This post was contributed by Heather Rosenfeld aka Optimus Prime, a graduate student in the UW-Madison Geography department
This project began without my knowing it. A year and a half into my master’s/PhD program, a professor gave a brief talk on gender and academic culture. Our department had a reputation of being particularly unfriendly toward women and feminism, it turned out. Grad students responded with a mix of naïve but genuinely concerned questions as well as muttered dismissals. For me, this triggered a slew of memories: alienating or mansplainy remarks in classes, tacitly or explicitly sexist remarks at informal departmental activities, gendered divisions of participation and labor, questions I had received elsewhere as an admitted student about why, as a feminist, I was considering this school.
Having worked for several years in non-academic settings before applying to graduate school, sexism and gender issues in the workplace were nothing new. But reflecting on these memories and discussions made me wonder: what gave my department its current reputation as historically unfriendly towards women and feminism? To what extent and in what ways did this accurately depict people’s experiences? How is it currently resonant, and how could our departmental culture be improved?
I decided to do some research and make a zine about it (What’s a zine? Zines are the sort of punky do-it-yourself cousins of comic books. While many are online – like this one on race in geography –, they started as paper creatures often available at your local radical/indie bookstore.). My reasons for wanting to make a zine in particular were multiple, ranging from strategic to selfish.
Strategic: it seemed appropriate. I wanted people in my department to read it, and it seemed more likely that they’d read a zine than a paper or report. Also, the stories didn’t fit together to form a streamlined argument. Sometimes they conflicted with one another, and above all they were folks’ experiences. A zine gave me the freedom to highlight these multiple and sometimes contradictory experiences. Finally, in the form I went with, individuals became characters (see page 5 of the zine), which allowed me to preserve anonymity while, hopefully, keeping the stories alive.
And then there were the Selfish Reasons: I thought making a zine would be a lot more fun than writing a paper, organizing a panel, etc.
It became a lot like a research project in my discipline (human geography) mashed up with investigative journalism and zine-making. I conducted interviews and archival research (aside: it was also a great way to spend a major annual conference that brings folks from all over the world in your discipline together). With pressure from my advisor, I eventually put together an IRB.
I made the first draft in an art class on making comics. Turning that into the final version involved an iterative process of drafting and then emailing scans of pages to folks who had been interviewed. This was to make sure they were OK with the degree of confidentiality they had, but also to make sure I’d gotten their stories right. A few revisions, a lot of late nights of coloring later, and it was ready.
It is available here in two formats. The print version is designed to be printed double-sided and stapled in the middle. The screen version is readable on a regular computer screen or tablet.
People’s responses thus far have varied tremendously, but have all been rewarding and promising (my neurotic self believes it’s quite possible that there are folks who are less happy about it and that I just haven’t heard from them). Many people remarked that they have had similar negative experiences. This is terrible, but in some ways exactly the response I had hoped for: that the zine could help dismantle the imposter syndrome that is pervasive in academia, especially among women. You aren’t the problem; the culture is. At least as promising: several people remarked that it caused them to reflect on things they’ve done that might have made women uncomfortable.
I’m wondering now about a few things, and I’m sharing the zine partly because I think it speaks to other departments and even non-academic workplaces. Also, though, I want to throw around a few questions (warning: the second and third are enormous):
First, this was considered at least somewhat under the imaginary but powerful umbrella of “legitimate research.” I used research methods common to my subdiscipline and drafted the zine as part of a class. Would this fly, though, in other disciplines – particularly in the natural sciences? Have you tried anything similar? Can you imagine yourself doing so?
Second, what other academic zines are out there? Any other recommendations?
Finally, creating a zine was really only one step to increase momentum behind improving departmental culture. It seems like many of the issues my department faces now are quite similar to those at other departments. Have you been involved in trying to change departmental culture? How?
 This project was largely not intersectional. This is because, as far as I know, our department’s reputation is about gender more than race, class, or other identity categories. That said, geography as a field still has a long way to go to improve diversity and redress historical and institutional oppressions.
 I remember being unsure about doing the IRB at first, wanting to keep the project separate from the auspices of the university. It wound up being useful though. Later on, I was often asked who I had talked to, and having an IRB that forbade me from naming informants made answering that question a lot simpler.