Our first unit has two concurrent parts, each focused on exploring grassroots, DIY, and alternative approaches to self-publishing. My goal is to have you learn about its historical dimensions through research while tinkering with the means of production by making your own publications by hand.
Part I: The tactile proof of alternative media
In Part I, you will examine the ways print-based writing communities throughout history reached various publics by using creative, transgressive, and controversial methods for producing and delivering their words and ideas through “alternative media,” which is often self-published. How did students, abolitionists, anarchists, hackers, hippies, feminists, and avant-garde artists, emerging poets, and experimental writers draw from their available means to assemble publics and networks over time? Such historicizing sets up a more nuanced understanding of the course’s controlling terms, “self” and “publishing,” and how the meaning of each term is dependent on the resources, readers, and technologies available to writers. You’ll work in groups to study these publishers and teach the rest of the class about them.
Your group will do this via a specific historical case study. At the core of your case study will be an artifact — an example text (or excerpt from it) that the class will read in anticipation of a brief in-class presentation and discussion. Your presentation, then, will introduce us to the self-publisher’s background and legacy, explain where and how the artifact circulated (and with which communities), and account for its contemporary significance. As your group considers possibilities, you should be thinking of what inspires you enough to the point of inquiry.
I’ll group you based on your collective interests; to begin you should consider which of the following categories of self-publishing you might be interested in:
- Political/radical/illicit — these may included individual anarchists, feminists, hackers, black nationalists, etc. or collectives run through small presses.
- Creative — you will find lots of self-publishers who put out experimental fiction, poetry, or hybrid forms, especially from POC and women.
- Comics — these often include the subversive or obscene (Tijuana bibles, R Crumb, etc.), but perhaps also propaganda (i.e. Jack Chick)
- Avant-garde art — Dada movement, graffiti zines, book arts, etc.
- Fandom — sci-fi zines, filkers, or other examples of pre-web forms of participatory culture
- Music — an extension of fandom but especially focused on punk, classic rock, hip-hop, techno
Once you choose a category, you’ll find and focus on a specific self-publisher or self-publishing collective. As you get to know that self-publisher through books, articles, and essays, you’ll seek and identify a representative artifact from it that you’ll eventually share with the class in digital form (link, pdf, etc.). As you research you’ll need to describe the following aspects of it:
- Origins & trajectories (Who produced it? Why? How did it come to exist? To what degree was the idea pressing? Challenging? Political? How did it change over time?)
- Production (How was it made? What materials and why? Who was involved at each step? Why this format? What were the obstacles?)
- Delivery/circulation (How did it move from production to consumption? Was it sold? Traded? Borrowed? Mailed? Smuggled?)
- Conflicts (How was the publication challenged? Consider both internal conflicts and those that came from the outside.)
- Audience (Who read or experienced this publication and why? What communities did it shape or divide? Did writers and readers in those communities share consensus on their goals or was it more complicated? )
- Significance (What is the historical relevance of this item? What resources or technologies did it bring to its audiences? Who cares about it now and why?)
At least one class before you lead discussion, you’ll share your artifact with us. The class will read this before we meet. For the day of your presentation, you’ll prepare a 15-minute talk and slidedeck about the publisher/text and we’ll save another 15 minutes for discussion of that text. Your grade will be determined by your peers through an anonymous, online evaluation form. I will simply average your grade as well as consider the extent of your comments for your peers.
Group 1 — politics
Group 2 — poetry
Group 3 — littles
Group 4 — freaks
Part II: Zines
Meanwhile you will handle contemporary examples of grassroots self-publishing by exploring the world of zines — photocopied and hand-assembled print publications with small print runs of 200 copies or less. After getting a sense of what they are on the first day, you’ll order some zines from an online distributor and develop a plan for producing your own. I’ll introduce you to some methods of production and you may try to sell yours at our table at the Collingswood Book Festival on Saturday, October 5.
Zines are difficult to categorize, let alone evaluate. In fact, as my colleague Kelly McElroy argues, “What makes an “A” zine, and who the hell are you to decide that?” (source: Broken Pencil). Hence, grading for this unit is determined by you, with some supporting structure coming from the class and from me. The process is a bit complicated, but works like this:
1. Share your grade proposal. Mid-way through the unit you’ll share a Google Doc with me that outlines, in single-spaced page, the criteria necessary for the grade that you expect. This will include a statement at the top indicating the grade you are proposing (please note that you do not have to propose for an “A” — I will not be hurt by this); this document will also make good use of numerals, bullets, bold formatting, etc. The bulk of your document, then, will describe the plan for your zine’s:
- content (title, the themes you’ll explore using writing/drawing/photographing/etc.)
- materials (kind of paper, binding, ink, printing method, etc.)
- format (size of pages, # of total pages, layout/structure)
- circulation (# of copies and how you’ll distribute beyond the book fest)
2. Conference with me. After you share your grade proposal with me, we’ll meet to discuss it. Since I’ll have read everyone’s proposals by then, I’ll have a better understanding of what the community’s standards are (that is, what an “A” zine might entail). At this conference we’ll discuss the work involved and I will make some suggestions for revision and other ideas you might consider for your zine.
3. Revise your grade proposal. Within a day or two of conferencing with me, you will revise the Google Doc to make a final version of your grade proposal. At this point this document becomes a quasi-contract — that is, a reference point for your final zine and the accompanying statement.
4. The accompanying statement.Things will certainly change as you make your zine and the accompanying statement will help you be accountable for them. At the end of the unit — that is, after your zine has been distributed — you’ll share a copy with me, along with a Google Doc statement that considers several questions:
- What goals did you have for this zine and did you meet them?
- Reassess your grade based on the contract. What did you earn and why?
- Think about yourself at the start of this unit/course. What was the extent of your experience or knowledge of zines and DIY print communities at the beginning of the unit? What did you learn about them and how did it apply to your zine?
- Discuss how you arrived at the the idea for your zine. Was it inspired by something specific?
- Talk about the limitations and choices you made with regard to the materials of your zine and the tools required? What was your vision and how was it compromised by these tools and technologies?
- If applicable, reflect on your experience planning and witnessing your zine at the book fest. Were you inspired by the reception of your zine? Disappointed?
- Discuss the implications of creating your zine with regard to your future as a writer. How did zine’ing support or complicate your goals?
- What will Issue #2 of your zine look like? How will it build from the lessons of Issue #1?
Your statement will be single-spaced and formatted using a 12-point, readable font. If you are contracting for an A (or striving for one), this statement will need to be at least 1,000 words (2 pages, single-spaced).