(Still) Making a Magazine in a Pandemic

Cailin Potami, Research Matters writer and Back Matter editor, reflects on the process of creating a magazine remotely with the Spring 2021 cohort of GPUB 6002:Multimedia Publishing Lab.

The Multimedia Publishing Lab course in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism (CPCJ) MA program at The New School for Social Research came highly recommended from fellow CPCJ MA student and former Research Matters writer Alexa Mauzy-Lewis, who wrote about the course last spring. But I had no intention of taking the course; it seemed like too much work during the last semester of graduate school.

But during the fall, it clicked for me. I couldn’t think of a more gratifying way to sew up my strange, Zoom-mediated graduate school experience than by building something new with a group of people equally hungry to create.

Each spring, Multimedia Publishing Lab students produce an issue of Back Matter magazine under the supervision and guidance of Jon Baskin, instructor and Associate Director of CPCJ, and founding editor of The Point, and Jesse Seegers, CPCJ and Parsons instructor, and overall design expert. Each issue of Back Matter looks at the worlds of journalism and publishing through a different lens. With the exception of that loose guideline, each class has complete creative freedom over the magazine’s vision.

Under typical circumstances, producing Back Matter is an intimidating endeavor. We had no idea how making a magazine from start to finish would go from our apartments, scattered across the country, as a pandemic raged around us.

The Multimedia Publishing Lab met over Zoom each week to create the third issue of Back Matter.

Yet from the beginning, the process went surprisingly smoothly. We built out our editorial, digital, and design teams, as well as a wonderful one-person marketing and communications department, Hannah Hightman, Bachelor’s-Master’s (BA/MA) student in the BPATS self-designed liberal arts program. I became co-editor-in-chief along with CPCJ MA student Miko Yoshida, and we worked to facilitate a vision of a magazine without rigid hierarchy or perfectionism, where we would strive to create something original and representative of each person’s interests.

“The Back Matter media lab was a great learning experience for a number of reasons. It introduced me to the world of publishing and gave me an inside look at the process. It also gave me exposure to students with a wide range of skill sets,” says Yoshida. “I enjoyed the collaborative aspect the most, which hinged on mutual trust and a common objective — to create something meaningful.”

Traditionally, Back Matter prints articles that CPCJ students draft during the fall semester and workshop during the spring. While articles cover a wide range of topics, clear themes emerged, such as identity and community. A year into the pandemic, we’ve all been asking: What does it mean to be who I am? Who am I in relation to my communities — online and offline?

“The element of virtual collaboration and community in the time of COVID became a pinnacle of the theme of this issue, so it’s only fitting that our collaborative efforts existed on platforms like Zoom, Slack, Miro, and Gmail,” says Maya Bouvier-Lyons, CPCJ MA student and Back Matter art director. “I think our thoughts on the identity of the magazine were inevitably formed by those venues and avenues for communication.”

The editorial team worked with writers to help them grapple with these questions and highlight the themes already underlying their work. Jessie Mohkami, CPCJ MA student and executive editor alongside Nicole Collazo Santana, Eugene Lang Journalism + Design and CPCJ BA/MA student, reveled in this aspect of the work. “One of the best parts of being on Back Matter’s editorial team was getting to collaborate with writers on their pieces from the beginning until the end,” she says. “They brought their already strong pieces from last semester and we got to work together on how to cut down and shape the pieces. I’ve often been in classes where I’ve suggested edits or additions to a piece and I never get to find out what happens, but seeing the process through with the writers was so rewarding.”

The design team, led by Bouvier-Lyons and Olivia Heller, CPCJ MA student, represented questions of identity and community by incorporating collage as well as digital design cues into the print magazine, which Dalia Amellal, Back Matter print designer and Parsons Theories of Urban Design MA student, masterfully pieced together.

“I’m so grateful for the opportunity this class granted me to be on the design side of things for a change,” says Bouvier-Lyons. “I was able to use an entirely different skill set from what I’m used to—thinking more visually about the big picture of the publication, and the smaller details that make up that whole.”

Likewise, the digital team — digital editor Sophie Lee, Journalism + Design BA student, and web designers Greg Coleman, CPCJ MA student, and Kevin Martinez, Journalism + Design BA student — brought collage to life online, thoughtfully adding analog and print notes. Together, we created something thoughtful, cohesive, and daring.

The Back Matter digital design team incorporated elements of collage and print, like in the website header (above).

It sounds cliché, but communication, compassion, and trust really made the magazine’s production possible across Zoom, Slack, and Miro. As managing editor, Christina Santi, CPCJ MA student, did the impossible — she kept everyone on task and on schedule across various time zones, on top of communicating with the printer, managing the budget, and working on her own piece for the magazine, “Can Fashion Sew Up Its Racism Problem?”. At the same time, Santi and the whole team made space for each other, listening intently to ideas and challenges, and always acknowledging the tremendous difficulty of navigating school, life, a magazine, and a pandemic. Each week in class, Yoshida took care to remind us that the magazine is a great learning experience, an opportunity to take on ambitious ideas without fear of failure, but ultimately, everyone’s wellbeing must come first.

“It takes a lot of trust and collaboration to create a magazine, and though that can be difficult to build virtually, I think the whole class was invested in making that a reality,” says Mohkami. “While there were some challenges presented by the virtual nature of the class, I think the entire team rose to the occasion and put in the time, effort, and communication to compensate for that factor,” agrees Bouvier-Lyons. “In a lot of ways, I think this would be a very different issue had we all been working on it together in a classroom.”

The print magazine — complete with thoughtful articles, an interactive online-in-print adventure, fun games, striking photos, and more — is hot off the presses, and its digital counterpart is now live. It has been an extraordinary gift to work on this magazine, and an experience I’ll carry with me forever.

Please join us at the Back Matter launch party, which will take place over Zoom on Wednesday, May 5th, at 7:00PM.


Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguine and Tortellini.  

Student Projects Explore Publishing Through Design

Research Matters writer Cailin Potami reflects on the work they and their classmates completed in a course that helps make the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program unique.

What would a gossip magazine by houseplants, for houseplants look like? How can people bridge gaps with their families that span generations, nations, and languages? How do we create communal music spaces when we can’t be in the same space? These are just a few questions that guided students’ final projects in the Fall 2020 Design and the Future of Publishing class at The New School for Social Research.  

Design and the Future of Publishing

The class was born in 2014, two years after Jim Miller, Professor of Liberal Studies and Politics first approached Juliette Cezzar, Associate Professor of Communication Design, with an idea for a course that would bring together MA students from Liberal Studies at NSSR and from Communication Design at Parsons School of Design.

“It was like a dream come true for me,” Cezzar recounts, “because I really felt like communication design students needed to work with non-designers and know more about what it was that they were doing beyond aesthetic concerns.” Students spent half the semester on theory, and the other half working in pairs to design prototypes of design projects.

In 2016, Design and the Future of Publishing became a core course in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program, which Miller directs. With more CPCJ students requesting more time to study design, Cezzar now offers two variations on the course: one in the fall, tailored to non-design students, and one in the spring for both non-design and Parsons students.

“I have a real love for designing classes and for thinking about how different kinds of students can come together,” Cezzar says. “Who’s in the class makes the difference.”

The course still begins with a focus on theory, with lectures and texts on design principles and history, as well as the idea of publishing and the state of the industry. After seven weeks, students are asked to come up with at least six ideas for creative projects that center design, creativity, and iteration, not marketability, presenting students with a rare opportunity for full creative freedom.

Creating a Music Scene in Quarantine

Since COVID-19 lockdowns began, Maya Bouvier-Lyons, a CPCJ student, has been missing live music. Livestreamed shows lack the ephemera that helps foster human connection. “I initially wanted to make a zine version of the playlist experience,” Bouvier-Lyons says. Cezzar challenged her to think about why that idea matters in this particular moment. “That’s when I started thinking about how to incorporate a live music experience into this publication,” Bouvier-Lyons says.

Setlist zine gives New York-based bands a space to connect with listeners on a personal level, even as live music remains impossible.

 Setlist, a New York City-based zine, will feature new artists in each issue.  Artists will “write in their own handwriting and their own words about their songs, which they choose to feature, and the role that place has played in the creation and life of each song.” Digital elements, like screengrabs of text messages, bring the zine style into the current moment. After the release of each issue, featured bands will perform via livestream on the Setlist Instagram account.

The design of Setlist incorporates photos from shows, the artists’ handwriting, and screenshots of actual text messages.

Bouvier-Lyons hopes that the performances, alongside the zine, can evoke some of the real-life concert butterflies. “[My project] asks questions about how we can use design and publishing to recreate and emulate a real-life experience of community,” Bouvier-Lyons reflects. She hopes to continue publishing the zine. “I had fun putting it together and seeing what it can be. I’m excited about the zine changing with each artist in a way that’s personal to them.”

Exploring Home, Language, and Loss

When her grandmother passed away, Simran Narwani felt a distinct loss of not only of her relative, but of the world that she carried; her homeland, pre-partition Pakistan. “All my poetry grew around this theme, because I will never have a chance to go back to my ancestral home,” she shares. “One of my great-aunts went back, and she said there were only pieces of rock left—there’s nothing of what we left behind. There’s no shadow of it. That hit me hard, and I wanted to get that experience shared.”

Stories from Somewhere is a powerful meditation on language and lineage, combining the languages spoken by its contributors with the languages spoken by their grandparents.

A Media Studies MA student, Narwani saw this project as an opportunity to honor the stories of her family and families like hers. Course feedback helped Narwani expand the project — a book entitled Stories of Somewhere — to young people from across India with similar experiences, and to consider new kinds of forms. She wanted to incorporate letters because their tangibility feels more permanent and more personal than digital formats. Plus, the human texture of letters appealed to her from a design perspective: “I want to see bad handwriting and good handwriting. I want to see your personality!” But when people felt uncomfortable writing letters, she turned to Instagram, asking instead for photographs and stories that “connect you to your childhood…your grandparents…your people.”

Handwritten notes link the past to the present in Stories from Somewhere.

The stories that emerged were complex, exposing grandparents’ flaws and their strengths. “Maybe I don’t know my people from way back when, maybe I don’t understand them,” Narwani says. “But I do know that the fact that we were able to pick up and adapt and make our own element of home everywhere, I think is a vital takeaway.”

The Secret Lives of Plants

CPCJ MA student Jessie Mokhami began thinking about her prototype while comparing gossip magazines for an earlier assignment.  Initially, she pitched a houseplant gossip magazine as a throwaway idea for the final project, but Cezzar encouraged her to push the concept further, and ask: What could it really look like for a gossip magazine to be about the social life of something we don’t perceive to have a social life?

The Dirt is a loving exploration of the “celebrity gossip magazine” form.

Mohkami developed The Dirt, a 20-page gossip magazine complete with a letter from the editor, horoscopes, and a “who wore it better” section.

“I’m really looking to explore the format and design layout of a gossip magazine, but really play with it.” The iteration process involved adding lots of color, layering images, and playing with loud fonts. While the prototype is mainly just pictures of plants and lorem ipsum filler text, “I’m trying to emulate a gossip magazine and make readers really feel that it’s exactly that,” Mohkami says.

Bright colors, flashy fonts, and photos of plants adorn the pages of gossip mag staples like “Who wore it better?”

The Opposite of Productivity

Under the best of circumstances, the pressure to lead a productive life stokes my anxiety. Amid a global pandemic, that pressure feels downright absurd — yet it has not wavered. For the course, I, also a CPCJ MA student, channeled that anxiety into a 2021 “Anti-Planner,” designed to minimize productivity and maximize stress.

The Anti-Planner subverts the qualities people most value about planners by scrambling layouts and minimizing the space to write.

I developed my design by polling people on Instagram about their ideal planners and subverting all their responses. Instead of ample space to write, the Anti-Planner incorporates tiny spaces, black pages, and a second-person narrator taking up some spaces. Instead of a clear, consistent depiction of time, the Anti-Planner tries to reflect the subjective experience of time, with days and weeks bleeding into each other, seven Tuesdays sometimes strung together, and to-do lists with tasks longer than the days themselves. I used QR codes to incorporate digital elements in some pages and designed accompanying sticker sheets for others. With an entire year’s worth of space to work with, I could indulge my quirkiest ideas as long as I could find a way to get them on the page.

The Anti-Planner’s design plays with the subjective experience of time–some weeks collapse into themselves, some repeat, and some fall apart.

Like Mohkami’s The Dirt, the Anti-Planner was not my initial choice; the task of creating 52 spreads seemed too intimidating. However, Cezzar and my classmates encouraged me, seeing potential in the project. The class’s collaborative environment, where everyone had investment in everyone else’s work, made an enormous difference. The final design incorporated ideas from almost everyone in the class.

Learning by Design

Design as a discipline, Cezzar contends, offers a wealth of opportunities for education and growth, even for non-designers. Every creative process “from making music to fitting a pipe” depends on the same steps: developing an idea, doing research, iterating on that idea, developing a prototype, and integrating feedback. The class offers a space to practice those steps and, importantly, to practice failure and patience.

“Learning design is a way for people to indirectly confront hesitation about learning technology, about learning about ideas, about learning how to read and write. People don’t study design because they’re great at these things. A significant number of students come into the classroom really hesitant about it, Cezzar says. “I think it’s really good for some students to understand that new skills are not closed forever. You can actually learn anything you want, as long as you are able to kind of get past feeling so embarrassed about not knowing something that you can’t continue learning.”


Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguine and Tortellini.  

The Art of Researching Food

Three Projects from NSSR Alumni About What and How We Eat

Food is at the center of human life. What we eat, when we eat, how we eat, and why has evolved from matters of basic essential survival function to ritual, culture, and identity.  Research Matters sat down with NSSR alumni from Anthropology, Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism, and Politics whose work collides with the study of food.

The Food of a Diaspora 

During the 2019-2020 academic year, Isobel Chiang (MA Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism ‘20), received a grant from the India China Institute to conduct ethnographic field work within the Chinese diaspora community in Kolkata, India. Specifically, she set out to explore the phenomenon of Indian-Chinese food. 

“I wanted to know how Cantonese and Hakka cuisines have been retained, modified, understood, and misunderstood in India today,” Chiang says. “I have a background in sociology, so I knew going in that when you study the food of a diaspora, what you’re really studying is the culture of a diaspora, the politics of a diaspora, you’re studying boundaries, the way we hold onto identity or ideologies or religious convictions when we move away from home, the way we forget.”

In addition to visiting Chinese restaurants and food markets, and of course, eating, Chiang also conducted oral histories with Indian-Chinese residents.

“I didn’t want to simply ‘parachute’ into Kolkata and start researching. I wanted to get to know the residents there, fold myself into their lives. Luckily for me, they were so gracious and welcoming. I ate an inordinate and probably unhealthy amount of dumplings. I talked with business owners and chai sellers. I was invited into peoples homes to cook with them and share meals. I went to universities in Kolkata to interview young Indian students about their conceptions of Indian-Chinese food. I even found myself at the birthday party of one of Bengal’s most famous soccer players,” Chiang says.

This project has personal implications for Chiang. Her father was born in Kolkata, but during the Indo-China War of 1962, he and his family moved to Toronto, Canada. Chiang is one of the few members of her family who have been back to India since.

“My father remains unsentimental and indifferent toward India,” Chiang describes. “The only thing that connects him to the place he’s from, the only time he allows his children to peek behind the curtain of his past life, is when he cooks fried rice. This sounds like a cliche, but it’s the truth. Thus, food has always been my entry point to India. In many ways, going to India was my attempt at dealing intellectually with my father, with his heritage, and therefore my heritage.”

Chiang crafted these experiences and research into a piece of long-form journalism that she workshopped in a Master’s writing workshop during the Spring 2020 semester, and hopes to eventually publish it one day.

“The New School grant wasn’t just helpful for making this trip possible, it made this trip possible,” Chiang said. “Without the grant, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to conduct independent research abroad. Very few publications have the money these days to send journalists abroad to cover stories like this, so it would have been a difficult story to pitch to a magazine and get funded.”

The Future of Meat

When Jan Dutkiewicz (PhD Politics ’18) began graduate work in Politics at NSSR, he thought he might want to study the $200+ billion U.S. animal production industry. He looked for academic literature on the topic but found very little, especially in political science. So he set out to create it.

“It seemed like a really good opportunity to bring the tools of political economic inquiry — the intersection of economic activity with politics and social effects…to this [industry] that’s completely hidden in plain sight,” Dutkiewicz says. He worked within Politics as well as with faculty from several different disciplines, including Hugh Raffles, Professor of Anthropology, and Julia Ott, Associate Professor of History and co-founder of the Heilbroner Center for Capitalism Studies, which helped support his research. “The New School is really unique in that…there’s a real openness to disciplinarily risky research,” Dutkiewicz remembers.

His dissertation, Capitalist Pigs: The Making of the Corporate Meat Animal, traced how the U.S. meat industry seeks to produce a commodity that best suits changing market conditions. He is currently turning that dissertation into his first book, which he places at the intersection of political economy, economic sociology, and economic anthropology.

After graduating from NSSR, Dutkiewicz was the Connie Caplan Postdoctoral Fellow in the department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. There, he started asking questions around normative ethics and bioethics in the animal production industry, especially around new food products. In particular, Dutkiewicz began to dig deeply into plant-based meat alternatives and the potential of cellular agriculture — the production of animal products from cells rather than from animals themselves, also known as lab-grown or cultivated meat — to transform the global food landscape. In addition to his peer-reviewed publications, Dutkiewicz now writes and speaks extensively on the meat and alternative protein industries for media outlets ranging from The Guardian and Jacobin to Forbes and Business Insider. “Bringing this research to the public is a really important and valuable part of my work,” he says.

In his 10+ years studying the topic, Dutkiewicz has witnessed an enormous growth in public awareness, concern, and debate over the effects of animal production and consumption on anthropogenic climate change. He believes that recent advances in the alternative protein industry will make it easier for more people to decrease their meat consumption

“What cellular agriculture will do is that it minimizes switching costs. It’s saying, we’re not asking you to actually change what you like eating, what your tastes are, what your culinary and dietary habits are. We’re just asking you to switch between products that are ultimately very similar. From a social impact perspective, you can’t underestimate the power in our society of providing people with more consumer options and technologically developing superior products,” Dutkiewicz says, citing empirical evidence from the fast-food industry showing the popularity of alternative meats among people who aren’t vegans or vegetarians 

Dutkiewicz will continue his work this fall as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Concordia University and a Visiting Fellow at Harvard Law School.

Mushrooms as Ethnography

Peggy Tierno (MA Anthropology ’20) loves mushrooms. Sporting a pair of tiny dangling red mushroom earrings, she explains how a paper on the kinship of fungi for her Anthropology Master’s program evolved into a multidisciplinary collaborative journal.

“The paper explores multi-species and multi-sensory ways relating and building community and kinship relationships with other species,” Tierno says.

Her infatuation with mushrooms started when one grew miraculously among her spruce saplings. This led her down a path to research the species’ other incredible natural interactions.

“When you’re thinking about food, for a lot of people, food might be the only way they are interacting daily with the natural world,” Tierno shares. “So I’m thinking about our relationship to food, thinking about how mushrooms relate with their environment, and thinking about those reciprocal caretaking relationships.”

Because of her passion for the subject, Tierno decided to expand and evolve the life of her work beyond a paper. “I was thinking on how I could turn it into a collaborative project, with  submissions of poetry, personal writing and artwork alongside research on mycelium and mushrooms,” she says.

While taking a class on design and publishing and using the resources at the Making Center at Parsons School of Design, Tierno created a prototype for her journal. Now, she hopes to establish a journal of diverse multimedia work that is created collaboratively, and that has the potential to eventually develop into a larger project around community and food.

“Food is something very intimate, it’s very important to my personal life and my personal relationships, and how I connect with people. I love to cook for people. I love to be cooked for,” Tierno says. “Another thing I am thinking about with this project is how to do DIY cultivation or communal cultivation of mushrooms that people can have access to, expanding the collaboration of relating with mushrooms.”

Anyone interested in contributing can email her at peggy.tierno@gmail.com  


Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is a Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student. She is a writer, editor, and the student advisor for CPCJ with her cat, Goat. Read more of her work at www.alexamauzylewis.xyz