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Skillshare and Guerrilla TechComm: Zines in the Technical Writing Classroom

by Emma Kostopolus


From where I’m sitting in the field of rhetoric and composition, Zines are such a popular mode of having students compose that they seem almost ubiquitous. They handily combine several pieces of good composition pedagogy: content, form, accessibility such that they are easy to pick up and use in the classroom to positive results. Many scholars, such as Michelle Rogge Gannon (1999) and Jason Luther (2014), present various classroom locations for Zines, from specific DIY-oriented classes to introductory creative writing courses. Further, Doreen Piano presents Zines as a rich space for ethnographic research in the writing classroom, asserting that within Zines we can see the authors reckoning with “power, community, identity formation, [and] representation” (2002). It thus makes a certain intuitive sense to move Zine production into the Technical Communication classroom. However, it is important to do so critically, since TechComm classrooms often have very specific goals (sometimes determined by external factors such as other departments) and the teaching of TechComm should not be entirely conflated with the teaching of Rhetoric, Composition, or Writing Studies more broadly.

This multimodal article, then, is somewhat of a manifesto: it presents my theoretical and pedagogical rationale for assigning Zines in the Technical Communication classroom, and then demonstrates the efficacy of that rationale with an instructional Zine. This foreword is intended to provide the reader with the brunt of my theory in a more traditional way, since long quotes and walls of text do not mesh well with the design sensibilities of the Zine. I bring together two distinct bodies of work that have substantive overlap, but are not as yet saturated with literature demonstrating the connections, namely DIY/Maker Movements and Technical Writing.

DIY and the Maker Movement

The first piece of the puzzle is DIY or Maker or Craft ethos. These are technically three distinct things, but they all come from the same broad historical movement of craftsman or artisanal labor, and all point to Zines as an encapsulation of what they are trying to accomplish. DIY is deeply invested, as its name suggests, in giving people specialized skills and knowledge so that they can achieve greater self-sufficiency. This knowledge does not necessarily have to originate from a scholar or decorated expert but can be passed around a community by an elder or someone with lived experience. There’s even a specific term for this phenomenon: skillshare. When the word “skillshare” gets thrown around, it’s often because people are talking about a popular subscription-based learning service that uses the name. But more generally, skillshare is the practice of community-led, peer-to-peer education, where people teach others skills and regard lived experience as proof of expertise.

The DIY movement has long been about using writing to help people learn new things. Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, published irregularly between 1968 and 1998, contained extensive product reviews and instructions for tasks like gardening and construction (Turner). The goal of The Whole Earth Catalog and publications like it was to promote self-sufficiency through sustainable action; helping yourself while being kind to the planet. True to this vision, DIY practitioners today are still inherently concerned with  environmental impact, often presenting themselves and their work as an eco-friendly alternative to buying products covered in single-use plastic, made using fossil fuels and transported in gas-guzzling trucks.

But DIY isn’t just about caring about the environment, it’s also about caring for each other. Megan Ratto and Matt Boler in the introduction to their edited collection DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media assert that the process of “critical making” allows for people to engage in grassroots civic activism by connecting them not only to their physical environment but the communities of people surrounding them (1). Making itself “invites reflection on the relationship of the maker to the thing produced, reflection on how elements…work together – in short, consideration and awareness of the mediated and direct experiences of interacting with the material world” (3). But crafters/makers/DIYers themselves exist in “self-organized [communities]” that exchange instructions such as “sewing and knitting patterns, technical data, [and] circuit layouts” (4-5). This activity, according to Ratto and Boler, is political in the sense that it “challenge[s] existing systems of authority – questioning ownership rights to media, for instance, or putting to the test traditional systems of peer review” (5). This puts DIY squarely in the camp of Mckenzie Wark’s “hacker” class, or those who manifest and create new forms of intellectual property, and who resist having that property subsumed as a facet of late capitalist profit margins (Wark 2004).

While it can be easy to think of DIY ethos as a relatively recent counterculture trend, it’s important to note that Indigenous rhetorics have a long and nuanced tradition of craft rhetorics, as a core part of their epistemology. In hir chapter in the edited collection Survivance, Sovereignty and Story, Qwo-Li Driskill brings to the table the idea of skillshare as a potentially decolonial practice, when it is not undertaken with particular hegemonic community ideals in mind. Rios in the same collection reminds us that we should not necessarily view the way a community communicates through a traditional Western (i.e., Greco-Roman) rhetorical lens – different communities have different epistemologies and respecting them is a key part of rhetorical sovereignty. Finally, Watanabe discusses the idea of “socioacupuncture” as a pedagogy that seeks to openly discuss and confront differences in our classrooms, in order to foster greater understanding of the lived experiences and communal identity of our students (36). Bringing all of these scholars together, it is clear that Indigenous rhetorics circle many of the same ideas surrounding lived experience as expertise and rhetoric for mutual aid that are exemplified in skillshare Zines.

Making and DIY are also always inherently concerned with equity, because of their emphasis on freely accessible information. In a DIY culture, knowledge is never impacted by artificial scarcity, and teaching others how to do things is a valued, honored action. This is distinct from many other ways of gaining knowledge, where information is sold at a premium in the form of texts or space in classrooms, which thus gatekeeps people who cannot afford to pay the price of learning.

Technical Writing

Turning now to technical writing, it is immediately apparent that TechComm has a lot of shared goals with the compositions of the DIY movement, and that a lot of DIY composition is also inherently TechComm. Instructions, patterns, recipes – all these instances of skillshare are also pieces of technical writing, since they must clearly describe how to do something correctly, efficiently, and safely. But TechComm, unlike DIY, is used largely in service of capitalist interests – as things people do for jobs, to produce texts for businesses and corporations. So, it’s necessary here to consider how we can think not only of DIY but of TechComm as concerned with equity and social justice.

Natasha Jones, in her article “The Technical Communicator as Advocate: Integrating a Social Justice Approach in Technical Communication” discusses the need for “participatory approaches” in TechComm work (354). While what Jones largely discusses is specifically the need for TechComm researchers to fully collaborate with practitioners in the design of research projects, we can think of participatory approaches broadly as the need for TechComm to always be concerned with all its stakeholders, so that research and practice do not forward a particular agenda at the expense of certain demographics. As a facet of participatory approaches, Jones talks specifically about “service- learning” as a part of TechComm pedagogy that is concerned with civic engagement (355). In service-learning, students work with community partners and real-world audience to produce texts directly useful beyond the classroom. The idea of “service learning” has been around for decades and continues to gain popularity at the university level as administration pushes for students to exit college with viable professional skills that are immediately applicable in specific workplaces. Bringle and Hatcher define service learning as “a course- based, credit-bearing educational experience in which students (a) participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and (b) reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility” (112).

While Zines are not as organized as an experience wherein a teacher partners with an existing local community group, they still can provide some of the benefits of service learning, especially if students are encouraged to circulate the final product among the communities they wrote for. Thinking about audiences outside of the instructor is beneficial, because as Bell puts it, service-learning that focuses on community partnership will allow students to see “multiple ways of understanding the world” as well as helping them to “analyz[e] the oppressive structures within it” (14). While Zines are not service- learning in the sense that students are paired with specific communities, they do allow for us to examine how expertise is often gatekept, and how students can use Zines to get outside of capitalist structures of knowledge scarcity.

If Zines allow for DIY and technical communication to exist outside of capitalist information systems as members of Wark’s “hacker” class, they also allow us to leave behind sociological ideas of the necessity of individualism and competition. In political and sociological theory, the idea that people are driven to work together for shared benefit, as opposed to always pitched in competition, is called “mutual aid.” Anarchist Peter Kropotkin proposed mutual aid as an opposing theory to Darwinian evolutionary competition because Kropotkin did not like how the theory was being co-opted by sociologists to explain and justify cruelty in human behavior. Kropotkin performed his own zoological observations, and came to the conclusion that animals, and thus humans, also had a drive to engage in helpful prosocial behaviors.

It was necessary to indicate the overwhelming importance which sociable habits play in Nature and in the progressive evolution of both the animal species and human beings: to prove that they secure to animals a better protection from their enemies, very often facilities for getting food and (winter provisions, migrations, etc.), longevity, therefore a greater facility for the development of intellectual faculties; and that they have given to humans, in addition to the same advantages, the possibility of working out those institutions which have enabled mankind to survive in its hard struggle against Nature, and to progress, notwithstanding all the vicissitudes of history. (6)

Instructional or skillshare Zines also have positive pedagogical implications tied to the idea of writing for an external audience beyond the instructor. In their book Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger describe how people learn and transfer new skills as they enter into communities of practice and become enculturated to that community’s way of doing and being. They explore this by looking at how people learn in places outside of the classroom, such as on the job or through an apprenticeship. While they are clear about feeling that their ideas cannot be applied wholesale to the classroom, the idea that people learn better as they become more full participants in communities in which they are invested is an idea with much pedagogical potential.

The Zine Creation Process

To close out this foreword, I’d like to talk about some of the process work that went into both this text you’re reading now and putting Zines into my classroom, so you can think critically about putting them into yours. In building this Zine, my rationale was fairly utilitarian. I wanted a document that someone could pick up and use without much grounding in the attendant theory – not that the theory isn’t important, but oftentimes people are thrown into teaching situations without the luxury of years of reading about the ideal pedagogical techniques – I’m thinking here of my own trial by fire experience as a graduate instructor of record. So I wanted a document that was grounded in theory, but was something that people could use immediately, and engage with the theory while they were using the practices in the classroom, instead of beforehand.

Thus, the Zine itself is relatively theory-light, with only footnote mentions of where a particular idea or practice comes from. It was my hope that this document is also presented accessibly, with multiple meanings of the term. First and ultimately, I wanted people with diverse communication needs to be able to read the document easily in terms of its vocabulary, sentence structure, formatting, and visual design. But I also wanted this to be a document that is accessible in the sense of not being intimidating to newcomers to technical communication, making and craft rhetorics, or even rhetoric and composition in general. Instead of building a wall around my work with the theory I was using, I wanted to use the theory to build a path towards my work.

When I first started thinking about putting a Zine into my Technical Communication classroom, I had to think about the learning goals of the course and if/how a Zine would contribute meaningfully to those goals. Thinking about Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956), instructional or skillshare Zines have students move up through the pyramid all the way to its tip: in generating content, students will classify, describe, and explain things to their readers (in the tier “understand”); then they will need to write instructions and create diagrams to demonstrate processes (“apply”) and the Zine itself requires design, assembly, and authorship (“create”). There’s also the rhetorical issue of audience awareness – students being able to compose in such a way that they are clearly considering the diverse needs of an external group of people. So, I view this project as a half-semester project that moves students through some standard manual-writing issues (description, instructions, and diagrams), but the focus is on getting them to generate and curate the content in a rhetorically flexible, audience-aware way.

In terms of what classes you can use a Zine for, I think there’s a pretty broad range of reasonable applications. Personally, I find them particularly suited to teaching manual documentation in a technical writing context, as this Zine demonstrates, but I also think that with some reframing and altered assessment goals, this could work as an assignment across many writing- oriented classes, as something intended to measure audience awareness and rhetorical flexibility. I also use Zines on a smaller scale in my First-Year Writing courses, as a primer in visual rhetoric.

There are, however, limitations to what I believe this specific assignment can do. For courses that are more focused on the retention and comprehension of content (for example, a human anatomy course in Biology), I think the ethos of Zines works less well for several reasons. First, a Zine that necessitates the regurgitation of course content as from a lecture (i.e., content gained from a fairly rigid hierarchical structure) would be a Zine that does not allow the student to express their embodied knowledge as a member of a particular community – it instead homogenizes the students as members of one particular community, the anatomy classroom, and privileges that identity above other identity markers. This works against the fundamental intent of the Zine as an expression of alternative community identity. Second, the genre of the Zine, while it may be fun to create and fun to assess, is not, I argue, the best vehicle for assessing depth of content knowledge. The affordances of a Zine in terms of design and content generation make it a much better vehicle for assessing skills-based practices such as style, tone, and design thinking. If you create a document that revolves around design but do not then assess it on the merits of its design, something is lost both for the student and the instructor.

What follows this foreword is the instructional Zine I wrote to demonstrate the applicability of this theory to the TechComm classroom. It’s, somewhat circularly, a Zine about when and how to teach Zines, as well as some anecdotal discussion of why it’s a good idea. At the end of this document is a series of endnotes to accompany the Zine I have created. It walks the reader through the process of using skillshare Zines in a technical writing classroom. The Zine itself is both a series of instructions and an exemplar; a skillshare about how to do skillshare. Across the Zine, when I use an idea from someone else or say something that I think might warrant further explanation, I drop a superscripted number that you can use to find a more detailed discussion.

Works Cited

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Yu, Han. “Conceptual Art or Readable Contract: The Use of Comics in Technical Communication.” Technical Communication Quarterly, vol 29, issue 3, 2020. Pp 222-39.

Posted in Volume 14, Issue 1