Developing Our Madzine Pedagogy
Jill and Hel from the Madzines team reflect on using zines to teach health and social care students
The Health and Social Care degree at UCLAN is a work-based learning programme, aimed at developing the skills required by the expanding health and social care sector. We had been thinking about how to use zines in teaching and learning and the course tutor, Che McGarvey-Gill asked us to join her and the students for a session on the mental health module.
We had facilitated Madzines sessions for students on Mad Studies programmes previously – at Northumbria and Queen Margraret University, Edinburgh – but this context felt quite different as the students were at an earlier stage in their exploration of madness and distress.
We began by sharing our thoughts on how reading and making zines might support the students’ work on their assignments. Firstly, by deepening their understanding of the subject matter, through enabling them to access unmediated accounts by service users and survivors. Secondly, by providing an engaging means to capture and expand their own preliminary ideas.
We then introduced four exercises:
1) making a single zine page
2) folding and making a mini-zine
3) drawing simultaneously with left and right hand (an exercise from Lynda Barry) and
4) reading a selection of zines from our Madzine collection.
*** Try two handed drawing for yourself in Lynda Barry’s joyous online drawing workshop ***
One student, Nicky (not her real name), asked us about our rationale for introducing the drawing exercise – perhaps it felt strange to be asked to do something so playful in the relatively formal setting of a lecture room. Jill spoke about having done the exercise herself – drawing self-portraits with her left and right hand simultaneously – one of which she then used as the basis for a zine.
Jill shared how her drawing had seemed to capture different aspects of herself: the one she shows to the outside world, when teaching students for example, and another shakier, less public one. Lecturers and students; mental health service users and professionals; presenters and an audience. This isn’t about ‘them’ and ‘us’ she suggested. We all have ‘sketchy’ aspect of ourselves and encompass contradictions.
Hel suggested that it can be the other way around too. People whom society deems ‘unbalanced’, or in some way ‘shaky’ may, in fact, feel strong and whole on the inside. We pointed out how important that insight might be when supporting a person in a crisis – that you can’t always tell how desperate someone might be feeling simply by how they look. For example, some people present themselves as very ‘together’ on the outside when they feel like they are falling apart inside. In fact, some people who end up taking their own lives can appear very together just beforehand.
The students soon got stuck into the activities – some reading zines and others making them. There was an energy, and brightness, in the room, that felt different from when we’d taught on this kind of programme in the past, using more conventional teaching methods.
The students seemed really keen to express themselves, and to experiment, using this medium. It allows for things that you cannot achieve with a straightforward written piece. Some of those who made zines used lift-up flaps that functioned as a kind of analogue ‘hyperlink’; others used cut- outs to allow a glimpse of a hidden layer below. We spoke about the fear of drawing that some people have, and the crafting students do with their own children. One asked if she could take spare copies of the handout to her children’s school.
Our MadZines library was searched for zines relevant to students’ own interests and experiences. It is quite extensive now, containing:
- perzines and collaborative zines
- arts zines and poetry zines
- zines that are text heavy and others with no words
- mini-zines and zines or all shapes and forms and sizes
- zines that we have collected and zines that we’ve made ourselves.
Here’s what Nicky, who had asked about the drawing exercise, went on to draw:
When Jill came back to her later, she had flipped her piece of paper over. The drawings had bled through, so on the back they were reversed. These fainter images of the ‘underside’ seemed to prompt a different kind of thinking – about feelings and emotions that can be hidden for example.
Nicky’s left and right-handed drawings were the basis for a subsequent exchange with Jill that – had we not been making zines that day – would not have taken place. Overall, this session demonstrated the efficacy of arts-based approaches – zine making in particular – for helping students to draw on their own experience, both past and present, and to link it to their learning about madness and distress.
Some of the zines the students produced explored particular issues and emotions.
Others explored ideas from mainstream media about how one can take care of oneself and other people.
Still others drew on thinking from elsewhere. One student had been motivated from the start that he wanted to make a zine about paganism and mental health.
And one student wrote, and subsequently spoke, about their recent grief. She dedicated her zine to a friend that she had lost, reflecting on the meaning of making it on what turned out to be her own 21st birthday.
Asked to feed back a few days later, students felt that the activity had made a refreshing change. They commented that, while making their zines, they had felt ‘positive and calm’, ‘happy and reflective’, ‘good and relaxed’ and that sharing them had felt ‘interesting and empowering’. ‘Zines are an amazing thing’, one commented, and ‘can change how people feel’.
Asked what they would do with the zines they had made, the students suggested that they might keep them for future reference or show them to their family and friends. One told us she had displayed her own zine on her sideboard. Another student commented that she had experienced a sense of relief after making her zine (like she does, she said, after talking). Two students anticipated that they might return to their zine when struggling in the future – for example, if they were feeling down. We were delighted when one of the students brought her zine back to us and displayed it on our MadZine table at a student-led mental health event a few weeks later.
We asked the students for any thoughts on the difference between having a zine in hard copy and viewing it online and their responses suggested that they found paper-based zines more ‘relatable’ and genuine, finding it easier to get a good look at the material and to appreciate the work that had gone into them. One made reference to the portability of a zine that – like a smartphone, but so different – you ‘can carry everywhere with you, in your pocket, in your bag’.
The students emerged from the session having learned to fold a mini-zine and also understanding that zines can be about ‘anything and everything’, and are ‘a fantastic way of getting key points across in a creative way’. Several referred to their perceived lack of artistic skills and how they had nonetheless felt comfortable to embrace the activity. One had gone on to make a zine with her son afterwards; another planned to make one with her autistic daughter. One student said she had learned from the session that ‘there are many ways to tell someone how you are feeling’, and that ‘a terrible drawing can also be good!’.
If we were doing this exercise again, we wonder about linking the students up into pen pals to encourage swapping of their zines. Had we had more time, it would have been great to use the zines for some reflection on the sources of the messages the students drew upon.
The people who teach mental health are often seen – or see themselves – as separate from the students who learn about mental health. The people who write about health and social care are often seen – or see themselves – as separate from the students who read those texts. The people who provide mental health care are often seen – or see themselves – as separate from the people on the receiving end of services. By contrast, the people who make and share zines and the people who read and learn from them may, as this session underlined, be one and the same.