To become active and insightful interpreters of literary or scholarly texts, students must learn to attend to and trust in their own thoughtful responses to what they read. Instructors can help students to acquire this self-awareness by encouraging them to makes notes – as most experienced readers do habitually – on the texts that they are examining.
Collaborative assignments using the open-source program Hypothes.is (https://web.hypothes.is/) can help students to develop the habit of textual annotation. The Hypothes.is software “wraps” an unobtrusive and easy-to-use annotation apparatus around publicly available web pages. When the Hypothes.is Chrome extension is installed, the browser shows all web pages with the annotation overlay. Groups of students can also, without installing the extension, work on linked proxy versions of web pages bordered with the Hypothes.is apparatus, which consists of a collapsible sidebar in which notes can be written. Notes can be shared with fellow group members or kept for the private reference of the individual student. Hypothes.is users always have the option of collapsing the sidebar and viewing web pages without annotations, which only appear when corresponding highlighted portions of primary texts are engaged. (At the following link are directions for setting up the Hypothes.is software: https://web.hypothes.is/quick-start-guide/)
To help students as they read and prepare notes, instructors can present assigned texts with their own preliminary annotations, which may include contextual and background explanations, highlights of key details, and guiding interpretive questions (as in the image below).
Lines of poetry by Walt Whitman appear as published at The Walt Whitman Archive, with highlighted phrases keyed to instructor’s questions in the Hypothes.is annotation sidebar.
The Walt Whitman Archive, eds. Folsom and Price, Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 unported license.)
As they make their own annotations, students can also see and respond to the contributions of their classmates; as the notes accumulate, they take the form of an ongoing collaboration. Whereas responses to online discussion questions on programs like Blackboard are aboutthe text, annotation-mediated discussion unfolds uponthe text, in visible relation to the author’s words. Viewing the text and the notes of peers on a common webpage, students are encouraged to think of how literary texts, as objects of shared attention, draw readers together in a collective exploratory enterprise.
Instructors assigning literary texts for annotation are likely aware that many works of English literature, from the Renaissance to the early 20thcentury, are publicly available at Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org) and elsewhere. (Pre-20th-century translations of ancient and classical texts are also publicly available, but more recent translations of these texts into contemporary English are usually under copyright.)
I try to help my students appreciate that they are free to make notes about any words, images, or references that seem worthy of special notice, exploration, or interpretation. The open-endedness of annotation work can intimidate students, but the lack of “right answers” can also be liberating – students can respond to anything in the text that they find interesting or provocative. My one requirement is that annotations make points about specific words and phrases that, when further considered, lead to a better understanding of larger portions of the text. Annotations, I tell my students, should make focused points or observations and then say something about their broader significance – what these observations imply, what questions they might raise, or how they might be linked to other textual elements.
Students are often encouraged when they realize that they can turn the difficulties that they experience as readers into useful annotations. If they attend to their own experience, and register what gives them pause, students will likely find textual details – strange diction, surprising images, obscure references, etc. – that raise questions of general interest. Even without clear answers, the posing of precise questions – pointing out what needs further consideration or explaining why specific phrases are hard to understand – can reveal the depth and complexity of textual passages to other readers.
Though I urge students to make annotations about any word or phrase in the literary text that stands out to them, I also emphasize the importance of more straightforward, targeted research.
If students do not know the meaning of a word, either because the word itself is not recognized or because it is used in an unusual or archaic manner, then they should consult their dictionaries – though they should also examine the way the word is used in the text under consideration. A useful annotation might suggest what a word means and how knowing this helps one to understand what is happening in the surrounding sentences or paragraphs. References to real-world places, to historical people and events, and to cultural or religious practices are similarly worthy of annotation. I tell students that a note incorporating research into this kind of reference should not only explain what it means but also discuss how this explanation helps them to understand the portion of the text where the reference occurs.
For students who are in the habit of annotating texts, the process of reading can naturally unfold into interpretation and critical writing. Insightful analysis often begins with spontaneously written marginal notes. Such notes make it easier to remember and re-examine key features of texts when drawing together ideas in order to develop an argument. Regularly preparing annotations can thus show students the interrelationship of reading, thinking, and writing. Students can put this awareness more completely into practice if asked to develop some of their annotations into formal papers. Sample assignments, along with tutorials on various uses of the Hypothes.is software, are available in this guide for instructors: https://web.hypothes.is/teacher-resource-guide/).