Amanda Licastro, PhD
Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric
Connecting Analog Annotations to
Digital Literacy Practices
“Those who read with pen in hand form a species nearly extinct.
Those who read the marginal notes of readers past form a group
even smaller. Yet when we write in antiphonal chorus to what we’re
reading, we engage in that conversation time and distance otherwise
“Mrs. Custer’s Tennyson,” The New Criterion.
“...the notion of better understanding a text
through others’ experience of it is arguably
the foundational experience of most liberal
“There Are No New Directions in Annotations,” Web Writing.
Ryan Roche, sophomore student at Stevenson University
Amanda Licastro, PhD
Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric
It is easy to assume that the practice of annotating texts is a dying art. Take for example this claim by William Logan. But perhaps that is because Mr. Logan has limited his imagination to pen and paper.
Consider this screenshot from the Kindle app on my phone. It shows that 9940 people highlighted this text. I can’t imagine all of those readers were required to use this particular Kindle edition for a class assignment - although perhaps a small percentage are students. And this is a rather popular book, but certainly still considered “capital L” Literature. Can anyone identify the text from these snippets? George Orwell’s 1984. A novel enjoying a resurgence since November. These readers are, in Logan’s words “engaging in a conversation time and distance otherwise make impossible.” So I would like to shift the conversation from assuming students do not annotate, to exploring how and why students should annotate.
Following that opening quote in Logan’s article, he contradicts himself by voicing his displeasure at the discovery of annotations found in a book of poems he has purchased online. Logan deduces that these marks were made by a college student, and chastises the anonymous reader for using the margins to identify archaic terms that are unfamiliar and to define words such as “patronizing.” The irony is not lost on me. What this reveals is that Logan - and perhaps many academics and educators - privilege certain kinds of annotations over others. We have a preset notion of what kind of annotation is worthy of attention. But what is it that we value and how can we teach students to practice these habits effectively?
One of the things I have learned from participating in the Book Traces project is the longstanding social function of annotations. I agree with Jason Jones - who has written extensively on teaching annotation practices - that it is the conversational function, the act of discovery and sharing, that we align our practices with in the humanities. In this view, marginalia is not just a personal act, but a public act that can and should be archived and shared. In order to teach our students to engage in conversational marginalia in is helpful to provide models.
Of course there are historical roots to this argument. We can see examples of marginalia that were written with the intention of being read in texts such as the Talmud, early modern Book of Hours, and those of many famous authors whose annotations we fetishize. We can also see this intention in the precinct visions of thinkers like Vannevar Bush and Doug Engelbart who predicted the need for a network of associated texts. These examples have been explored in great depth elsewhere, but I propose using them in the classroom to demonstrate to students the power and endurance of public annotation.
For the past three years I have invited my students to actively engage in the Book Traces project as a way to substantiate and demonstrate the long-tail of social annotation practices. When teaching at NYU, students went to the Butler Library at Columbia University to search the stacks for pre-1923 texts featuring marginalia from 19th century readers. Attending the Book Traces event gave students the opportunity to think about the purpose of libraries. This may or may not surprise you, but many college students are intimidated by libraries - especially university libraries where the size and scope dwarf those in their home towns. They are also unfamiliar with old books. Digging in the stacks gives them a chance to get their hands dirty. This is one thing students comment on the most - the smell, feel, and look of dilapidated books. Students often inquire about how the texts are stored, preserved, and organized. All essential information literacy practices students may not learn elsewhere.
Seeing the annotations such as dedication pages or acquisition histories, familiarizes students with legacy print collections - providing a sense of history and provenance for the offerings available to them. Suddenly, the role of the library expands from a convenient place to study, to a resource that serves the greater purpose of maintaining rare collections of invaluable research materials. Searching for annotations also leads to discussions about what counts as meaningful evidence in the marginalia they find. When students discover interesting artifacts, a team of librarians and professors are there to help them assess, decipher, and upload their findings to the Book Traces website. Actively working on and discussing the move to digitizing texts opens the conversation to the future of the humanities at large. How can we make old forms of media accessible to a wider audience?
At Stevenson University our library does not have the volume of pre-1923 texts that Columbia holds in their collections. However, Andrew Stauffer gave a talk as part of our Distinguished Speaker Series and brought several examples with him. Even this limited engagement with the materials had a huge impact of my students. As you can see from this expert from my student Ryan Roche’s reflection post, were able to recognize and articulate the social function of annotations. My goal is to capture that knowledge and translate it into the student’s own reading practices.
To start this process, students read about the differences between reading online versus reading in print from a variety of perspectives. To begin, I have students read this born digital article in print, and as they read they make a tally mark every time they are distracted. As you see from this quote, this is a pretty transparent meta-activity that allows them to consider both their analog and digital reading practices. Many students have 15-20 tally marks in the short time I provide in class. I also ask them if they could complete a short quiz on the content after this initial reading, and most readily admit they would fail. I then have the student read the same article when annotating the article, and ask a few content questions after they complete the second reading. Their confidence increases markedly. The lesson is simple: active reading helps comprehend content.
We also discuss the science behind this phenomenon. As Cathy Davidson argues in her book Now You See It, the ability to productively multitask is a vital 21st century skill. Students are asked to identify their own attention blindness and given tools that work with - not against - their natural inclinations to bounce from one task to the next.
One of tools I offer to student is an online annotation platform. After testing several platforms, including Annotation Studio and Google Docs, I am most impressed with hypothesis. I am sure many of you are aware of this tool and potentially have experience with it since it is the offshoot of Jeremy Dean - former English professor and founding member of Genius.com. The latter is also why my students tend to be familiar with the basic premise of this tool.
Genius - formerly Rap Genius - is an incredibly popular site for annotating music lyrics. While students may not have experience marking the margins of an Emerson poem, many have added their voice to the comment threads on Becky with the Good Hair. As you can see, Genius capitalizes on what social media does best - it provides a space to offer an opinion on a popular text using multimedia. And if you haven’t scanned this site, I think you might be impressed with the level of research provided by these completely voluntary, crowdsourced annotations.
If we return to the first example from my students, you can see the similarities. The user simply selects a passage in the text and can then clicks either highlight or annotate. In the dialogue box users can add comments, links, photos, and videos. The user can determine if the comment should be private, public, or viewable to a pre-set group. If the post is viewable to other users, then the community can respond. This is perhaps the most important function of this tool for the purposes of this presentation. The social aspect harkens back to the 19th century marginalia students studied in their investigation of Book Traces materials. Therefore, they compose comments with the intention of having others read their insights and respond.
For reference, I typically require students to add 10-12 annotations, and respond to 3-5 posts depending on the class level and article length. Before they begin we discuss the kinds of annotation that would be most helpful in this context. I encourage definitions, links to research - including links to wikipedia articles or youtube videos - and questions. This example is in a 100-level course, so I made this a private group that only members of this course can see. This provides a safe, protected space for lower level student to exercise their digital literacy habits. I can monitor responses and enter the conversations when needed. If a disrespectful or inappropriate comment arises, I address it both online and during face-to-face class time. I cannot help but relish a chance to teach students to engage in digital discourse in a thoughtful and respectful manner and hope they extend these lessons their personal lives.
As you can see from this exchange, students recognize the potential benefits and drawbacks of social annotation tools. Armed with the readings I provided and previous discussions we had about digital reading, class debates are rich on and offline. Ruminations formulated in their annotations are hashed out in greater depth in person, allowing conversations that are too big for the constraints of a comment section a place to evolve. I am often able to identify the areas where my students are struggling to understand a text by reading their comments - or in some cases by identifying sections in which no one commented. These omissions can signal a place where no one was brave enough to take on difficult language or advanced concepts. The way students engage with a text online informs the way I structure my lessons. I am better able to use our limited class time strategically when provided with access to this new form of data.
That screenshot was from an exercise in an upper-level course in which I unleashed students to annotate in the public sphere. In this case, I select sites I know openly encourage social commentary. JITP and Hybrid Pedagogy are both journals that have published pieces on the benefits of using social annotation tools, and having students read and annotate these articles provides support for adapting these tools on a number of levels. I will often begin with a text I know others have already commented on - so the students can engage with comments from the general public. What I particularly love about this conversation is that my student Lanett connects the work we were doing in ENG 381, to the discussion her classmates were having in 320 - our critical theory course at Stevenson. These are the kinds of connections we cherish as educators in higher education. By asking students to articulate their thoughts on a text to an audience of their peers, they often times share these connections that may otherwise remain private. A collective wisdom grows from crowdsourcing the intellectual work of close reading.
I have also used this tool to teach rhetorical analysis. Student select an article from an online journal and use hypothesis to identify how the site addresses audience, context, genre, and purpose, along with critiquing the interface and information architecture. I specifically instruct students to reflect on design choices, such as the font, color, layout, and multimodal elements of the digital text. By analyzing these elements in professional publications, they are better positioned to experiment with these affordances when composing their own multimodal projects. Students develop a sense of how visual rhetoric relates to the alphabetic text present on their screens. If you note in this example, my student Alaina Steg makes the astute connection between the use of hyperlinks in this article to Johanna Drucker’s theories of hypertext presented in Graphesis, which we read earlier that semester.
Speaking of Drucker, digital tools such as hypothesis deserve careful critique from a humanities perspective. In its early days, Genius came under fire by the blogging community for failing to obtain permission from sites to “graffiti” unsolicited commentary over the work of the author. As is the case with hypothesis, you can use some social annotation tools on any URL - without consent. Genius and hypothesis have publically addressed this concern by moderating comments, allowing users to flag content, and by allowing sites to opt out or block the plugin. However, especially when annotating the work of marginalized or vulnerable voices, it is imperative that we talk about these concerns with our students and peers, in order to model considerate and productive interactions in public spaces.
Tools such as Annotation Studio eliminate these concerns by removing the text from the open web, and safeguarding it in a private space. The drawbacks are that the students lose the benefit from opening their conversation to the public, thereby engaging with an audience outside of our classroom, and it also eliminates the information architecture and multimodal aspects of a born-digital text. In order to use Annotation Studio, the instructor needs to upload a text onto the site and provide students with access. This act falls into a grey area where copyright is concerned, and also diminishes the possibility that students will adopt the tool in the future, either for other classes or for personal use.
My student apply what they have learned when creating their final multimodal projects. Inspired by an assignment shared by Kari Kraus - who is presenting tomorrow here at STS - my students engage in “design fiction” by imagining the future of the book. Led by a faculty member in the school of design, students identify a problem with the way we currently consume, access, and store information, and devise solutions for a specific audience. We create an x/y access to identify the needs of an audience, and then we prototype using a variety of materials such as cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, egg crates, etc. Students develop these products into full proposals directed at investors, which include an environmental scan, implementation plan, and marketing materials. This example demonstrates the influence our annotation work has on the machinations for future readers. This student envisions an interactive bookmark that would allow the functionality of digital annotation tools to be applied to physical books. Not only does this appeal to bibliophiles reticent to give up their physical copies, it also discourages the kind of multitasking that interferes with reading comprehension by relegating it to another space and time.
In this project, my student designed an annotation tool that responds to eye movement in order to meet the needs of disabled users. Inspired by his aunt who suffers from ALS, the eye tracking software builds upon already available technology, but combines these resources to address a population with a dearth of communication platforms. These are only two examples from dozens I simply don’t have the time to showcase here. But I believe the evidence is clear. What you don’t see in these screenshots is the extensive research - incorporated in many forms - in these proposals, nor can you hear the passion and excitement the students convey in their oral presentations. What I see is students shifting from passive consumers to critical makers.
In conclusion, I would like to plead for your feedback. This work has been accepted as a chapter in an anthology on digital reading, and any suggestions to strengthen my arguments are most welcome. Thank you.