At the University of South Dakota, students with diverse majors enroll in ENGL 283, Introduction to Creative Writing, to fulfill their advanced writing requirement. Biology majors bring striking images of the body and the natural world into their poems, psychology majors probe the psyches of their characters, political science majors tell stories that others are afraid to tell. And, of course, a few English majors and others who consider themselves serious writers usually enroll; these students frequently have a strong desire to publish their work.
I teach at least one section of Intro. to Creative Writing every semester, and I have been doing so since 1994. Typically, I set up a workshop environment in which students write, revise, and respond to each other's writings in class. While this workshop environment establishes a safe, informal setting in which to share writings, I suspect that it also sometimes lulls students into thinking that what we're doing is "pretend," that what they write doesn't really matter--aside from eventually getting graded--because only their classmates and I will see it. Students also tend not to take Creative Writing as seriously as their other classes, particularly their coursework in their declared majors. If they are going to neglect any class, it is going to be Creative Writing.
My challenge, as I saw it, was to help the students become more committed to the class and to take their writing more seriously. I knew from experience that students who work on collaborative projects and students who submit their writings for extra credit to our university literary magazine become more involved in a class. They do so, I think, because they recognize that they have a new audience (editors) who might judge their writing differently from how we respond to it in class. In addition, if their work gets accepted and published in the magazine, the audience expands to include the readers of that magazine.
So the question became: what sort of collaborative project could effectively involve the whole class and expand the audience for our writings? The answer came to me fairly quickly: a literary e-zine, an electronic magazine published on the World Wide Web. Students could perform tasks such as selecting works for publication in the e-zine, revising and editing them, designing the e-zine, and so on. There would be no printing costs involved, since this e-zine would be published on the Web. In addition, the audience for their work would now include--potentially--anyone around the world, giving them an incentive to revise and edit more thoroughly.
What happened when I introduced the literary e-zine as a class project in the fall of 1997 is really the heart of the story.