From the road: play and conversation

This weekend I’m in Clarion, Pennsylvania for the East Central Writing Centers Association’s 2013 conference. This isn’t my first time at the rodeo, although it is my first time at a writing center conference. Earlier today I gave a presentation about using writing center techniques to build better history classes, but that’s not what I want to write about today.

I want to write a bit about one of the presentations I saw, which was by the MSU writing center’s website team. I’ll get this out of the way right now: we have a great team and a great website. So with that in mind the presentation was great too; it focused on how we use the website, and how we use social media, to help do the work of the writing center.

A couple things really stood out to me, and got me thinking about this blog and what I’d like to do with it in the future. The first is the idea that our website reflects the physical space of the writing center, a space that is intentionally casual and focused on experimentation and play. We want our clients to be comfortable and to feel free to play with their writing and try new things in a low stakes environment. Our website team reflects this in the way they build the site, with the freedom to try new things and, if they work, stick with them.

The other idea pertains to our use of social media. Namely, one of our social media coordinators made the point that social media (which could easily include blogging) is a conversation. Good use if social media isn’t just tweeting or posting to Facebook a lot. It uses the opportunity to share things that others are saying, and to directly interact with followers, fans, and customers.

I see these two ideas as essential to what I want to do with this site. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I have issues with the way academic history tends to function, but the short version is this: history isn’t presented as an intellectual space conducive to play, nor do academic historians have much in the way if conversations with the general public (although we have some great conversations with each other).

I want to address both of these things with this blog. Let’s start with the conversation idea. The point of this blog is to engage in a conversation with people who are interested in my research or the way research is done. To talk about history as a tool to understand the past, and how we use that tool. I’m not a fan of gate keeping language, by which I mean the intentional use of words not found in everyday speech in order to keep people without that vocabulary from gaining access to certain knowledge. Now, there are a lot of terms that academics use that are helpful or even necessary in talking about our subjects and ideas. But using these terms without any explanation is gate keeping, and I’m not interested in doing that. Nor do I want to “dumb things down,” because I want to have a conversation, and a true conversation requires that the speakers (or writers) have enough respect for each other that they actually interact, and don’t just talk past each other. Assuming that your audience is too dumb to talk too isn’t very respectful.

But I also want readers to have the opportunity to talk to me, by posting comments here or tweeting them at me, or posting their own blogs inspired by or in response to my own posts. So that’s the other definition of conversation that’s on my mind.

The idea of this site providing a space for playing with history is a lot harder to talk about at this point. While this blog does have a comment feature, and people can play with ideas in those comments, and I certainly won’t judge those comments (although it should be clear that I reserve the right to delete posts that are too tangential or are racist or sexist, for example), I’m not sure that’s really the sense if play I’m looking for. My hope is that this blog will eventually outgrow the idea of a blog, and eventually incorporate other features that do allow readers to interact with both the site and the history it concerns. To express ideas that maybe they hadn’t thought to express before, or elsewhere; to play with history and our conceptions of what is included in that field. This is something I’d like to talk about more as ideas come to me.

That’s it for now, but here are a couple of links!

MSU Writing Center: I may be biased, but the writing center is great and the website reflects that. If you’re an MSU student, it’s an indispensable resource that you should consider using. If not, you can find all kinds of useful and interesting things on the site. You can also find us on Twitter @wcmsu

ECWCA: The website for the East Central Writing Centers Association. Writing centers provide a valuable service to students, and from my short time working in one, they seem to be on the cutting edge of pedagogy and practice. If you’re interested in education or writing, you could do worse than to check out this website for information and ideas.

I finally started reading zines

I’ve finally managed to get into special collections last week, and then promptly left. It’s a good thing, let me explain.

I’m currently taking an undergraduate women’s studies course, which is the last class I need for my Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Women and Gender from the Center for Gender in Global Context here at MSU. Gender is the main category that I use to analyze history (and everything else, while we’re at it), and I intend to talk about gender a lot in my thesis and subsequent work.

With that in mind, I went into special collections with the intention of doing research for that class’s term paper. I’m looking specifically at gender in comics fanzines for this paper. This is kind of killing three birds with one stone, because I need to write the paper anyway, but by connecting it to my thesis, I get started on that early and, most importantly, I have somewhere to start. As I’ve mentioned before, there are lots of fanzines held here at MSU, and figuring out where to start on such a collection can be, well, paralyzing.

So when I got there, I selected three zines, which I thought only had one issue each. I thought this because I’ve been using a program called Zotero to manage my sources. Zotero is pretty great, and one of it’s features is that you can add a button to your browser window that will translate the page you’re viewing into an entry in the program. It works very well with the MSU Library catalog, except that it doesn’t always get the number of volumes a periodical title might have. Really it’s my fault for not paying enough attention to individual catalog entries, but I was going through 1,200+ zines (about 430 of which are about comic books) so I’m not going to beat myself up over it.

The joke was on me when I asked for three zines, The Heroine Addict, The Adventuress, and SHE (or Super Heroine Enthusiasts). They brought me 19 issues of The Heroine Addict (which would change it’s name to The Heroine Showcase in 1977), and 12 issues of The Adventuress! The librarian couldn’t carry any more, but I told her that was more than enough.

So I went there expecting to read three short zines, and ended up with more than I bargained for. This is a good thing. Since I have 19 issues of one zine dedicated to super-heroines (which seemed like a logical place to start when looking for fans talking about gender), I’ve decided to focus on The Heroine Addict/The Heroine Showcase (or THA/THS for short) for my women’s studies paper. I’ve only gotten to reading three issues so far, but there’s already a lot of great stuff there.

I didn’t leave Special Collections so much earlier than expected because there was too much to do, I did so because, while looking for some basic information on THA/THS, I discovered that all 19 issues have been digitized, and are available for free on the Internet. Having recently discovered how well the Kindle app on my iPad handles PDFs, I decided to use these, instead of handling the library copies. This won’t work for all the zines though, so I’m still expecting to spend much of my summer in the basement at the library.

Sometime soon I’ll talk a bit about gender and how historians use it, but for now, here are some links!

The-Comics-Heroines-Fan-Club: If you’re interested in reading THA/THS for yourself, you can thank Martin Lock, who scanned the issues and used to handle the British distribution of the zines in question. The website linked here also has some background info on the club and their zines. I’ve been trading emails with Martin, and he’s already given me a wealth of leads to follow about zine culture.

Zotero: If you’re interested in Zotero, the program is free and works with most browsers now (it was developed for FireFox originally).

The Center for Gender in Global Context: The GENCEN at MSU is a great interdisciplinary academic unit that offers majors for undergrads and several certificates for graduate students. They organize a lot of really great events and speakers as well.


Some preliminary thoughts on using images of zines

One of the unfortunate realities of publishing history books with academic presses is that including artwork or, especially, photographs can be very expensive. Prohibitively so if those photographs are in color. There are also copyright considerations to worry about as well. While using photos in a lecture or presentation is usually protected by Fair Use (although they should still be credited of course), publishing them in a text is another story. While I’m no expert, my general understanding is that doing so requires the permission of the copyright holder (if there is one). From what little I know about self-publishing, even in books for the mass market Fair Use can apply in some cases, so long as the author or publisher performs due diligence in trying to obtain permission to reproduce that art.

That in mind, I expect some of the zines I’ll be exploring will be photogenic enough that I might like to include them in my thesis, and especially on this blog. The handful that I’ve seen so far have had simple covers and been very text heavy, which doesn’t make for very interesting photos. When I do find some that I’d like to photograph, I’ve been informed that whether or not I can put them on my blog is between me and the copyright holders to determine.

So, when I do come across zines I’d like to photograph and share with my readers, I’ll be performing due diligence, and trying to track down the creators of the zine in question. Because most of the zines I’m looking at were published between the 60s and 80s, tracking their creators down might be difficult. Zines published before the Internet can’t be assumed to have an online presence, and not everyone who’s ever published a zine has an easily tracked down Internet presence themselves.

My general plan, because I haven’t done this yet, so we’ll see how this works when it comes up, is to try and track down the authors of these zines via the Internet, first by looking for an online continuation of the zine in question, which might work better for zines from the 1990s. That should hopefully put me in touch with somebody who can grant permission for the issues in question, or can point me to somebody who can. From there, I guess it comes down to a search for that person by name, possibly using the location (if one is provided) where the zine was published. From there? Perhaps local comic shops (again, if a location is known) might have owners, employees, or customers who remember the zine in question. I can’t think of anything beyond that.

So if I get permission, great, I’ll use the images on my blog. If not, then I won’t. If I can’t find anyone to give me permission, then I might still use them, but with the caveat that I don’t have permission, and if the copyright holders come upon my blog they are well within their rights to ask me to remove it. If they don’t want me to remove it, then I’d ask that they give me permission in writing.

I do all of this for several reasons. Most obvious is to keep myself out of any legal trouble that might arise. I take intellectual property pretty seriously, and certainly don’t begrudge anyone for protecting their property. After all, I’m creating intellectual property as well. But, as a historian, and as a geek, I respect my historical actors, and I don’t want to alienate them. I’m here to learn, understand, and educate, not make people look bad or rip them off.


Introducing the Comic Art Collection at MSU

As my research will be focused on the Comic Art Collection held in the Special Collections at the Michigan State University Library, I thought I would start by talking a little about that collection.

The Comic Art Collection contains over 200,000 items, the majority of which are American comic books. There are over 15,000 foreign comic books, around 1,000 volumes of collected newspaper comic strips, and several thousand other books and periodicals about comics. The focus here is on published work, as opposed to private letters and papers of industry figures, or internal documents from publishers.

Among that collection are some 400+ fanzines. Many were created by APAs, which stands for amateur press association. These associations consisted of fans with similar interests, who submitted content for regularly published periodicals. There were APAs devoted to certain titles, certain companies, or even specifically to indexing comic books. Before the introduction of the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide in 1970, fans were responsible for indexing and valuing comics on their own. The introduction of Overstreet is indicative of a growing secondary market for comic books, which helped give rise to dedicated comic book shops, and no doubt bolstered convention culture as well.

On the subject of convention culture, there are also several hundred programs from comic book conventions throughout the country held in the Comic Art Collection. I’m intending to look at these as well, especially those programs that are part of a chronological series (such as the numerous consecutive San Diego Comic-Con programs), in order to see how convention culture, organized and supported by fans, grew over the years.

Special Collections is housed in the basement of the library, and documents cannot be removed from the reading room there, which thankfully is rather a nice place. This means that I’ll be spending many, many hours this summer in a basement room reading fanzines and taking notes. This is how much of history is done, by historians sequestering themselves in archives and libraries and reading, reading, reading. It takes a certain dedication, but I’m honestly looking forward to it!

Looking for more info?

MSU Special Collections home page.

The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide page on Wikipedia.