Collaborative Zines: Making Art History Accessible to Pre-Service Educators

As new, digital technologies emerge and improve–from augmented and virtual realities to advancements in 3D printing to smart phone capabilities–there has also been a notable resurgence of analog technologies. Vinyl records and cassette tapes, Polaroid cameras and film and even typewriters are being produced at increased rates. With this resurges comes a renewed interest in zines, the lo-fi, self-published booklets or magazines typically produced on the photocopier. Zine gatherings and swaps are taking place in cities across the country, like Printed Matter’s The NY Art Book Fair  and LA Art Book Fair. New Orleans Comics and Zine Fest, Chicago Zine Fest, PHX Zine Fest, Press Fest Austin , just to name a few. In 2016, both Solange  and Frank Ocean  published limited-edition zines to accompany their album releases. Because of the current trendiness of zines, the snapshots they capture about subcultures and and my deep-rooted appreciation for the format, I knew I needed to find a way to incorporate zines into my course curriculum.

Before I dive into the details, I think it’s best to provide some context. I am an adjunct lecturer at a large, state university where I lead a course for undergraduate pre-service elementary school educators called Art in Elementary Schools. This is course is required for all upper-level students in the undergraduate teaching and learning program. The students in the class are as diverse as their interest and exposure to visual arts–some share that they’ve never been to a museum in their life while others regularly attend art openings throughout the city. Houston schools face the same issues as many school districts across the US–funding for arts and art programming is being cut and many of the programs that do exist are struggling. The course I teach seeks to provide opportunities for pre-service elementary generalists to discover, learn, and encourage diverse applications of artistic processes and arts-based learning to the elementary classroom in an attempt to mitigate the lack of funding.

One of the main challenges I face in teaching this course is that the curriculum is ambitious–it’s always a stretch to cover everything in fifteen, three-hour class meetings. Because of this, I look for projects that address multiple areas of focus at once, which the collaborative art history zine accomplishes well.

The zine as a format works well in the classroom setting since it’s flexible, open-ended and accessible and provides an interesting and welcome alternative to the usual term paper and or PowerPoint presentation. While I’ve encountered a few examples of educators using zines in their classrooms, it’s not yet considered a common format for teaching and learning. Although I didn’t come across any art history zines being produced in university classrooms, I’ve seen some great examples of zines being created with young learners in relation to science , with LGBTQ youth in Greensboro, North Carolina who produce the zine, I Don’t Do Boxes, SITE zines in Santa Fe, and at the non-profit art organization where I work, we have partnered with Zine Fest Houston to create collaborative zines during our summer studio art program for teens.

For this assignment, I introduce the zine format, pass around examples of zines, and encourage students to start thinking about the art history topic they want to cover. Suggested art history topics range from Pre-Columbian art and archaeology to Mexican muralism to the Harlem Renaissance to performance art. Students are welcome to select a topic of their choice if none of the suggested topics resonate with them. Last semester, one student chose to focus her research on art from the Islamic world. I always try to encourage students to look beyond the familiar choices like impressionism and pop art, and instead advocate for topics that might expose them to new ideas or perspectives.

In the assignment details, I require students to reference and utilize the elements and principles of art and design to create a spread across two pages (8 ½” x 11” page folded in half). Using non-digital means, they must draw, watercolor, and collage a spread that includes: the title of their topic, the approximate dates of the period, the place or places of origin, three major characteristics that make this topic interesting and unique, and images with captions for at least three artworks or artifacts that are associated with the topic. Students are also required to submit their sources on an additional page using APA format. I typically give students a couple of weeks to complete the assignment.

On the day that students submit their work, we gather around a large table where each student walks us through their zine spread. I ask questions related to their aesthetic choices and the research topic. Because each person has a different topic, I’ve observed that students tend to speak about their work very confidently and have ownership of their knowledge about the subject.

As each student shares, we lay out their zine spreads and try to place the entire group’s pages in a general chronological order, which is how the collective zine is ultimately assembled. Once the spreads are sequenced, I ask students to make general observations about their collective work as one zine. At this point, I make it a point to ask how many female artists are represented. The first semester of this class, out of twenty-one students, there was only one female artist included. This usually turns into a short, but awesome discussion about the lack of females represented in art history, as well as artist of color.

Once our discussion is over and we’ve finalized the order of the zine, I take it home with me to assemble. I scan in all the pages, lay them out in Adobe InDesign or Publisher, and then print, fold, assemble, and staple a zine for each student. I design the cover myself and print it on cardstock. From extremely basic materials, students have created a collaborative, physical publication that not only serves as a reference to them as future educators but also a work of art. When creating art integrated lesson plans later in the semester, many of the students call upon the research from the zines in their lessons.

This exercise is one of many we complete in the course, and serves as an introduction to zines, art history, and research. Does it have the potential to be a more in-depth project in an art history course? Personally, I think yes. For example, each student could focus more time and energy on a longer, more comprehensive zine related to a particular artist, artwork, or movement. This assignment is continually rated by students as fun and effective. Here is some of their positive feedback from their final course reflection: “I really enjoyed doing the zine. It was awesome to research and develop my own zine page, and I also got a lot out of listening to and seeing all of my classmates’ projects. I learned a lot about all of the different Art History periods in the short time we shared. It was very enlightening to see how art had progressed over the thousands of years. The finished product with all of our designs was great too, an awesome keepsake.”

Most teachers don’t see themselves as artists and are not aware of the positive impact that learning through art has in the classroom. Art and art history are important tools in education, especially for working with kinesthetic and visual learners that can be integrated with math, science, history and the English language. Utilizing zines is so effective because it allows teachers to create spaces for their students to create original artwork in a format which allows them to collaborate and suggests an alternative way of presenting information.

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