Social Reading in the Writing Classroom: A Webinar and 5 Ways to Use Hypothesis for Rhet/Comp

By jeremydean | 5 April, 2016

This post is written in advance of a webinar on using web annotation in the writing classroom. Join us Monday, April 11th at 4pm CST or watch on YouTube anytime thereafter. 

I first discovered web annotation in the form of Diigo while teaching rhetoric during grad school at the University of Texas at Austin. I was working in the Digital Research and Writing Lab where we experimented with and designed curriculum around various digital pedagogical tools. When a colleague introduced Diigo as a potential tool for the comp classroom, I remember getting excited about the way collaborative annotation seemed to align with but extend traditional humanities pedagogy–it was literally digital sticky notes but shared with others. I immediately started using the Diigo bookmarklet in my classes, having students leave public notes on our course readings, primarily as a replacement for online discussion forums meant to ensure students read and engaged with their assignments before meeting. I always found that when my students annotated a text before we met face to face to discuss it, we would begin with concrete, student-generated topics that not only focused but energized the conversation.

A student leaves a Diigo sticky note on a digital text and a teacher responds

At, we have many teachers, both inside and outside the composition classroom, using web annotation in precisely this way: as a regular, collaborative reading practice encouraging close attention to choices that authors make when they write. But we also have many rhet/comp teachers using web annotation in powerful new ways. Below is a breakdown of five approaches educators have taken to incorporating web annotation into their writing instruction.

1. Collaborative reading/analysis

Collaborative annotation can take the form of generalized discussion, as demonstrated here with Sean Hackney’s students at Jolliet West High School in their discussion of David Foster Wallace’s “Ticket to the Fair.” Or students can be instructed to annotate with a more focused task such as identifying certain rhetorical strategies as seen here with Jon Becker’s students at Virginia Commonwealth on an opinion article from New York magazine in which they label claims and evidence. Amanda Hulburt at Penns Valley High School uses the tag feature for a similar assignment, asking students to tag and explain Aristotelian rhetorical elements in texts. Check out the stream of annotations from Robin Wharton’s students at Georgia State University to see what a sustained multimodal annotation practice across readings for a course looks like!

Amanda Hulburt’s students identify Aristotelian rhetorical strategies in Tim Cook’s open letter to the FBI

Of course, these collaboratively annotated texts become resources for individual students beyond class discussion as they move toward formal papers and other types of summative assessment. If a student chooses a particular reading from the course as a source for a final essay, they will have lots of ideas, both in their own annotations and in those of their classmates, to build off of when they get down to writing themselves. In his use of in the rhetoric classroom, Casey Boyle of the University of Texas at Austin encourages students to “steal” and cite ideas from each other’s annotations and gives extra credit to those individuals who are most often cited!

2. Independent rhetorical analysis

While the collaborative aspect of web annotation is largely what makes a tool like so powerful, students can gain a lot from independent work as well. After practicing rhetorical analysis as a class, for example, students might be asked to continue that work on their own, to take ownership of a particular article and identify rhetorical strategies and fallacies themselves. To this end, Amanda Licastro had students this spring use to rhetorically analyze online academic journal articles. Here’s Amanda’s assignment and an exemplary student project--as it happens, the student is actually annotating an article by another educator, Sean Hackney!

A student of Amanda Licastro’s rhetorically analyzing an academic journal article

3. Peer review

Nathaniel Rivers of Saint Louis University and his students carried on a semester-long conversation on each other’s class blogs using last fall. As an outside observer, it was amazing to see young people engaging with one another like “real” writers, both appreciating and challenging their classmates’ words and ideas. Take a look at Nathaniel’s stream of annotations on to see how deeply he engaged with his students’ writing through annotation. Nathaniel created a great infographic (above) to guide students through such a conversation. (It’s certainly worthwhile, both within public and private projects, to consider annotations as rhetorical acts themselves.)

4. Research

Web annotation can be collaborative not only when students are on a common text but also when they are exploring texts independently. Students can be set loose to explore the rhetoric of articles and websites that interest them, but continue to share their annotations with a group or the public. Classmates and teachers can follow their research through their notes, offering guidance and encouragement throughout the process. Sean Hackney’s work this semester with his students at Joliet West High School is one of our better examples of public but independent research projects conducted using His assignment is worth looking at as he guides students to annotate with the goal of generating an argument for a research paper and encourages classmates to engage with each other’s research annotations. See Sean’s students’ aggregated individual inquiries via their class tag annotation stream. Here’s one particular student’s annotations on a UN speech transcript. You can also see her stream annotations for the project as a whole here.

5. Self-assessment

I don’t have many live, public examples of this kind of work being done using–it should be noted that especially for commentary on student writing, educators often choose to use the Hypothesis private groups feature, sometimes even creating a group of two in order to give fully private feedback (better features coming to support that use case!). Nor is formal self-assessment yet a common practice in the rhet-comp classroom, though I think it’s powerful/empowering: becoming a good writer requires that you look at your writing from the outside, as a reader. Students can annotate their own writing either to show where they could revise or to explain how they have revised a piece. I used to tell my own students to always read their essays out loud to themselves. But having to stop and say something is obviously even more intense in terms of listening to and reflecting on your own decisions as a writer. Last fall, Brian Zimmerman at Boston College had students annotate final drafts of personal narratives they wrote and published online in this way. Here’s an example. And here’s Brian discussing his use of Hypothesis in the comp classroom as part of a larger project exploring the teaching of writing in digital environments.

These are just the early thoughts of a former rhetoric instructor after watching comp teachers make use of over the past two semesters. I’m sure lots of you out there may have challenges to the above ideas and even better ones. Please add them to this post in the form of annotations, drop us a line via email, or join us for a webinar on teaching web annotation in the rhet/comp classroom next week.

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