Breaking Boundaries With Social Annotation: An Interview With Amanda Licastro

By Nate Angell | 13 January, 2022

Headshot of Amanda Licastro.

Way back before the pandemic, I had the pleasure of meeting with the inimitable Amanda Licastro, who back then was Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric at Stevenson University, but who has since moved on to be the Emerging & Digital Literacy Instructional Designer at the University of Pennsylvania. In all her work, Amanda shows us what it looks like to be an educator who uses social annotation thoughtfully in many different contexts. Our far-ranging conversation touched on topics including so-called crises in student reading and writing; using multimodal annotation practices to meet students where they are; “crowdsourcing the hard work of reading”; busting the myth of sustained concentration; digital citizenship; the fakeness of the term “fake news”; and noticing what students do not annotate. It was a long and wonderful conversation, so we’ve pulled out some highlights here, but we also invite you to watch the full video to catch everything Amanda shared.

Nate Angell: In the presentation you gave at I Annotate 2019, you were drawing attention to a supposed crisis around reading and writing, and challenging that in an interesting way. Do you think there is a crisis right now in reading and writing among students — or people in general?

Amanda Licastro: I always like to point to a text that changed my thinking about this question, and that’s Kathleen Yancey’s “Writing in the 21st Century.” It basically states that students are writing more than ever before. If you were to challenge a group of students (which I have) to document how many text messages, TikTok, IG posts, Facebook posts, tweets, emails they send out in a day, the sheer volume of writing is staggering. Why we don’t value that writing in academia is the question for me.

NA: So it’s perceived as a question of volume, but it’s actually a question of the quality?

AL: Exactly. And multimodal writing — writing using images, videos, even voice elements — has been studied now for decades, especially in disability and accessibility studies. Jody Shipka has a beautiful text called Toward a Composition Made Whole, looking at, like, if I write a poem on my ballet slipper, does that count as writing? Or, as a historical example, can we consider if I write Emily Dickinson’s recipes as poetry? These questions aren’t new, it’s just that the technology through which we’re communicating is new. I don’t think there is a crisis. There’s a shift. And I think that shift may be more rapid than other shifts that we have seen historically. For example, the first major shift that you can see in higher ed is when the veterans came back from war and we started open admissions and increased the volume of people in higher education. That shift was subtle, and it took time, and it slowly moved through different groups of people — first, a different class, then different genders, different races. Here, we have a shift that’s happening across all of those categories at the same time. So, in terms of writing, I think it is a shift, and I think we need to move with that shift. And we need to embrace that shift and meet students where they are, just as we have with open admissions and with these other shifts that we’ve encountered in higher education over time (see Cathy Davidson’s The New Education) .

In terms of reading, I have to point to Cathy Davidson: She talks a lot about multitasking and attention blindness, and how students in the 21st century are essentially multitasking all the time (see Now You See It). We treat that as a crisis; we say that’s a bad thing because they can’t stay focused on one topic. Actually, as Davidson argues, multitasking helps us see more and do more, and experience texts and tasks in different ways. There’s no evidence that anyone ever was deeply reading for hours on end with no interruptions. All we have are claims from Plato saying that writing is going to kill our ability to memorize. Our minds have always been wandering; we’ve always been distractible. We’ve always been doodling on the sides of pages, or thinking about our lunch, or stopping to converse with someone. Now we just have distraction that’s more readily available and purposefully attuned to distracting us — like popup ads, notifications; things that quite literally fly across your screen to distract you. But the fact that we have students who have grown up with those and have trained themselves to deal with those in such interesting ways is something that I think we should bring into the classroom and be talking about and critically thinking about. So how can we use multitasking as a positive, as a tool, as a skill, rather than, “Oh, these students are so distracted; they can’t focus on anything.” Why treat it like an ill rather than a benefit?

I call myself a “techno optimist.” I do think we need to be critical of tools, I do think we need to investigate tools and to consider the ethical ramifications of tools, but I also think we need to learn how to use them to our benefit. How can we use the tools that we have to support students? I don’t like to play the blame game. What I like to do is use these tools effectively, and to make students aware of how they use these technologies. My students have to do a digital detox, where they track which apps and sites they use over a 48-hour period, and they have to choose three of those things to eliminate for 24 hours, and then reflect on that. So it’s more about awareness: identifying and tracking and being mindful of what they’re doing. Say, “OK, I did this for 24 hours, and I’m going to go back to what I was doing because it works for me.” Or, it’s like, “Actually, I checked Facebook 700 times a day, and I need to eliminate that.”

NA: You’ve been talking about this perceived crisis and looking at it as something else. So, how do you see annotation as being a significant tool in the work you’re doing to argue against this crisis or surface other kinds of teaching and learning, or awareness and experience?

AL: Whether your texts are print-based or digital, you need to know if students are reading, and you need to know if they’re comprehending what they’re reading. In order to figure out if students are reading and comprehending, you need a form of accountability. But I don’t think quizzes are necessarily effective. I want to use a carrot, not a stick; I think a quiz is a stick. Plus, quizzes are about the minutiae of memorization. I’m having students read so that they can understand conceptual information and apply that information to their lives or their profession. I want to get at those higher-order skills, not those lower-level skills. So for me, exams, quizzes… that’s not going to get at the skills I’m hoping to develop.

So I started thinking of tracking student engagement with texts in alternative ways. Of course, you’ve got discussion posts and in-class discussions, but no matter what, I have yet in my years of teaching encountered a class with 100 percent participation in a face-to-face classroom. You have students who are shy, you have students who have social anxiety, you have students who are just uncomfortable speaking in those spaces. And the same happens in the digital realm. I’ve also experimented with things like live tweeting readings; as they read, they tweet out things they find surprising or interesting or that they have questions about. They use the hashtag #SpoilerAlert. It’s given me a window into their reading process; that’s what I’m looking for — almost being able to see them reading. I’m not going to sit in their dorm room and look over their shoulder.

NA: That would be creepy.

AL: Right. We call it the creepy treehouse effect. So I don’t want to be in their treehouse, but I do want to see how they’re interacting with the text. So that’s where annotation came into play. I’ve always asked students to annotate texts when they were print-based. But students are encountering digital texts in every discipline, in every class and, probably more importantly, in their personal lives. I wanted to think about how I could shift that annotation into the digital space to meet them where they were, but also to give them the tools to interact with the kind of texts that they were encountering.

So I think I started with Annotation Studio and Google Docs. And then, when I started teaching with WordPress, I was thinking about how I could annotate digital texts that wouldn’t eliminate the multimodality. I started teaching digital publishing, and this is where the real turn happened. If I take a New York Times article, for example, and I cut and paste it into a Word doc, I lose the format of the New York Times: the layout, the design, the font, the images, the videos. Yes, I still have the words on the page, but aren’t all those elements just as vital? And in digital publishing, we talk about the visual rhetoric of the text being equal to — if not more important sometimes — the content of the text.

NA: Yeah, I used to think a lot about the New York Times and their choice for what picture to include with a story — or what picture would be on the homepage without an associated story was probably a more important choice than the text itself.

AL: And think about the font! The New York Times font is iconic. It’s a romanesque, classical font that pretty much anyone in the world could identify as the New York Times text. We have a whole unit in my class on fonts and typefaces. Students are baffled by the fact that they can identify texts that they only subconsciously noticed. Wes Anderson, for example, always uses the same font for all of his films, and when you type in any title, like the Royal Tenenbaums, you’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s Wes Anderson’s font!” And as my friend and amazing scholar Karl Stolley pointed out, the show Stranger Things uses the same typeface as Stephen King novels. You don’t say, “Oh, that’s a Stephen King font,” but when you put them together, you’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s why that reminds me of ‘80s horror novels.”

NA: That’s why I feel creeped-out.

AL: Yeah! So, I wanted to find a tool that allowed my students not only to comment on the actual text, but also on those digital elements because I wanted them to think about designing their own digital texts. So that’s when I started looking for multiple options and giving them a series of tools they could do the assignments with. One of them was screen capture. One was literally taking a screenshot and putting bubbles, or circling things and putting arrows and typing. And then there was Hypothesis. And I was like, “Oh, this does all of the things that I’m looking for: It allows students to write about different elements of the text; it still allows them to comment in a very traditional annotation way, but it also has this amazing added benefit of allowing them to add multimodal elements to the annotations themselves. They can add a link, they can add an image, they can add a video to these annotations in exactly the ways that I want them to be doing the work.

So that’s a huge added benefit. Not only were they doing a multimodal project, but they were able to use these multimodal elements. It was very metacognitive, and why multimodal matters — what we can do with multimodal writing that we can’t do with static writing.

NA: That’s really interesting. At Hypothesis, mostly thanks to Jeremy Dean’s work, we have settled on this short descriptor about some of the benefits that Hypothesis annotation can bring. We talk about it being able to make reading visible, so that gets at your point about accountability; active, in the sense of a record of your interaction with the text; and social, as the third element. It seems clear that you are very active in using annotation as a tool to help make reading visible and active. Can you talk about if it’s important for it to be social, and if so, why?

AL: For me, it all comes down to talking about these texts in class. But there’s limited class time, and I think almost all of us are being asked to teach hybrid or fully online. So, is there a way to take that face-to-face social interaction and bring it into the digital space in ways that students are already accustomed to doing, because they’re already used to tweeting at each other, messaging each other, answering each other’s comments, whether it be YouTube or Instagram. But we also see the hugely problematic nature of those spaces. YouTube comments are the worst for those of us in higher education. (Don’t read the comments of a Chronicle article, unless you want to be depressed for the rest of the week.)

NA: That’s what I think is so dangerous about Twitter, especially if you’re a woman or person of color: You say anything and the responses can be so toxic.

AL: I always try to teach my students to be good digital citizens. If we really want the ecology of online spaces to change, we have to practice that in our classrooms, too. I was thinking about how I can capitalize on these skills students already have — leaving comments, having online conversations — so in the live tweeting exercise I started with, I told students, “You have to have ten tweets for every chapter, and you have to reply to three other people’s tweets,” engaging them in ways that they already do, but just showing them how they could code-switch: “Don’t just just use this for social engagement, but also use this for finding out more information about this text, and reading with your classmates, and talking about it with your classmates, in the same way you might your favorite show. Like, you’re already using the internet to talk about cultural objects, you’re already tweeting using hashtags.”

So, how can I use those same skills but apply them to a different purpose — and show students how to do it thoughtfully and with intention? Hypothesis has that built in. It allows students to reply to each other’s thoughts, and to support each other’s work in providing information for each other, like crowdsourcing the hard work of reading. They can crowdsource the references, crowdsource the definitions but also ask questions and respond to each other’s questions or throw out opinions, start debates. I really love when I have students ask those big, rhetorical, unanswerable questions and see a bunch of other students weigh in.

And, although my classrooms are very diverse, I do every year have especially women and people of color write in their final reflection letters, “I should have spoken up more, but I was afraid to,” or “I didn’t feel comfortable,” but the online space gives them a different dynamic. It’s not their face, it’s not their body in the space, so they do have more freedom to express their opinions. And I find that my shy students or my students with social anxiety have the time to think out and write out their responses in ways they feel more comfortable doing than having to be on the spot and state an opinion. The asynchronous nature of it gives them a little bit more time to think through what they’re going to say. I think that particularly benefits students who have social anxiety and discomfort in whatever way, for whatever reason.

NA: Some of it brought onto them, rather than coming from them.

AL: Yeah, and I try not to weigh in until after all the students are finished. It also does give me a chance to get to answer questions that maybe we don’t get to in class.

NA: Have you ever reshaped what you were going to do in class based on the annotations your students made?

AL: Yes! I start one of my courses with E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, which is a very short short story by a brilliant and beautiful writer, but it’s dated — very dated (1909!). And the short story is about living in a world completely run by machines and no face-to-face interaction whatsoever; everyone lives in basically pods and communicates through telepresence. The main character is rebelling against this, like, “Why can’t I just see people and talk to people and go into the outside world and live amongst people?” I have students annotate The Machine Stops, and the same chunk of text is always left unannotated — every time, same chunk! And that chunk of text is full of fake historical references. They’re perfectly titled to mimic real events. I think students genuinely don’t know if they’re real or fake and get very apprehensive about saying anything about them.

NA: They can’t find the Wikipedia pages for them.

AL: Right. After seeing this same chunk over and over again, I immediately go there first now, and say, “This is one of the things E.M. Forster’s playing with here. This whole world is based on having fake information and regurgitating information that’s provided to you by a Big Brother-type figure. They are providing you with these fake events and expecting you to just go along with it as if they’re real, in the exact same way the characters in the story are. You’re falling in the trap that Forester is setting up as a vulnerability of humanity.

NA: That’s an amazing example. I was just thinking that it would be an interesting exercise to have students create Wikipedia pages for the fake events in E.M. Forster’s story, calling attention to the fact that they’re fake. But maybe that would take all the fun out of the story.

AL: Yeah. The mother in the story is a professor of fake news. She just spouts fake junk. This is perhaps unfair to speak for them — the students who don’t actually have their own voice in this conversation — but I think they don’t actually see the irony of the mother immediately. So that’s a really important conversation to have, especially in our current moment of even the term “fake news” being fake.

NA: Yeah, it’s taken on a fake meaning now.

AL: Right, information literacy being so essential at all levels. Seriously, the act of social annotation led me to change my lesson about that text, because they didn’t get that aspect of the story, and I didn’t know they didn’t get it until I realized that they wouldn’t touch that whole paragraph in the short story. And every other paragraph was heavily, heavily, heavily annotated.

NA: Often people look at hotspots, where annotation is happening a lot, without maybe thinking of the reverse case, like why is no annotation happening in certain areas of the text.

AL: I’ve also brought students questions directly into the classroom. So, like, “Hey look, this student asked this question. It has ten replies, but we still haven’t really settled on an answer, so let’s talk about that.” And I have also used it — to go back to the digital citizen question — when students do inappropriate things in the online space. I call them out and say, like, “You were talking to this student in a personal way and not about the text; that’s not what this is for. Let’s talk about the implicit code of conduct here that you were breaching.” It’s uncomfortable but also important.

NA: Yeah, to address it in a way that’s constructive, rather than shaming.

AL: Well, you better believe that students are doing it in lots of other online spaces. And if they’re doing it on the course site the professor built for course interaction, there are other aspects of their lives that may need this lesson as well.

NA: So true. Well, this has been great, Amanda. I hope our paths cross again soon, live and in person.

AL: Thank you so, so much.

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