Tag Archives: circulation

4C15: “No More ‘Moneypeople’: Politicizing Multimodality Through Zines”

Below is an approximation of the talk I gave at my CCCC panel in Tampa last week, called “Meaning Is In the Making: Three Responses to Shipka & Her Response”. You can view the slidedeck here. Special thanks for co-panelists Frank Farmer and Kristi Prins, and an extra special thanks to our respondent, Jody Shipka.

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 5.10.54 PM

[slides 1-2]

4Cs is a annual reminder that the most intriguing aspects of Jody’s work can be gleaned from her own composing practices, where she makes meaning by experimenting with [slides 3-6] forgotten technologies and alternative archives, purchased through dedicated Saturday afternoon visits to Maryland junk shops, flea markets, estate sales, garage sales, and thrift stores which then get reassembled in her house, then edited through film and circulated via social media, journals, workshops, and, of course, national conferences. Her work gives objects a memorable, visceral afterlife through accumulation, curation, resuscitation, and remediation. [slides 7-8] In her Inhabiting Dorothy project, for example, she [planning to ad lib briefly here based on your panel]. In this paper, I’d like to align myself with Jody’s gestures to reuse materials, but apply this as a communicative practice that is more political than has been discussed in her work.

The act of reusing materials seems powerful to me because it employs an aesthetic and politics that Adela Licona has called second order consumption — an oppositional process that “disrupts the capitalist imperative and circuits of production and consumption that rely on the individual to value the new, the first, the singular, and the latest, including planned obsolescence” (153n60). I realize Jody’s intention isn’t necessarily to promote second order consumption when she criticizes our tendency to equate multimodality with digital texts, tools and processes. After all, first order consumption is being showcased right now through this machine — and Jody herself uses programs like Adobe Premiere Pro, and equipment, like iPads to make her films. And yet, defining multimodality beyond the digital encourages an awareness of second order consumption — to look to our own embodied histories, experiences, and traversals, as well as to our search engines and applications for the available means. As she argues in a 2012 film for Enculturation, “research is a lived process.”

In short, Jody has both theorized and demonstrated throughout her work that all communicative practice is multimodal. That is, following Paul Prior and Jason Palmeri, she argues that multimodality is not a genre or a certain kind of text, but a “routine dimension of language in use.” In her essay “Including, but Not Limited to, the Digital” she echoes an emphasis originally laid out in her book, Toward a Composition Made Whole, that multimodality should call our attention to systems of activity that lead to meaning-making. She explains how multimodal production is a “complex and highly distributed process”  that accounts for “the role that texts, talk, people, perceptions, semiotic resources, motives, activities, institutions and so on play in the production, reception, circulation, and valuation of” things — whether they are printed texts, digital films, material objects, machines, or other hybrid forms not yet imagined (75). Hence, rather than ask students to respond to assignments with specific, genre-driven products, Jody’s courses emphasize a variety of possible rhetorical and performative multimodal accomplishments — “things” that are not restricted by representational systems that were denied or made available to them by their instructors. Time permits me from fully explicating some of the rich examples from her classroom, but in short, Jody’s students make a wide variety of things — objects like ballet shoes, garbage cans, and shirts [slides 11-13].

In the time I have left, I want to quickly offer a multimodal accomplishment of the public kind by looking at zines self-made, self-circulated, do-it-yourself print publications that obsess about something, whether that “thing” is punk music, anarchism, bisexuality, Thai food, dishwashing jobs, murder histories, or something else. Before I theorize a bit about the multimodality of zines, I thought I’d illustrate what zines are and what they can do through an example of my own zine, Hotdogz.

I’ve been waiting to make a zine about parenting for a while and so I began Hotdogz knowing that Cs would be a useful occasion to connect my complicated experiences with Florida to the state’s broader social history. But instead of beginning with my own writing, I started making issue 1 with “F 319” — the Library of Congress letter and number most relevant to Florida history. Because zines are a visual medium, I found the relevant shelves in our university library and sat and fumbled through the books, pulling titles off the shelf and marking intriguing passages and pictures [slides 18-22], which I then scanned using one of dozens of photocopy machines in the library. Meanwhile, I gathered family images from my computer files and Flickr account. Knowing that I would eventually make photocopies of my zine, I used Photoshop to adjust my images from color to halftone black and white [slides 23-31]. In between these processes, I read a few chapters from the edited collection, The History of Florida and took notes on the facts and stories from Floridian history that struck me; I also began to narrate my familial history as simply as possible. I then downloaded and imported a free comic book font into Pages and printed these with my images on my aging laser printer.

Similar to Jody’s process for making films and her students’ processes for their projects, zines often take, borrow, and remediate from everyday materials. Mine came from the library and my own photos, but they could have just as easily come from printed matter found in junk shops, garage sales, or through Google Image. However, unlike the multimodal accomplishments articulated in Jody’s examples, the guiding force for making zines isn’t performance or interanimation but circulation; that is, although the epistemologies of our communicative practices are similar in our view of research as a lived process, success for a zine is determined by the rhetor’s ability to anticipate what happens after the prototype is built: how, where, and to whom the zine be distributed. This is facilitated by two critical encounters — one material, one cultural — that influence the goals and choices made in the production process: the copy machine and the stranger.

For example, in terms of materiality, not only did the copy machine dictate how my images would reproduce, but [slide 36] I chose to make my zine a fourth of the size of a letter sized sheet of paper since I could make 50 copies of a 24-page zine using only 150 sheets of doubled-sided paper. In other words, I could reach more people with less resources if I worked with less space. I then spent 3 late hours in my department’s copy room, printing, collating, cutting, folding, and stapling issue 1. And, of course, as a cultural encounter, Cs provided me with the temporal and spatial occasion to circulate a zine to you, strangers, all of whom will judge me on the appropriateness of the occasion, my awareness of kairos.

In their book The Available Means of Persuasion Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel suggest that “kairotic inventiveness” plays an essential role in public rhetoric since it not only requires an understanding of how composition anticipates circulation, but also how kairotic determinants — time, space, channels — are often beyond the rhetor’s control. This has particular importance for public pedagogies that make use of multimodal forms as the material and cultural contexts of those forms limit the available means for production and circulation. As Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel put it,  “rhetorical theory has yet to confront the full implications of taking circulation into account” (61) realizing that it is at least partially “constitutive of rhetorical composition” (67; emphasis in original); this gap in our theory is reflected in our multimodal pedagogies.

For example, when I ask students to make zines in my undergraduate classes they fully immerse themselves in the production process — [slides 40-43] cutting and pasting covers from old copies of Seventeen, remediating their nonfiction through comics or handwriting and type, scanning old children’s books from the library to use as backgrounds, and even sprinkling glitter throughout. But sometimes when I remind them that the photocopy is what’s really important for zines, they seem a bit disappointed. For some of them who are used to the ethos of professional magazines, black and white just isn’t what they envisioned; if they want a color cover or stitched binding, for instance, they have to find a way to reproduce that effect 20, 30, or even 50 times. Some students do vouch for color copies, but even then they have to significantly reduce their print runs if they want to stay within a reasonable budget. The printed copy is the reality that part of circulating one’s work means loosing control — that it means coming to terms with kairotic determinants that bring rhetorical agency in sharp relief. They learn that to publish is ultimately to commodify writing and that the available means of production and mediation are based on their own resourcefulness and capital.

While it is true that Facebook posts, retweets, blog entries, and wiki edits constitute other ways in which students engage textual reproduction (and they do this for me too), new media can sometimes obscure the material aspects of circulation. I can create a blog in no time, but who will read it? When it comes to distribution, zines don’t work through bots or analytics. They are either seen or they’re not. Hence, putting all those copies to public use is part of the multimodal work of zines. For this reason, I’ve pushed students to organize, curate, and publicize zine festivals hosted on campus where they can distributed copies of their work to strangers. On Tuesday, for instance, my students made the decision to [not sure what they decided yet — put I was pushing for a public festival like my Spring 2013 students did!]. When my students did this in the Spring 2013, they circulated their work for more than 30 strangers made of writing professors and the friends of their classmates.

As Sheridan, Ridolfo, and Michel argue in the introduction to their book, when the field brings multimodality and the public turn together, it can more clearly see the importance of who has — or does not have — the available means of production and mediation. In other words: “who owns culture” (xvi; emphasis in original) becomes a paramount concern.  This extends — but also politicizes — Jody’s arguments that multimodal frameworks should be “engineered to underscore the interconnectedness of systems of production, distribution, reception, circulation, and valuation” (77). DIY and zines have historically pushed the politics of this interconnectedness, always aiming to minimize or altogether eliminate “moneypeople” — what Mary Sheridan has dubbed “corporate intermediaries” — from their systems. Although their content isn’t always political, the anticipation of circulation in the material production of zines renders these intermediaries — human and nonhuman agents alike — more clearly.

Even as zines limit the available “representational system” to printed objects, the ecology of their multimodality — their original obsessions, their remediated scraps, their changing of hands — are worth exploring, not in spite of the late age of print, but because of it.

Unexpected: Positive affective energies

UPDATE (3/31): The Syracuse U student paper, The Daily Orangeran a story on HappyCUSE on March 31, 2014, including a brief quote by yours truly.

I ran this workshop for a 400-level community writing class yesterday and it went pretty well. It took longer than I imagined (about 90 minutes as opposed to the 60 originally allotted), but the variety of mini-zines that came out of this workshop was impressive. I copied their zines while they moved on to another activity with the instructor (this is a 3-hour class) and dropped off the pile of 100 unfolded zines before I left.

Most useful to me was to discover yet another way to experiment with experiential circulation, but without dedicating an entire unit or course to DIY or zines. I didn’t say much to the students in terms of what they could(n’t) or should(n’t) write about. I only suggested that if students were stuck, that they could imagine where their zines might be shopdropped; that is, by imagining the possible publics who might read their zines, they could think of the various messages they wanted to circulate. The original plan was to exchange multiple zines in class and work together to shopdrop all 100 zines around campus. The exchange also made it so that if they did have ideal drop sites in mind, they could make them explicit through their content (a zine with a card catalog number on it for example, might suggest placement at the library). 

Also interesting was the fact that students improvised a range of tools and invention strategies when they were asked to physically make a zine. Some used stats or images they got from their smartphones and copied them with pens; some ran downstairs to grab a newspaper to cut and paste using the scissors and glue stick we brought; others dug in their bags for different sized pens or used ours; and yet others still  simply talked through their ideas in groups.

At least one writer took it to a pretty amazing, and surprising extreme, shopdropping more than the expected five zines around campus:

Over the last 10 hours, @happyCuse has tweeted over 45 times and gained 62 followers by shopdropping what appears to be at least a dozen zines all over campus. And while I assumed shopdropping was a critical act of dissent, it was interesting to me that @happyCuse circulates what Catherine Chaput would call positive affective energies: “pathways that invite human connectivity and constitute knowledge as an ongoing, creative pursuit” (22). Folks who found the zine must have seen the hashtag and handle because they tweeted back once they’d found the zines. This is the kind of exchange that happens all the time in zine communities, but I didn’t think it could approximated in such a short workshop.

Anyway, I’d love to explore this connection further in the future, and think about shopdropping as a teachable, everyday circulatory practice, but for now, I’m simply going to accept the unexpected and look forward to the second workshop next Monday.

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.


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.


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?

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.

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.

Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age

Stuart Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age (2004) develops a tripartite approach for teaching computer literacy, drawing from: (1) the functional approaches that treat students as users of tools, (2) critical approaches that treat students as questioners of cultural artifacts, and (3) rhetorical approaches that treat students as producers of hypertextual media (25). A key problem for Selber is reinserting a humanist, or what he calls “post critical” (3), edge into the more positivist orientations of digital work — stances that too often “consider technology to be a self-determining agent” (8). This instrumental view of technology (a term borrowed from Haas and Neuwirth) views technology as neutral and leads two problematic perspectives in English departments (and other depts imbued with liberal humanism): they either jettison everything tech because hermeneutics and close reading is their business, or embrace it but only as a handmaiden to the larger agenda of textual study.

MFDA is broken into five chapters: Chapter 1 outlines the recurring problems with computer literacy as currently articulated and deployed at universities; the middle three chapters sketch functional/critical/rhetorical approaches to literacy; the last chapter, Chapter 5, addresses the implementation of said approaches both across a program (i.e. one class per approach) and within individual courses (i.e. one assignment/unit per approach). Within each of the middle chapters, Selber provides helpful parameters for each approach. For example in Chapter 4, on rhetorical literacy, he considers how persuasion, deliberation, reflection, and social action all might play a role in teaching students how to design interfaces using a “thoughtful integration of functional and critical abilities” (145). In general, this is a praxis-oriented book and a text I’ll go back to when it comes to rethinking and/or developing curricula on digital writing.

I won’t dedicate too much space to my personal connections to the book, but there is one I want to mention. Selber begins Chapter 4 by introducing Johnson-Eiola’s discussion of production/connection from his article “Negative Spaces: From Production to Connection in Composition.” By emphasizing connection in our classes, J-E informs us, writers might “write with fragments,” focusing on “reorganizing and representing existing (and equally intertextualized) texts — their own included — in ways that are meaningful to specific audiences” (135). This reminds me of the difficulty in focusing on both — production and connection, or composition and circulation (see George & Matheiu) — and how important it is to consider shorter forms in curricula that want to do both. For example, in my DIY Publishing course last spring, asking students to produce a zine in 5-6 weeks privileged form(s) and arrangement, but it didn’t leave much time for content and the sort of inventive work that might help with it (actually, the same can be said for other aspects of the course, including our work with new media). Thus, it is important to be open to short forms and visualization, and other ideas of connection and curation so teachers have time to support students who have trouble making objects and texts.

In terms of how this book aligns with others I’ve read from the list, Selber, while critical, is interested in working from within institutions, offering a different approach than someone like Sharon Crowley, for whom the entire institutionalization of universal requirement of FYC is the essence of the discipline’s problem. That said, while Crowley critiques the entire structure, she is also clearly writing from within it. And what I appreciate about MLDA is its ability to use theory to richly qualify the recommendation it makes about practice. This seems necessary since Selber’s audience is broader than the traditional comp/rhet crowd — a strength and a weakness of the book. A strength because it is able to articulate a broad rhetorical vision for computer literacy to a wide camp of folks (English profs, deans, even students); however, at times his “heuristics,” although always carefully qualified, still feel too prescriptive. Certainly someone like Byron Hawk, who argues for a more ontological, vitalist approach to composition would take issue with both the structure and the tone of some of Selber’s recommendations.

Finally, MLDA would be a useful book for approaching exam questions about critical pedagogy/literacy, humanistic approaches to technology, discussions on the role of heuristics in the field, the purpose and function of composition, local v global curricula, self-reflexive methodologies and praxis, or conversations about the view of tech as tools.