I’ve never been one for picking favourites. It’s a bit ironic then, perhaps, that I would go ahead and write for a column that revolves around that — and about classes, no less!
Sometime during the pandemic, back when semesters felt even more like blurs of vas-et-viens, I noticed I’d grown used to the virtual experience: the weekly discussion groups, the podcast classes, the black-screen classmates. At least then I had no excuse to forget their names; they were right there, like introduction stickers with Gorilla glue-level adhesive.
In ENG2307 Writing with Visuals, however, Suzannah Showler heavily encouraged us to show our faces during the first few minutes of class.
Each week, we’d have a short warm-up drawing period. Or, at least, that’s what I most vividly remember doing during that 10 or so minutes. We would begin by drawing a portrait of ourselves while only looking at our camera-reflected faces inside the Zoom call.
I’d place the tip of my pen on a fresh page of my new sketchbook — bought specifically for the class — before looking up at my own face. The ink would dig along the surface as my eyes traced the divots and creases, the pen only lifting when I was done.
None of the portraits ever looked exactly like me, but they allowed me to stretch out my out-of-practice drawing hand. And, as someone who had just recently been accepted into the fine arts program, I couldn’t be more eager to do so.
Now, ENG 2307 was by no means a studio class. Suzannah, who from the beginning of the term had asked us to call her by her first name, made it clear that the class was experimental in nature. The syllabus attested to it: doodles and paint washes decorated the empty spaces between informational clusters.
There was even a cover page which featured Suzannah’s cartoonish self-portrait, a pile of books, and two watercolour indoor plants underneath the course’s general information. It was so pleasantly unlike anything I had ever seen in an academic setting that I couldn’t help but look forward to what the course actually entailed.
Anxiety surfaced quickly. I’ve come to expect that uniquely conflicting combination of dread and excitement syllabi bring. The mythical “healthy” stress or whatever. At the time, from what I recall, it felt no different. Between the doodles and pastel backgrounds were descriptions for upcoming assignments — 21 upcoming assignments.
Suzannah kindly gave us a template of what two weeks’ worth of classes would like in regard to her class material. Every other week, we were expected to submit two or three assignments: a “weekly report,” an “experiment,” and an “attempt.”
Weekly reports, as one could imagine, served as self-evaluations. In them, we were tasked to describe the ways in which we interacted with the assigned readings. We also had to note and consider the quality of our exchanges with our peers, be that on a specific reading or our own creative works. In order to break away from the formality of Brightspace discussion boards, Suzannah directed us to use Discord instead. We even had assignment-specific channels where we could post our creations.
Experiments, for example, each had separate Discord channels. Experiments themselves, though, were in-class exercises that encouraged us to test out new skills, materials, or approaches relating to the class readings’ overarching topic. During the comics unit, for instance, students had to create a simple four-panel comic as seen in some of Jillian Tamaki’s short works, or Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home — both of which were assigned readings. The comic experiment also required us to borrow a character designed by one of our classmates, giving them a sample of a story that they might not otherwise have had.
Finally, attempts, the last of the recurring assignment types, were four longer projects to be done in our own time. Some, like the comic attempt, had certain criteria to be respected, whereas others were more open-ended. And, like the experiments, attempts were later shared with our peers during the DGD.
Yet, creating short comics was not the only thing that we did. Admittedly, going in, I had thought that the class would be mostly comic-based. I mean, with a title like “Writing with Visuals,” I honestly didn’t expect to have to study much more beyond the obvious, mainstream marriage of language and image. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Suzannah succeeded time and again, both through her infectious energy and her shared material, to foster artistic curiosity. From single-line self-portraits to black-out poems, from artist books to data drawings, each studied topic pushed my understanding of the relationship between language and image.
Mid to end of semester
As the course went on, I found myself slowly reconnecting with the child-like intuition of drawing, healing the spores of perfectionism that had stiffened my hand. Sure, the self-imposed expectation never truly left — ENG 2307 was a class, not a blessing — but it lessened. Non-sequiturs and unnamed characters filled a large portion of my sketchbook. Pen lines, no matter their inaccuracy, grew more confident. Eraser sheddings were nowhere to be seen.
Despite my preemptive stress, the completion of 21 assignments went by quickly. The final project was a report of 10-15 of our best sketchbook pages depicting our writing-with-visuals evolution. Included in my “Field Journal” report were, namely, amalgamations of miscellaneous doodles, poetry fragments, and diagrams in blue or red ink. The blue pen, a trooper to the bitter end, filled only half of the sketchbook.
I submitted my Field Journal, most likely, on its due date. I was anxious about my selection, of my justifications, but it was one more class done. I logged out of Brightspace and didn’t wait before closing the tabs.
Looking back on what I’ve learned from Suzannah and her teachings, there’d be far too much cheese to describe for someone who’s lactose intolerant. I registered for a course expecting to enjoy it, only to be pleasantly surprised by how much I would take away from it. Now, as a BFA student with a minor in creative writing, I continue to explore the ways in which I can tangle textual and visual language. Although I might have eventually gotten to where I am in my artistic practice, ENG 2307 definitely sped up the process. And, I mean, who doesn’t love a little shortcut?