Compositional Craft: Zine Workshops as Pop-Up Makerspaces

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Zines in the making, University of Maryland, 2012

Zines in the making, Women’s Studies Multimedia Studio, University of Maryland, 2012

Despite the growing popularity of makerspaces in higher education, creating and sustaining a permanent makerspace takes more time, money, and labor than many academic departments are able to commit. Yet educators are finding ways to bring making practices into classrooms, libraries, and other spaces on campus, demonstrating that one need not have massive amounts of funding or high-tech equipment to enable students across disciplines to experiment with hands-on, project-based learning. Getting the chance to explore practices associated with craft and design in a formalized learning environment, especially in the humanities where reading and writing are the dominant modes of engagement, can frequently empower students who may not be strong writers or who feel alienated from overly romanticized notions of “creativity.” Drawing on my experience leading over twenty zine workshops between 2012 and 2015, I describe some of the ways I incorporate zine-making into my pedagogical practice, arguing that compositional craft activities such as bookbinding and collage can bring multiple kinds of knowledge into interdisciplinary classrooms and give students permission to practice writing in a wide range of hybrid genres. Zine workshops serve as pop-up makerspaces where the connections between writing and crafting can be elaborated through practices of cultural production: the active process of creating culture through the making of, for example, media and art.

Zines from my collection for a zine workshop at Kenyon College in 2015

Zines from my collection for a zine workshop at Kenyon College in 2015

Importantly, my primary disciplinary home is not rhetoric and composition, but women’s studies. Thus my main goal in courses like the freshman-level “Introduction to Women’s Studies: Women, Art, and Culture” is not helping students become better writers, although I am proud to say that by the end of the semester I see an improvement in students’ written ability to support arguments about the relationships between feminist movements, cultural production, and politics. My biggest challenge is pushing students to articulate why feminist art might matter in their everyday lives, especially when most of them grow up believing that feminism is dead, that we’re all part of the steady march of progress, and that art is frivolous. First I ask them to examine the kinds of public discourse that convinced them of these misconceptions in the first place by thinking critically about a wide range of media and artistic production, some of which is familiar from their pop cultural milieu. Then, about halfway through the semester, I have them pick something to read from my collection of almost two hundred zines (independently produced and distributed publications, often with relatively small networks of circulation), which deal with individual and collective experiences of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, religious discrimination, domestic violence, sexual assault and rape, body shaming and fat phobia, depression and anxiety, eating disorders, menstruation, sex work, and BDSM, among other things.

Adela Licona's Zines in Third Space and Alison Piepmeier's Girl Zines, left

Adela Licona’s Zines in Third Space and Alison Piepmeier’s Girl Zines, left

After reading feminist scholarship about zines, such as the work of Alison Piepmeier and Adela Licona, I ask students to describe what it was like to read the zines they chose, a question that I borrow from one of my mentors, Martha Nell Smith. They frequently express shock that I would bring print artifacts such as these into the classroom. They are rarely assigned texts that contain unapologetically explicit vernacular; frank depictions and images of bodies, nudity, queer sexual pleasure, and violence that are created by women, trans, and gender nonconforming people; and biting feminist humor (and pain) they did not believe to exist. Not expecting to open up these photocopied publications and read handwritten excerpts from someone’s diary or journal (especially someone who is their age or younger), they find it refreshing that zines often make a direct personal address to them, the readers, when so much of what they are assigned is written for academic audiences who share particular disciplinary assumptions and frameworks. Reading a zine may be the first time they encounter something in a classroom that not only speaks directly to their everyday experiences in gendered, racialized, and classed subject positions, but that also strikes at the heart of their intimate lives in ways that they are discouraged from sharing in public, let alone in school. Students are surprised to find that zinesters publish interviews with fellow activists, or that they do independent research citing texts we studied in class, using methods students believe to belong solely to academia. Having a zine in their hands makes students think about their own writing as something that could circulate in the “real world” in a very material way, with an unpredictable audience, rather than as something that exists only for the professor’s eyes.

Despite the fact that most of my students have never encountered this kind of DIY media in their daily lives, as a final project I ask them to create zines of their own in order to showcase how they are synthesizing what they learned, or to research a topic of their choice in depth. While some students are intimidated by this assignment, afraid that I am evaluating them on a form of creativity that they insist they do not possess, many leap at the chance to make something that does not take the shape of a traditional research paper, a genre toward which they will likely spend the rest of their college careers tailoring their writing. They also seem quite relieved when it becomes clear that I welcome the use of the almost unilaterally verboten first person, the thing that so captivated them about reading zines in the first place. This is when the old feminist standby, “The personal is political,” becomes real for them.

Quarter size zine in progress, zine workshop at Kenyon

Quarter size zine in progress, zine workshop at Kenyon

I usually spend the last two weeks of class in zine workshops, when students are increasingly stressed by preparation for finals and when they are least likely to be doing their regularly assigned reading. This tends to result in better final products and leaves enough time for students to troubleshoot the zine-making process with me. We start by learning how to fold one sheet of 8½ x 11” printer paper in eighths to make a barebones mini-zine, which places constraints on the amount of text and images students are able to include. This kind of spatial constraint is perfect for students who do not believe themselves to be writers, or who prefer visual storytelling through a medium like comics. When students become frustrated with the lack of room to express complex concepts and narratives, we move on to different sizes and shapes of zines, like the quarter-size 8½ x 11” or 8½ x 17”. Most students choose to go with a half-size zine because folding an 8½ x 11” sheet of paper in half affords them enough room to balance text and images, and it is relatively easy to lay out. Making zines therefore forces students to think about the visual arrangement of their words on the page, a kind of composition that I see falling to the wayside as more and more students write drafts of their assignments on their phones and read unformatted paragraphs on scrolling webpages.

Students cutting up used books at a zine workshop, 2012

Students cutting up used books at a zine workshop, 2012

To make as many materials as possible available for students to use, I bring in outdated textbooks, old magazines, comics, and other media that are rich with images for literal and figurative deconstruction, such as the proliferation of children’s encyclopedias and storybooks you can find at used book sales and places like Baltimore’s Book Thing, a warehouse full of donated books and magazines that are free for the taking. These materials can be fascinating and disturbing in themselves, displaying many of the racist and sexist ideologies we’ve been attempting to dismantle all semester, and are often subverted when students cut them up and creatively use them in new contexts. I encourage them to bring in their own photos and journal pages to incorporate, or really anything they would like to use. I also allow them to use my collection of rubber stamps and one of my several typewriters, which completely transforms the writing process for them, moving it away from the screen and the keyboard and into spaces that feel much more immediate, tangible, and material to them. Their voices emerge much differently when their writing practices involve scissors, ink, glue, and staples. This is not to say that their computer screens are not material, or that they shouldn’t be using digital tools and technologies to do their writing, but that deemphasizing the digital enables students to denaturalize the ways they write in order to newly attend to their compositional practices.

Portable typewriter for zine workshop at Kenyon

Portable typewriter for zine workshop at Kenyon

Student zines combine collage, drawings, poetry, and hybrid prose genres in multimodal ways that are impossible to standardize (and even tougher to grade). Less important than whatever they produce for my class is what they are inspired to do beyond the confines of their classrooms. Several of my most promising students have contacted me long after our zine workshops to ask me about how to organize workshops of their own, how to go about editing compilations, or how to revise their best writing for applications to graduate school or for other publications. They turn their excitement, and often frustration, into motivation to work on their writing as a craft: something that takes practice and attention as well as access to supportive spaces and other resources. Zine workshops productively lower the stakes of failure, an issue that Stephanie Larson explores in her post on glitches for this blog carnival. When students realize that perfection is not the goal, that the quirky individuality and handmade feel of zines is part of their charm, they suspend their worries about grades and allow themselves to experiment with multiple forms of making. They feel empowered to share their work in ways they would never share a research paper and thereby open themselves up to the vulnerability of public writing. As spaces for experimenting with compositional craft, zine workshops can transform any classroom into a makerspace.

Check out more of my experiments with zines, circuitry, and multimodal pedagogy at https://queererworlds.wordpress.com/!

About Author(s)

Melissa Rogers is a PhD candidate in Women's Studies at the University of Maryland. Her dissertation explores queer feminist cultural production and creative practice.

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