Unlocking Your Brain with Crayons in Wisconsin: Saturday Syllabi

Take a class without having to go to school.


Everybody doodles. At some point you’ve sat with paper, bored, and squiggled away. It’s different from, say, painting, which demands more active involvement. Not everyone has paint and an easel lying around, but since when have you not had a pen or pencil somewhere? Impressionist painter Henri Matisse once said, “Drawing is putting a line around an idea,” which is a perfect context for a class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for this week’s Saturday Syllabus.

Class: “The Unthinkable Mind”

Professor: Cartoonist and writer Lynda Barry



Overview: “Why are you coloring pictures in a class that is supposed to be about the brain?

Answer: Read this: Doodling and the default network of the brain (Lancet)

And also this: “Doodling may help memory recall” (BBC)

Question: About how long does it take to completely cover an 8.5 x 11-inch piece of paper with a solid coat of crayon wax?

Answer: About two hours —or two episodes of American Horror Story

Question: Is there a trick to it?

Answer: Layering. And also knowing that the process can be frustrating at first but then, somehow, you get into it and something like a relationship with the image itself develops. But it’s frustrating. The paper tears or wrinkles, the wax won’t lay down. But this is exactly how you get to know the materials, by seeing how they act together and how they act with your hands, the one that colors and the one you barely notice that adjusts the paper in minute ways and holds it steady. What is that hand doing while the other one colors?

Don’t be frustrated by the frustrating parts. Keep figuring out the crayon and the paper, what they are, how they act. Look closely at the wax track the crayon is leaving on the paper. What’s making the wax come away? What colors do you seem to keep picking?

“Some sense of the action lies in the queer kind of sympathy that the artist is able to call up for the thing he is [coloring]. The true amount of mental sympathy that the student can give to a subject he wants to [color] creates a sense of life in the picture. From this sense of life, the picture begins to have value all its own …”

Jan Gordon, “A Step-Ladder to Painting

Question: What kind of pictures are you coloring?

Answer: It almost doesn’t matter. In The Unthinkable Mind Class we’re using images from dollar-store coloring books, Sesame Street characters, Batman, Rappers, Hello Kitty, screaming teddy bears holding knives, The Creature, Astro Boy, My Little Pony, Gorillaz, very bad mermaid drawings, Pokemon, and many other images you’ll easily find if you search for ‘coloring pages’. Pick four pictures and print them out on different kinds of paper. Rougher paper is better but even copier paper will work. Buy a box of 24 crayons. Color those crayons down and peel the paper down in order to color some more. Cover the whole page and notice what happens as you color — move from satisfaction to frustration to satisfaction to confusion to worry to satisfaction again, but keep going until the page is fully covered. Put them up on the refrigerator and stare at them. What just happened?”

So, where to begin? This class seems awesome, one that springs from a preadolescent curiosity that could potentially lead to mature academic realizations. I’ve never really thought about the way doodling and coloring can help enrich the brain and naturally spark recollection. Maybe it’s my misplaced sense of adult skepticism.

The class is a bit of a touchy-feely approach to curriculum. (Parents paying tuition may wonder: Seriously?) But Barry seems in-tune with her subject matter. It’s a good sign when a class is sure to mention, “what we’ll be doing will be anything but childish,” and then adds, “USE UP YOUR CRAYONS.”

Here humble doodling graduates to collegiate-level discourse, as free-writing clears your mind for ideas to float in. This is insanely cool. The syllabus definitely (and literally) illustrates that. The first thing the class does is watch a 10-minute clip of Carl Sagan talking about the brain. Sign me up.

And being reprimanded for potential class infractions never seemed so fun. You almost want to be late to class three times just to see what kind of graphic representation of a lower grade would look like from Barry. Also, it could just be a simple typo, but the word “learn” in the first point is spelled incorrectly typifies the class’ laid-back approach. The initial syllabus handout is full of cartoons on a yellow legal pad, so you have an idea of what you’re going to get.

We we can tell, the class is still being taught. The Tumblr for the class, called “The Near-Sighted Monkey,” is still active. You can see the coloring pages of students who previously took the class with Barry and more. Also, Barry even wrote a book about her experience as a professor called Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor, so the story behind this class is still very much being told.

P.S., Her extra credit question is hilarious. The answer is that he’s probably from an alien world since his accent is unlike anything on Earth, but he was really born in Brooklyn.