Category Archives: Diss notes

Broken Pencil and Canadian sponsorship

According to the mastheads, Broken Pencil started without any government sponsorship, but gradually accepted more as time went on. The Ontario Arts Council (OAC) started subsidizing the magazine with #7 in the summer of 1998 (though curiously this language is missing from #s 10 and 11— and maybe #9, though I can’t locate that issue). In #15, they begin to acknowledge both the OAC and Canada Council for the Arts. In #16 (2001) they add “BP acknowledges the financial support of the Government of Canada, through the publications assistance program (PAP), toward our mailing costs.” In #19 (2002) they add “…and the Canada Magazine Fund of the Department of Canadian Heritage toward our mailing and project costs. Canada agreement number 1377914.” Then in #47 (spring 2010) they replace PAP (presumably because it dissolved) with the Canada Periodical Fund (CPF). The language seems to have stayed constant since.

Language from the masthead of #67

Language from the masthead of BP #67

In chapter 10 of Canadian Content Edwardson continues to explicate the affect of globalization on Canada’s culture industry, arguing that the government — through its various sponsoring agencies like those mentioned above — cultivated a cultural economy that defined success through employment and sales. As he notes, this is embodied through programs like Tomorrow Starts Today. Introduced in 2001 by the Department of Canadian Heritage, the now-defunct TST provided $560 million to help, as the government put it, “brand Canada around the world” (261). Describing culture in quantitative terms, Edwardson argues throughout this chapter, is typical of Canadianization in the time of globalization, where the export of culture is put at a premium. This, in turn, affected the content of magazines, music, film, and television, as cultural producers were pandering to multinational investors or international distributors who would be leery of circulating content saturated with Canadian identifiers.

Although Broken Pencil hardly pandered to the Canadian government, two symptoms of globalization — emerging network technologies and free-trade policies — did begin to affect them, sometimes simultaneously. For example, in the mid-90s American magazines like Sports Illustrated began to use satellite transmission to bypass the technical stipulations in the 1964 Paperback and Periodical Distributors Act, a law that “limit[ed] tax deductions for advertisements in magazines to those that fulfilled domestic criteria” (273). Essentially because this legislation kept American and other foreign magazines from entering the Canadian market (the exceptions being Time and Readers Digest), Canadian content was protected from foreign influence. Once the Canadian government caught these magazines circumventing via satellite, they passed Bill C-103, which Broken Pencil addressed in the inaugural “Pencil Sharpener” editorial section of #3 (1996):

“Canada has a new law that levies an 80-percent excise tax on the advertising revenue of Canadian editions of foreign magazines. These odious examples of corporate waste previously published so-called Canadian editions of American magazines with all Canadian advertising and little in the way of Canadian content.  Bill C-103 protects Canada from such evils, and clears the way for Canadian corporations to keep control over their own mediocre stable of all Canadian sports, fashion and lifestyle magazines.” (10)

The US subsequently argued that Bill C-103 violated the terms of NAFTA, leading to a showdown at the WTO. Perhaps anticipating the outcome, the editors at Broken Pencil rendered the legal basis for the showdown with dependable sarcasm: “Naturally, the US is appealing this decision through that upstanding free trade agreement NAFTA.”

The WTO, as predicted, ruled in favor of the US and this, as Edwardson puts it, led to “a startling wake-up call as to how the pursuit of foreign markets had led to a surrendering of control over cultural policy and the ability to ensure domestic discourse on Canadian terms” (274).

The editors at Broken Pencil were explicitly critical of this outcome in issue #5 (1997). While they interpreted the ruling as an example of how “economic bureaucracies view the independent culture of small countries” as expendable, they also criticized the Canadian government for deciding to “fight a trade battle over Canadian magazines as if they were hot-dog companies” (10-11). Yet the consequences of this ruling didn’t concern the editors per se; they simply saw it as another example of corporate media control. A secondary effect from the WTO was more damaging: subsidized mailing rates for Canadian material was deemed equally hostile to foreign market interests and thus, the government had to restructure its Publications Assistance Program (PAP) so that magazines would get the subsidy up front, which cost taxpayers more (Edwardson 274). As Broken Pencil argued, when it came to print at least, the cultural pulse of Canada wasn’t found in “twenty mainstream magazines … that everybody reads but seem to have little to say,” but within the hundreds of independent nonprofit little magazines “with fewer readers but a lot to say about what is going on in various local and cultural spheres” (11). Whether or not they made this exact case to the government is unclear, but they started acknowledging funding from the PAP a few years later.

Still, rather than focus on supporting smaller spheres, Canada more generally was following the US’s example and actively creating foreign markets for its culture industry. These programs, like Tomorrow Starts Today in 2001 and PromArt or Trade Routes in 2010, turned artists and writers into “ambassadors, sharing Canadian voices and values with the world,” as one Department of Canadian Heritage fact sheet put it (276). The problem with this dubious subject position, Edwardson explains, is that it conflates “industry with identity in the face of cultural insecurity, instability, and blatant contradictions that arise in a system which relies upon domestic profiteers and multinational corporations to develop Canadian content” (278-79).

Edwardson ends his history in the early aughts, arguing that if there’s any hope for the future of Canadianization, “federal bureaucrats need to come to terms with the fact that economic strength and industry growth do not equate with opportunities for national discourse and expression” (283). And yet in the midst of a severe recession in 2006, the Liberal Party’s 70-year reign ended with the election of Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper. Tretheway’s piece in Broken Pencil #46 (2010), mentioned in my last post, explains how the Tories seized the opportunity of the recession to defund programs typically dedicated to smaller, independent “fringe” artists and publishers. Using a process called “strategic review,” bureaucrats defunded sectors of programs under the guise of a routine budgeting process, removing the threat of any real political accountability. Through this process, programs like the Canadian Musical Diversity (CMD) fund — which supported the production of recordings of artists who made unconventional and underrepresented music — was axed in favor of supporting “digital marketing and international touring,” echoing Edwardson’s concerns that globalized Canadianization conflates the visibility of the culture industry with an essential cultural or national identity. As the executive director of the British Columbia Association of Magazine Publishers, Rhona MacInnes, notes in the article, “They don’t have to come out and say it, but there is an emphasis placed by the Canadian Periodical Fund on what sells” (16; emphasis mine). Hence, starting in 2009 — less than a year before this article was published — the CPF revealed that magazines under a circulation of 5,000 would not longer be eligible for subsidies. It just so happens that Broken Pencil’s circulation is now 5,000; though I’m not sure when it started publishing this many copies, it’s clear based on the masthead that they had been printing that many since at least 2010.

Logos of current BP sponsors

Logos of current BP sponsors

The important takeaway here is that although Broken Pencil has accepted government sponsorship for its cultural work since as early as 1998, it has served as a voice for a sector of the public arts that gets grossly underrepresented in Canadian culture. And yet, MacInnes’s statement, published in Broken Pencil, begs the question: how did BP manage to convince the Canadian government to help fund it?  It will also be interesting to see to what extent these issues flare up over time and how the introduction of other media affects BP’s arguments about funding and access.

Broken Pencil and Canadianization

After spending the last few weeks closely reading the first three issues from the first year of Broken Pencil, 1995-1996, this past week has been about accounting for the various cultural, socio-economic, and technological contexts through which these issues and this magazine emerged. Essentially that has meant working backward from these issues to identify potential threads that would explain things like the nationalism in the letters section, or why Broken Pencil have been poised for hybidity. This has led me to books on the history of the Internet and how and why the Web came to be; to texts about Canadian culture and history; and, finally, texts about neoliberalism and globalization, especially when they affect the culture industries. Three books in particular have occupied my time, mostly since they discuss the above threads in overlapping ways. In the next few posts, I’m going to try to connect these texts to threads throughout Broken Pencil’s issues, regardless of time period. Today: Canadianization.

Edwardson, Ryan. Canadian Content: Culture and the Quest for Nationhood. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008. Print.

Ryan Edwardson’s Canadian Content: Culture and the Quest for Nationhood explores the ways in which culture has been used to shape postcolonial Canadian nationalism since the country’s first confederation in 1867. Edwardian traces Canadianization, his term for this process, through three distinct periods: Masseyism (1920s-1950s), The New Nationalism (1960s), and ending with Cultural Industrialism (1968-present). Importantly, the roots of Canadian nationalism differ from those of America’s because it developed throughout 20th century rather than the 19th; that is, as Canadian nationalism has been cultivated, the available technologies used for reaching and making publics have changed significantly. As a result Canada has regulated mass media — especially TV and radio — through quota systems that require a certain percentage of broadcasted content be Canadian in origin. First introduced in 1968, but still used today (with increasing vulnerability, which I’ll discuss in a moment), the quota systems are used alongside more common cultural bodies — such as The Department of Canadian Heritage — to insure that Canadian Content (CanCon, for short) sustains nationalist or domestic discourse throughout the public sphere.

According to Edwardson, quota systems were an easy sell in the 1960s, as public intellectuals helped fashion the nation’s self-image of a “Peaceable Kingdom,” asserting its independence from the United States, whose imperialism was becoming more of a threat. Importantly during this period, culture became “freed from elite domination and ostracizing paternalism,” typical of Masseyism, “in order to encourage a national project with a wider social base” (17). This move allowed domestic discourse to circulate more widely using more accessible cultural identifiers, like certain comics or pop music. In essence, this was the New Nationalism.

These quota systems, however, increasingly mapped nationalism onto the growth of the Canadian culture industries by increasingly commodifying culture. As Edwardian notes:

“Economic incentives and industrial point systems all placed Canadian content within the dynamics of profitability and cultural commodification, which encouraged industries to strip it of national identifiers — or more commonly, replace Canadian ones with American equivalents — in order to attract the interest of distributors at home an abroad” (20). 

This period, which Edwardson dubs “cultural industrialism,” sees government officials increasingly making use of economic rather than social benchmarks (employment, sales, returns of return, investment, etc.) in garnering continued support of these public programs. The sum of this shift, at least for Edwardson, is that a globalized and subsidized 21st century Canadian culture industry has facilitated an “entrenchment” of culture where the motivation for profit negates “social cohesiveness” that should come with Canadianization (25).

He has more to say about this period in Chapter 10 and in the Conclusion, but for now the question is: how might these policies affect our understanding of Broken Pencil?

For one, at some point (I’m not certain when) several public programs began subsidizing Broken Pencil. According to their About page, the magazine is currently supported by four agencies: The Department of Canadian Heritage, Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and The Access Copyright Foundation. And although a letter in the most recent issue of BP, #67, criticized the magazine for accepting government money, these public programs are organized in such a way that they filter funding through a bureaucratic process that makes it difficult for the public to hold government officials directly responsible.

An example: according to The Department of Canadian Heritage’s website, BP was awarded between $13-$14,000 under their “Aid to Publishers” program during the last three years— plus what appears to be additional money under their “Business Innovation—Print” program ($25,000 in 2011-12 and $18,500 in 2013-14). I don’t understand the particulars of these programs, or their application process, so that is something to look into. These complications are discussed in certain issues of the magazine. In #46 (2010), for example, BP ran an article on the affects of the recession on public money for the arts, pitting certain parts of public funding against free market ideology, much like Edwardson suggests:

“The recession and rising deficits have once again put arts funding and culture-friendly policies on the chopping block… And the independent arts—the bands, publishers, artists and creators on the front lines of grassroots creativity—are once again the easy prey of a sustained, yet unproclaimed, hunting season” (15).

The article goes on to provide an example of the Toronto electro-experimental group Holy Fuck and the cutting of a program called PromArt — a program meant to fund overseas tours of Canadian music — through a strategic review, introduced by the Tories.

Author Laura Trethewey puts it this way: “The new, ongoing auditing program singles out ‘lower priority, lower performing’ government programs and redirects the money towards other programs vaguely defined as ‘higher performing’” (15). Hence, DIY or indie culture — arguably the least organized and most impoverished arts sector — are ostracized under an economic rubric of culture.

In a follow-up post I’ll take a closer look at Chapter 10 and the Conclusion of Edwardson and apply some of what he says to this article.

The first 3 issues of Broken Pencil

The first issue of Broken Pencil was published in Toronto in June 1995 — incidentally, the same month I graduated from high school 100 miles south, in a suburb of Buffalo, New York. I say incidentally because I was also publishing a zine at the time, Mud, which was between issues 3 and 4 (of a total 8 between 1992 and 1997). Although I had heard about and occasionally read Factsheet Five, the American review digest of zines, Broken Pencil wasn’t on my radar for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.

Flash forward 18 years later and I’m a c/r doctoral student at Syracuse, voluntarily writing reviews for BP in exchange for free copies of current issues.This makes looking at the print copy of #1 this week feel somewhat strangely nostalgic. Current issues of BP are slicker, the result of both cheaper printing costs and a wider circulation. For example:


Issue #1 of Broken Pencil, published in June 1995

BP #66, published in the winter of 2015

BP #66, published in the winter of 2015

While the covers have always been glossy, the early issues are marked by a 90s-like design, with several corny fonts and graphics overlaid on opaque images, and cheaper newsprint inside the cover. While I don’t know the circumstances of the BP’s early days — especially how it was bankrolled — I do know that it was founded by Hal Niedzviecki, a writer who was born in Canada, but schooled in the Washington DC suburbs and Bard in upstate NY (as near as I can tell, he received an MFA in creative writing from there not long before he started Broken Pencil). Although he’s written several books over the years and has freelanced for popular North American newspapers and magazines (including the New York Times Magazine, Playboy, Utne Reader, and more), at the time of BP’s launch, he was only 24 years old, and did not — again, as far as I can tell from a Proquest search — have any significant publications under his name. Niedzviecki edited BP until 2003, with #20 being is last issue before Emily Schultz takes the reigns. At some point he became the fiction editor. [Note: I am hopeful Niedzviecki will help fill in these gaps via interviews throughout my project.]

Editorially, the first year of Broken Pencil is marked by some hesitance, but it also sets forth an agenda for underground Canadian culture that sticks with the magazine throughout the next 19 years. The first issue, for example, included no feature stories — only an editorial, letters, interviews, excerpts, and reviews. But by #2, published  6 months later, two features were added. The first, written by Niedzviecki, focused on Canada’s law of legal deposit, a common copyright law that requires publishers to submit two copies of every publication to a cultural repository (the National Library in Canada’s case). The other feature, written by contributor Derek Winker, examines the free market impulses of “millennial colonists” of the early World Wide Web and sounds a jeremiad for zinesters to start taking control of it or suffer by watching its potential disappear. In #3, published in the summer of 1996, we see two more topical features. The first is article by Niedzviecki that draws a correlation between advancing technology and a shrinking of public money, suggesting that the independent artist is now code word for entrepreneur. As if they were paradoxically assisting in these advances, #3 also includes a short piece by Winkler on how to make a website for as little as $7.

The concerns articulated in these features make it clear that DIY, at least as far as Broken Pencil conceived it in the mid-90s, is about more than teaching each other how to make stuff (although there is a little of that with Winker’s website guide). For them, it is also about reflecting on the politics and agency of the underground within a larger consumer culture, thereby requiring a measurement of Canadian culture writ large. This is captured in the first words of the magazine, in #1’s editorial, written by Niedzviecki and his co-editor, Hillary Clark:

“…each new entry into the world of language is a potential wrong turn for some reader the danger of a blind corner is the pitfall of new ideas, undiluted view-points, radical and libertarian rants all produced by individuals who take it upon themselves to manufacture documents that have nothing to do with so-called market forces. So why do they do it? And why is it dangerous? We at Broken Pencil believe that the force of alternative publishing, from fringe ‘zines to little read literary journals to obscure chapbooks, is equal to any great manifesto that human ingenuity has sought to declare. Individually, these obscure publications may seem to not matter. But when considered as a collective unit, they are amazingly pervasive documents that insist on the sanctity of a life where independent creation is still possible in a society, a country, a world that might have it otherwise.” (1)

Of course only so much can be deduced from four articles written by two writers — Niedzviecki and Winkler — but many of the comments from early readers also suggest a preoccupation with Canadian culture, especially in reference to the United States. For example, in many of the letters published in these issues, there are allusions to BP being a newfound spokesperson and hub for Canada’s underground culture. Several letters thank BP for providing an alternative to Factsheet Five. Upon hearing about the initial creation of BP, early commenters in #1 wrote to say things like “it’s about time Canada had some type of zine guide” (5) and “Factsheet 5 tends to neglect zines in Canada, and see them in ‘Canadian Perspective’” (5). By #2, letters were already debating the shape and texture of the magazine, critiquing it for being too centered on Ontario or looking too much like Factsheet Five. One of the writers whose zine was excerpted in #1, Dave Cussword, wrote to remind the magazine that “as warden of Canadian pulp subculture,” they should “represent the non-conformity of its subject in design as well as content” (7).  Likewise, “It’s Hip to Buy: The Evolution of Radical Culture in Canada,” Niedzviecki argues that “New Canadian culture is mean, marketable and looks a lot like the hipster ‘counter-culture’ of our Southern neighbors.” I’m not sure if this stays constant throughout the magazine’s history, but given the obvious US bias within zine culture, much of this makes sense. Defining the changing essence of Canadian culture, however, will require another layer of research for this diss.

The first year of BP also sees it move swiftly into a hybrid media; that is, it not only crafts a print and online presence but attempts to integrate the two. This occurs much earlier than I thought. Although the only real digital presence in first issue is an email address (, by #2 there is an “E-Zines” section in the reviews section in addition to Winkler’s article about the Web, and in #3, a year after #1, they not only have a website counterpart ( to the print magazine, but a regular section called Zine of the Month, that features regular content on the website. Moreover in #3, Niedzviecki provides an email in the letters section, and one that is significantly cleaner than in #1 (

Questions/ideas moving forward:

  • In terms of content, I’m most interested in the editorial, features, and letters sections since they make it easier to gauge the concerns of readers and editors than the reviews section. That said, I’m also wondering if I should trace metrics on other details — page count, # of reviews, etc.
  • Much of the early life of the magazine is concerned with descriptors, especially “alternative” culture. It is an operating term in the editorial in #2 (“ Those enquiring into the nature of alternative publishing — already a cumbersome, self -perpetuating and almost meaningless term — insist on generalizations”). The tagline for the magazine begins with “The Guide to Alternative Publications in Canada,” which runs through #9.  Moreover, in a 2000 interview about his book Hello I’m Special, Niedzviecki shied away from the description his publisher’s publicity team described as “alternative culture guru,” preferring the term “underground culture guru.” I wonder if tension is visible in the next 4-5 issues.
  • Early issues shuttle between playing the role of sponsor and critic — excerpting certain zines, but also slamming others in the reviews section. Feature stories about topics of concern, continue, but so do interview with people or makers. I wonder if (1) this is always the case, and (2) if this role is unique to a textroom or a magazine like BP.
  • How else does the BP continue to function as a hybrid media?

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.

Arise Therefore

I’m celebrating May Day by injecting some sorely needed labor back into this blog. If you are somehow reading this and don’t know me or why I’ve been in abstentia, the short version of this academic year is as follows:

  • July: passed my exams
  • October: Witnessed the birth of our third child, Christian,
  • January: Lost my mom suddenly to a pulmonary embolism
  • April: Passed my prospectus; now ABD

Frankly, it’s been a hard year, full of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Aside from the emotional strain of loosing one of the most important people in my life, trying to make progress on the diss with three small kids feels impossible. When I’m home, I’m not working. When I’m teaching or consulting in the Writing Center, I’m not working. And when I am working, I’m not at home — and I’m trying not to grade, consult, or otherwise respond to students.  And yet here I am. While I’ll be working a few hours a week this summer, I do have the time and space to write. And that work begins today.


RSA14: Zines & Borderlands Rhetorics in Flux: Reassessing the Rhetorical Currency of Print

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 11.46.28 AM

Below is an approximation of the talk I gave at RSA 2014 in San Antonio. You can view the slidedeck here

The scene is from Ghostbusters. Egon Spengler, the nerdiest of Ghostbuster, emerges from the floor where he has been tinkering with the secretary Janine Melnitz’s desktop computer. She compliments him on his handiwork and says, “I bet you like to read a lot too.” He mutters back three infamous words: “Print is dead.”

[SLIDE 2]  Although the film was released in 1984, the rhetoric surrounding print’s decline has been relentless into the 21st century — daily we read about newspapers folding, e-book sales exploding, and independent bookstores vanishing. [SLIDE 3] In 2001, and in less dramatic terms, Jay David Bolter dubbed this the late age of print, “a transformation of our social and cultural attitudes toward, and uses of, this familiar technology” (3). More recently Ted Striphas has adopted the term as a title to his book, and applies Bolter’s idea to consider the ways print — and more specifically the book — continues to “shape habits of thought, conduct, and expression – even in a supposedly ‘digital age’.”

For rhetoricians, the terms “death” and “transformation” might stand out as two important concepts from Kenneth Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives[SLIDE 4]  Burke chooses death and killing as topoi at the start ofhis book in order to illustrate the complexity of motive — as “proportions of a motivational recipe” (17) — but also to argue that depictions of death are a way to identify a thing’s essence through its transformation. “That is: the killing of something is the changing of it, and the statement of the thing’s nature before and after the change is an identifying of it” (20). Given these premises, this paper will begin to consider print’s afterlife by taking stock of just a few of the rhetorical methods – “the ideas and imagery” – of one site where print still has rhetorical currency: the contemporary do-it-yourself (DIY) print communities of zines.

[SLIDE 5]  Zines aren’t the only site where print has currency. Parents in the US, for instance, overwhelmingly value children’s books. But zines are not children’s books. [SLIDE 6] They are “noncommercial, nonprofessional, small-circulation magazines which their creators produce, publish, and distribute by themselves” (Duncombe 10-11).  In this slide you can see some examples of pre-internet Ghostbusters zines from the 90s. [SLIDE 7] And here is a snapshot from a wiki site called Fanlore that has documented as many Ghostbusters zines as they could find, complete with scans of their covers. While these are historical examples, with many of these zines being produced in the heyday of the 90s, zines have actually enjoyed a renaissance of sorts over the last few years. [SLIDE 8]

In a 2011 article entitled “Anatomy of a Zine: When Magazines Go Indie,” Time Magazine notes:

 While a small and dedicated do-it-yourself zine culture has been publishing for decades, zines haven’t enjoyed this much popularity in 20 years. Online craft mecca Etsy currently has nearly 50,000 distinct handmade publications listed for sale, approximately 3,000 of which are self-defined as zines; that number has been steadily increasing.

[SLIDE 9] In another article in the same year, the New York Times not only reported testimonies from public librarians, prominent bloggers, and social media coordinators that a resurgence was indeed happening, but they also cited a variety of reasons for the trend, including “a reaction to the ubiquity of the Internet,” “a much more tangible feeling,” “freedom to explore and experiment,” “tiring of the high rate of turnover in online content,” and their “air of exclusivity: they are like other artifacts that were never intended for mass consumption or distribution.”

[SLIDE 10] More recently the Times reported on the Brooklyn Zine Fest, where roughly 100 zine makers gather to make, sell, and trade their zines with strangers for one weekend in April. Importantly, there are other zinefests across the US — the largest being the Chicago Zine Fest, which, as the article points out, takes up three floors of a building at Columbia College. Others happen in LA, Albuquerque, Houston, Austin, Buffalo, and nearly every other large to midsize city in the US and UK. I’m currently in the process of curating one in Syracuse.

What’s interesting about this phenomenon is that contemporary zines leverage tensions between the borders of old and new media in order to critique and offer alternative spaces to more legitimate sites of knowledge production. For example, Malaka Gharib, the social media coordinator cited in the first New York Times article, “still makes much use of technology to create and distribute the zine, employing software to design each issue, Twitter to attract readers, and Etsy … to sell the publication.” Thus, as self-made, noncommercial, nonprofessional, material booklets that are also distributed and circulated through a variety of virtual and physical networks, zines complicate the traditional print/digital binary for makers of media, while concurrently asserting print’s affordances. [SLIDE 11] Zines are sold through online distros, [SLIDE 12] but they are also shopdropped in public spaces. [SLIDE 13] Zine makers tweet and maintain wikis, [SLIDE 14] but they also trade and sell zines at small press festivals. [SLIDE 15] Zines are crowdfunded through sites like IndieGoGo, [SLIDE 16] but they are also born from hacked photocopy machines. In short, zines exist in a complex borderland where print’s rhetorical currency is bolstered and politicized through physical encounters and the scarcity and intimacy of the page. As Alison Piepmeier describes in her book Girl Zines, paper acts as a mediating nexus that crosses various borders and “bears the marks of the body … to the reader” (63).

[SLIDE 17] Let me provide a brief example of such a borderland: Google “Ghostbuster zines.” [SLIDE 18] The first link you see is to a November 2011 Tweet from Hal Niedzviecki, publisher of Broken Pencil. Broken Pencil is a Canadian quarterly about zines that hosts Canzine, a zine festival that occurs each fall in Toronto. [SLIDE 19] Click the link from his Tweet and you’re taken to the synopsis of a public experiment conducted at Canzine 2011 between an illustrator, poet, and zinester. As Broken Pencil describes it:

 A week before Canzine, we gave [these three] a list of five Hollywood movies, one of which they would re-imagine, in front of an audience and in their chosen form. A week later, our brave guinea pigs … took the stage at Canzine, scribbling, typing and drawing away in a mad race to recreate Ghostbusters…We thought the results too good to keep confined to the Canzine audience…

Below the description are several clickable scanned images from the zine, which – true to zine poltics – turns into a quirky critique of right wing ideology. [SLIDES 20-23] Although it’s not clear if these three went on to reproduce and distribute Ghostbusters Zine, this hopefully serves as a provocative example of the ways zine communities collapse print/digital binaries produce spaces that challenge more legitimate sites of knowledge production – or what Adela Licona might call a third space in her recent book Zines in Third Space[SLIDE 24]

Because Licona is more interested in drawing from feminist, chicana, and post-colonial theory, she does not explicitly evoke identification in the Burkean sense in her recent book; however, she does use hermeneutics to explore the ways in which radical zines achieve consubstantiality through difference. She specifically looks at how they use borderlands rhetoric – discursive and visual convergences – to destabilize and dismantle traditionally inscribed borders of identity and in so doing, make a third space for authors who “self-identify as feminist, antiracist, queer, and/or of color” (142n6). Third spaces are interstitial, liminal and emerge through active material practices of zine-making, where authors challenge traditionally legitimized knowledge to produce historical reclaimings, treatises on self-care, or otherwise take on sexist, racist or heteronomative discourses. They also may splice together unsanctioned images – copyrighted or otherwise – to imagine alternative ways of being and to mobilize something Licona calls coalitional consciousness: “a practiced articulation or deliberate bringing and coming together around social change that can be witnessed in zines” (3). This usually happens through a call to action via an emphasis on self-care and community education. [SLIDE 25]

In Calico #5, for example, Licona shares how code switching between English and Spanish, when converged with a backdrop of 1950s all-white pop imagery, “disrupt the continued dominant assumptions of these representations” by requiring audiences to fill in the gaps, which, in turn, help build coalitional consciousness (51). That is, by creating third spaces through borderlands rhetorics, these zines are able to create solidarity that doesn’t coalesce through sameness, essential categories, or what Licona calls normalized or homogenized heterogeneity (100), but through radical democratics, “participatory and emancipatory politics” that are action-oriented action by constructing difference as always in flux. That is, through borderlands rhetorics these zines understand identity and identification through a politics of articulation; they view “the nonessential self as a multiply-situated subject informed by ambiguity and even contradiction” (62) in order to struggle against multiple oppressions. In third space, identification is still “compensatory to division,” to put it in Burkean terms, but it is made from difference. In short, third-space zines use the affordances of print to construct borderlands rhetorics that imagine visions for social change. But I want to move forward with two caveats. [SLIDE 26]

First, not all zines are third-space zines – in other words, not produced by authors who identify as feminist, antiracist, queer, and/or of color or even take social change as the foundation of their craft (the Ghostbusters zines, of course, are good examples of that).[SLIDE 27] Second, Licona focuses on zines found in Duke’s Special Collections that circulated before 1999 – not pre-Internet, but long before the proliferation of social media: what dana boyd describes as “the sites and services that emerged during the early 2000s, including social network sites, video sharing sites, blogging and microblogging platforms, and related tools that allow participants to create and share their own content” which has significantly “reshaped the information and communication ecosystem” (6). [SLIDE 28]

While zine makers in the 90s certainly could make web sites and exchange emails, the difference with social media is that the organizing principle online has shifted from interest to friendship. In this sense, although zine makers still use print, social media has distributed the tactics of coalitional consciousness for third-space zines to multiple sites – still within zines, of course, but also online. I want to argue that in order to better understand these tactics we should supplement our methodology and scale, building from third-space hermeneutics and moving into third-space ecologies.

Rhetorical ecologies have occupied our field’s attention for at least ten years. In 2005, Jenny Edbauer, for example, argued that ecology “recontextualizes rhetorics in their temporal, historical, and lived fluxes”(9). In an ecology, agents are viewed as acting within a network, a space where rhetoric is actually a distributed — and hence, circulating — act. Here, rhetoric is always already amalgamated and transforming, what Edbauer calls “the viral spread,”or “shared contagion,”that infects as it reproduces. According to her, this view of rhetoric is of particular value to those in need of counter-rhetorics, which through the viral spread can resist hegemonic exigencies by mocking, exaggerating or reappropriating them (that said, the reverse can happen to those in the third space as even Edbauer shows us with the phrase “Keep Austin Weird”). Because ecologies render rhetorics in flux, it shifts our focus from the aesthetics of zine-making or their political content to their distribution or circulation. I want to take moment to explore how this might work with contemporary third space zines. [SLIDE 29]

In last fall’s issue of Broken Pencil the cover story, “The True Colours of Zines,”explored the issues facing the lack of visibility of these contemporary third space zines, or what the magazine dubbed POC zines. It tells the story of Daniela Capistrano, the founder of the POC Zine Project, who upon browsing NYU’s recent Riot Grrrl Collection on their Fales Library’s website, could not find any significant presence of POC even though they were part of the riot grrrl movement. [SLIDE 30] She took to Twitter and shared her concerns, and ended up talking with Mimi Thi Nguyen, a longtime third-space zinester whose compilation zine, [SLIDE 31] Evolution of a Race Riot, was analyzed by Licona in her book. As a cross-generational zinester and professor of gender studies at Urbana-Champaign, Nguyen worked with Capistrano to donate POC zines from 1992-1998 to NYU. Not only is this a rich example of coalitional consciousness at work, but also a good example of how ecologies create coalitions that spread third-space discourse across media. For example, on the occasion of the donation, Nguyen wrote a lengthy statement about the process and her mixed feelings about it including the impossibility of ever developing a full history from any archive and, more importantly, entertaining the possibility that by filling in the gaps of the collection with POCs the donation might have participated in the veiling of “more troubling queries about how women of color are included, incorporated, or otherwise made visible”through feminist historiography. [SLIDE 32]

The statement was posted on the finding aid for the collection at Fales as one might expect, but it was also cross-posted on Nguyen’s blog Thread and Circuits, and the POC Zine Project’s Tumblr, which meant, of course that it was also re-blogged by followers of those sites. Tumblr, in fact, has been an important digital site for contemporary third-space zines. On the POC Zine Project’s site, they claim their mission is to “make ALL zines by POC … easy to find, share and distribute. We are an experiment in activism and community through materiality.” Licona’s understanding of third space zines is worth repeating here: she is concerned with zines “where coalitional consciousness is explicit, activism is engaged and promoted, and community building, knowledge generating, grassroots literacies, and information sharing are the articulated foci”(22). In short, third-space zines are still out there, but they make use of tools that complicate the border of the print and the digital in order to create what I would call, following Frank Farmer, counterpublics. Still, as the Broken Pencil article argues, in order for POC zines to engage wider publics – especially those found in the predominantly white DIY culture of zines –“creators need to be just as concerned with the distribution as with the content” (17). [SLIDE 33]

The question for me moving forward then becomes how these print/digital borderlands of zines, and more broadly DIY, both resist and reinforce more incorporated, neoliberal streams of mediation where being independent is becoming increasingly difficult – where to participate in online social networks, for instance, requires complicity with the very forces they seek to challenge – consumerist culture, digital divides, the rhetoric of the new, template-driven design, etc. That is, how can zines – as the epicenter of certain activist media ecologies – leverage the currency of print to critique some of the problems with digital rhetorical processes, while at the same time make use of those processes?

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.

Screen grab from the desktop version of Zotero

Screen grab from the desktop version of Zotero

Experiential learning and materiality

kolbOne of the more interesting questions to come out of my recent teaching experiences with DIY publications like zines is how teachers measure rhetorical success of their students’ public texts, whether they take the familiar forms of civic writing, multimodal embodied forms of protest, or through more ephemeral social media. More specifically, I’ve been asking and speculating about the role rhetorical circulation plays in that question, and what it might mean to differentiate between learning about the concept (i.e as a subset of critical reading skills) and experiencing it (i.e. producing texts that actually circulate). In short, what does it mean to really experience circulation — and by extension what does it mean to experience rhetoric?

Lately I’ve been looking in a few disparate places to answer that question. Thinking about it literally has led me to experiential learning theory (ELT) — originally conceived by John Dewey, developed in various ways throughout the 20th century (by folks like Vygotsky, Piaget, Lewin, Jung, and Freire), and more recently theorized and applied by David Kolb. Although he developed his theory in the early 70s, Kolb’s book, Experiential Learning: Experience As the Source Of Learning and Development (1984), is widely influential, having been cited more than 20,000 times (including a few times in the pages of CCC). In a more recent text from 2005, Kolb and Kolb define experiential learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience (Kolb, 1984: 41)” (194). This grasping was initially characterized via two pairs of dialectically opposed modes: Concrete Experience (CE) v Abstract Conceptualization (AC) and Reflective Observation (RO) and Active Experimentation (AE). As the authors put it:

Experiential learning is a process of constructing knowledge that involves a creative tension among the four learning modes that is responsive to contextual demands. This process is portrayed as an idealized learning cycle or spiral where the learner ‘touches all the bases’ — experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting — in a recursive process that is responsive to the learning situation and what is being learned. (194; emphasis mine)

This creative tension is created by asking learners to scuttle between acting and observing, analyzing and experimenting, consuming and producing. Yet because human experience is the basis for this model, such tensions cannot occur in just a classroom. Central to ELT is Lewin’s notion that transactional learning occurs via the interdependency of individuals and their environments. Kolb and Kolb use this to create what they call learning spaces, which emphasize learning as “a map of learning territories, a frame of reference within which many different ways of learning can flourish and interrelate. It is a holistic framework that orients the many different ways of learning to one another” (200).

Conceptual map of a learning space using nine modes of experience (Kolb and Kolb 2005)

Conceptual map of a learning space using nine modes of experience (Kolb and Kolb 2005)

As I re-read Anne Wysocki’s intro to Writing New Media (2004) this week, I was struck with the similarities between the ways both ELT and new media attempt to highlight this interdependency between agency (individual) and structure (environment). More specifically for Wysocki, a materialist definition of new media allows students to “see a possible self — a self positioned and working within the wide material conditions of her world, even shaping that world — in that object” (21). Aside from Wysocki’s decision to reject traditional definitions of new media as inherently digital, I love this piece for how it pushes teachers of writing to consider not so much “technology” as monolith as much as the tools and materials with which we ask students to write. Interestingly, many of the lessons in the Activity portion of her chapter ask students to occupy various positions within ELT’s learning space. In one exercise, students take two hours out of their weekend to observe and jot down any and all visual texts. When they come to class, Wysocki asks them a number of reflective questions about how and why they chose those texts, how they shape action and ways of thinking, etc.  As she argues at the end of this section, she’s “not trying to lead the class to definitive conclusions about sight,” but “to see how much visual attentions are called upon in our day-to-day actions” (25). There is more to this lesson, which is connected to other lessons, but I point out this sliver to note how some of tensions articulated by ELT are working in this example. Students are asked to use concrete experience (CE) — writing down what they see — as a occasion for reflective observation (RO) —  via large-group discussion — which is put into tension with abstract conceptualization (AC) when they are ultimately asked to conceptualize the role visual rhetoric plays in our moment-to-moment material experience.

I realize I risk bastardizing ELT with such an application, so I’m not totally committing to this analysis, but for now I am interested in ELT enough to see how it might help me start to approach a question like “how do students experience rhetoric or rhetorical circulation?”

Next up is to look back at Michael McGee’s “A Materialist’s Conception of Rhetoric” to think about what he means when he drops a knowledge bomb like this one:

…the whole of rhetoric is “material” by measure of humans experiencing of it, not by virtue of our ability to continue touching it after it is gone. Rhetoric is “object” because of its pragmatic presence, our inability safely to ignore it at the moment of its impact … From the material perspective “speech” is an integral part of a “speaker/speech/audience/ occasion/change” phenomenon, peculiar as an element of rhetoric because it survives and records the moment of experience. (23; emphasis in original)

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.


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.


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.