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Annotating Texts

Annotating Texts in Print & in Digital Environments

“Note-taking raises similar concerns. Does the student have an effective method: Is the notebook page spare, maybe peppered with disconnected bits of information, or is the page an overwhelming blast of script as the student tries feverishly to write down everything the instructor says? Laptops and tablet computers provide some technical enhancements for note-takers, but students still have to determine what matters, what’s subordinate, what topics go together.” — Mike Rose, “The Missing Element in Student Success.” Inside Higher Ed, September 7, 2012

If you are looking for one specific example to pinpoint in the shifting landscape from print to digital literacies, consider the annotation. This time-honored learning practice is familiar to most teachers and to many close readers; however, for many teachers and students working in emerging digital spaces, the annotation — a sign of slow, deep, contextual, and rhetorical reading — can be a challenge.

In 2011, Mack and Ojalvo published “Briefly Noted: Practicing Useful Annotation Strategies” on the NYT Learning Network, which includes a group assignment that can be accomplished in both face-to-face and online courses. Many of the links from that 2011 article are now inaccessible, so I have updated some links and adapted the assignment section of the article here:

Divide the class into six small groups (further subdividing as necessary given class size), and give each group one of the following to investigate and practice, along with the related link. After they have mastered the technique, this group will be responsible for teaching the skill to the class. You might give the whole group the same text to work with for practice, like a chapter from current class reading or a short story.

Group 1: Highlighting and Annotating 
The Open University: Highlighting and Annotating and Open Loops: Twelve Ways to Mark Up a Book

Group 2: Writing Notes in the Margin (Marginalia)
Bucks County Community College: Notes in the Margin and Example of Annotated Text

Group 3: Taking Reading Notes
Associated Content: Text annotation  and Web annotation via Wikipedia [links replaced]

Group 4: Keeping a Reading Journal
Tumblr: Keeping a Reading Journal and Via Dannels, Double-Entry Journals [links replaced]

Group 5: Comparing Methods
Pennington Publishing Blog:
How Margin Notes are Better than the Yellow Highlighter

Group 6: Using Digital Tools for Annotating
Digital Inspiration: The Best Tools for Annotating Web Pages, Big Think: Tools for School: Digital Document Annotation on an iPad, Touch or Laptop 

Tell each group to read about and discuss each technique to make sure that all group members understand it, and then practice it briefly, in preparation to explain it to the whole class. They should also speculate on the best uses and purposes for their specific technique.

———– / end assignment

Workshop notes & resources

David Kaufer, Ananda Gunawardena, Aaron Tan, and Alexander Cheek.
Bringing Social Media to the Writing Classroom: Classroom Salon.
Journal of Business and Technical Communication, March 11, 2011.

  • Feature texts as the primary objects of interrogation.
  • Recognize the dual cognitive and social functions of textual annotations.
  • Measure the collective attention of readers through annotation behavior.
  • Use visualization to capture individual and collective annotation behavior.

Wolfe, J. L. Marginal Pedagogy: How Annotated Texts Affect a Writing-from-Sources Task. Written Communication, 19(2): 297-333. (2002).

Abstract: Historically, annotations have provided a means for discussing texts and teaching students about reading practices. This study argues that giving students annotated readings can influence their perceptions of the social context of a writing-from-sources task. Over 120 students read variously annotated letters to the editor, wrote response essays, and answered recall and attitude questionnaires. Evaluative annotations influenced students’ perceptions of the text: Passages annotated with positive evaluations were rated as more persuasive than identical passages without annotations; passages annotated with negative evaluations were perceived as less persuasive. Students’ global attitudes to the issue were unaffected. Evaluative annotations seemed to decrease student writers’ reliance on summary and encourage advanced engagement with source materials. However, some annotations appeared to have negative impacts on essays, causing students to include irrelevant information. A hypothesis that the perceived position of the annotator shapes students’ conceptions of the rhetorical task is advanced and lent limited support.

NYT: Anderson, ‘What I Really Want Is Someone Rolling Around in the Text’

As John Dickerson recently put it on Slate, describing his attempt to annotate books on an iPad: “It’s like eating candy through a wrapper.” Although I’ve played with Kindles and iPads and Nooks, and I like them all in theory, I haven’t been able to commit to any of them. As readers, they disable the thing that, to me, defines reading itself. And yet I’ve continued to hope that, in some not-too-distant future, e-reading will learn to take marginalia seriously. And it looks as if that might be happening right now.

According to the marginalia scholar H. J. Jackson, the golden age of marginalia lasted from roughly 1700 to 1820. The practice, back then, was surprisingly social — people would mark up books for one another as gifts, or give pointedly annotated novels to potential lovers. Old-school marginalia was — to put it into contemporary cultural terms — a kind of slow-motion, long-form Twitter, or a statusless, meaning-soakedFacebook, or an analog, object-based G-chat. (Nevermind: it was social, is my point.) 

NYT: Schuessler, Note-Taking’s Past, Deciphered Today

Anxiety over the potential mindlessness of note-taking took on particular urgency during the digital annotation session, at which panelists debated whether the Internet and social media had ushered in a golden age of notes or doomed us to watch all our fleeting thoughts — if not our brains themselves — sucked down a giant digital drain, beyond the reach of future historians.

At one point a tweet from David Weinberger, a technologist at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, was read aloud from the stage: “Private note-taking seems selfish to me. Make it all public, using standards. Big clouds of notes!”

Others defended the essential intimacy of the note-taking process, which one audience member summed up in the cri de coeur “My notes are none of your business.”

St. Martin’s Handbook:  1d: Becoming an engaged reader.

WRD104: Print & Digital Literacy Projects, focusing on reading