The print media activism session has two parts. First, drawing on assigned readings from John McMillian's Smoking Typewriters, we explore the history and practices of the 1960s underground press in the United States, a key predecessor for the activist zine scenes of the 1980s and 1990s and, later, online activism. After establishing some historical context, I ask students to work in groups to analyze underground publications archived on Independent Voices, an incredible digital resource with hundreds of text-searchable Civil Rights-Era titles.
Next, we turn our attention to zines. In our seminar, activist zines are of special interest, but the zine can be applied as a teaching tool across a variety of different contexts. With this in mind, I'll spend the rest of the post talking about teaching the zine as a particular media genre and making zines together in the classroom.
Introducing Zines in the Classroom
While students read excerpts from Stephen Duncombe's Notes from the Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture prior to class, I purposefully avoid describing or historicizing zines at the start of this lesson. Instead, I pass around zines from my own collection and give students about 10-15 minutes to page through the booklets and trade with neighbors. Zines often feature edgy or zany writing and artwork, so students have a lot of fun with this, especially if you encourage them to chat and share with each other as they peruse. Plus, the best way to teach newcomers about zines is to hand them a stack. In my own research, I found that many feminist zine-makers (or zinesters) only began making their own zines after getting their hands on someone else's for the first time.
Next, I ask students to call out descriptions of the zines they read and I write down their responses on the board. Since zines vary widely in form, content, and degree of professionalism, this inevitably brings up important points of contrast. For every zine in my collection made only from paper, Sharpies, staples, and a photocopier, there's one printed in color on cardstock with artist-grade inks and paints; for every hilarious zine, there's a heartbreaking one; for every zinester with an informal, deeply personal voice, there's one who writes in deadly serious, formal, manifesto-like prose. We discuss these contradictory observations together as a class and I help steer students toward a broad definition of "zine" that leaves room for all this variety. Then, based on their own experiences paging through the zines, I ask students to share what they think makes for a particularly good zine, what the strengths and limitations of zines as a genre might be, and how zines are similar to or different from other types of media, like newspapers or blogs.
Drawing on the Duncombe excerpts, I then provide some historical background on zines. I start with their roots in the science fiction fandoms of the 1930s and touch on the Riot Grrrl era of the 1980s and 1990s. But then, I remind students that all the zines in front of them were produced within the past five years. This inspires a discussion of why, in the digital age, alternative media-makers might continue to make zines. I use this as a moment to introduce the concept of counterpublics to students, but contemporary zine-making provides a great opportunity to talk about the limits of free expression online and the advantages of print versus digital media.
For the purposes of our class, reading and exploring zines in the classroom helped us think about a particular type of activist media. In another class, you could incorporate zines as assigned readings from expert and amateur practitioners or as examples of literary or visual art. You can find more ideas for lesson plans that incorporate zines on the Barnard Zine Library's website.
Making a Zine Together
1) every student can make their own mini-zine out of a single sheet of paper; or,
2) each student can contribute one page to a class zine on a particular topic.
I opted for strategy #2 and asked students to create a single page for a how-to zine for activists trying to improve their media tactics. Then, after class, I assembled and photo-copied our class zine and distributed it to students in the next class session. The class zine creates a productive challenge -- students only have one page to consider a big question -- and results in a single, co-authored text that sums up what students have learned in class thus far, which they get to bring home and review later. Plus, the "how-to" genre pushes students to make connections between course content and real-world practices and problems and the process of making a zine offers a new artistic mode for exploring concepts.
Let's move on to the nuts and bolts of this activity. Zine assembly can be tricky. Preparation is key to making this activity go as smoothly as possible. I've done this activity in class twice now, so these are my tried and true directions, perfected through trial and (lots of) error.
Class Time: 45-60 minutes
- Each student needs half of an 8.5"x11" piece of paper, cut lengthwise, plus extras
- Sharpies and pens
- Old magazines for students to collage with
- Post-It notes
- My Google Docs template for a class zine cover
- Access to a scanner/photocopier
- A long reach stapler
- Introduce the activity with the prompt or question for the class zine. I asked students to consider two questions: "What role do media play in activism and social movements? Why are media important for activists and movements?" Explain that each student will produce one page of the zine. Let them know that you will assemble and photocopy the zine after class and plan to discuss the final product in the next class session. Students can sign their names to their work, or keep their pages anonymous.
- Pass out the half-sheets of paper. Each students gets only one piece. Let students know that you have extras, in case they need to start over, but encourage them to embrace imperfection as part of the zine-making process. Creative assignments make some students nervous. It's important to encourage students and provide positive feedback on their pages throughout the activity.
- Make sharpies, pens, glue-sticks, tape, and magazines available to students at a central desk or table.
- Remind students of these important caveats:
- Write/draw with thick, heavy lines. Thin lines and light shading get lost in the photocopying process.
- Don't write/draw/collage too close to the edge of the paper! Your work may be cut off in the photocopying process.
- The final product will be in black and white. Keep this in mind when using colored sharpie or magazine cut-outs.
- Only write/draw/collage on one side of the page. The zine will be printed double-sided, so it's important that you keep your work to one side of the page.
- Let students dive in! My students asked if there were any guidelines I wanted them to follow in terms of the content of their pages. I purposefully offered no guidelines because the zine is a genre with few rules. You may, for your own purposes, want to ask students to include, at a minimum, a certain number of words or sentences. Or, if you have more time, you might ask your students to work together to plan the zine and delegate a page to each member of the class. I chose to keep this activity as open as possible, and my students really embraced that openness in creative and productive ways.
- Encourage students to chat and share as they make their pages -- zines are, after all, a community-building activist practice! Consider playing some background music to fuel their creativity.
- At the end of class, collect students' pages.
- Now, for the tricky part. After class, you're left with the task of assembling a single zine from a pile of individual pages that looks something like this:
- Read over students' pages and begin the process of putting them in an order that makes sense to you. For example, I ordered our zine into two parts: the first half covered more general, abstract principles and concepts for media activism, while the second discussed particular types of media or particular movements. Stick numbered Post-It notes directly onto pages to arrange them in order.
- Next, begin creating the original master copy. Fold and assemble a blank version of the zine with the appropriate number of pages. For example, if you have 20 students in your class, you'll need ten pieces of paper folded in half (one half per student). If you have an odd number of students, you'll have a bonus page that you can use for additional content, such as an introduction or a table of content (in other words, if you have 21 students, you'll need 11 sheets of paper, which will leave you with one bonus page). Don't worry about the front and back covers just yet and don't staple the blank booklet together. It should look like this:
- Tape students' pages in the desired order to the blank master copy. At this point, if you have an odd number of students, remember to add content to your bonus page. You should end up with something like this:
- Time to photocopy! This is the trickiest part. Take each page one at a time from the booklet and scan both sides of the full page. Ensure that the scanner has the appropriate settings turned on to capture the full page.
- Send the complete copy as a PDF to your computer. Print one copy and fold the booklet. Check to make sure the pages are in the desired order. You may have to repeat the scanning process if the order is incorrect or you may have to rotate individual pages of the PDF copy to orient them correctly. Ultimately, your pagination should follow this pattern:
- Once you know your PDF is ordered and oriented correctly, print enough copies for the class. When printing, be sure to print double-sided and select the option to flip on the short edge.
- Fold each of your zines, double-checking that the pages are in the proper order.
- Next, you'll make front and back covers for your class zine. I invite you to use the template I made for my class, which can be found here on Google Docs. Click "make a copy" when prompted to use the template. Feel free to play around with Google fonts or add images. If you choose to have material printed on the inside covers, remember to print double-sided and flip on the short edge. Alternatively, you can assign a student to create a cover by hand.
- Print copies of the cover page for the zine. Fold each cover in half, so that the front cover is facing you.
- Slide a cover onto each copy of the zine.
- Finally, open each zine to the middle two pages and, using a long reach stapler, staple the zine in three places to hold it together (alternatively, you can try other binding strategies described here).
- Voilà! You have assembled a zine!
Class Zine Debrief
For the purposes of our course, this discussion became an important point of contrast for our next area of focus -- online activism. In your own course, you could easily shape this discussion to suit your needs. Regardless, I am sure you'll find that incorporating zine-making into the classroom gives students an opportunity to reflect on course content through a new outlet and may even inspire students to explore alternative media-making in their own time.