The Literary Anthology in the Age of Web Annotation

By jeremydean | 9 December, 2015

On Monday (December 14th, 2015), we hosted the first in a series of webinars focused on the pedagogy of web annotation. A recording of the live stream is viewable below and at the Google+ page for the event.

This first installment, “The Literary Anthology in the Age of Web Annotation,” was focused on using web annotation in the English classroom and featured three professors who made regular use of Hypothesis throughout the fall semester. It’s a use case that resonates with me personally as it is how I first deployed collaborative online annotation when I discovered the technology as a classroom teacher. I uploaded every text I could find online from an American literature syllabus to then Rap Genius and had students annotate on a nightly basis as they read. Some of my students remain “Top Scholars” for classic texts like The Great Gatsby hosted publicly on what is now Lit Genius.

The top scholars of The Great Gatsby, Chapter I
The top scholars of The Great Gatsby, Chapter I, on Lit Genius

The presenters spoke generally about their experiences of web annotation in the English classroom, but also covered some of the basic mechanics of integrating the Hypothesis tool into a course. Here’s a little background on the case studies we discussed:

Larry Hanley at San Francisco State added the texts for his American Literature course to a WordPress site for the class and activated the Hypothesis Word Press plug-in throughout the digital anthology. You can see a stream of the class’s most recent annotations on the right sidebar, which Larry is pulling in via RSS. For the most part, Larry’s students worked collaboratively to annotate their readings, though each student was also responsible for an independently annotated version of T.S. Eliot’s “Waste Land.” One of Larry’s most interesting innovations was an exercise that asked students to annotate exclusively with images on certain poems.

Larry Hanley's students annotating "The Yellow Wallpaper"
Larry Hanley’s students added over two hundred annotations to the novella “The Yellow Wallpaper” at his WordPress site

Robin DeRosa similarly created an open anthology for her early American literature class, though she used the WordPress-based PressBooks publishing platform. (Hypothesis is not activated natively, but with some work this can be done with PressBooks as Jack Dougherty has shown on his recent monograph, On the Line.) At last check, Robin’s students had made over a staggering five thousand annotations at her anthology’s PressBooks site! Another one of Robin’s classes, a theory course, also used Hypothesis, and perhaps one of my favorite moments from this past semester as director of education here was listening in as her students read Freud together. It was a fun and enlightening experience of the text that fulfilled for me what Sam Anderson expresses as the ultimate desire for collaborative annotation technology:

What I really want is someone rolling around in the text. I want noticing. I want, in short, marginalia, everywhere, all the time. Suddenly that seems deliriously possible.

One of Robin’s students even wrote a blog post about her experiences using Hypothesis in English class.

Robin DeRosa's students annotating Columbus
Robin DeRosa’s students annotating an excerpt from Columbus’s “Narrative” in her PressBooks anthology

Elisa Beshero-Bondar has taken a slightly different approach, sending students out into the literary archives of the Internet to add their public annotations in canonical online locations for these digital texts like Project Gutenberg and the Poetry Foundation. Also, while Robin and Larry’s students’ annotations are largely discursive, Elisa had students doing rigorous research for their annotations. Here’s her incredible assignment. The annotated texts are academic products themselves, but Elisa has her students leverage their work in annotation toward the process of writing a traditional essay for her class. Elisa has also been an active educator on Lit Genius, where she similarly had her students “adopt a poem” as an exercise in scholarly knowledge production.

One of Elisa Beshero-Bondar's annotating Keats at Project Gutenberg
One of Elisa Beshero-Bondar’s annotating Keats at Project Gutenberg

Our respondent for the webinar, Mary Isbell, was newer to Hypothesis, but has extensive experience using collaborative annotation in the classroom working with the pioneering but now unfunded Annotation Studio platform. She and I will be co-presenting in a session on annotation at MLA in Austin next month. The focus of her talk there will be on how public web annotation encourages students to take a more active role in reading, positioning them, along with their instructors, as scholarly editors of the texts under study.

Stay tuned for more information about future webinars. In January, I’m planning to talk with teachers and professors who have used Hypothesis in the composition classroom for everything from instructor feedback to peer review to self-assessment of student writing. But I’m very open to suggestions for topics you’d like to see covered as well, so don’t hesitate to reach out to education


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