Collective Annotating

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Much of the literature I teach is in the public domain, so it’s fairly easy to find online.  I always select editions of books, of course, but inevitably some students really, really want to use the Project Gutenberg version.  I’m not particularly a stickler about this, and while it makes for some complicated moments in looking for a specific quotation, it’s generally been workable. Of course, like most everyone who teaches literature, I’m really ordering editions of texts for the work of the editor, most especially the endnotes.

At the same time, these electronic versions of texts without notes give us a blank canvas to work on as readers.  To that end, I’ve been working on teaching students how to annotate texts in ways that are useful to them. 

This fall, I had students in two different classes do this work.  In my British Literature survey course, we looked at John Donne’s “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness,” and in my first year college skills course, we looked at “A Scandal in Bohemia.”  For both texts, I selected difficult vocabulary words and various references that I anticipated that students likely would not know.  Then, in groups of 2-3, students looked up the words or phrases randomly assigned to their group and found definitions that seemed to best explain the terms in the text.  (For these types of assignments, I almost always have students work in small groups, rather than on their own, to ensure that everyone has access to a smartphone or a tablet.)  After students found their terms, we worked together to annotate the text.  I asked for terms, students gave us definitions, and I annotated the document projected on the screen.  In one class, I tried with footnotes; in the other I used the comments feature of Google Docs.

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The purpose of this is two-fold.  It reminds students that they can and should look things up, an essential skill for anyone doing a careful reading of the text.  It also gave us an opportunity to slow down and examine the choices that the authors make and allowed us to untangle the complex images and references in both pieces.

I’m considering further ways to implement this type of activity in the courses I teach. A document that students share and annotate together (rather than having me do it) would be useful.  This might actually be most effective as a wiki, which my LMS supports.  Mostly, though, I’m interested in this idea of students working together to build knowledge, even when things might be readily available online.  They’re working through a process which can encourage them to take control of their own reading and their own interpretations.

About the Author
Emily Isaacson received her BA from Augustana College (Illinois) and her MA and PhD from the University of Missouri. Previously at Chowan University, where she was the coordinator of the Chowan Critical Thinking Program, Emily is now working as an assistant professor of English at Heidelberg University. She has presented her work on early modern literature and on teaching literature at meetings of the Shakespeare Association of America, the Renaissance Society of America, South Atlantic Modern Language Association, and the College English Association. She also frequently reviews books about teaching literature in the classroom.