Annotating texts in the classroom and beyond

[cross-post with Hunter College’s ACERT blog]

So much of what we humanities types do in the classroom involves scribbling on texts.  Whether it’s penciling notes in the margins of a beloved novel, jotting down summaries of arguments of articles or other secondary literature, commenting on the work of students or peers, or even jotting down students’ comments on the chalkboard during class discussions, it’s rare that we’re not annotating something.

Nor is this practice confined to the classroom.  One of the most striking aspects of the Web-saturated lives we lead is that we constantly write on things: comments on blog posts (like this one: you know you want to!), captions or reflections on Instagram images or Facebook updates, and even product reviews on Amazon constitute a major form of public sphere participation for us and especially our students.

Unlike traditional, print-based annotating, these newer practices emerging in networked digital platforms are intensely social.  This aspect of youth/web culture is much lampooned–did you like the book/movie/song or just “like” it?–but it also has profound implications for our pedagogy, many of them quite positive.  In what follows, I want to look at several annotation platforms that have emerged recently, think very broadly about their basic functions and assumptions, and look at an interesting use or two of each.

The longest-lived of these platforms–and in many ways the most flexible and powerful–is CommentPress, a plugin for the WordPress blogging platform that allows users to make marginal comments on a text.  To oversimplify a bit, it moves the “blog comments” from the bottom to the margins and allows a comment to be pegged to a particular paragraph.  CommentPress has obvious applications in the classroom, allowing students to scribble in the margins of texts, but making that margin public and collective.  Scholars have also used it to solicit comments on works in progress: two pioneering uses include Mackenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory and Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence.  For much more humble uses of this mode of annotation that can be hacked together quickly for use in courses, see two annotated versions of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land from one of my courses: the first features students’ spontaneous glosses on the famously formidable text, and the second is more historical, consisting of comments from reviews and essay from the poem’s first wave of readers in the mid-1920s.  Note: I used digress.it for these latter projects, a “fork” in the development of CommentPress that has floundered in recent years.

One can also do amazing things with a straightforward WordPress site: Boston College’s Digital Dubliners project is a staggeringly good example of how to collaborate with students in producing a new, web-based edition of a book, and Hunter’s own Julie Van Peteghem (Italian) is working on a very interesting Digital Dante site.

Another platform that has similar aims and seems somewhat easier to implement (for example, it’s “hosted” and thus does not require you to have your own web hosting service) is MIT’s Annotation Studio: here’s a case study of an English professor’s exercise in which students annotated a chapter of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The next wave of networked annotation aims at enabling communities of users to scribble in the margins of web pages.  The most interesting entrant in this field is hypothes.is.  What makes hypothes.is special is its open architecture and nonprofit status: it is a browser extension that allows users to add notes to any web content, from blogs to sites to .pdfs, and read comments of other hypothes.is users in a dynamic network of commentary.  You can get a feel for the platform by seeing some of the commentary on this Atlantic piece about ad-driven media content.

To return to the big picture, what these platforms share is the potential to recover for readers some of the utopian potential of networked writing spaces that the early developers of the web shared: a sense that web publishing/reading would create more porous borders between reading and writing, between producing cultural texts and consuming them.  This is something many of us try to inculcate in our students and work into our pedagogy.

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