Birthing the Diss

My project explores two basic questions: First, how has do-it-yourself (DIY) publishing changed since the popularization of the Web? Second, what might those changes tell us about the ways in which we conceive of and teach multimodal, public writing?

To answer these questions, I look at the ways in which DIY publishers have taught each other about the affordances and challenges of certain aspects of their work as they have come to terms with emerging networked and digital technologies in the so-called late age of print. My source for this analysis comes from the Canadian magazine Broken Pencil (BP).


Founded by pan-am cultural critic and publisher Hal Niedzviecki in 1995 — the same year the Web went mainstream — BP is a widely-read magazine that has covered zine culture and independent arts. Throughout its 66 issues, BP has reported on DIY publishing and independent arts primarily in Canada, but increasingly over time, the rest of the world. Although many columns have come and gone throughout the years, it has consistently published feature stories, letters, excerpts, editorials, and reviews of zines and other DIY media, always considering the stakes of cultural intermediaries through articles like “The 7 Dollar Website” (issue #3),  “7 Reasons to Get a Shot-Gun and Kill Your Modem” (#5), “Photocopied Politics” (#6), “Media Monopoly on Zine Culture” (#10), “E-Zines” (#23), Where the Fuck Are the Zines?” (#36), “Zines Aren’t Dead” (#50), and “Zines are Undead” (#57). Moreover, with a current circulation of over 5,000 they’ve served as an important epicenter for North American DIY culture, not only playing the role of critic, but also sponsor.

The current plan is to begin the dissertation by reviewing how self-publishing and DIY culture have historically been addressed in comp/rhet, and to create more space for discussing it (1) in a digital context, and (2) in relation to other aspects of rhetoric besides production, especially delivery. This is especially important in DIY publishing, as writing cultures and communities are primarily created through a desire to simply make and circulate texts. In Chapter 2, I develop a methodology and method for my historical reading of DIY culture since 1995. This will likely involve grounded theory, but at the moment I’m interested in thinking about the ways in which I can intertwine multiple narratives in Chapters 3 and 4 — histories of BP, of course, but also histories of comp/rhet and histories of technology. Ultimately, I am trying to situate and contextualize the conversations within the pages of BP to talk about what’s different about self-publishing in 2015 and what this bodes for the future of writing and self-publishing. To manage this, I’m planning to break Chapters 3 and 4 chronologically, with the former focusing on 1995-2003 (early Web) and the latter focusing on 2004-present (Web 2.0). These dates also serendipitously represent a break in editorship, which will help manage the data. The final chapter, Chapter 5, takes stock of these histories to argue for pedagogies that encourage students to make writing spaces and communities using contemporary self-publishing technologies.

So why am I writing a history of BP, a 20-year spanning Canadian magazine about zines, as part of a composition studies dissertation? First and foremost, my field has very little understanding of the history of digital writing as it has enveloped or emerged from print culture. Second, and probably more importantly, we also have little understanding about what DIY means — or could mean — for our writing pedagogies. How do DIY writers learn for instance, as new tools and technologies emerge into already existing writing ecologies? How do we tap into students’ obsessions and passions without ruining them? How do we encourage them to go public with their work? I’m hoping that by reading back issues of BP, I’ll be able to generate some generalizations about:

  • the history of BP, specifically, and DIY publishing more generally in the last 20 years
  • the rhetorical strategies of independent writers in the face of increasingly privatized tools and spaces
  • the nature of self-sponsored writing and the nature of delivery systems

So what’s next? Or rather, what’s first? One of the major takeaways from my hearing last month was to immediately dig into the data itself — that is, to read BP both distantly and closely. But because access to most back issues required me to use digital scans of pages in Proquest, I could not really see the context for BP in all its printed glory. For example, Proquest carves up publications for content, truncating things like advertising or their “using Broken Pencil” page — and yet in a participatory community like zines, it’s important to see who is advertising in the magazine and how the editor-curated content relates to those ads.

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 10.52.25 AM
Screen grab from Proquest index of BP #1

So a day or so after I passed I emailed founder Hal Niedzviecki who had already welcomed me and my project in an email exchange last summer. He offered to send me all the back issues of BP, which I received in the mail earlier this week from my wonderful editor at BP, Alison Lang.

Dissertation data! Thanks, @greasycop!

A photo posted by Jason Luther (@taxomania) on

In the meantime, the last few weeks have seen me gathering texts about archives, history, and coding, specifically from the perspective of grounded theory so I can begin to experiment with the ways in which I might read BP. Joyce Neff, for example, argues that grounded theory requires the researcher to code in waves, starting with something called “open coding,” a early, generative process where concepts emerge from a quick reading of the text(s). I might read several reviews from BP, for example, that use language to refers to impurity, obsession, niche, or other concepts evoked in DIY. Neff suggests developing an exhaustive list and then worrying later about validating terms through a more refined coding process called “axial coding.” Gesa Kirsch has uses a similar approach as she attempts to understand social circulation in women’s medical journals from the late 19th/early 20th century. Social circulation, as she and Royster argue in Feminist Rhetorical Practices, “invokes connections among past, present, and future in the sense that the overlapping social circles in which women travel, live, and work are carried on or modified from one generation to the next and can lead to changed rhetorical practices Here we are talking about evolutionary relationships—not just revolutionary ones—and more mediated legacies of thought and action, such as, things that we absorb even without conscious awareness rather than a static sense of direct inheritance.” (23). What Kirsch uses is a method also articulated in Feminist Rhetorical Practices called “tacking in” and “tacking out,” which balances close readings of a text with more traditional methods of using secondary research or thinking broadly using critical imagination. I was lucky enough to hear about these experiences myself as Kirsch has been a visiting professor at SU this semester and has taken the time to lead several grad student writing groups. 

The plan, then, is to read those issues of BP that are relevant to Chapter 3 (#1-30) alongside texts on methodology so that by the end I can actually write Chapter 2 with something concrete in mind. Then, I hope to read for Chapter 4 and write that chapter with a more specific method in mind. The revisions of those chapters, then, will ideally align them. From this, I’ll have a better sense of the lit review in Chapter 1 and where I might go with Chapter 5, when I discuss DIY and pedagogy.

All told, I hope to have almost 3 chapters drafted in the 16 weeks (80 days) I have this summer — which, as some people have more or less told me, is insane. But before I get too overwhelmed, I should note that if I break it down — 80 days, 160 pages of writing — that’s only 2 doubled-spaces pages a day or about 500-600 words. Totally doable, right?

Works Cited

Neff, Joyce Magnotto. “Grounded Theory: A Critical Research Methodology.” Under Construction: Working at the Intersections of Composition Theory, Research, and Practice. Ed. Christine Farris and Christopher M. Anson. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1998. 124–135. Print.

Royster, J. J, G. E Kirsch, and P. Bizzell. Feminist Rhetorical Practices: New Horizons for Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy Studies. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. Print.