I don’t often sit and just write. Today I’m at LAX waiting to get on a plane that’s a bit late. I’m not sure if I mentioned that I co-taught a class at Pitzer College which is part of the Claremont Colleges. It’s the most liberal campus, which is part of a network of 5 colleges that are basically connected to each other. The class is about zines and it’s been taught by Todd Honma, who developed it’s curriculum. I met Todd Honma perhaps over a decade ago when we spoke on a panel at UCSB and he’s since been teaching at Pitzer College. I spoke at his class over a year ago, and evidently earned high marks for my talk which then led to being invited to co-teach the class.
It’s a milestone of sorts that in 2014 there’s a class about zines, but it also makes sense because it’s not just zines in general, it’s part of an Asian American and Queer department – two marginalized communities. The class is therefore split between the two groups with whoever has an inkling in the topic. Of course there are Queer Asian Americans, but there was an invisible line between the two groups that slowly went away. One student thought it was a class about cui”zines” and thought it would be about foods from Asian America and the Queer community. She must have thought for a second, “I wonder what Queer folks eat?” I’d wonder that too.
The class is actually about zines. The history, the reasons why, how to make zines, skill development, and putting together a zine fest. It was an unusual class that used academic readings and placed students in non-academic situations outside of classes and campus – the “valuable shit”.
The downside is the it’s a long drive from the westside of LA. It takes just less than an hour, and in traffic, it takes two. I took it as a chance to have phone meetings and listen to podcasts. I tried to maximize the commute time. Driving home after the first few classes, I wasn’t sure if this was for me. The students were quiet and burnt from the day, and perhaps it’s why evening classes are now abolished from the school. I’d watch very few students comment on the readings which made me think they didn’t read anything. Everything that I thought was cool, seemed to put them to sleep. Laptops are now out during lectures, food eating is also ok, and unknown to the students and anyone watching any smaller lecture is that we can see everything. Chatter, napping, doodling and texting. We can also see who is listening and when people are drifting.
Yet, the semester grew on me. Perhaps it was the one-time grant which supplied the class with a budget to bring more guests than ever. Workshops happened every other week and lecturers came in often. Real zine makers, including Girl Zines a Go Go, Mike Murase from early 70s Asian American movement publication, Gidra, Totally Radical Muslims, the artists from NeverPress, Inner City Arts, a photography unit, Yumi Sakugawa and more told their stories. It had an element of summer camp since nearly each week, a hands-on activity led to understanding and creating a zine. Contrasting the fun were academic readings that were at times challenging. The assignments included: two zines, mandatory trips to LA Art Book Fair and LA Zine Fest, a community project that took place off campus, and putting together the Claremont Zine Fest.
Most weeks, I didn’t have to say too much. Professor Honma had his lecture together with witty devices that kept the students interested. I sat amazed at how he was able to make seemingly boring topic of our reading sound cool – that’s a true talent. I’d interject once in a while since I had some experience with the exact topics covered while publishing GR. Through 16 years of GR, I saw a few zine eras which led to today’s zine popularity. In fact, zines are at an all time high and no matter how I explain how small the genre once was and how large it did get ten years ago, and how it died out, the students don’t seem to believe me. Seeing an LA Zine Fest that’s packed with thousands of visitors, it’s hard to believe there was no such event just a few years ago.
Most visitors or people who heard of the class often said they wished that a class like this existed when they went to college. Perhaps the topic wasn’t ready. The history that makes it work now was being lived through just decades ago. From the early anti-Vietnam war era and labor movements to punk rock, Riot Girl, marginalized groups (including what GR covered), to fine art zines.
During one of the final days of class, the students wrote reviews of each others projects. After a couple of hours, they were exhausted. They had to review 9 zines total, but realized that even a “zine” can be mentally taxing. The imagery, the text, and the perceived intentions that aren’t spelled out are actually as complicated and sophisticated as reading a novel. It’s sort of like good comics, where the spaces between the panels are as important to the story telling as the panels themselves. I hope they understood that.
On the final day was mixed with Ethiopian vegan food and zine maker (Asla) and a bicycle made ice cream demo (Peddler’s Creamery), some students admitted it was a great class. They went from no knowledge of zines to becoming zinesters. Many were quiet throughout and I wonder if they learned a lot or at least had a great time. Unknown to all of them, I actually “stole” a lot from them. I listened to what they talked about, learned new acronyms that I had to look up with Urban Dictionary, and realized that their level of sophistication as students was much higher than mine. Perhaps it’s why they’re at Pitzer College, a place with a much more liberal education than I ever experienced.
Zines are obviously not a substitute for literature and other forms of writing or story telling. They do have a place of their own and that includes a class at a University. I’ll probably be back co-teaching next year. The syllabus will have to be improved as well as my own in class efforts. Semesters are like putting on events. The details matter and I’ll try and get better.