Thursday, August 23, 2012

'Syllabus' makes the grade as a college-themed write-off

Posted By on Thu, Aug 23, 2012 at 2:58 PM

YO, TEACH! The August curriculum for Syllabus
  • YO, TEACH! The August curriculum for 'Syllabus'
I knew I wasn't going to win Syllabus when I laid eyes on Ryan Lee's visible villainy. Lee and I, along with Jackson Pearce, Jef Holbrook, Reay Kaplan and Topher Payne, were the faculty of the August edition of Syllabus, a light-hearted, collegiate-themed public writing competition held at PushPush Theater. Organized by Payne as "headmaster," Syllabus serves as a spin-off of Write Club, another monthly event that pits writers against one another for timed original readings, with winners decided by audience applause.

Held the fourth Wednesday of every month, Syllabus began in June and features rules slightly more complicated than Write Club's rowdy variation on debate. Each month has a different "major" or overall theme, and the six professors deliver rigidly-timed, seven-minute lectures on specific topics within the theme. The evening is divided into two "semesters" of three courses each, and the winning professors of the three courses face off at the end of the evening with a one-minute "thesis defense." All unfolds in a freewheeling spirit of infotainment.

Last night's major was "Fairy Tales" and Jo Howarth Noonan, as acting headmaster for the evening, gave an introductory speech that wittily tied the theme to the Led Zeppelin concert film The Song Remains the Same. Lee went first to deliver his lecture on "villains" and was dressed for the part, with a chin-beard, monkish robes and amusingly intense stare. Even better, he played up the wicked concept to the hilt, posing questions to the class and deducting hundreds of points for incorrect answers.

When Payne originally invited me to participate, about 10 days earlier, I selected "Sidekicks" for my course. In the "Faculty Handbook" sent to the professors, Payne suggested that we prepare our lectures by making a "PIE." "That stands for Point of View, Information, and Entertainment. Your class needs all three. You don’t want to just list information for them — you need to give it a perspective, choose a few key details that you find interesting, and focus there. Making 90 points in 7 minutes doesn’t resonate, even if they’re 90 awesome points. You do not have to be a professional performer to capture the attention of the room, as long as you’re serving up the PIE."

I researched ome fun factoids about fairy tale and literary sidekicks, including the fact that the term "sidekicks" began as pickpockets' slang in reference to trouser pockets. The handbook also suggested that we could have a teaching assistant, as long as the person didn't speak. I didn't want my PIE to be nothing but "I," so I asked my friend Ryan Lucas to join me as a silent example of a sidekick, which I think improved the lecture significantly. My biggest laugh came when I got tongue-tied in a discussion of Pinocchio and referred to Jiminy Cricket as a "talking critic." Oh, did the audience appreciate that one.

Holbrook gave a high-energy rant against the anti-feminist trope of Damsels in Distress. Payne riffed amusingly on Magical Mentors from Merlin to Morgan Freeman in any role he's ever taken. Kaplan used the topic of Heroes to discuss her admiration of her female relatives in the most emotionally moving piece of the evening. But I doubt any of us had a prayer against Pearce, a leggy blonde with the stage presence and punchlines of a stand-up comedian. Her subjects was "Hags," and her observations about Hansel and Gretel tucking into the witch's gingerbread house provoked the evening's biggest laughs. She and Lee won their respective semesters, and Pierce prevailed at the thesis defense.

As the overall winner, Pearce got to choose next month's major. She said that she considered picking "Philosophy," under the assumption that it would be easy for Headmaster Payne to come up with six courses under that heading. She added that she did not actually want to make it easy for him, and announced that next month's major would be "Animal Husbandry." Payne absorbed that bit of information with deadpan timing worthy of Jack Benny. Next month's Syllabus will be held Sep. 26 at a location to be announced.

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