Fair Use & Zine Making

3 Radical Appropriation in Zine Making

Emilee Mathews

Audience: Lower or upper division undergraduates in the humanities

Session Length: 45 minutes to 1.5 hours, with optional follow-up sessions

Code Section: Making art

ACRL Frames: Scholarship as conversation, Authority is constructed and contextual


Zine making, in which appropriation is a common technique, is a powerful tool for identity formation and community building outside of mainstream culture and media. In this lesson plan, students critically engage the zine’s conceptual underpinnings and material production in order to reflect on their own nascent zine making practice. What meanings are created by appropriating another’s work, particularly that of another zinester, and does the meaning change when the student’s work is accessioned into the same archive in which they found it?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will articulate general strategies and affordances of appropriation in the context of zine culture
  • Students will articulate their own ethical position on appropriation and defend their stance through their own zine creation
  • Students will be introduced to the CAA Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts, and how it would bolster their decisions to appropriate from other cultural producers


Lesson Plan


  • Welcome and introductions. Provide brief overview of what they will be doing during the session and what they will get out of it. Provide paper and scissors and teach the students how to make their own simple zine form to take notes in.
  • Introduce zines: using the zines you have chosen, demonstrate some of the characteristics of zines, zine making, and zine production. Discuss a couple examples of zines, relating to the course themes, and why you chose it. Discuss why the zines are in the library/archive and how that fits in with the overall library mission.


  • Depending on the size of the class and the amount of zines you chose, divide students into small groups of 4 or so and have them look closely at the zines and prepare to report back to the class with the following discussion questions in mind:
    • What is the zine about? How does it communicate that meaning in form and content?
    • What themes do you see that relate to the concepts discussed in your class? Optional: relate to recent class readings, discussions, or assignments.
    • How does the zinemaker comment and critique on their topic? If you were to create a zine, what techniques and topics would you be interested in trying out?
    • What types of borrowed imagery and quoting do you see in the zines? How would you incorporate these in your own work?
  • Time the portion of the class so that the small groups each have a certain amount of time to look at a group of zines; rotate the groups through so that they each have time to look at the materials on hand closely and with each other.


  • Open the floor back up for discussion. Have each group present on their findings.


  • Ask students to use their zine forms to take notes, copy, sketch, or otherwise document ideas gathered from the zines they have looked at, saving about a paragraph’s worth of space for reflection at the end of class.


  • Ask students to reflect on quoting and copying practices. Do their actions take away from the original author’s intent or bolster their position? What does it mean to participate in a community of shared approaches and goals? Ask the students to imagine that their work is acquired and put in the same archive. Does that change how they feel about appropriating others’ work when they themselves may be the on the other side of that relationship, as the ones whose work is being appropriated? Is their decision affected by the thought of how collecting these works together in the same archive inform a more bird’s-eye view of the cultural phenomena to which each work is responding?
  • Introduce Section 3 of the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts, and highlight the section about appropriation. Do they believe their intended use is protected by the Code, or could be strengthened?
  • Have students write up their thoughts on the remaining blank portion of their zines.



  • Group presentations based on discussion content.
  • Collect the zines and analyze their content.


  • If possible, consider acquiring copies for the library.
  • If students will eventually be creating their own zine for the class, attend final presentations where students explain the zine’s content and their process.


Students often are unfamiliar with zines. But like many primary sources, the materials speak for themselves. Cheaply produced, the zines’ quotidian aesthetic has its own attraction for students. Furthermore, the zines’ representation of the ability to express oneself outside of dominant norms evokes curiosity and empathy from students.

My experience teaching this lesson plan was deeply informed by the students in the classes I worked with—classes in gender studies and African American studies with a visual culture focus—and the interests and passions of the faculty who was teaching the class. These courses were lower and upper division, and some of them did not have a preponderance of majors in these disciplinary areas. But these kinds of disciplines tend to attract students who are passionate and interested in exploring subcultures and alternate means of expression outside of mass culture, which is perfect for zines. Furthermore, working with students in humanities has been interesting, as by and large they have less training and experience in artistic creation, but are interested in and open to it. But this lesson plan could be easily modified for studio art courses.

The zine’s authorship and distribution model calls up issues such as representation, alterity, social justice, and community building, whether the content is political commentary, music reviews, or a recipe book. Both in content and in structure, this zine lesson plan fits nicely with approaches in critical pedagogy and feminist pedagogy, in empowering students to be cultural producers. Inspired by visual culture and primary source instruction, it brings the relationship between looking and making together, learning from others’ communication techniques and experiences.

Issues of appropriation are a natural fit as well. In the larger art world, appropriation is a broader approach to exploring authorship and originality; sometimes in response to issues such as surveillance; sometimes, a way to reenact or emphasize. Iconic examples of appropriation have powerful artists using advertising and pop culture (Jeff Koons); or using imagery gathered from ordinary people (Richard Prince’s Instagram paintings), creating a power dynamic that uses the creative labor of others to further reify their own reputations. But a distinctly different phenomenon emerges when ordinary people appropriate from other ordinary people, and a nuanced information ethics and care emerges from that articulation of values.

Finally, this lesson plan allows the library to communicate its value to students beyond a place to study and borrow textbooks. Issues like intellectual freedom, information privacy and ethics, sharing resources for the benefit of all, and documenting history outside of hegemonic voices all come to the fore.

If you are considering collecting zines, or evaluating their location and access, remember that you can highlight different aspects of the library’s mission and demonstrate your importance. Ours are in the archive, a space that represents enduring value across society, and I have noticed that students are impressed and excited by seeing fellow students’ work in the archives, and thrilled to have their own work included. The classes were critically informed by the archive’s openness to collecting student work and their commitment to the idea of the community archive.


Fair Use in the Visual Arts: Lesson Plans for Librarians Copyright © 2018 by Emilee Mathews. All Rights Reserved.

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