4C14: “DIY Publishing and Pedagogies of Experiential Circulation”

Below is an approximation of the talk I gave at CCCC in Indianapolis. You can view the slidedeck here. Co-panelists Jana Rosinski and Becky Morrison and I also distributed this zine to attendees.


Practices: DIY Publishing 

[Slide 1] I’m going to discuss zines in the context of a 200-level course I taught at Syracuse University last spring called DIY Publishing. This was an open-enrollment pilot offered to all undergrads at Syracuse University — students ranged from mostly freshmen to a handful of upperclassmen. The course was initially set up so that students would experience and experiment with various approaches to publishing on their own throughout the 15 weeks — whether it was through informal print networks or online with WordPress, Twitter, Kickstarter, etc. Our work with zines occurred in the first unit as I sought to work with students to define and historicize the idea of DIY.

Alongside readings about zine histories these students visited the University Library’s Special Collection Research Center, which houses several old publications that qualify as DIY: abolitionist newspapers, Dada booklets, Tijuana bibles, various underground newspapers from the Sixties, and hundreds more. With the help of a talented archivist and our subject-specialist librarian, students got to handle these items from the Collection, research their histories, and teach the class about one of the items they pulled during a special class we held in the Collection [Slide 2]. Specifically, students had to show off their publication and discuss it in terms of its origins, significance, audience, materiality, and circulation. [Slides 3-4] 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 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 [Slide 5].

Meanwhile students also brought in contemporary zines they ordered from several outlets, including distros like Sweet Candy or Nieves, online underground bookstores like Atomic or Quimbys [Slides 6-7], or directly from the writers through metazines like Broken Pencil. We used these to speculate on the variety of tools and processes necessary for making them: their covers, colors, sizes, bindings, and arrangements. Students also attended a bookbinding workshop hosted by a book-arts scholar at SU.

Distribution is a fundamental aspect to any zine experience and so this unit culminated in Syracuse’s first-ever zine festival, where students peddled multiple copies of their zines in a rented room down the hall from the Special Collections [Slides 8-10]. Although I imagined this event to occur within the confines of our classroom, perhaps inviting our librarian allies, the class decided as a group to invite anyone we could via our social networks [Slide 11]. This produced a pretty good turn out of 20+ strangers. Special Collections also blogged about it.

Toronto’s Broken Pencil [Slide 12], one of the few contemporary publications dedicated to zine culture, recently ran a thoughtful story about using zines in the classroom. Author 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. [Slide 13] 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 more solid “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 reflective statement on the entire process. You can see some of their reflective questions in your zine [Slide 14]. I’ll talk more about some of the affordances and limitations of this unit, but next…

Theorizing the limits of protopublics

[Slide 15] The experience of leading students to curate their own festival was a first for me. Although I had used blogs in my classes, led peer tutors in our community, and even advised a student paper as a high school teacher, there was something different about the way students were putting themselves out there. And this led me to a series of questions about the nature of DIY and the publics my students might have imagined. Certainly the unit was compatible with prior scholarship on circulation pedagogies. Although there are several texts to evoke here, especially Kathy Yancey’s call at this conference 10 years ago, in the interest of time, I’ll discuss two that have appeared in CCC in the last five years — two texts I admire quite a lot: Mathieu and George’s 2009 article, “Not Going It Alone,” and Rivers and Weber’s 2011 article, “Ecological, Pedagogical, Public Rhetoric.”

[Slide 16] Mathieu and George argue that because “public writing can be an agent of social advocacy and of political action … it is important that any class focused on public rhetoric or public writing examine independent media texts in the contexts of their histories as social agents” (133). These histories are powerful because they teach students that social change occurs through networked relationships that move together to circulate texts. Students in DIY Publishing who looked at Diane diPrima’s Floating Bear, for example, saw she coordinated with other Beat writers like Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, and William Boroughs; those who looked at the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator saw Garrison’s paper had an impact that went well beyond its circulation of 3,000; and Karen Funk’s Trek fanzine, 2-5YM, was coordinated through the Trekie club, STAR. In nearly every case, such historical work shifted our definition of DIY as something more like what Ian Reilly has recently suggested as do-it-yourselves, where the “DIY ethic is only truly effective when actions take on a cohesive collaborative bent” (128).

[Slide 17] Rivers and Weber also see collaboration as a key tenet to teaching circulation. They imagine using an ecological framework so students see rhetorical action “as emergent and enacted through a complex ecology of texts, writers, readers, institutions, objects, and history” (188-89) where “change often happens when publics are generated by … multiple texts and individuals” (190). While my DIY Publishing students did not work with mundane documents as their students did, the ordering of zines and the coordination of the zine fest were important components of the course as students saw how DIY ecologies, group decision making, microcapitalist tools like Etsy or Paypal, social media, and our combined presence is what helps carry individual work to larger publics.

And yet there are essential differences between this scholarship and what I witnessed. Primarily, much of the research on pedagogies of circulation either implicitly or explicitly imagine their classrooms not as publics so much as “protopublics” — what Rosa Eberly [Slide 18] calls spaces where we consider (among other things) “the different subjectivities students might try out for different publics at different points in their formation or disintegration” (175; emphasis mine).

For example, Mathieu and George end their essay describing an advocacy project where a student addressed her boyfriend and his friends’ harassment of the homeless. In a footnote, they confess: “If one were to follow Michael Warner’s definition of a public, this example would not count as public writing, because, according to Warner, a public relies on an address to strangers (74–87). But we agree with Rosa Eberly that writing classrooms constitute ‘protopublic spaces,’ and as such, we believe that addresses to other students can constitute effective protopublic discourse” (147).

Warner is an important source here as he’s been widely cited in conversations on rhetorical circulation. For Warner, the reflexive circulation of discourse “among strangers” is constitutive — that is, there no thing that comes before it, which is why it’s different from terms like “communities” or “cultures.”  Rivers and Weber concede to this constitutive public, and raise the question “of whether or how our pedagogy might enact the ‘concatenation of texts through time’ within the rhetorical laboratory of the classroom (194). Within the lab, students develop a robust, comprehensive — but imaginary — local campaign using mundane texts, similarly developed out of Eberly’s protopublic, “which allows students to practice the skills of public advocacy and safely produce texts that could become public” (207; emphasis mine). The unit is meant to replicate a public using genres necessary for everyday civic action, but Rivers and Weber hold back from actual advocacy since as first-year writers, “they are not all ready for the messy and risky engagement that advocacy often entails” (206).

Importantly, these aren’t the only two texts that imagine circulation operating within a protopublic classroom. In less explicit examples, students translate scientific discourse to journalistic discourse (such as in Trimbur’s “Composition and the Circulation of Writing”) or study press releases and practice writing them to anticipate re-circulation (as in Ridolfo and DeVoss’s “Composing For Recomposition”).

My thinking is that although these essays provide rich ideas for approaching circulation in the classroom, by envisioning students acting within a protopublic I wonder if, when it comes to teaching circulation, we’ve gone far enough as a discipline to frame rhetoric as what Laurie Gries calls a “a distributed network of becomings in which divergent consequences are actualized with time and space” (346). What the Syracuse Zine Fest afforded is a real, material experience worth reflecting on — it is, per Warner, a circulation that has the potential to encounter strangers who produce “divergent consequences … actualized with time and space.” That isn’t to dismiss these other approaches to circulation, only to think upon the opportunities we have as teachers to make circulation more real for our students — to have them experience it. Of course a more experiential approach also begs additional questions: what would are these approaches ethical? Or what other forms of public writing might strike a balance between the risker real writing of zines or activism and the safer replicated scenes of Habermasian rational-critical discourse? Ultimately which discourse do we believe leads to social change? Which in the short-term versus the long? Which give students more agency?