Using Zines in Schools

I wrote this piece as part of an academic conference workshop where I tried to show other college writing professors and K-12 language arts teachers what zines have to offer students and how teachers and professors might bring them into their classrooms. Alongside the presentation—of which this was a part, workshop participants tried their hand at creating zines. I reprint this piece here knowing that folks who read Indie Creator Explosion aren’t the primary audience. I am sure that you know much more about zines than I get into here. Still, you might not know how or why a college professor or K-12 writing teacher would be interested in them or what folks in academia might be doing with them. I get into a bit of that here. Also, this piece details a bit of my history with zines, so I think it’s worth reprinting here. 

What Are Zines?

Zines, pronounced like magazine without the maga (and let’s face it, there’s far too much MAGA nowadays) are printed, self-published works that range from one page to as many pages as you can physically attach together. Oftentimes, they are stapled, but sometimes they are stitched or bound in another creative way.

They are made for fun rather than profit. People who make zines do so because they have something they want to say and a community with whom they want to share their thoughts. 

Zines contain any of a number of common genres or media—from drawings, collages, and comic strips to puzzles, coloring pages, and other activities borrowed or adapted from other types of publications; from diary entries, columns, and interviews to poems, stories, essays, and memoirs. Depending on the type of zine and the community that it is written for, zines might also contain reviews of records, live music shows, films, and even other zines.

Most commonly, zines are photocopied, but they can also be printed on offset presses, letter presses, or mimeograph machines, or they can be risograph printed. Some creators even print zines on their home printers.

Folks who make zines are sometimes called zinesters, and zinesters create zines by hook or by crook. They use what is available to them to get their messages out. Zines emerge from and reflect a do-it-yourself, or DIY, ethic. And zinesters publish at their own discretion, rarely adhering to a strict schedule. Sometimes, zines last for years, and the zinesters who create them publish frequently. Sometimes, years pass between issues, or a zinester might only publish one issue. 

Since the 1970s, zines in the United States have often been connected to punk rock and other youth subcultures, such as hardcore; riot grrrl and feminist punk; homocore and queer punk; goth, death rock, and darkwave culture; twee, cuddlecore, and indie rock; and rave culture. However, fanzines predate zines connected to punk rock. For example, those associated with comic book culture. Though sometimes referred to as newsletters, these zines have focused on specific comic books like Elfquest as well as types of characters like furries. They have also focused on fan reworkings of popular series with genres like fan fiction, including slash/fiction, fan art, etc. Sometimes, they featured information about comic books and comic book creators that wasn’t available elsewhere as there was no comic book press in the 1950s and 1960s.

The main thing to remember about zines is that there are few hard and fast rules about what they focus on, how they are produced, what they look like, or what’s inside them. Again, zinesters work by hook or by crook. They are driven by passion and a desire to connect with others. In the world of zines, there are limitations, an array of workarounds in dealing with those limitations, and traditions within different communities. There aren’t rules. Content isn’t driven by editors, advertisers, subscribers, followers, shares, or likes. They are driven by the ways that communities put their values into practice.

While some businesses, including book stores, sell zines, zinesters often set the price to recoup costs. Many zinesters offer to trade zines with other zinesters through the mail or when they meet up at zine festivals that take place in cities around the U.S., e.g., the annual Memphis Zine Fest at Crosstown Arts; the Lone Star Zine Fest and the Staple! Expo, both in Austin; the Portland Zine Symposium; and the Chicago Zine Fest.

My History Making Zines

My personal history as a zinester dates back to my junior year of high school in 1991. My first zine was a one-page, double-sided sheet of paper called Birdcage Liner. I distributed it throughout my high school. It featured rants about teachers, the principal, and other students, and probably far too many references to Nirvana and riot grrrl bands that I was just getting into at the time. I don’t consider that my first zine, however, as it was just distributed around my high school, and my only goal was to annoy people.

My first real zine was about being a feminist and listening to riot grrrl bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. Riot grrrl was part of the third-wave feminist movement, spanning the very late 80s to the late 90s. Riot grrrl catered predominantly to middle-class white women and originated in music scenes and women’s studies departments in Olympia, WA, and Washington, DC. It spread to towns and cities across the U.S. In solidarity with riot grrrl Olympia and riot grrrl DC, young women created local riot grrrl chapters, they formed their own bands, and they published zines about issues of sexism, homophobia, racism in the punk scene and in their communities. My zine inspired by the riot grrrl movement was named Words and Smiles after a song by a band called Tiger Trap. It contained lots of short essays about things that inspired me or pissed me off, but it focused on the world writ large rather than my high school. It also contained a lot of collage-style art, repurposed images, music reviews, and band interviews.

I came out as a feminist before I came out as gay, and I came out to my zine before I came out to my local friends and family. Alongside sharing my passion for riot grrrl and my interest in queer punk rock bands, I learned a lot about writing for an audience, about design, and about the difficulties of creating and distributing an independent publication.

I printed Words and Smiles by scamming the Kinko’s copy machine keys. Do you remember Kinko’s? You used to have to plug these plastic keys into the self-service copy machines. The key would track how many copies you made, and the machine would not work unless there was a key inserted into it. If you made all your copies and then slammed the key a bunch, or nonchalantly stomped on it, it would reset to a crazy number. The college kids who worked at my local Kinko’s would then just ask me how many copies I made and charge me based on what I told them. I learned how to scam Kinko’s from zines that I had read. I also learned how to scam the post office. If you rub a glue stick over postage stamps and let it dry, you could later clean off the glue, and it would remove the ink marks, so you could reuse the stamps. These strategies for getting your zine out into the world, for getting whatever message you had out, were common knowledge in my zine communities. You could rely on other zinesters to have used a glue stick on the postage adhered to the package they sent you. All you had to do was clean the stamps and reaffix them to the next package that you sent out. It wasn’t a perfect method, but it frequently worked.

I distributed my zine to my friends and at the local record store, That CD and Tape Place—that was the store’s name. I used all that free postage to send copies to bookstores and record stores all over the country, and Words and Smiles was well-circulated. I printed about 500 to 1000 copies per issue. I published three issues between 1991-1993. Issues ranged from 20 to 68 pages. I’ve since found out that a number of university libraries have copies of Words and Smiles in their archives, including Duke University’s Rubenstein Library; NYU’s Fales Library riot grrrl Archive; the Five College Archives shared by Amherst, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, Hampshire, and UMass Amherst; and the University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections. In 2009, Words and Smiles was also included in two gallery shows in San Francisco, LA, and NY. The shows were titled “You Are Her” and “Yes, I Am, But Who Am I Really?”, and they focused on riot grrrl and queer punk zines from the 1990s, respectively. These exhibit titles point to the overlap between place and identity and the way writing establishes identity, however slippery or temporary that identity may be.

Why Make Zines?

My point in bringing up my experience is not to brag about my zines, but to provide you with some sense of how zines allow or even demand that their creators address relationships between their communities and their identities, between where we are and who we interact with on one hand, and who or where we want to be on the other. Here I provide two examples from Words and Smiles. In the first example, I offer a page where I reprinted comments on my report cards from my 4th and 6th grade elementary school teachers, and I clap back at those teachers. One teacher’s comment reads, “Language grade reflects a six-week report that Don never finished. He tends to start many projects and not follow through.” to which I responded, “F*** you, Mr. W***. I finished this zine.” The second comment from another teacher reads, “Donald seems to worry about what others are doing around him. He needs to concentrate on his own work. As this occurs, his grades should improve. I know he is capable of getting better grades.” Alongside this comment I recount a story from this class. I talk about the lasting impression I have of this teacher. I had ordered a book through the Scholastic Book Fair. On the inside cover of the book, the publishers added “Just for Girls” reprinted over and over. On one iteration of the phrase, I added the word not as in “Not Just for Girls.” I left the book laying around in the classroom. My teacher didn’t understand the message that I had added and assumed that the book belonged to a girl. When she asked specifically which girl the book belonged to in order to return the book, I didn’t say anything. Even in 1985, at 10 years old, I knew that she was asking me to other myself, to out myself.

In the second example, I reprint the statement I wrote about coming out at 17 years old in my suburban high school in upstate NY in 1992. As I said, I came out to my zine before I came out to friends. Putting it down on paper and sharing it with close friends was easier. The zine was doing the work for me. The zine set up who I wanted my community to be. If you couldn’t accept or try to understand the things that I said in the zine, then you couldn’t accept or understand me. It created a buffer.

Zines provide a space where people use writing to examine the tensions between the different communities that they have to navigate. They allowed me to interrogate issues in my local communities, and to express affinity with communities that gathered around punk rock, feminism, and queerness even as physical spaces that hosted these communities were far away and inaccessible to me, scattered across the US. The physical object of a zine gave me something real, something tangible that I could point to and say—I exist, we exist. Not so much I think therefore I am, but we write our community, therefore we are.

Why Use Zines to Teach Writing?

I started using zines to teach writing and rhetoric in my first-year writing classes while I was a graduate student at Purdue University in 2011. In implementing this assignment with 18 and 19 year-olds, I see them navigating these same tensions and writing their communities or writing themselves into communities in complex ways.

I offer two examples. In neither example did the students share their given names. In the first example, an 18-year-old female, international student from China addresses the difficulties she has had navigating how and when to use Chinese and when to speak English; she wrote, “What is a dilemma….Chinese & English Switch: We have faced a dilemma of speaking English, as we have so many Chinese friends here, and we have same experiences and feelings, we value them so much. However, when chatting with Americans and talking about ways to improve English skills, everyone had the same response—speak English and spend less time with other Chinese. I have to say that is awkward to speak a language that is not my native language. On the one hand, we want to make as big as possible progress in using English; on the other hand, we cannot imagine life without our new Chinese friends many of who like to speak Chinese with us, instead of English. Sometimes, I just feel that I do not know how to speak English after a long time Chinese communication; that is not encouraging.” On other pages, she offers a list about the common aspects of the lives of Chinese international students at Purdue. She offers another list of things that surprised her about campus and the university’s culture. For example, she writes, “The first day we saw a large number of peers wearing military uniforms on campus and in classrooms. We were amazed. I remember I talked about this experience with my parents online.” The tension between her desire to feel like she is part of the university clashes with the happiness she feels in being part of the community of students from China. She uses her zine pages to address this tension and to reach out to white students and to native English speakers, but also to maintain the sense of who she is and the practices that allow her to continue to be who she wants to be.

The second example reproduces three of six pages from a student who self-identifies as Hispanic, Latina, Mexican, and a student of color depending on which of her pages you are reading. On one page she writes about “Being a Minority at Purdue,” and even being a minority within minorities at an overwhelmingly white university. Next, she offers a cartoon called “Hispanics Are Like Plain Donut Holes,” where she shows how different donuts stick together—literally forming dozens—while the plain donut hole wanders around campus looking for other plain donut holes. Then, she addresses “Common Stereotypes” about being Mexican. Next, she offers a page called “Theory Time: Why is the Hispanic Population So Small at Purdue?” On this page she asks, “Could it be that Purdue isn’t trying hard enough to gain prospective students of color?”

In considering these pages together, it is clear that each section has a different audience. In some cases, she is explaining her experience to white students and to other students of color. In those cases, she employs the term Hispanic fairly consistently. When she addresses other Latnix students, she employs the term Latino. When she talks about specific or personal details of her life, she identifies as Mexican. Finally, when she addresses the university administration, she uses the term student of color. This constant shifting in how she identifies herself for audience shows the complex ways that she not only thinks about the tensions among her identities and the communities that she navigates, but the awesome precision with which she can write about the tensions she feels with different communities in different ways. 

Taking the examples from my zine together with these student examples we see the ways in which zines provide a space for zinesters to address issues at the core of writing. We use writing to shape our identities. We also use writing to build communities, to uplift communities, to reach out to other communities, and to struggle against communities that have done them wrong. Reflecting on the writing that people do in zines and the strategies they use to navigate different communities, identities, and places can help prepare students for many different forms of writing. Having students create zines makes them think deeply about how they present themselves and their values and beliefs to others. It makes them consider their audiences in complex and immediate ways: ways in which academic writing often does not. 


After my workshop, which took place in late October 2019, some undergraduate Education students who had participated in it decided to start their own zine for LGBTQIAA2+ students and alums at the University of Mississippi. They call their zine Missy. The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed progress on it, but hopefully I’ll be able to share an announcement about their first issue in fall 2020.

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