We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.
I’ve always been a compulsive annotator, beginning in middle school when I diligently copied my teacher’s comments in class discussion of texts under study into their margins. These were the “modest” notes of the student that Billy Collins writes of in his wonderful ode to “Marginalia.” By the time I went to graduate school, after several years as an English teacher myself, I had developed a more sophisticated system of annotation (special markings for important passages, key terms, etc.) and a distinctive form of underlining.
As a teacher, I always urged my students to write in their books, something they were often resistant to–the value of the trade-in I suppose being contingent on the cleanliness of the copy. I would hand out Collins’ poem in classes at the beginning of every term to at once put my students at ease about annotation–it can just be a “HA!” in the margin as he notes–and to inspire them to read actively and critically, to imagine themselves in conversation with the author.
Collins correctly asserts that annotation is an age-old learning practice, older than books themselves, one used by medieval scribes in the very process of transcription. Traditional annotation aids in both comprehension and analysis for students, it slows the reader down, deepens their engagement. When I write essays, I have my books splayed on my real life desktop, open to passages and lines I’ve marked and am now composing a more close reading around.
I first discovered the power of collaborative annotation when Diigo was introduced at a meeting of the Digital Writing and Research Lab, of which I was a member during my graduate studies at UT-Austin. As a paper kind of guy, I couldn’t see myself using many of the innovative technological tools introduced to us in the DWRL–like teaching composition using Second Life–but collaborative annotation made a certain kind of sense: a simple extension of class discussion, where I urged my students to ground their arguments in textual evidence, as homework. Diigo was clunky but it nonetheless transformed our readings from objects of study into spaces to inhabit. Conversations that started there fed our face-to-face conversations and in turn continued online.
And so several years later when I was procrastinating on Rap Genius instead of working on the final chapter of my dissertation, it wasn’t much of a leap to realize that the platform could be a dynamic teaching tool for the humanities. I ended up adding many of the poems, stories, essays, and even novels I was teaching, and requiring my student to login to Rap Genius multiple times a week and annotate their reading for homework. My use of Rap Genius in the classroom built on my experience with Diigo, adding a powerful multimedia dimension to annotation-easy and elegant use of images and videos–and making the entire process far more social in the way we’ve come to expect the Internet to be–students upvoting and replying to each other’s annotations, notifications for all such activity that brought them back to the text. Among other texts, my students and I added selections from The Great Gatsby to the platform and some of those excerpts are among the most highly trafficked pages on what has now become Lit Genius, Rap Genius’s literary channel–Chapter I, now it its entirety on the site, has over 650K views.
When Rap Genius received their Series A round of fundraising–$15 million from Andreessen Horowitz–they offered me a job to scale my experiment and build an education department at the company. By the time I left, two and a half years later, we had a vibrant intellectual community of teachers using the site in their classes and regularly collaborating with each other in our Educator forum on how to teach this emergent literacy skill of collaborative annotation. The Education Genius community was a diverse set of educators from around the world, teaching a wide variety of age groups and fields, from high school history students to undergrads in biology, to grad students in literary theory.
I’m really proud to have been part of a website that introduced an “Annotate” button to millions of music fans, laying the groundwork for annotation to become an everyday activity for Internet users more broadly. It was an amazing experience to have helped Rap Genius transition to Genius and expand its interactive archive to include a wide range of texts beyond music lyrics. But my vision for collaborative annotation is specifically within formal education. To realize that vision requires focusing resources on the classroom use case in particular and that ultimately wasn’t part of Genius’s priorities. Thinking about education is not just a question of engineering features for the classroom, but also being thoughtful about the politics of platforms. Educators are increasingly more attentive to what kinds of sites and services they are asking their students to sign up for: what will be done with their students’ personal information, and what will be done with the content that their students create? It seemed unlikely to me that Genius would be able to monetize (and thus pay off their investors) without appropriating and commercializing either user data or user content. If we’ve learned anything from Google (and especially Siva Vaidhyanathan’s reading of the company’s phenomenon in The Googlization of Everything), anything calling itself a knowledge project on the Internet needs to consider “standards, ensuring the quality and preservation of information worldwide” and be relatively free of the market forces that can compromise the integrity of Internet knowledge production (205).
As a non-profit dedicated to open standards, I think we are poised at Hypothesis to bring annotation to scale in the education space. The school teacher in me remains most focused on classroom applications for this kind of technology, whether that be establishing collaborative digital annotation as a key tool for the implementation of the Common Core Standards in US public schools (see the standards here, annotated and aligned with Hypothesis), or integrating social reading into online and hybrid learning environments as both a close reading and a community building tool (in fact, thanks to Jesse Stommel, we already had a MOOC on Shakespeare experiment with Hypothesis). But I also believe that annotation functionality is key to updating our textbooks for the 21st century, making them rich with multimedia elements and editorial notes, but also with the potential for teacher and peer commentary. And I’ll be working to ship annotation along with the Content and Learning Management Systems (C/LMSs) used by so many teachers today as well. With both textbooks and C/LMSs. my vision is to bring the intimacy and vibrancy of a good classroom environment to the digital technologies that supplement IRL teaching moments asynchronously.
If anyone here is interested in the educational uses of annotation technology, please reach out to me. Here are some tutorials that I’ve created for students and teachers on how to get started using the application. Right now, I’m talking to a lot of former colleagues and current contacts in education about what they think are the most important features of a social reading tool for the classroom. Currently my top three product priorities are: private groups, enhanced notifications, and profile pages. What are yours? I want to know what you and your students need! Reach out anytime for support or discussion: firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow me on Twitter for live updates and random thoughts about collaborative digital annotation!