered by the action of doodling/coloring while listening.

These will be valuable or not depending on the way the class is structured and the quality of the research that she is drawing on. But to reject the class out of hand because she asks students to engage in these exercises seems bizarre.
posted by yoink at 12:50 PM on January 23, 2013


As a student, I'd find this all kind of stunty and frustrating. Maybe that's the point? Maybe my aversion to being assigned seemingly arbitrary tasks without explanation is what's wrong here.

I see where you and others are coming from with this sentiment, but I disagree that it is stunty or purposeless. To me, the "assignment" reads as taking time to get yourself into the mindframe for this particular class. Take the time to slow down, to contemplate how art is made, how art changes when it's done simultaneously with listening, or how listening changes when you engage the art parts of of your brain. The specifics on paper and crayons would make me consider the act of making marks--how does the canvas change the way you make art? How does the medium change that? How can "childish" media like crayons or markers be used in more "adult" ways to create meaning?

Particularly for students who aren't art majors or artists outside of the classroom, these activities can help them get a feel for the kind of learning and thinking about art that Barry will expect of them. I know that as an undergrad, my general mindset was to get through class, finish my assignments, get enough sleep, watch some movies or hang out with friends--not terribly conducive to constructive thinking about art. Maybe it's that I've read her two books on writing and making art, so I know a bit about her philosophy, but that's the kind of thing I took away from the handout.
posted by Fui Non Sum at 12:50 PM on January 23, 2013


I would love to take this class! I'd be very curious and excited to find out what all that colouring was about, and what brain part I was going to be assigned and what that meant, and what about these four lines of poetry I had to memorize? What were we going to do with that? I'm guessing there was nothing "random" or "stunty" going on in Lynda Barry's mind when she put this course together.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 1:49 PM on January 23, 2013


I SO WANT TO TAKE THIS FUCKING CLASS!!!!!!

(And Matt Groening is still funk king of the universe.)
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:45 PM on January 23, 2013


Reading the discussion, I'm reminded of an interaction I watched (at a second-hand remove) repeatedly while growing up.

My mother was a theatre professor who taught a session of Acting 101 every fall. The final assignment for the semester had two parts. The first part was a performance (monologue or dialogue with a classmate, I don't remember). Students generally didn't have a problem with that, beyond sometimes having trouble selecting a scene to do.

The second part was an essay titled "How You Do It". Every semester she would get a handful of students in her office freaking out over that. "What? What do you mean? 'How You Do It'? What does that mean? What do you want? I don't understand your expectations!"

Mom would reply, "This is Acting 101, and the final assignment is an essay titled 'How You Do It'. Figuring the rest out is up to you." And the students who stuck with the class past the add/drop point generally did.
posted by Lexica at 7:47 PM on January 23, 2013


I love Lynda Barry, grew up with (because of?) her. I love the idea for the class. If you're up for the challenge of studying on her terms,this would all be great.

Except this:

I'll be sending each of you a separate email letting you know which part of the brain I've assigned to you randomly. This will be your "identity" for the rest of the semester.

That's probably not the best teaching technique for adults- and I speak with good awareness of a neuroeducation point of view.

Still and all, filed away for some brain +creativity stuff I'll be doing next year...
posted by Miko at 8:31 PM on January 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh shit this is really seriously upsetting me. My mentor moved to UW and taught painting until she died suddenly a few years ago. She devoted herself to her students rather than seeking fame and fortune. Now UW is trampling on her grave by making a mockery of arts instruction.

So hooray for edumacation by the Distinguished Scholar who has been assigned responsibility for envisioning the future of the Humanities at the University. Apparently she envisions that future as a reflection of her own presentation as a dancing monkey giving Distinguished Lectures about Matt Groening and The Simpsons.

I feel sick to my stomach.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:09 PM on January 23, 2013


Charlie, I could give you some quite specific specifics, here, but I think you're giving an awful lot of agency to one person.
posted by Madamina at 9:44 PM on January 23, 2013


That is my issue. The university is giving way too much agency to one person. I went through her online materials at UW, from her Distinguished Scholar pages through the class syllabus. And I didn't see a single thing that leads me to believe she is qualified to set foot in a classroom, even as a student. This is an entertainment spectacle, not education.

I mean look at this crap, she did a "writer's workshop for nonwriters" and the NYTimes said,

"Barry’s advertising copy is clear: “THIS CLASS WORKS ESPECIALLY WELL FOR ‘NONWRITERS’ like bartenders, janitors, office workers, hairdressers, musicians and ANYONE who has given up on ‘being a writer’ but still wonders what it might be like to write.”

No, actually, this is not as advertised, writing workshops for nonwriters. This is a teaching environment for nonteachers.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:37 AM on January 24, 2013


Apparently she envisions that future as a reflection of her own presentation as a dancing monkey giving Distinguished Lectures about Matt Groening and The Simpsons.

Based on my reading of the materials, this is an extremely unfair characterization of her lesson plan.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:36 AM on January 24, 2013


Based on my reading of the materials, this is an extremely unfair characterization of her lesson plan.

Do you think I just made up this crap?

From her UW Public Events page, next to a crude illustration of a monkey:

Thursday, March 8 | 7pm
“The Friendship that Would Not Die: Lynda Barry on Matt Groening”
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Lecture Hall, 227 State St

Lynda Barry speaks about her 35 year friendship with The Simpsons creator Matt Groening..

---

On the "Counterfactual Campus" website, the project is described, "Participants looked at what is of enduring value in our institutions, what will be lost and what will need to be radically transformed in order to survive. Guests included WID Distinguished Scholar and Cartoonist Lynda Barry.." The poster she produced bears the message, "Imagine the Campus in 100 Years - We want you to envision it and hold that thought even if it's a nose computer," next to an image of a person fitted with an awkward nasal device.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:31 PM on January 24, 2013


From her UW Public Events page,...

Public events differ from courses.
posted by Mental Wimp at 5:47 PM on January 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


I attended that event, and I have a full audio recording of it for anyone interested. I enjoyed it and found it quite valuable, as well as personally relatable to my life as a fiction writer and professional musician. So did the rest of the packed auditorium, including locally and nationally known artists and writers.

Did you attend? I must have missed you.
posted by Madamina at 8:23 PM on January 24, 2013 [2 favorites]


I went through her online materials at UW, from her Distinguished Scholar pages through the class syllabus. And I didn't see a single thing that leads me to believe she is qualified to set foot in a classroom, even as a student.

Did you look at the art she makes, and has been making for decades, that many of us admire, and have learned from? Because at UW (and everywhere else) what qualifies you to set foot in a classroom and teach about art is not a teaching certificate, but a record, sustained over a long period of time, of making art that people care about.
posted by escabeche at 8:24 PM on January 24, 2013


But escabeche, what would someone like you know about setting foot in a classroom, interdisciplinary research/exploration or teaching standards at a university similar to UW?
posted by Madamina at 8:39 PM on January 24, 2013


Did you look at the art she makes, and has been making for decades, that many of us admire, and have learned from? Because at UW (and everywhere else) what qualifies you to set foot in a classroom and teach about art is not a teaching certificate, but a record, sustained over a long period of time, of making art that people care about.

Well she has certainly been doing something for a long period of time, but I'm not sure it is art, or something that qualifies her to teach it.

Your argument comes as a shock to me. There was a time back in the late 80s when I was invited to teach at CalArts, but they withdrew the offer when they discovered I had not completed my BFA. That rejection showed me the value of completing my BFA, and I went back to art school and met my mentor, who showed me what teaching art really meant, and that I really was unworthy compared to artists like her.

But apparently CalArts has been using the incorrect criterion for selecting (and weeding out) instructors, and their vision of the future of art instruction has been supplanted by innovative new ideas, like art instruction delivered by nasal computing devices.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:29 AM on January 25, 2013


But apparently CalArts has been using the incorrect criterion for selecting (and weeding out) instructors

I wouldn't say it's correct or incorrect, but I would say it's nonstandard. Back when I was getting a master's in fiction writing in Johns Hopkins, I was taught by John Barth, Robert Stone, and Stephen Dixon. None of those guys has an MFA, as far as I know, and I certainly never felt JHU should have required its professors to have one.
posted by escabeche at 5:57 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's not new or unremarkable that a celebrity figure would be invited to teach a specific class at any university. It's not quite the same thing as becoming a member of the faculty, with all the requirements and expectations appertaining thereto.
posted by Miko at 6:26 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, my art school tended to invite "celebrity" figures like Chris Burden, Nam June Paik, and Brice Marden. But they only stayed a week or so, it was considered a Master Class. I was lucky to get into those sessions as an undergrad, they were intended for MFA candidates. None of us got academic credit, they sat in on courses lead by the faculty.

This can also work the other way, I know people with MFAs from the Writer's Workshop that make a living doing private tutoring. Just out of curiosity, I checked the IWW faculty page, I don't have any way to tell if they all have credentials, but the ones I recognized had MFAs. It appears they have a similar sort of short term Master Class for visiting readers, and probably many of them are not academically accredited. But again, they aren't giving out academic credits.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:46 PM on January 25, 2013


charlie don't surf, you seem to have a wildly disproportionate sense of the significance of what Lynda Barry has been asked to do by the large and highly regarded UWM Art department. She offered one course and invited in a few speakers. She isn't even the instructor of record for the course (no doubt because of regulations requiring university instructors to have academic appointments)--Tom Loeser, the department chair is. The course was an entirely elective one, open to both graduate students and undergraduate students in pretty much any discipline.

You happen not to like her work, I happen to think it's extraordinarily powerful--but one thing we should surely be able to agree on--because it is a simple and unarguable fact--is that a one-semester appointment as artist in residence is not the same thing as being made Dictator for Life of the UW-Madison art department.

You might find this link to the list of former and current artists in residence at UW Madison comforting. Lynda Barry came and went--the institution somehow still stands.
posted by yoink at 5:37 PM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's not that I don't like her work, although I find little to admire in it. It's just that it's not fine art, nor is it suitable for worship like in the anecdote in the NYTimes link I posted about the woman that clipped out a Barry comic and had it tattooed on her body. I am somewhat relieved that Barry was under close supervision by the Department Head, although obviously he did not keep her on a suitably short leash. I am not comforted by the list of AIR. Never heard of any of them except Szarkowski, and he was retired and decades beyond relevance even in 2000. I checked out the list of visual artists and their work did not impress me. I am generally of the opinion that visual artists should be producing visual artwork as fine artists, rather than teaching writing, or practicing commercial crafts in what is generously categorized as "decorative arts," like dressmaking and carpentry.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:25 PM on January 25, 2013


Given that Tom Loeser is a woodworker who specializes in (absolutely fantabulous) furniture, I am guessing that your opinion would not impress him either.
posted by Madamina at 10:14 PM on January 25, 2013


It's just that it's not fine art

Oh! This is about being the culture police. I get it now. FINE art - as you define it - is the only worthy art!

Never heard of any of them

And the culture police must be consulted! Even when the culture police unfortunately have a narrow frame of reference.

Eh, sorry you don't like the program, but you have some pretty rigid opinions: and I work daily with art historians and thought that was as rigid as it got. The very point of an AIR program is to be experimental, to introduce ideas and processes that faculty, who have other considerations, are not likely to be able to. It's a channel for bringing freshness and variety into teaching practice.

I think all we can take away from your critique is that you don't personally like Lynda Barry. And you are free not to.
posted by Miko at 8:17 AM on January 26, 2013 [5 favorites]


fine artists

Loaded, loaded term.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:29 PM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's the handout for week 2.
posted by nobody at 9:05 AM on January 28, 2013


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