Blog Post

Teaching preciousness in the digital age

NOTE: For more on zines in my teaching head over to my blog, Taxomania

Last week I posted a relatively brief description 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 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 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 assumed 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 often 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.) contains 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. Whether or not readers see a zine as having any use value, as precious objects they highlight rather than obfuscate the commodification of writing. In fact, the word “precious” comes from the Latin word pretiosus, meaning “of great value,” and from pretium, meaning “price.”

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.



Thanks for the question, Lori Beth. I guess I'm interested in how Trimbur thinks about circulation in terms of the commodity -- how traces of labor are evident via a text's materiality. It's not like such traces are erased in digital texts, but they are made more evident for many students through the creation of zines (via a process of defamiliarization). Asking students to create publications using their hands, found objects, or strings of thread rather than their PCs, highlights their labor more intensely and is what leads to that feeling of preciousness. (An analogue might be how certain factions of the academy still reward peer review print pubs over digital ones. Or how audiophiles hold the vinyl LP above mp3s or even FLACs.) Another way I think about print's commoditization is through traditions of gifting. Many of my Writing Culture students gave away their zines to family members as Christmas gifts (not coincidentally, elaborate expensive gift books were the first Christmas presents in the United States for the bourgeoisie). I have a hard time imagining that they would have done this if I asked them to publish their creative nonfiction to Wordpress.
I admit, there are risks in doing this. For one, zines are seen as passé — as romanticizing print, or as means for claiming authenticity. Or they might be seen by some students as not very serious (in my evals one student said her parents thought she was doing 5th grade work — getting at the preciousness again). But there is an inescapable tactile element to print — as well as a very rich history — worth exploring when it comes to teaching the relationship between production and circulation. 
My problem with some digital projects in comp — and I say this as someone who’s done this — is that teachers ask their students to make blogs. They require the wonderful multimedia and linkages — but then there it sits, as a fancier, sexier term paper. This is still a better than just a term paper, but it doesn’t do much for students when it comes to circulation.

Hi Jason,
I appreciate your post and like that you clarify your use of the word "preciousness" as it relates to physical artifacts as well as digital ones.  
I'm curious, though, about your statement that zines, unlike digital projects, can help students "to better understand the relationship between writing and materiality in ways term papers or blogs simply cannot get at." Can you say more about this? Also, are you getting at a notion of physical versus abstract embodiment here? 
Lori Beth
PS' Love the pics!