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Lights from Underground

Students who enrolled in the Honors College colloquium “Publishing Underground” probably did not expect the title to be literal. But one winter day, underground they went, led by instructors Korey Jackson and Kelly McElroy, into the dark basement of Fairbanks Hall to use an old-fashioned letterpress. There, students learned to set type and to print using this “new” old technology.

Earlier, the class had been reading about Ida B. Wells, a journalist and activist during the late 19th century, and the trip to Fairbanks was inspired by the effort it took her to publish. “We saw that this is what it took to publish something,” says Raven Waldron, a senior in bioresource research when she took the class. “Not only were people putting so much of their reputation and livelihood on the line, but the time it took and the actual dedication it took to publish something – we got to do that.”

This mode of learning – which uses active experience to illuminate historical examples of underground publishing – was central to the design of the class. “Making stuff, reading stuff and talking about stuff in equal pieces [was our goal],” says Kelly, the OSU Valley Library student engagement and outreach librarian. “It’s a domain of learning that students are often cut off from. They’re taking really advanced classes. It’s nice to struggle to photocopy or lay pages out. It sparks something different.”

Two examples of student work from the class

Students explored many different media during the class. The culmination was an “underground” publishing project of their own.  And – true to the history of underground publishing – many of these projects went in very personal and activist directions.

Dani Tellvik, a senior in English when she took the class, created a literary magazine working alongside the Linn-Benton Community College Poet Laureate, Shane Stanhope. Dani’s college career began at Linn-Benton, and she recalled the many passionate and talented creative writers there who lacked a space to connect. Her first challenge was getting the word out, no small task itself on a commuter campus. “The first poster had a toilet in a stall that said, ‘Don’t put it in the bathroom stall – send it to us,’” she recalls. “We took anything – a political rant, a few sentences, a doodle.”

She called the publication “Off the Record.” “I wanted to give voice to those people who didn’t have a place to express it. People will stop talking and writing if they don’t feel like they’re being heard. We need everyone – not just people who are inclined to speak up – to know their voice is valuable and to start a dialogue and have conversations.”

“I didn’t wait for approval,” she says, “which is a main point of publishing underground – that you don’t have to have anyone’s approval to publish.”

Korey, the Gray Family Chair for Innovative Library Services at the OSU Valley Library when he co-taught the class last year with Kelly, says that part of the importance of the class is “exploring ways that getting the message out is a mode of activism and is something anyone can engage in regardless of expertise.”

Kelly adds that part of this lesson is that “you don’t need someone’s approval to get the message out; you don’t have to post on Twitter. You can physically print something out and leave it on every bench on campus.”

For her project, Raven Waldron was inspired by Kelly’s collection of zines, which she shared with the class. She found one by a Navajo author who wrote about growing up going to powwows. “It made me think about the poetry I’ve written and how to bring out those themes in a zine. I took a spoken word piece and put in pictures, symbols that illustrated the stanzas, and it became a per-zine, a personal zine. I called it ‘A Very Native Zine.’

“Underground publishing lacks some rules of institutional publishing structures,” she explains. “It allows you to create a project that couldn’t be in a book, walking that line of what we don’t always talk about, our deeply personal experience. It’s a way for those marginalized in society to find a voice. My poem talks about how I’m marginalized, invisible, and by the end, how I found my voice, my community. It mirrored what we’ve been talking about in underground publishing – for people of color, a story that isn’t told, to bring that voice to the forefront, bring out voices that don’t get told through traditional media representation.”

Honors student Richard Smith became interested in the class’s exploration of how technology affects a publishing space – what it means to draw on a wall versus put up a website. The course allowed him to explore intersections between his major, electrical engineering, and digital representations of art. He was able to think about a larger, human aspect to some of the problems engineers deal with.

“When you have a piece of art or work that exists in the physical world, over time it experiences decay and weathering, and that affects the content of the message. I was exploring what it would be like if that happened with a computer, if it were to decay in the same way as a piece of paper when exposed to water.” He wrote a program which keeps adding noise to a picture, puts out a new copy, adds more noise and continues. “There is something inherently human about this parsing and interpreting of a physical thing that you can’t recreate with a piece of technology.”

Korey engaging the audience at a showcase of honors teaching.

Kelly and Korey incorporated an “underground” ethos into the way the course was designed, drawing on collective ideas and communally-agreed upon values. “I’ve never taken a class or colloquium like it,” says Richard. “It was completely student-driven.” He says decisions in the course were made by group consensus, and for the final project, they came up with their own evaluation rubric. “It was nice to be able to take a class where you can think about stuff and not worry about getting tested on it. We control, and they’re there to guide.”

For Kelly and Korey, this cultivation of community and different voices is at the heart of good pedagogy and the concept of underground publishing itself. “There are a lot of examples that you can’t do this all on your own. Ida B. Wells had so many collaborators – whether seeking financial support or handing things out or sharing them. Social change doesn’t happen by individuals – it’s community,” Kelly says.

Adds Korey, “We’ve come to think of publishing as commercial, that an individual author writes an individual text to sell to a large group of people we call an audience. But the reason people publish things is not to sell to an audience, but because they want to find a community – someone else who responds to what they think. The collaborative aspect of the class gets to the deeper roots of what publishing is about.”

That spirit left a deep and lasting impression: Members of the class from 2018 are working on a zine for the Honors College itself.

“Because of the way the class was set up, we got to put so much of ourselves into it, we built deeper connections with people in the class. We thought we could take this other places, the connections that we built and the excitement and enthusiasm it created. We’re excited to get out and do the things we learned in the class,” Raven says. “We get so caught up in our school work we don’t take the time to create. This is an outlet for honors students – not only for publishing but a way to connect with other people.”

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