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Some Thoughts on Teaching with Zines in the College Classroom

by Anne Adkison on 2023-05-18T20:17:00-04:00 in Faculty Resources, General & Multidisciplinary | 0 Comments

by Anne (Hays) Adkison

Animated gif showing each page of Professor Adkison's make-a-zine zine as an individual frame. For text instructions, see...
(click to download/view entire image)


On May 2nd, I taught a workshop at the College of Staten Island’s Faculty Center called Zines in the Classroom -- An Explorative Workshop for Teaching Faculty. In it, we discussed a short history of the zine as a print publication format in the US, along with definitions of what zines are, and how professors have used zines in their classrooms. I brought examples from my zine collection (primarily identity-based perzines) so attendees could feel, read, and experience the zines directly. At the end, I showed participants how to make a one-page folded zine that turns, as if by magic, into a small booklet. (And guess what: you can download a one-page zine with instructions for making one-page zines! It's for you and your students!) Faculty who attended had excellent questions, and I daresay we all got really excited about zines by the end of the session. Before I forget what we talked about, here are my thoughts on the topic.

Zines are print publications that people make themselves and photocopy into small pamphlets that can be sold for a few dollars. While historians trace zine creation back to 1930’s science fiction fans who used the medium to correspond with one another about their favorite sci fi works, modern zines have more in common, aesthetically and culturally, with punk zines of the 70s/80s. Stephen Duncombe’s full length academic book about zines positions zines as counter-cultural, anti-capitalist, community oriented, and insistently DIY. But zines defy easy definitions or categorization, which is part of the definition of a zine. The main Wikipedia page for zines offers (in my opinion) a pretty good starting point for understanding their culture and history.

Points of contention and inherent contradictions are aspects of zine culture I find fascinating, and luckily these issues inform the question of bringing counter-cultural objects into the college classroom. But let’s start with how one could use them. The first option is asking students to study zines, which can be taught from a large variety of disciplines through myriad critical lenses. I have personally been a guest lecturer in classrooms about feminist publication methods, about queer archival methods, about media literacy and culture, and an MFA workshop in creative writing. In my 2020 article called “A Citation Analysis about Scholarship on Zines,” I found that academics had authored articles from 14 disciplines, including language and literature, media culture, education, art and art history, library science, and feminist studies. Chana Etengoff’s article “Using Zines to Teach about Gender Minority Experiences and Mixed-Methods Research” for Feminist Teacher describes a transformative learning experience in which students “are asked to engage the ‘other’--whether it be understanding the sociocultural contexts of individuals from under-resourced communities or the relationship between personality and sexual/gender minority identities.” (2016, p211) Opportunities abound for ways in which students can study zines. {Educational sidenote for readers of this blog post: go to CSI Library’s homepage, make sure the OneSearch tab is open, and type zines in the classroom into the search bar. Brew a cup of tea—you’re about to have a wild time!}

cover of a zine called Dangerously Inspired Yodels that I wrote for the DIY Methods unconferenceRecently I participated in a DIY Methods Unconference, hosted by Low Carbon Research Methods, where the organizers mailed participants a packet of zines in the mail from the “panelists,” and one of the zines in that packet gave me a second idea. A professor could create a zine as the assignment. “The Very Specific Guide to Anywhere” by Veerle Spronck and Marlies Vermeulen is a small booklet zine that contains a gear list, directions, music listening suggestions, maps, and places for participant feedback inside the zine. Imagine applying this concept to instruction. For instance, a professor could include a treasure hunt map to a “hidden history” of New York and ask students to find that location and explore clues and hints that ask students to investigate that place’s history. One could also place QR codes in the zine linking to additional multimedia information. Whaa-laa, you have a lesson plan!

The third method that comes up, both in conversations with faculty and in research literature, is asking students to create zines as an assignment for class. This method has implications—both positive and negative—that deserve some critical analysis, so let’s roll up our sleeves and get critical.

In their 2014 article, “Zine-Making as a Pedagogical Tool for Transforma­tive Learning in Social Work Education,” Desyllas and Sinclair describe a lesson that begins with students reading and studying zines and ends with their making their own. “Zines are a revolutionary tool utilized to combat oppression and bring to light social injustices in an artistic, creative, critical, genuine and uncensored way to promote equality, social justice and social change.” (p299) They found that asking students to create zines for social justice work took them out of their comfort zone and “transformed us personally and collectively.” They write, “Zines are not made to be works of perfection, but rather ‘work(s) in progress’ and invite critical thinking and criticism not just within the maker but within the communities as well. This is an open invitation for dialogue within and amongst each other, which allows for participants to be creators, not just consumers.” (p301) In terms of grading, they include their open-ended rubric and comment that “while the process of grading interferes with attempts to equalize power and deconstruct hierarchies between teacher and students…” they assign bonus points for completion, which “serves to alleviate some of the anxiety around engaging in arts-based assignments, reduces the power hierarchy, while the public format of sharing creative assignments with classmates serves to create more accountability in producing quality work” (p301).

In her article “The Zine Project: Innovation or Oxymoron,” Tobi Jacobi writes, “A decade of research on literacy practices beyond school suggests a strong relationship between literacy and power, context and learning” (2007, p46). Jacobi created a community-based zine project that she conducted outside the classroom, so the project is educational without being graded. “The Zine Project offers teachers a way to make visible how literacy functions in contexts beyond the expectations of… [the classroom]. It also makes space for students to experiment with discourse and power as they simultaneously navigate the roles of collaborative zine leader and zine writer” (p46). Jacobi is aware of possible contradictions when using zines, a form of publication created by counter-cultural communities, within an institutional setting. “What does it mean to assume “an ethos of zines” without disrupting the ebb and flow of the zine community? How can we avoid (over)institutionalizing a potentially democratizing form of writing and communication?” (p47). I believe teachers need to ask themselves this question when assigning zine-creation in class. It’s important for us as instructors to be self-critical and self-aware of appropriating the culture we’re (reasonably) excited to teach. Jacobi’s solution is a mixture of the project residing outside the official classroom, the terms of engagement being driven by the community working on the project, and by not issuing grades.

Whether and how teachers can assign zines in their classrooms for grades is a controversial topic among zine creators, as this post on the POC Zine Project elaborates well. The post includes a very positive example and a problematic example, and is worth a read. Zine creators occasionally discuss their relationship to zines within them, which might be helpful for those outside the community to hear. Nyxia Grey, author of the zine Everything.Is.Fine. wrote, “There are not many spaces in this world where I can take up space and exist as I am without judgment or criticism. There are not many opportunities to create something without it being graded or shunned or expected to be perfect. Zines and collages for me are spaces that I own. Spaces that I can carve out that allow me to use my voice as loudly, passionately, and as frequently as I want/need/desire to.” So, again, how do we harness the exciting and positive power of this format without dampening its creative spirit?

This is a blog post, not a formal research paper, so I am going to jump in and offer my personal opinion. I’ve been writing zines for about 30 years now. What I love most about zines is their freedom, and their implicitly unfinished and unedited nature is a core aspect of their freedom-feeling, for me. But I also think zines are stronger than we may give them credit for, and I don’t believe a college class can break them. According to Barnard Library’s list, there are at least 160 known zine libraries in the US as of 2023. While some of these 160 locations are in punk collectives or radical organizations, I would argue that once zines are collected in institutional archives, public libraries and college libraries, zines are officially part of the academic discourse. Zines can be accessed by the public, but also by students, researchers, and by teachers. But even if we can’t break zines, it’s important that we be critical and thoughtful about their use.

Some quick guidelines:

  • If you ask students to create a zine for class, please also teach students about zine history and culture as part of the lesson. Bonus round: why not ask your students whether they think zines should be assigned or graded as part of the critical discussion? You could ask the students to create their own rubric or their own grading system and give the power back to them. The more meta and interrogative you are, the more the lesson honors the complexity of zines.
  • Think about why the assignment needs to be a zine. What about the format are you hoping to capture through the assignment? Honor the DIY nature of the zine in the assignment.
  • Art professors grade work that is subjective on a regular basis, so we could look to the art assignment for clues on how to handle an inherently subjective writing format. Consider whether you, as a professor, are comfortable with grading subjective art assignments.
  • If you must grade the zine, what kind of rubric are you considering? Perhaps the rubric can be open enough to include creative containers rather than black and white rules?

Zine Librarians have created a website for more resources and information, and there’s a blog post on the website that pulls together librarian responses for how to teach with zines.

ARTICLES CITED (ps if you work or study at the College of Staten Island you can read these articles through the library for free by going to our homepage, and typing the title into OneSearch, which is the automatic search tab on our homepage. You won't find the zines.... yet.)

  • Etengoff. (2016). Using zines to teach about gender minority experiences and mixed-methods research. Feminist Teacher, 25(2), 211–218.
  • Desyllas, & Sinclair, A. (2014). Zine-making as a pedagogical tool for transformative learning in social work education. Social Work Education, 33(3), 296–316.
  • Grey. (2015). Everything.Is.Fine, the collage edition. [zine].
  • Hays. (2020). A citation analysis about scholarship on zines. Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication, 8(1).
  • Jacobi. (2007). The zine project: Innovation or oxymoron? English Journal, 96(4), 43–49.
  • Spronck and Vermeulen. (2022). A very specific guide to anywhere. [zine].



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