Using zines in the classroom

I’ve posted a lot about using zines in my teaching, but this post is my attempt to pull it together into one space. It’s also my contribution to FutureEd/HASTAC’s upcoming Pedagogy Project. 

I’ve helped students compose with a wide range of digital tools — Google Docs, WordPress, Twitter, Audacity, etc. — in my eight years at Syracuse, but for the last year, alongside some of these tools, I’ve asked them to make zines — that is, small, limited, and expressive, do-it-yourself print publications. When I tell friends and colleagues that I’m into zines, the declaration is often met with mild surprise: “People are still doing them?” This then leads me to list a number of places — some physical, some virtual — where zines still thrive: online shops and distros, underground bookstores, subway stations, ad-hoc libraries, and yes, classrooms. (Although it’s hard to assess, one could make that case that new media has paradoxically boosted zine communities to new heights of visibility.)

While I’m far from the first teacher to use zines in the classroom, there were many reasons why I wanted to; in short, like other analogue, multimodal projects, the format defamiliarizes materiality and circulation in ways other traditional modes tend to obscure. These assignments occurred in two lower-division writing electives: a pilot called DIY Publishing and a long-standing course called Writing Culture, which teaches various genres and conventions of creative nonfiction. I’ll briefly describe these courses and how I used zines in them (with links to direct interested folks to the original course material), address the sticky issue of assessment, and finally offer some suggestions on why you might consider using them in your own classes.

WRT 200: DIY Publishing

The DIY Publishing course was set up so that students would experience and experiment with various approaches to publishing on their own throughout the course — whether it was through informal print networks or online with WordPress and Twitter. Our work with zines occurred in the first unit as I sought to define and historicize the idea of DIY. Alongside readings about zine histories (including primary sources and oft-cited books like Stephen Duncombe’s Zines: Notes From Underground), students visited the University Library’s Special Collection Research Center, which houses several publications that qualify as DIY: abolitionist newspapers, Dada booklets, Tijuana bibles, various underground newspapers from the Sixties, and hundreds more. With the help of some amazing librarians, students had to pull an item from the Collection, research its history, and teach the class about it during a special session in the library. Specifically, students had to talk about the artifact in terms of its origins, significance, audience, materiality, and circulation. This was meant to serve as a text that would inspire their own zine, leaving them to interpret “inspiration” broadly: it could mimic the artifact in terms of form and/or content, take a more reflexive approach by making a zine about the artifact, re-interpreting the research process, or by doing something else entirely. Meanwhile students also ordered zines from several online outlets, including distros like Sweet Candy or Nieves, online underground bookstores like Atomic Books or Quimbys, or directly from the writers through hubs like Broken Pencil or the POC Zine Project. Once they arrived in their mailboxes students brought them to class for an informal show and tell. We also attended a bookbinding workshop hosted by one a wonderful book-arts scholar at Syracuse named Peter Verheyen.

Importantly, the unit culminated in Syracuse’s first-ever zine festival, where students peddled multiple copies of their zines in a rented room in the library. We invited anyone we could via our personal networks on Facebook and Twitter, which produced a pretty good turn out of 30+ strangers. The Special Collections Resource Center also blogged about it.

WRT 114: Writing Culture

Unlike DIY Publishing, which left the question of content open and admittedly rushed, Writing Culture asked students to respond to more than 35 prompts throughout the semester and in any format they wanted — using MS Word, spiral notebooks, on WordPress. Yet, it required that they produce five copies of a mini-memoir in the form of a zine at the end of the course. Since 35 prompts produced pages and pages of content, students had to read back through their work carefully and look for themes that matched their ambitions for print. Like DIY Publishing, students were introduced to zines gradually: they watched a video about Portland’s Independent Publishing Resource Center, visited the Special Collections to see examples of zines; ordered zines from bookstores, distros, and hubs; and experimented with various ways they might make their own. Our workshops specifically addressed copying, binding, and otherwise differentiating their work with traditional bookmaking practices like stenciling, stamping, stitching, etc. On the final days of class, students performed readings of their zines and asked me to host an exchange, whereby I distributed zines based on certain affinities (which I connected using abstracts they emailed and/or discussed with me). For our event, I dressed up as Santa (it was December) and ceremoniously introduced each student’s zine, essentially gifting them to two other students in the class. At the end of class, students had enough zines left over to informally gift leftovers or to request copies from writers they admired.

Assessment

Toronto’s Broken Pencil, one of the few contemporary publications dedicated to zine culture, recently ran a thoughtful story about using zines in the classroom. Inevitably author (and editor) Lindsay Gibb cites several academics who argue that the issue of grades is one of the main challenges when adopting zines for school. As U Iowa librarian Kelly McElroy says: “What makes an ‘A’ zine, and who the hell are you to decide that?” In both classes, then, I relied on process texts — proposals, contracts, emails, and reflections — to help me make sense of the rhetorical goals of each author’s zine. First, students had to draft a proposal that asked them to pitch an idea for their zine that included details about its format, materials, content, circulation, and connection to the course. After meeting with me to discuss it, they revised these into “contracts.” Scare quotes seem necessary because as any crafter will tell you, nothing was really set in stone; students made important discoveries through the acts of making. For that reason, and others, the contracts were more or less used as a starting point; students then completed the project by composing a statement on the entire process. I provided questions that helped guide this. For example, for DIY Publishing, students could answer any of the following questions:

  • Think about yourself at the start of this unit/course. What was the extent of your experience or knowledge of zines and DIY print communities at the beginning of the unit? What did you learn about them and how did it apply to your zine?
  • Discuss how you arrived at the the idea for your zine. Was it inspired by the Special Collections Resource Center (SCRC) first or was an initial inspiration nuanced through your research at the SCRC?
  • What goals did you have for this zine and did you meet them? How did your SCRC item influence your choices?
  • Talk about the limitations and choices you made with regard to the materials of your zine and the tools required? What was your vision and how was it compromised by these tool and technologies?
  • Reflect on your experience planning and witnessing the Syracuse Zine Fest. Were you inspired by the reception of your zine in the Spector Room? Disappointed?
  • Discuss the implications of creating your zine with regard to your future as a writer. How did zine’ing support or complicate your goals?
  • What will Issue #2 of your zine look like? How will it build from the lessons of Issue #1?
  • Reassess your grade based on the contract. What did earn and why?

As you might suspect, these process documents are a lot to keep track of. It worked well for me, but as graduate TA, I only teach one class per semester. I’m not sure I’d have as much success under a 3/3 or 4/4 load, so that is something to consider. Nevertheless, unlike countless writing instructors at the end of the semester, I didn’t dread reading and responding to student writing; I reveled in it.

Considerations

Folks interested in using zines in their classes would do well to spend a few minutes reading the Broken Pencil article as Gibb explores some of its other perils: potentially co-opting an often misunderstood underground ethos, forcing students to disclose personal information, or misrepresenting the histories of zine or DIY culture. On the other hand, print gets a bad rap in many circles these days. Aside from privileging alphabetic and/or academic literacies, the arguments go, teaching the conventions of print do not seem as relevant as asking students to engage inherently collaborative, digital spaces. Yet print has its affordances too. As anyone who’s asked students to exchange papers in class knows, print is tactile, cheap, portable, immediately exchangeable, and often designed for reuse. It’s an intimate, one-way medium whose arrangement and distribution is inherently personal and tactical. Print and its potential for preciousness, is also is able to document a writer’s thoughts, identity, or history more permanently — as any archivist will tell you — than most digital formats. When students work with print, they recognize this preciousness and they feel a certain ownership and pride that simply doesn’t occur with the traditional term paper or even their own blogs (though, as Cathy Davidson reminds us, they do often write more with the latter). I still teach both formats, of course, but the zine is an intriguing multimodal approach offering affordances these other traditional venues cannot.