You Could Learn a Lot from a Punker…

Edupunk Mix TapeYeah, yeah, the EDUPUNK moment is long over, but it’s still rattling around in the back of my mind. I wrote about it before, but I really think that a lot of the reaction against the term was based on a misapprehension of what punk is, what punk was, what punk does.

Trying to keep this discussion as academic as possible, I’ll argue this much… or this little: if you read Dick Hebdige or Greil Marcus, you’ll quickly come to see that one of the central characteristics of punk was (and is) the conflation of aesthetic and meaning.

Style is substance. The punk style was about aestheticizing everyday life. Making life art. And art is political. Life is political. Aesthetics and politics are both inextricably bound to everyday life.

Moreover, some people listen to punk rock and only hear noise. Others claim that the phrase was rendered meaningless before 1982, and the bands and scenes that have come to use the term over the years since are simply usurpers and corporate shills.

Let’s take the music out of the equation.

Instead, I’d like to talk about zines.

Punk zines— small, limited-run self-published magazines– were at the center of punk culture, music, and life from the very beginning. From the January 1976 debut of New York’s Punk until at least the year 2000, when the internet began to supplant many print zines, punk rock zines were at the center of the community. For a great look at some of the best (and many of the rest) check out Operation Phoenix Records’ punk zine archive.

Zines were always the best embodiment of the DIY ethos of punk, because they had the lowest barriers to entrance. All you really needed was a pen, access to a photocopier, and a stapler, and you could be a zine publisher.

Thinking about the notion of “edupunk,” thinking about what punk culture can teach us about instructional technology and digital pedagogy, I think zines are a natural place to start. So: what can we learn from punk zines that we can apply to edtech? What follows is a short sketch of some things that have occurred to me, trying to answer that question.


All you need is Sharpies, tape, and a Xerox machine.

There’s actually two lessons here: first off, as I mentioned earlier, the barriers to participation in the zine community are very low. Likewise, it’s important for people to keep the barriers to participation in educational technology low.

But more important, punk zines made it obvious how easy it was to make one yourself. They left the scotch tape exposed. White out was obvious. Typos and spelling errors were prevalent. This was, in part, an aesthetic decision. And it has the effect of encouraging and creating a DIY community. These sloppy mistakes let readers know, “this isn’t hard. You can do this.”

I’m not arguing that edubloggers or people designing drupal or WordPress based course management sites should have spelling errors, or the like. But sometimes it’s good to “let the reader see the scotch tape,” so to speak. Let students know how you did it, that it’s easy, that they can do it themselves. Don’t try to make your site look like the slickest designers’ sites. Those sites look inimitable. Instead, use design to encourage your students to follow your lead, to be active content producers, and not passive consumers of web content.

Fast and ugly is better than slow and pretty.

Not pretty, but eye catching...While separating aesthetics and substance is impossible, content is primary, and style is secondary. Get stuff out there, even if it doesn’t look perfect. Regular content production is more key to success than producing pristine, beautiful sites. Besides, “pretty” and “well designed” isn’t as important as eye-catching and visually interesting. The best zines weren’t polished, but they used striking images, high contrast, strange juxtapositions, and other striking visual elements to add visual appeal and interest.

Don’t cover what your audience can find elsewhere.

Your zine is not going to be Rolling Stone. Create a niche by providing content people can’t find anywhere else. Similarly, don’t recreate the wheel with your educational website. If there’s already a perfectly good online archive related to your topic, use that, rather than recreating it. Cover highly specific topics that aren’t covered elsewhere, and cover them well.

And on a related note…

If there isn’t a scene, make one.

The word “scene” has gotten a lot of bad press lately. The term scenester has come to mean a poseur, a person who jumps onto the bandwagon, using conspicuous consumption and emulating a dress code to try to appear cool.

Scene, not too long ago, meant the opposite of that. It just meant community. The punk scene was made up of people who went to shows, made zines, played in bands, and the like. And zines were a great way to help bolster, or even create, a scene. There’s only two punk bands in your little town? Start a zine. Highlight what all is going on with those bands, with their fans, speak to the interests of people who might want to be part of a scene. Zines help to foster community by letting people know all the stuff that’s going on.

Edtech has the same potential. Create a community of interested users– link people, get them passionate, get them to see how your subject is related to other topics in their lives. By thinking of a small town punk scene, we get a model of “community” that’s a lot more than Web2.0 hype.

Change things up when they get boring, but stay consistent enough that people can find you.

Zine makers don’t have a lot of pressure to keep things the same. They’re not answering to a board of directors, investors, employees, or anyone but themselves. This means that you can change things up whenever they get dull. But the most successful zinesters in terms of getting and maintaining readership are always the ones that keep things consistent, to a degree. Keep the title the same, use the same logo. Keep the format, or at least the general nature of the content, reasonably consistent. Otherwise repeat readers will feel cheated.

The same temptation is there in digital media– nothing has to be permanent. But to really get eyes on your page, and keep them there, it’s important not to change everything up too often. While making parts of your website dynamic and fresh is important to getting return visitors, it’s also important to keep enough elements similar and consistent enough to make people feel they know they’re at the right place and know their way around.

There’s always some lonely kid in rural Iowa who needs to hear what you’ve got to say.

Network. Promote yourself mercilessly. Work with a faith that, even though you’re only publishing fifty copies of this little zine about a band that only three people you know are interested in, there are people out there that care.

As much as local scene is important, punk has always been just as much about knowing that you are part of a diasporic tribe, an archipelago of like-minded souls, living in isolation, disaffected with and disenfranchised from their surroundings.

This feeling of being a member of a lost tribe bred a need to network, to promote oneself, to try to find readers anywhere you can find them. There were even zines dedicated to compiling lists of other zines with contact information and reviews. The best of these was the amazing Factsheet 5. F5 enabled people to connect nationally– even worldwide. People separated by geography were united by common interests. A teenager in rural Iowa could discover a hardcore punk group from Norway, and buy their self-released seven inch via mail order. Zines created a culture that could not be confined by geography.

This all sounds a lot like how its more utopian advocates describe as what makes the internet unique, doesn’t it? Digital technology allows us to pull from a community that is bigger than the classroom. You can connect with the small community of passionate experts and people who are engaged with the subject matter from all around the world, providing you can make the connection, can get the word out, can make your presence known to the people who want and need to participate.

Make friends with a disgruntled Kinko’s employee.

The easiest way to reduce the cost of producing a zine is to steal photocopies. If you can photocopy your zine in the breakroom at work or have a friend who hates his job at the copy shop who can make copies and not charge you, the price of production drops to nearly zero. It even was seen as something that added to your punk zinester cred.

Now, I’m not really advocating people in digital pedagogy steal from corporations. But take advantage of whatever free services you can from the for-profit sites. Video and audio hosting can be had for free. APIs allow you to harness some of the bandwidth and programming skills of the corporate sites. If you can get it free (and legal) why pay for it? If you have access to an API, why reinvent the wheel?

Likewise, steal (or rather borrow) code liberally. If you see someone else doing something interesting, whether it’s a piece of CSS, part of their layout, an interesting use of a Google API– whatever– try to look under the hood, and see how the other guy does it. Steal it. Make it your own. If it’s something that’s hidden on the user side, heck– drop ’em a line and ask ’em how they did it.

We’re trying to build a scene, here, and that requires dialog and cooperation.


Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is all about creating an engaged community of learners collaborating in the creation of knowledge, rather than the top-down “banking” model of education that sees students as passive receptacles of knowledge. I believe that new instructional technologies and digital scholarship really do have a place to play in helping to foster this liberating vision of the role of education.

The problem is that (while there’s definitely exceptions) educators and technology specialists haven’t been the best at fostering such communities of learning, that many people in these camps hold a strong attachment to their “expert” status. Addressing lay audiences in their own language, at their own level of understanding, is too often dismissed as “dumbing down” the material, rather than being clever enough to engage a broader audience in the discussion. This isn’t everyone, and many in both circles are actively struggling against such patterns, but the pattern persists.

With that in mind, why not try looking to more grassroots movements that have been successful at creating engaged communities of creator/consumers? It’s been rather famously said that only a handful of people picked up the Velvet Underground’s first album when it debuted, but that each of these people went out and started their own bands. The same could be said of many zines. Who knows how many young writers were inspired to write by reading Aaron Cometbus, or started drawing comics after reading John Porcellino‘s King Cat. Zines have been great at building community, inspiring emulation, and making people want to go out and do something.

Yeah, the idea of “edupunk” may be a bit frivolous, but I think there’s something there. Punk culture does certain things well that the cultures of education and technology development haven’t always done so well. Maybe it’s not so crazy for a few of us to think about setting aside our tweed blazers and Bugzilla tee-shirts for leather jackets and Doc Martins.

The beautiful photos of the Papercut Zine Library in Cambridge, MA are courtesy of gruntzooki.

7 replies on “You Could Learn a Lot from a Punker…”

Nice post – I think the zine thing is exactly one of the elements we should take from the metaphor. These perfectly embodied the DIY ethos that is really the key to edupunk. I like your list of things to learn, I may try and reflect on them some more for what they offer education.


Glad to see you’ve kept the zine idea alive, this is a phenomenal post, and has got me re-visiting this idea seriously, you want to start one together for edtch or history or some combination there in “like edtech and history in film?” 🙂

I just left this comment on martin Weller’s blog, the commie who commented above, and blogged this article, and I think this is where I’m thinking the zine thing might be understood as something that plays into education but remains external to its institutional logic.

Disclaimer –I cleaned up the comment for this republication a bit, nothing like a little copy editing 🙂


I too loved this zine post, and I think one of the things that spearheaded the idea of that now old and outdated term edupunk was exactly this kind of thing.

I still think it makes sense, however we call it—but I just don’t think it needs to be thought of as necessarily part of a formal educational setting, it would kill much of the fun around the process. It would have to be something you wanted to do despite grades, promotion, degrees, tenure and all that. It may ultimately help all those things, but I imagine—at least in my feeble brain—that it would be something a group of people come together and do regardless of a fancy VLE or what the semester “coverage” will allow. A fanzine should reflect a particular slice of thought of a given community who have shared interest and some creative ideas to share—not unlike a blog. Yet, I think it is different in that it offers a specific theme and way for people to push the creative and imaginative limits of how they understand this thing they dig. Framing it too squarely in an educational setting may (or may not) render it toothless. I think the excitement might fade a bit.

That said, I think EdTech folks should come up with fanzine that offers people in the field a way to create and think about topics in a theme-based way that is not solely premised on a scholarly or technical or scientific logic. In fact, a form of creative and rant-informed writings, image, and video that may frame the Zines of the 21st century, moreover it has to have an argument (small pieces, PLE, down with CMSs, copyright, etc.–in fact these could provide the themes of each zine release 🙂 ) that it may not be able to simply reconcile, but certainly gives people a place to air what they feel openly and creatively amongst others with a very specific set of issues that represent moment. Is this different from blog posts? I don;t know, but the idea of creating something together, and releasing it as a statement does suggest something different.

As I re-read it, I think I may have been too prescriptive in the general subject, why couldn’t it be history, literature, film, and edtech, or something else all together. I don’t know, I need to think on this, thanks for re-lighting the flame 😉

[…] Back in August, without being clever enough to coin the phrase “good enough tech,” I talked about exactly this sort of approach to educational technology. I argued that it’s precisely this DIY, kludgey, corners-cutting mentality that is what’s so “punk” about EDUPUNK. Quick and dirty, cheap and simple is just better for certain things, and these qualities better match the needs, budgets, and time constraints of digital educators. […]

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