To Annotate or Not To Annotate (With Students) — That Is the Question

By Justin Hodgson | 27 September, 2021

A color headshot of Dr. Justin Hodgson.

This special guest post by Dr. Justin Hodgson, Associate Professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington, is the first in a series we are publishing about the large-scale multi-year research collaboration Dr. Hodgson is leading at IU to investigate how social annotation improves reading and writing practices for undergraduate students in core English literature and composition courses for majors and non-majors. We expect to post more about project outcomes here informally as the team prepares formal work for peer-reviewed publication.

It is a simple matter, really: Do I, the instructor, participate in the social annotation with students or do I stay out of the activity? Is it a better pedagogical practice to annotate along with students? To converse with them and their ideas? To help guide the inquiry and engagement? To position key elements and ideas in the text? Or is it simply better to let it be their space — an instructor-free space where they share first-draft thinking and engage in peer-to-peer learning?

If you came here looking for answers to this question, I am afraid you will be disappointed. For I do not know the correct answer. As a teacher and an advocate for building better learning experiences for students, I’m perpetually worried that in joining the conversation (aside from behavioral and/or ethics-related interventions), that am I just replicating a kind of “sage on the stage” model in the text (perhaps rebranded as the “magistrate in the margins”).

Or maybe my participation adds to the experience? Maybe it positively contributes to student learning and their level of interaction with the text?


This inquiry stems, at least in part, from a large-scale research project I am leading at IU Bloomington, where we integrated social annotation (via Hypothesis) into our first year composition course (for a fuller overview, visit our original post on the research or check out episode 16 of Liquid Margins, where the team gathered to talk about our work). In that course, students are asked to create 5 annotations (3 additive, 2 responsive) for 5 course texts (ranging from Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist: Take One” essay from her book Bad Feminist to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” from Monster Theory: Reading Culture). With 23 students per course, and scaled to our program level (over 50 different sections of first-year composition per semester), this last year IU students produced a ton of annotations. In fact, as a kind of program and social annotation snapshot, this past spring alone we had over 1,000 annotators produce over 22,000 annotations, collectively generating over 1.25 million words.

And not one of them was mine. :)

But even with such a large corpus of annotations, the Hamlet conundrum lingers. It remains a frequent topic of conversation among the larger research team — many of whom were involved in the pedagogical design and construction of the online course, including the decision to integrate Hypothesis (and how). And as I have no definitive answer, I’ve invited them to share their perspectives below and/or in the comments.

Oh, and just to be clear, I see incredible value in either approach, but my initial strategy for a 200-level rhetoric course (which is not part of the study) was to stay out of the social annotation activity, to leave it as a student space. I did provide annotation activity guidance (i.e., we discussed strategies and approaches in class) and I set up the conditions for the engagement (i.e., created the assignment parameters), but I resisted the temptation to post with/amongst them. Next time, however, I’m considering a more involved approach and see how that impacts the annotations, discussions, connections, student work, and the like.

Other Team Member Thoughts

Mary Helen Truglia

Ironically, given the title of this blog post, one of the first texts I asked students to annotate in my Introduction to Drama course was Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Given that the majority of the students were not familiar with early modern English, I did annotate the text with what I hoped would be some helpful explanatory notes on linguistic usage and obscure wordplay, but I chose to not add direct questions or to respond in threaded replies to student annotations. This choice was partially because I hoped to draw them into further verbal discussion of the text in synchronous class, but also because I wanted them to have the opportunity to annotate, question, and reply to one another without the spectre of my teacherly authority imposing limitations on what they chose to write. In future iterations, I might either respond to students directly, or add in specific questions to help students navigate the complexities of the text. As Justin notes above, I don’t think there’s a clear or simple binary answer to this question!

Sarah Fischer

Coming to this question with the perspective of a writing center tutor, I am just as torn on the issue as my colleagues. I see value in collaborative learning, where tutors, or in this case, instructors, are on the same playing fields as writers. In line with this idea, I can understand the merit in instructors commenting right alongside students, reassuring students that the way people generate ideas is in collaboration with one another. However, classroom dynamics are different than those of the writing center; instructors assign grades, and they are not students’ peers. I wonder, then, about the impact of instructors participating with non-directive approaches. What if instructors’ annotations took the form of something like questions for further development? How about annotations that do not evaluate or judge but, rather, pull ideas together and try to highlight emergent themes? Like Mary Helen suggested, I imagine an answer might exist in the grey space of this not-so-black-and-white binary.

Laura Rosche

As a writing instructor, I have developed a habit of making definitive “I” statements about my pedagogical choices. I proudly and eagerly tell my colleagues things like: I assign low-stakes writing prompts at the beginning of each class as a way of helping students settle into our time together; I ask my students to submit self-reflections along with all major assignments as a way for them to illuminate all of the unseen labor of the writing process; I conduct weekly check-ins with my class as a way of maintaining open and honest communication about their individual academic progress and personal growth.

I tell my colleagues that I do these things always. I tell them that these choices are as much a part of my pedagogy as my lessons on how to write generative thesis statements and organized paragraphs, and I explain that I maintain my always practices because they make my teaching more efficient and effective: they routinely work to the benefit of my students, and at this point — in my 9th year teaching — I know just doing them means there is one less decision I need to make in my day-to-day life.

But, I do not have an always for annotating with students. I have things that I like to do, of course — preemptively pointing out particularly challenging sections of a text, for example, or asking students to pause as they’re reading to define certain terms — but I do not have an always for annotating with students because I believe how I engage with students as they engage with a text should be rhetorical, and every rhetorical situation calls for a different response. My decision to annotate (or not) with students is always that — a decision. It is a decision that is different across my sections; it varies by semester. It is dependent upon student needs and wants and goals. Sometimes this means calling attention to certain themes recurring throughout students’ posts; sometimes it means responding to a question asked of the text or connecting student comments whose ideas build upon one another but somehow missed each other’s comments. Sometimes, though, it means realizing the best thing I can do for students is get out of their way. In any case, it is, in fact, a decision, and that decision is, above all else, rhetorical. Always.

Alex Penn

My approach to teaching is generally experimental. If something isn’t working right, I try something else, and then I continue tweaking as necessary. I am still experimenting with my teaching practice when it comes to social annotation. Like others, I am concerned about taking away student agency or being too directive. At the same time, I want to be helpful.

Currently I am pre-seeding texts with questions that, if answered, will help students better understand the text. Students are not required to answer these questions, but they may choose to. “Why does the author use the word ‘seem’ here?” (Because this is actually what the author argues against, a statement they do not truly believe.) “Why is this one letter bold and enormous?” (Because this is a section break!)

The questions have more or less “right” answers, which, I think, makes them better suited to annotation than in-class discussion. If a student knows the answer, they type it, and then everyone else has the benefit of reading it. If a student doesn’t know the answer, they move on. There is none of the “fishing” we despise in the classroom.

In the first two classes where I implemented this strategy, it was very effective. In the third, much less so. The third class was smaller. Fewer students attempted to answer the questions I posed. It was also a summer class, and the students seemed to have less confidence in themselves and in each other.

As always, I suppose, the way we annotate must depend on the particular students we are working with. But my hope is that my students can realize the answers for themselves if I am able to ask the right questions.

Chris Andrews

I see value in both leaving students be and joining them in the annotations, it just depends on the course or assignment goal. In general, I like to be in the annotations with the students as a fellow learner. I try not to engage too much, but when I do I try to position the students as knowledgeable and contributors to our collective understanding. This might be a little easier in my case because I am teaching educational psychology to pre-service teachers in various disciplines. So, I can easily make a post as an assignment prompt or an annotation on the course reading itself: something like, “How does this learning theory apply to teaching music, visual art, or a foreign language?” While I may have some potential responses to this question, I don’t have the experiences or disciplinary knowledge that my students have to be able to make some of those connections. When I do join the conversation and share my thoughts or experiences, I usually try to encourage additional conversation by ending my annotation asking for others’ thoughts, connections, applications, or experiences, either generally (“Anyone else have some thoughts on this?”) or more specifically (“There are some great applications to teaching visual arts here, can someone in music education share some ideas?”).


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