Shopdrop a mini-zine

Note: This is the first of a five-part workshop I am doing for a class on community writing this semester.

By way of an introduction to the grit of zine-making, we’re going to try to make a mini-zine in under 60 minutes. We’ll exchange these zines in class and it will be up to each of you to distribute these zines by way of shop-dropping (AKA droplifting), a form of culture jamming. You’ll be able to drop your zines and others in a number of places on campus or in Syracuse.

1. What’s a zine?

Let’s let nicki sabalu help us answer that.

2. Can I see some examples?

Yes! Let’s spend 10 minutes looking at some I’ve collected over the last year or so. As you browse these in groups of four, consider some of these questions:

  • How would you describe the variety of these zines in terms of form (that is the way they are put together) versus their content (that is, what their rhetorical goals are)?
  • Who is the implied audience for the zine? Who are its readers?
  • Think about the different processes these makers used envision, collect, and circulate their zines.

3. How do I make a zine?

We’ll make zines throughout the next few Mondays, but for today we’re going to take a stab at making a mini-zine. We can thank Sassyfrass Circus for helping us with this.

minizine

Take 30 minutes to follow the instructions above. In terms of content, think about the various places and audiences this zine might travel to. Or imply a specific space (i.e. the library) with your content.

4. Copy and distribute!

If we have time today, we’ll copy, fold, and cut these in class. Next, we’ll exchange them in class and discuss potential places for distribution. If we run out of time, we’ll bump this to next week’s workshop.

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.

Slide1

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?

Zine studies group on Zotero

zotero-logoFor nearly 10 years now, I’ve been using Zotero to organize my bibs. For those unfamiliar, Zotero is  a nifty reference manager similar to Mendeley or EndNote — except it’s free, open-source, and made by the super smart people at the Center for History and New Media of George Mason. As I understand it, I probably only exploit 10% of its capability since there are so many other ways to use it to integrate your scholarship across platforms if you know a little bit of code (alas, I do not — I couldn’t even get my Zotpress plugin to work here).

Anyway, over the last few days I’ve been trading citations over email with a far-away colleague, exporting my zine studies collection and adding texts throughout our discussion.  Eventually it occurred to me that it made more sense if I simply moved that collection from my personal library to a public group where anyone can view the items and members can actually edit them. It was also a good excuse to reach out to a few of the scholars who have written some of the work included in this collection.

So, if you have any interest in zines, take a look at the collection, feel free to join the group and use the list, or better yet start a discussion, clean up or expand the entries, and simply add more items. So far we have 67 items: 33 articles, 16 books, 7 chapters from ECs,  5 dissertations, and a handful of blogs and videos.

http://www.zotero.org/groups/zine_studies

Screen grab from the desktop version of Zotero
Screen grab from the desktop version of Zotero

Teaching preciousness

2013 Buffalo Small Press Fest
2013 Buffalo Small Press Fest

Last week I posted a relatively brief description for HASTAC’s Pedagogy Project about how I’ve used zines in the classroom in my last two classes: a 200-level pilot course called DIY Publishing and 100-level regularized course on creative nonfiction called Writing Culture. My intention, of course, is not to suggest a monolithic approach for teaching writing, but to use DIY culture and zines as a pedagogical moment to consider larger issues in composition, especially problems related to agency, circulation, assessment, mediation, and materiality. Still, I ended that post somewhat hastily, claiming that student-made zines — as print art/ifacts — have the potential to produce for students a feeling of preciousness that is largely absent from scholarly papers or more ephemeral digital projects. But such a claim raises some questions: What is “preciousness” and how is it measured? Why might “preciousness” as a quality for a student text be valued — and what are its rhetorical effects? Its social value? What is its place within the institution? Can we assume preciousness is a quality absent from academic or digital projects? And if it is, what are the affordances of those forms that might be lost when teaching students to make things like zines?

Before I go further, I have to say that my use of zines were particular to these two classes — one which made self-publishing its chief object of study and another whose genres have a long tradition of circulating texts via independent print media (i.e. poetry chapbooks, underground newspapers, comix, and, of course, zines). Hopefully my post made clear that I’m not claiming that zines should be assigned in every writing class or in FYC. That said, I would argue that self-publishing has a place within courses or units that emphasize particular concepts that have been widely discussed in writing studies: multimodality, circulation, mediation, social justice, etc. And to argue that zines in particular have a place is to argue that at least some of the time student writing should be seen by both their makers and readers as precious. So what does preciousness mean and what can it afford?

At a glance, preciousness connotes both childlike innocence (i.e. darling, beloved, dainty) and an aesthetic judgement based on scarcity (i.e. rare, valuable). It evokes an interesting tension between production and circulation that was first articulated 14 years ago by John Trimbur in “Composition and the Circulation of Writing” (2000). Trimbur saw an unavoidable characterization of students in composition studies that figured them “as an active meaning-maker in relation — in loco parentis — to a powerful teacher figure” — that is, as a subject who is asked to give an account of things akin to a father at the dinner table (193). For Trimbur, the field’s default stance of in loco parentis comes from its tendency to equate writing with the moment of production, which is typically accounted for within the home space of the classroom. In so doing, we fail to raise questions about writing that go beyond assuming bounded, close readings of texts.

Trimbur thus suggests we ask what it means to look at writing “as it circulates through linked moments of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption” (196) by re-theorizing the thing that circulates. He borrows from Marx’s Grundrisse to suggest that we use the category of commodity — “the materialization of an underlying and contradictory social process” exposed through the dialectic between use value and exchange value (207) — to understand how instantiations of materiality (newspapers, TV programs, etc.) contain traces of labor in its forms. For Marx and Trimbur, it “is not so much where the commodity goes as what it carries in its internal workings as it circulates” (209). More to the point, Trimbur is interested in how processes of knowledge distribution reveal a commodity’s dialectic — that is, when its use value (the degree to which it satisfies material needs) is or isn’t rewarded by its exchange value of the market (profit/capital extracted from the process of labor). To get at this in his teaching, his students examine various forms of professional knowledge as it is distributed (from journal article to new article, for example) in order to understand how their “systems of distribution, exchange, and consumption enter into and determine consequentially how the means of production operate” (215). Ultimately Trimbur hopes such work can help increase public participation in order to more widely distribute the making of knowledge — that is, he uses circulation as a means to imagine a version of writing as DIY.

A zine from one of my DIY Publishing students.

Aside from opening a space in composition studies for thinking about writing beyond production, Trimbur’s analysis asks us to look at how we teach circulation to our students in terms of the means of production. What I’ve found is that digital writing provides several occasions to think about how new forms of production — writing with audio, video, html, etc. — move throughout the web. The anticipation of circulation,  like all assignments that make publishing their goal, in turn, effect decisions in production (for more on this, see Ridolfo and DeVoss on “rhetorical velocity“). But zines, as precious commodities that move from dispersed materials — cut and pasted texts, strings or staples, folded pieces of paper — to idiosyncratic booklets that travel through the mail or are showcased by the author at a marketplace (i.e. zine fest), provide occasions for students not just to learn about circulation, but to actually experience it. Although economically speaking, zines have little to no exchange value, symbolically their materiality — based on scarcity — provide them with an edge over digital productions. In fact, the word “precious” comes from the Latin word pretiosus, meaning “of great value,” and from pretium, meaning “price.” Whether or not readers see a zine as having any use value, as precious objects they highlight rather than obfuscate the commodification of writing.

Another zine from one of my DIY Publishing students.

A quick example: students in my Writing Culture class made at least five copies of their zines — at least two of these went to classmates and the others to whomever they wanted after the last day of class. They had to consider how to arrange their writing from part to whole, thinking about how they might differentiate the zine in terms of layout, weight, size, color, binding material, etc. In this way, this process isn’t all that different from designing a website — except that the raw material is more scarce. Students had to think carefully about what to include since each of them had between 40-60 single-spaced pages of drafts to choose from. In this way, to ask students to produce and exchange zines materially is to ask them to bring together aspects of aesthetic judgement with the goal of commodification. It asks not only what design would be rhetorically effective, but how those designs are limited by the materials at hand and how they might be distributed. I don’t expect any of my students to become makers of zines after my class, but I do expect them to better understand the relationship between writing and materiality in ways term papers or blogs simply cannot get at.

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.

The embodied search and zine materiality

Every so few weeks Pitchfork runs a funky little feature called 5-10-15-20 that asks artists — folks like Neko Case, Nas, Erykah Badu — to talk about the music they listened to at different points in their lives. I always love these features not only because the artists talk about records I’ve never heard of and/or expected they to list (Badu apparently listened to Nirvana a ton in her 20s), but they show that such eclecticism is arguably necessary to one’s artistry. Anyway, on its most recent feature, Kathleen Hanna talks about taping reggae from the radio, explains how she jogged to Public Enemy, and reminisces about fellow riot grrrl band Bratmobile.

When it comes to her talking about her most recent age — 45 — she shares her adoration for Montreal electro-pop artist Grimes (AKA Claire Boucher), loving that’s although Boucher is 20 years younger than her, she embodies some of the feminist ideals the riot grrrl movement energized in the 90s. And yet, Hanna quickly notes her disgust with how women artists like Grimes are taken up on popular music blogs:

“I read some of the worst shit I’ve ever read in my life about Vivian Girls on BrooklynVegan. I clicked on a link because I wanted to see a show, and I made the mistake of reading the comments, and it made me want to cry. It was like the 90s all over again. But people in the 90s had to take out a piece of paper and write you a letter. It’s taken me a long time to not take that stuff seriously. I feel like people who are younger than me understand better. When Le Tigre started, people felt like they had to respond if someone said something negative about you online. As a political musician you felt obligated to have a dialogue. Now I realize.”

Grimes, ‘Oblivion’ from Somesuch & Co. on Vimeo.

Hanna’s observation about “that stuff” — the negative discourses of the web, specifically the comments section — resonated with me for two reasons. First, with hesitation, I reactivated my Facebook account a few weeks ago. Second, I’ve focused nearly all of my reading time on three recent books on zines. For sure, my decision to come back to Facebook is the result of a variety of forces, but I think my primary reason is one articulated in these books; it’s the same response as Hanna’s in understanding of how certain online spaces work. It’s a kind of letting go — a way of limiting my time on those spaces, but also filtering discourses and refusing certain kinds of dialogue. This is something, it seems, certain makers of zines understand quite well.

In Girl Zines (2009), Alison Piepmeier borrows from Mimi Nguyen’s work in arguing that the Internet is generally still a pretty hostile place for women, a place that “replicates many of the structural inequalities of the nondigital world” (15). In a more recent piece, for example, “Google Search: Hyper-visibility as a Means of Rendering Black Women and Girls Invisible,”  Safiya Umoja Noble shows subtler ways this hostility is perpetuated by critiquing the neoliberal logic undergirding a search engine like Google:

“Commercial search implodes when it comes to providing reliable, credible, and historically contextualized information about women and people of color, especially Black women and girls, which serves as a means of silencing Black women and girls as social and political agents.”

As a result, the materiality of zines — as paper that mediates one body to another — allows them to circulate differently in what Piepmeier calls embodied communities — collectives that activate bodily experiences through paper, string, and the otherwise tactile pleasures of zine making which serve to humanize discourse in ways that are difficult to sustain and control digitally (63).

This isn’t to say, of course, that vibrant feminist spaces don’t exist on the web. Feministing, to give one example, has been going strong for years. However, recent scholarship on zines make a compelling case for the affordances of embodied analogue media. Farmer (mentioned in my last post), for example, argues that the affective qualities of zines create important alternative spaces for dissent that are directly linked to their materiality through bricolage — ““the artful ‘making do’ of the ‘handyman’ who, using only those materials and tools readily available to him, constructs new objects out of worn ones, who imagines new uses for what has been cast aside, discarded” (31). Because zines appropriate literal scraps, often relying on the unpredictability of embodied search — collecting said scraps at thrift shops, garage sales, etc. — they differ from deliberative public discourses that often take place in commercial online spaces using the tools of the commercial search (i.e. Google). In short — “that stuff” Hanna found repulsive on BrooklynVegan.

What Hanna “realizes,” I think, is that when it comes to the political work of the artist, it’s the art itself that makes a difference. In Zines and Third Space, Adela Licona takes this up by examining how zines build coalitions and a coalitional consciousness in their makers — “a practiced articulation or deliberate bringing and coming together around social change that can be witnessed in zines” (3). The difference between coalitional and critical consciousness is that the former implies action. For Farmer and other scholars of zines, it’s the zine’s capacity for “poetic world-making,” its rhetorical goal to inspire making itself, that differentiates it from other forms of public discourse.

I’m interested in the zine’s ability to perform these gestures through their materiality, but I’m equality interested in the ways other pockets of zine activity make use of both embodied material and commercial digital channels to effect change, especially when it comes to their circulation. One example of this is how coalitions build (or fail to build) depending on the type of search one engages. An embodied search — garage sale/sailing for ephemera, for example — is going to yield very different results than Googling a phrase, both materially but also epistemologically. Posting a zine on Etsy is different from selling it at a zine fest. It’s different in terms of how its found, its encounter between the maker and consumer, and how the event itself is figured into future circulations.

Reflections on Farmer’s After the Public Turn

I feel like I’ve mismanaged my very limited professional time these last few weeks, spending too many hours planning and responding to writing in my creative nonfiction course while reading two books on my exam list too closely. For anyone out there who’s ABD, I imagine this is a familiar story: without the weekly exigence of coursework or a scheduled exam, it’s easy to put other tasks in front of it — or to try to understand everything as deeply as possible or to get the writing just right. My saving grace, though, is that two conference proposals I wrote on zines this summer were accepted to both CCCC and RSA, so I do have more granulated goals to work toward as the semester develops and I’m hoping these papers will lead to chapters of the dissertation and/or publishable articles.

The paper for CCCC concerns something I’ve dubbed pedagogies of experiential circulation — the notion that students can distribute their work materially by doing it instead of simply learning about it. My example comes from students from my DIY Publishing class who distributed their zines at their self-organized zine fest last spring — Syracuse’s first. It was one of the best teaching experiences I’ve had, as students shared some very personal, risky work — both in terms of content and form — publicly. Importantly, we didn’t judge their “success” with this event based on traditional rubrics of rhetoric. Thus, in my presentation, I hope to reel in some of the loftier goals that pedagogies that take up rhetorical delivery/circulation/distribution typically engender — namely the idea that we measure rhetorical success on whether a student is able to observably change someone or something in their locale. Of course this begs the question, if rhetorical success cannot be measured by some sort of material, observable change, how can it be measured?

Originally I proposed that a re-articulation of agency — as a more emergent phenomenon — might help reconsider this question and I still think that move is helpful. That said, Frank Farmer’s new book, After the Public Turn: Composition, Counterpublics, and the Citizen Bricoleur (2013), considers how in certain communities, like zines, remaking is the assumed the rhetorical goal — of inspiring and influencing others to also remake or to become what he dubs a citizen bricoleur, “an intellectual activist of the unsung sort, thoroughly committed to, and implicated in, the task of understanding how publics are made, unmade, remade, and better made, often from little more than the discarded scraps of earlier attempts — constructions that, for whatever reason, are no longer legitimate or serviceable” (36). Importantly for public sphere theory, bricolage is figured as multimodal (my words, not Farmer’s), an expressive aspect of communication that resists the traditional notion of public discourse as “rational-critical debate.” As an assemblage of modes, bricolage and other expressive forms of discourse help to form counterpublics, or cultural publics, as Farmer calls them. An important aspect of zines, of course, is their materiality, which in the case of anarcho-punk zines, literally arises out of any remnants of fast-capital print.

Farmer focuses more on composition than distribution with his argument, but his attention to the rhetorical goals of DIY communities and his discussion of zine’s materiality in light of digital distribution channels has important ramifications for teaching circulation. For example, at one moment in the book, Farmer considers counterpublics as “widening gyres” — a term that gets at the paradox of circularity and mutation of social movement discourses. I have previously discussed these as ecologies or fluxes (to borrow from Edbauer), so I’m curious if there might be key differences in the language we use to describe these phenomena and how those differences might affect a methodology that is concerned with the movement of rhetoric. Nevertheless, the idea in introducing these terms to come to terms with the complexity and vastness of circulatory systems so as to almost render ridiculous the idea of agency at the individual level, which is why considering its definition is appealing to me.

It’s also appealing because of embodied and imaginative versions of agency associated with the idea of DIY, which Farmer takes up in the book. Specifically he considers the relationship between DIY practices and ethos and materiality. Obviously materiality is used to differentiate zines from other self-publishing venues on the web. Zines offer intimacy to certain communities, and as ephemera offer traces of its histories, leading Farmer to wonder if a DIY ethos can even exist on the web. This question is important if as Warner and Farmer argue, counterpublics exist as ways of being, not simply as deliberative discourses. As Kristin Arola has written, for example, certain forms of digital writing use templates that feature content — and take away from issues of design. Unless one knows how to code, options for form are limited. Moreover, what gets made in addition to the zine, is an important difference between print and digital self-publishing platforms. The materiality of zines also embodies an important opposition to media conglomeration. Borrowing from Tim Wu’s Master Switch, who argues that info tech is moving into increasing closed patterns — into a “master switch” — Farmer argues that zines show “what a publication looks like when you do not have free access to corporate-owned resources” (80). Farmer also notes how the surveilling features of the net might also sustain zine communities farther into the 21st century.

What seems interesting, then, is that while a DIY ethos might be unique to the composition of zines, it’s difficult to imagine that most zine makers are willing to forgo the internet entirely when its such a practical option for distribution. This has me going back to Trimbur’s work on circulation, as he uses Marx’s definition of commodity (as the contradiction that exists between use and exchange value) to complicate the production/distribution divide. I hope to blog about that complex article soon and rev some momentum back in to the blog this week.

Exigence(s) for the diss

The more I talk about the minor exam with folks in my program, the better I understand how it can lay important groundwork for the dissertation. Although the goal is to produce an annotated bib and publishable article by the end of the year (at the latest!), it’s clear that these can feed at least two chapters of the diss. Needless to say, and as I mentioned last week, this is an exciting and terrifying time, knowing the weight of these choices for future work and scholarly identity. The rub at the moment has to do with considering the exigence of my work. Why exactly would this dissertation matter? Or perhaps, how could it matter? I have a rich, multimodal site worth pursuing, but the exigence and questions for that study are a bit hazy. One faculty member advised me to reflect upon what bothers me about the field and start there. When I do, I think about a few things.

First, I think about the need to explore literacy and writing as an ongoing and complex process — as networked, multimodal, and difficult to predict. We have many theories and tools in place for these conceptions of literacy, but virtually no RAD writing studies of amateur writing cultures doing it. Moreover, like Jody Shipka, I’m bothered by the tendency in the field to equate “technology” with the digital. More explicitly, I wonder how “old media” and its meanings/uses get altered through a particular new media lens. How do codes and spatial templates, for example, constrict the possibilities of form? How do digital technologies assist — as well as limit — the circulation of writing? Again, zine communities, which embrace a variety of modes for production and distribution, provide an interesting space for learning the nuances of our writing tools.

Second, I wonder if we overdetermine our pedagogies; that is, in pursuit of our own relevance/professionalism, we place too much emphasis on curriculum, assessment, and instruction. As a ex-writing center director and continuing consultant and teacher I’ve been more attracted to true studio models of writing, where teachers/consultants create or restrict the conditions for various attempts at writing, but do not micromanage the interactions. How might a more responsive, ongoing syllabi, where readings are curated by students and occasions for writing/heuristics are co-constructed (to give a few examples), open up some of the possibilities for learning? My sense is that zine makers — as self-organizing communities — have a lot to teach us about the autodidactic functions of literacy.

Finally, for many years, when it comes to the way writing works more generally, I’ve been struck by ongoing tensions between structure and agency. That is, I wonder when or in what ways is writing the product of sociocultural forces and when is it the act of our own choosing. In what cases are those acts of our own choosing actually the product of structuring forces? Here I am drawn to the work of Marilyn Cooper, Deb Brandt, Berkenkotter and Huckin, and the theories of Pierre Bourdieu.

Taken together, I imagine a diss that studies the various spaces and moments of zine-making —  individual composers cutting and pasting in their rooms, writers and presses trading at zine fests, and interactions on online spaces like We Make Zines — to consider what a DIY praxis or self-sponsorship might teach us about multimodal composing and pedagogy. Two or the more compelling questions for me include: Why print and why now? What are the affordances of the medium in an era of Tumblr or Twitter? Secondly, how do self-sponsored zine-makers develop and learn multiple literacies? How can these be traced at the level of composition, production, and circulation?

The only problem with this approach is that I don’t quite trust it — yet. That is, depending on what I’m reading, or who I’m talking with, these problems/questions shift. At the same time, this might not be as much of a problem as it feels like at the moment and that these shifts are important for winnowing toward a more consistent prospectus. To come to terms with this, I’m planning to take the approach that another faculty member suggested: to write dissertation chapter maps every few days. That is, spend an hour or so summarizing what I imagine a chapter looking like and to try and generate as many of these as possible as I read through my exam bib. It’s difficult to know what a map might look like before the thing is written, but if I understand this properly, I need to be reading for potential ideas for setting up my study. I’ll start with Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole. More soon…

 

Passing the major exam: a final reflection on the process

As you could guess from the title, I passed my major exam. After a summer filled with anxious blogging about my studying process and some admittedly uneven discussions of the texts themselves, I have to say that the actual writing of the exams went fairly smoothly. By the time I wrote the final exam, I was truly ready, taking way too many notes on actual and potential source texts. In that sense, the best part of this process is that I now feel prepared to move on to the minor exam, which is essentially a pre-dissertation boot camp — except way more fun. Before I discuss that, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I just want to recapture some of the reasons why I think I got through this phase as smoothly as I did:

  • I minimized my professional obligations. This summer I was lucky to receive a grant to develop a course for Spring 2014, so I didn’t have to leave the house to teach or meet much with anyone regularly on campus. Aside from this, my only true obligation was prepping for exams.
  • As a family, we prioritized my studying. We hired a babysitter for the kids while E. taught Summer Start in the mornings. Although it was really difficult listening to them play around the house and in the yard all morning, this gave me 4-5 hours of (granted, often interrupted) study time per day — which was necessary, but not so much time that I screwed around. I owe so much to E. for making this happen.
  • I was flexible with my reading. I went into the summer thinking I’d try to tackle every piece on the list to some extent, but what ended up happening was more modest. Truthfully, I simply prioritized monographs that I hadn’t read before; I ended up reading those thoroughly and (surprisingly) drawing on them extensively in my actual exams. And when I got bogged down with a really difficult text, like Grammar of Motives, I backed off and reminded myself of the overall goal. I skimmed the anthologies but when it came to actually writing the exam, I searched them carefully for potentially relevant arguments for the task at hand. For example, when my first exam asked me to assess Berlin’s influence on the field, I searched each anthology for instances where Rhetoric and Reality or words like historiography were mentioned.
  • I consistently reflected on my study process. Because time felt like the only enemy this summer, it was crucial that I developed — and then constantly reassessed — strategies for studying. At first I thought print notes made sense, but I quickly realized this was slowing me down too much. I also now feel quite silly for trying to write my own exam questions. The practice exam also showed me how much time a week really provides for the task. I needed to know a few core books really, really well (for me they were Hawk’s Counter-History, Berkenktotter and Huckin’s Genre Knowledge, Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality, and Horner et al’s recent collection Cross-Language Relations in Composition). Then I needed to be able to map the others. In this way, skimming all the texts and reviews the first week of studying made a lot of sense.

Now that it’s over, I get to focus on Parts Two and Three, which include a annotated bib of 25 books and a publishable article. I met with some potential advisors last week who offered some wonderful, thoughtful and qualified advice on thinking about this important in-between phase. Basically, while I have an article in mind, I’m going to concentrate on balancing the bibliography while prepping for two national conference presentations in the spring, with hopes that the article and one or two diss chapters will organically evolve from that work. So far I have some promising leads on ways of looking at zines and sociocultural theories of process. One of the fundamental questions I’m thinking of asking at this point is: How and where have zine writers learned to do what they do? Where or how did they learn how to compose, participate, and circulate their work? How does their learning continue and what are its implications for importing a DIY ethos in to the composition classroom?

In short, this moment feels as pivotal as it should: full of anxiety, excitement, and all sort of possibility.

Marxist rhetorical theory and DIY print cultures

Buffalo Small Press Fair
Buffalo Small Press Fair: view from upstairs

A bit exhausted this weekend after travelling to WNY to attend the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair (more on that below) and to catch up with some great friends in the Queen City. At the expense of having deep engagement with the other readings this week, I spent some quality time with James Aune’s “Cultures of Discourse: Marxism and Rhetorical Theory” trying to tag it with detailed marginalia since it’s one of the few pieces from Contemporary Rhetorical Theory that are on my exam list for comps. Being a neophyte when it comes to Marxist histories and theories, I’m sure I gleaned less than 10% of the text; nevertheless, I found it interesting and potentially and unexpectedly helpful.

The piece is pulled from (as far as I can tell) an unremarkable 1990 edited collection called Argumentative Theory and the Rhetoric of Assent. Aune begins by plotting “a map of [Marxism’s] research program,” leaning heavily on Alvin Gouldner’s synthesis, and pulling a productive dialectic from a key tension between structure and struggle. By structure Aune means Marxism as a science, stressing “a deterministic view of ideology,” where capitalism’s fall is inevitable (citing Lenin and Althusser as key figures). By struggle Aune imagines the version of Marxism that foregrounds critique, and requires some form of organizing, resistance — and ultimately persuasion — in order to engender revolution (he cites Gramsci, Horkheimer and Adorno, and Eagleton as key figures in the second). He then sketches four ways that Marxism has traditionally attended to this tension, arguing that Marxism has only tangentially dealt with rhetorical theory, while rhetorical theory has only tangentially dealt with Marxism.

Aune’s hope, then, is to begin a conversation in the field that retains the ongoing critique of ideology while promoting some sort of material political and social change. To do so, he focuses on one of three levels of abstraction — the mode of production — in social analysis as articulated by Erik Olin Wright in Classes (1985).

Researchers focusing on the mode of production examine “the way in which dominant forms of argument relate to forces and relations of production in the most abstract way” (545; emphasis in original). For Aune, focusing on the mode of production helps dodge rhetorical studies’ “privileging of symbol-use over labor as the constitutive activity of human beings” which “risks being coopted by larger forces of domination in our culture” (546). Aune would have us pay attention to rhetoric’s dominant forms of argument — as cultures of discourse — as products of labor, “as material as a factory or a Hitler speech” (546). He describes these cultures of discourses in detail as traditional, critical, and poststructural and then proceeds to offer four takeaways on developing a Marxist rhetorical theory, including foregrounding the role of labor and class struggle in our theorizing, but also revisiting certain helpful aspects of the cultures of discourse that might contribute to Marxist theory, such as using common sense as the origin of enthymeme or thinking more broadly about oppression in terms of race, sexuality, or via the status of professionalized/specialized (and thus authorized) discourses.

As I returned from the Small Press Book Fair this weekend, of course, modes of production — specifically material ones — are front an center in my mind, especially since the purpose of the trip was to see how (1) I might propose a similar fest/fair here in Syracuse and (2) to think about potential sites for dissertation research. Zine and small press fairs exist all over the US. And although they are largely white, they are diverse in other ways and bring together a mix of working class/artistic subjectivities. What Aune’s piece does for me then, is help me think through “Do It Yourself” articulations from the perspective of Marxist rhetorical theory. The very phrasing of DIY emphasizes labor (“do it!”), but for much of my class and my blogging this semester I’ve been framing it via ecologic rhetorical theory — emphasizing the “yourself” part of the phrase, the part that considers the self as a node in a network. And while Aune also helps address co-optation, a Marxist rhetorical theory could help think critically about the craft of print culture and potentially address the question of why print still hold a special place in our hearts. Perhaps it’s because our labor is still marked, inscribed, and circulated though the paper, the binding, and the edges of the book. It’s maybe a reminder that writing is work.

Booty from Buffalo Small Press Book Fair 2013
Booty from Buffalo Small Press Book Fair 2013