Engaging Resistant Writers
Through Zines in the Classroom
by Judith Williamson
My first experience of the zine phenomenon had
an appealingly distinct aura of postmodernity to it, and prompted
me to think about student writers and their subject positions
in writing classrooms. I plan to talk about zines and resistant
students for whom resistance could mean several things. In College
English, John Trimbur makes us aware of a "persistent confusion
over the use of the term resistance" which could refer to
a "student's reluctance or unwillingness, based on social
position to question authority," or to a "central goal
of radical pedagogy, namely eliciting counter-readings of the
codes and practices of the dominant culture" (202). I propose
that zines offer a lens through which student writers can examine
and practice resistances. Although I'll offer evidence for the
theoretical, cultural and political significance of zines, my
focus here is primarily pedagogical. In order to ground my case
for zines in the classroom, I'd like to depart from conventional
academic discourse for a few minutes and share a personal anecdote.
When my sixteen
year-old son announced that he was starting a zine, naturally
I asked what a zine was. The first thing he told me was that
a zine was something you worked on with other people, "sorta
like a magazine you publish yourself, but other people help you
out." He showed me a few self-published mini-magazines,
and I encountered multiple layers of text and graphics, were
often visually and verbally shocking. I also learned that zines
can be about anything at all that interests its writers and readers.
Although excited by encountering this relatively unstudied site
of postmodern bricolage and participatory culture, I didn't immediately
see the possibilities of the zine phenomenon. Before I got enthusiastic
about zines, I needed to ask Daniel another question since he
seemed committed to publishing one of these things in our own
home. Setting aside my scholarly interests, I next asked a very
pragmatic question: How much was all this help going to cost?
"It doesn't cost anything," Daniel told me, offended
that I would put a price tag on zinedom. "Everybody's just
happy to help you out."
After zines entered
our home, I observed several unique occurrences. A great deal
of mail began arriving at our house addressed to Daniel with
return addresses from all over the country. Also, my son and
several other older teenagers, disinterested in school for a
variety of reasons, began using my Macintosh computer to produce
articles, interviews, letters and artwork. This seemed an uncharacteristic
activity after a string of unpleasant and frustrating situations
at school, particularly in what our school district was calling
"Writing Center." The experience that led me to take
zines seriously happened during October of Dan's junior year
when he was removed from "Writing Center."
are described by Irene L. Clark as a place where "one can
learn to write by writing, talking about writing, getting feedback
on one's writing, and by rewriting and rewriting, preferably
in a comfortable non-threatening setting" (vii). Our high
school English department chair explained that the writing center
program "sets high standards," that Dan's work "wasn't
up to par," that a student can be 'dismissed for not meeting
expectations." This grated on me as antithetical to Clark's
conception of a writing center. Since I'm studying the teaching
of composition, I volunteered to work in the writing center,
hoping that I might, at the least, be able to gently steer the
teachers in the direction of some good reading about writing
centers. The department chair told me he didn't know too much
about writing centers, that he'd like to "brush up on them
first." He told me that I should call him next spring.
When I hung up
the phone after that conversation, I was stunned, but slightly
more understanding about what my son and other "difficult"
students faced. The writing center problem was the start of Dan
being cycled through four English teachers during his junior
year while his grades plummeted and he debated dropping out.
Meanwhile, through all this, he worked on his zine project for
hours at a time. His friends came to the house and, as I watched
them, I realized they were informally holding their own writer's
workshop, serving as readers for each other and providing each
other with the support and encouragement they weren't getting
in their English classrooms. Through their zines, they were able
to write about what was important to them which happened to be
music, animal rights, vegetarianism, and anarchy among other
topics. They tried out radical voices, thoughtful voices, humorous
voices, constructing arguments to defend their points of view,
their tasks simultaneously editorial, artistic and political.
They wrote with an awareness of audience, taking stands on real
issues, blending verbal and visual texts. I watched the zine
writers use many other writerly behaviors including problem-solving
techniques that could only have grown out of critical thought.
They thought through the economics and the logistics of publication
and the politics of publishing. The zine writers' enthusiasm
and attention to detail with their work provided a sharp contrast
to their boredom with school. I was impressed.
I was also depressed.
I was depressed that his "writing center" teacher hadn't
asked about student writing interests. This writing center was
for The Research Paper and only The Research Paper. I was depressed
that with all promise these young writers held, they were miserable
in their English classes, put off by the sentences they had to
diagram. As I observed the social practices of zine-writing,
I kept wondering what would happen if students were encouraged
to work on zine projects in their English classrooms. Zines seemed
to offer one creative solution for getting students to engage
in substantial writing projects. Zines would offer opportunities
for writers to invest themselves in their writing, to discover
the power of self-motivation.
Here's where things
get "iffy": Zines, as I mentioned, are usually controversial
and even shocking, covering the gamut of topics from music to
television with every sort of pop culture and political faction
represented. Since I'm presenting a justification for zines in
the classroom, let me pause for a moment and show you a few examples
of zines that show what happens when sub-cultural groups meet
with technology to produce their own publications [Show-and-tell-portion:
"Practical Anarchy"; "Judy"; "Drugs,
Sex and Rock-n-Roll"; "X-PO"; "Brett News";
"Blast"; "The Grumbling Yak"; "Sam Siam."].
As with most typical
zines, these have a home-made look about them, and you can see
how they rely on computers and copy machines. It's worth noting
that you can find a number of rather slickly-produced zines are
out there too. Prices vary. In "Feminism, Psychoanalysis,
and the Study of Popular Culture," Constance Penley's article
on Star Trek fandom, a listing from Datazine advertises Kirk/Spock
zines ranging from $2.50 to $19.25 (481).
I can offer few
definitive statements about zines, but I can make some rather
broad generalizations: First, it's safe to say that most, not
all, are low budget productions which would make them attractive
as cooperative projects in the classroom. Second, zines frequently
respond to popular culture, making them appealing to students
who would find it easy to locate a topic of interest. Third,
zines are often participatory in nature with blurred boundaries
between readers and writers, offering sites for reader-writer
connections. Fourth, most zines have a highly idiosyncratic nature
and are too singular in theme to have a mass appeal, thus offering
thousands of choices.
Exactly how many
zines are out there? In the ground-breaking 1992 book, The World
of Zines, Gunderloy and Janice suggested that at least 10,000
zines were being published in the United States, saying however,
because the boundaries of zines are so fluid that "by the
broadest definition, every church bulletin and college litmag...
would be a zine" (3). A year later, a New York Times article
put the estimate closer to 20,000 and suggested that zines are
the print equivalent of public access television. As with the
rest of publishing in the 90s, zines also have electronic counterparts
on the Internet. Both print and electronic zines can be flexible
and responsive to a variety of rhetorical situations. Whether
they're Whitman of Shakespeare zines, radical lesbian zines,
or fan-zines, what seems to matter most is the blurring of boundaries
between graphics and text, the ease of self-publication and the
heteroglossic quality of writers' voices. But they are not likely
to become useful if they remain unknown, if their potential remains
untapped, if they are left unobserved on the margins.
By conducting an
informal survey of secondary English teachers and zine publishers,
I learned the extent to which zines spark controversy and ignite
issues of censorship. This research was qualitative and tentative,
but helped me to make some observations. If teachers knew what
zines were, most were not anxious to get them into their classroom.
concern about "content" and "acceptance by parents."
Some were concerned about zines fitting into the curriculum and
suggested that perhaps zine-writing could be an "after-school
club." One teacher, open to student choice in writing, asserted
that if students worked on zines in her class, she would structure
it as a writing-only assignment since she didn't think graphics
were important in an English classroom. A student teacher, after
a semester in the classroom, wrote about having little opportunity
to do writing with seventh graders. Although these respondents
were public school teachers, I would argue that their privileging
of traditional literacy and canonicity is not an uncommon find
in higher education. As with many members of college English
departments, they didn't value visual texts nor texts outside
the traditional canon.
however, including both high school and college students, said
they liked to see "good graphics" in a zine. Some students
also mentioned that zines were banned in their school. The difference
in response rate between teachers and students suggests some
tension between student enthusiasm and teacher reluctance to
bringing zines into the classroom. Of the thirty surveys I gave
to teachers and the thirteen I gave to students, I noted a 16%
response rate from teachers and a 70% student response rate.
Further, the students' responses overflowed with comments usually
written in a very readable, "talky" style.
I launched Zines-L,
an electronic discussion list on the Internet to start a conversation
about zines. One teacher I met on Zines-L said that she had used
zines in her classroom several years earlier, but her administrators
didn't approve of them. This particular teacher, also a involved
in the participatory culture of fan-zines based on TV show "Beauty
and the Beast," was aware of both the potential and the
controversy of zines in the classroom. In order to avoid confrontations
with administrators, she talked to her students about censorship
and the importance of writing for audience, helping them to realize
the realities of writing in different settings. Using zines in
a public school setting would involve considerations that are
not necessarily germane at the post-secondary level. I think
it's important to recognize administrative and censorial issues
as obstacles to bringing zines to school. Not for everyone, zines
can offend and are hardly a panacea for complacency in education
It would be naive to suggest that zines should be adopted without
thinking through some of the very complex political and editorial
issues they raise. Yet they offer some intriguing possibilities
for both secondary and post-secondary classrooms. I'll conclude
with three reasons, among many, why I believe zines offer opportunities
to engage resistant students as well as those students Trimbur
mentioned who could benefit from learning how to resist.
First, zines provide
a site for resistance because they offer students a way to contextualize
literacy itself as a social and political construct. As J. Elspeth
Stuckey reminds us in The Violence of Literacy, literacy "can
be understood only it its social and political context, and that
context, once the mythology has been stripped away, can be seen
as one of intrenched class structure in which those who have
power have a vested interest in keeping it" (vii). Zines
are to literature what off-off-off Broadway is to theater in
New York, avant garde and about as non-canonical as you can get.
They invite strong responses to both words and graphics, and
because they are often controversial, zines provide a way to
raise raise social consciousness and ask questions which require
students to think critically about power relationships between
dominant and sub-cultural groups for example.
can discover a world of publishing possibilities through zines.
While most do not gain access to mainstream academic and popular
publications, almost anyone can find a place to publish through
zines. If no place seems available, it's easy enough to become
a publisher. Students can collaborate and work cooperatively
on zine projects both in- and outside of the classroom.
Third, zines provide
a wide open door through which students can enter the field of
cultural studies. Nelson, Treichler and Grossberg discuss the
interdisciplinarity of cultural studies, saying that cultural
studies are both "actively and aggressively anti-disciplinary"
(2). Cultural studies, they tell us, is "ambiguous from
the beginning" and "best seen as a bricolage"
(2). This is the case with zines where blurred boundaries abound.
I'd encourage the timid and the bold to take a look at zines,
to see what these fragmented, often visually and verbally shocking
texts have to offer to students who are bored and resistant to
"classroom" writing. In almost any form, zines can
help a teacher decenter their classroom and make spaces for students
to encounter the other and to experience their own voices.
Clark, Irene L. Writing in the Center. 2nd ed. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt,
Grossberg, Lawrence, Cary Nelson and Paula A. Treichler. Cultural
Studies. New York: Routeledge, 1992. 479-500.
Gunderloy, Mike and Cari Goldberg Janice. The World of Zines:
A Guide to the Independent Magazine Revolution. New York: Penguin,
Messinger, Eric. "Public Access for the Literare."
New York Times. 7 Nov. 1993, sec. 9: 8.
Penley, Constance. "Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the
Study of Popular Culture. Cultural Studies. Ed. Lawrence Grossberg,
Cary Nelson and Paula A. Treichler. New York: Routeledge, 1992.
Stuckey, J. Elspeth. The Violence of Literacy Portsmouth:
Trimbur, John. "The Politics of Radical Pedagogy: A Plea
for a 'Dose of Vulgar Marxism.'" College English. 2 (1994):194-206.
Delivered at the College Composition and Communication
Conference annual convention, Nashville, March 1994. Originally
posted at http://www.missouri.edu/~rhetnet, which disappeared,
so this is a copy archived by Google. If anyone knows how to
contact Ms. Williamson, please let me know.
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