Self-Reflection with Things: Zine-Making as a Conference Closing Activity
This article is a report from a facilitator’s perspective discussing the practicalities and impact of using zine-making as a self-reflective activity to close the inaugural PGR conference ‘Integrated Objects: Critical Thinking with Things’, in June 2022. The facilitator noted a general feeling of positivity amongst the conference attendees towards the creative activity, with a small minority exhibiting hesitancy. During the session, the facilitator observed positive engagement from all participants and concludes that creative activities, such as zine-making, should be included more readily in conference design to give attendees time and space to process their experiences.
When organising the PGR conference, my co-organisers and I agreed early on that we wanted to include a creative activity to bring the day to a close. In museology and cultural practices, scholars widely agree that participatory activities can have a notable impact on individual and collective wellbeing (Devlin, 2010, Fenton, 2013, Eriksson et al. 2019). Thus, we wanted to transfer this reflective group practice to a traditional conference design. We noted that for many of the attendees and presenters, this may have been their first time at an academic conference, so we felt it important to build in time for guided self-reflection to help them process the academic content by considering their thoughts and feelings about the day.
The chosen creative activity was zine-making, led by me, using simple verbal and visual instructions to fold the zine in a specific way. I then asked the attendees to respond to five prompts, one on each page of the zine, using colour pencils to draw or write their responses.
The prompts were:
Front page: write the conference title
1st double-page spread: a key message from the papers you’ve heard today
2nd double-page spread: a specific learning about attending or presenting at conferences
3rd double-page spread: a personal goal for attending your next conference
Back page: draw an object that represents today to you
We chose zine-making as our creative medium for several reasons.
Zine-making requires minimal, low-cost materials, which were easily transported to the conference and needed minimal preparation or set up. Each attendee used only one sheet of recycled A3 paper, so the activity was low waste and as eco-friendly as possible.
Although the attendees made their own zine, facilitating the session as a group meant we were working towards a common goal (creating the zine). This offered the opportunity for social interaction in an informal and relaxed setting.
Focus on play
When leading the session, I encouraged play and interpretation, rather than focusing on developing a skill, which meant the activity was non-intimidating and personalised to each individual. Zine-making is a low-tech, hands-on activity, allowing attendees a clear point of difference in how they engaged with the rest of the conference.
Zine-making provided attendees with a tangible material object to take away from the conference, which they can return to any time. It also seemed pertinent (if rather meta!) to encourage attendees to think about the materiality of the zine after making it, given the subject of the conference: ‘Critical Thinking with Things’.
As the facilitator of the creative zine-making activity, I observed several notable behaviours during the session.
When introducing the zine-making creative activity, I observed that the majority of attendees were open and positive about taking part. One attendee verbally articulated that it was a relief to be sat informally as a group after the intensity of the rest of the conference. I did note that a couple of attendees were hesitant about the creative aspect of the zine-making with remarks such as “I’m not artistic”.
Making the zines
I provided verbal and visual instructions for folding the paper to make the zines and observed that, despite some initial frustrations, the attendees approached the challenge with humour and supported and helped each other to get it right.
As I went through each prompt and with active encouragement from myself as the facilitator - offering ideas and starting points for their drawings - I observed the attendees became more communicative within the group, discussing their responses and showing more confidence in their drawn and written responses – particularly those who were initially hesitant to put pencil onto paper at the beginning.
I noted attendees made use of the space in their zine, the colour pencils and the choice to draw or write, in different ways. These manifested as:
Using just words
Using more words than drawings
Using more drawings than words
Using a combination of drawings and words such as mind maps and bubble writing.
During the session, we were interrupted by the loud sound of a helicopter overhead, which caused the group to pause briefly and discuss what was happening. The pause created a spontaneous reflective moment for one participant who chose to reflect on the reflective activity they were taking part in, drawing a helicopter in their zine for the prompt ‘draw an object that represents today to you’.
During the session, I observed an increase in group communication and peer encouragement, which was clear by the volume of their conversations and their body language as they leaned over or moved around from their seats to look at each other’s zines.
At the end of the session, I encouraged the attendees to speak about one or two of their drawings/written responses and all attendees took the time to share their thoughts. Some were more forthcoming and enthusiastic than others, but I noted that all attendees actively listened to each other’s responses.
Based on my observations of the conference attendees undertaking the zine-making activity, I conclude the following:
The creative activity of zine-making in this informal environment developed group cohesion and softened participants’ behaviours. By observing attendee behaviour and body language, I noted the group was able to bond effectively and communicate more readily and informally than during the earlier parts of the conference. Although the creative activity was done as a group, it enabled attendees to personally reflect, ensuring that everyone could work at their own pace without fear of being left behind, or from judgement from their peers.
The pre-prepared prompts enabled guided, immediate self-reflection on the conference they had just attended, allowing them to process their key takeaways and set some personalised aspirations for future conferences or speaking opportunities. By using prompts, we overcame the initial hesitation felt by a couple of attendees about where to start.
The role of the facilitator was key in encouraging attendees to overcome initial hesitation about undertaking a creative activity. I noted that some attendees needed more encouragement or discussion with me about their ideas than others.
As a result of my observations and conclusions, I recommend that group creative reflection activities should be included within conference design, particularly where the attendees are new to conferences.
When designing the creative activity, I recommend facilitators keep the activity simple, accessible, and consider the environmental impacts of their materials and resources.
Devlin, P. Restoring the Balance: The Effects of Arts Participation on Wellbeing and Health. 2010.
Eriksson, Birgit, et al., editors. Cultures of Participation: Arts, Digital Media and Cultural Institutions. Routledge, 2019.
Fenton, Hazel. ‘Museums, Participatory Arts Activities and Wellbeing’. Teaching in Lifelong Learning: A Journal to Inform and Improve Practice, vol. 5, no. 1, June 2013, pp. 5–12.
Katy Jackson is a second year part-time PhD student at the University of Manchester. Her research examines how museum audiences conceptually understand and emotionally respond to narratives of conflict-related sexual violence. Katy has worked in the museum and cultural sector for 15 years developing and leading participatory programmes at a variety of institutions including the Wiener Holocaust Library, the National Army Museum, and the British Library.