Reading Again: Annotating, Editing, and Writing in the Browser. Pedagogy, Design, and Development of Annotation Studio

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Kurt Fendt

    Comparative Media Studies Program - Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  2. 2. Wyn Kelley

    Literature - Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  3. 3. Jamie Folsom

    Comparative Media Studies Program - Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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1. Keywords
Annotation, collaboration, pedagogy, critical thinking, writing, close reading, software methodology

2. Pedagogy
“By re-reading and looking for meaning in the text, you start to think critically.”

~ Student, First-Year Writing, Hofstra University, using Annotation Studio

“Within the humanities,” argue Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, et al in their 2012 Digital Humanities, “close reading has been a central practice that is premised on careful attention to features contained in a text” (our emphasis)1 Advances in the digital humanities have “opened up new ways of creating meaning through distant reading” (our emphasis), and scholars have debated the significance of each, but the authors of Digital Humanities emphasize a dynamic relation between the two: “Rather than pitting distant reading against close reading, what we are seeing is the emergence of new conjunctions between the macro and the micro, general surface trends and deep hermeneutic inquiry, the global view from above and the local view on the ground” (39). In developing Annotation Studio, a digital pedagogical tool for selecting, commenting on, and sharing texts within a humanities classroom, the research team at HyperStudio, the Digital Humanities Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have built a simple, practical utensil that enables both close study and distant analysis. We first presented the tool at its early stages at the 2012 Digital Humanities meeting after we had just received a Start-Up grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). In this presentation we will discuss the results from the first development phase of Annotation Studio, including classroom integration, assessment research, and iterative software development process now that Annotation Studio has been tested extensively in a range of humanities classes at MIT and elsewhere. We will conclude with future directions for the tool that will be implemented over the next two years, supported by a NEH Digital Humanities Implementation Grant.

Allowing students to engage deeply with a text, Annotation Studio also expands their awareness of their own critical reading, writing, and thinking as taking place in a social, shared space. Social reading, we have found, lends itself to an enhanced experience of writing, as students recognize in the audience for their essays the very people with whom they have read their texts. In this fluid progress from reading to writing, we have seen something new emerge: a distinct sense among students of themselves as editors, as people who manipulate text from the earliest stages of the critical process. This sense of command of a text empowers students to read and write more confidently and with greater pleasure than they have come to expect in a typical humanities classroom.

Although useful in a number of scholarly applications, Annotation Studio shows particular promise for pedagogy, as it enables students to read and read again by selecting text, writing comments, sharing responses with other students, and tagging and sorting annotations for further research and writing. The tool builds on the deep history of marginalia of all kinds, from illuminated texts to private authorial markings to marginal text meant for coterie circulation to the comment features of contemporary word processing.2 Adapting the history of marginalia to the classroom, Annotation Studio makes visible the earliest stirrings of critical thought and leaves a record of the reading process for both writers and readers to return to and absorb.

The pedagogy growing out of Annotation Studio also responds to new theories of media literacy.3 Drawing from Henry Jenkins’ research on online fan communities, we have experimented with the use of shared annotation as a way for students to interact critically and creatively with texts and with each other. Recognizing that authors from the past borrowed from other writers and shared their texts, we have created a digital workspace where students can participate in a fluid relationship with texts from the past. At the same time, given an environment in which such fluid relationships can raise serious questions about intellectual property and theft, we use the digital text as an opportunity for discussion of responsible research, citation, and attribution. Annotation Studio, with its precise marking tools, allows students to see the boundaries between text and margin, between what is theirs and what comes from someone else’s writing.

The use of annotation in a fluid-text environment lends itself as well to critical writing and especially to a sense of the student writer as an editor.4 If the first stage of the writing process involves meticulous marking of a text, the reader is already performing some of the functions of an editor: defining unfamiliar words, glossing historical references and literary allusions, hazarding analysis. When it comes time to write, the student has already practiced primary marking, research, and interpretation with an audience of peers, the other members of the class. We have found that although students often find critical writing intimidating, they tend to feel less overwhelmed when they have experienced these initial steps and have come to think of themselves as editors more than as writers. Working in Annotation Studio, they get to raise the questions and work out the problems that make a text seem mystifying. Their papers improve as a result of this work, and their imaginations soar.

Since presenting Annotation Studio in 2012, we have developed the pedagogy considerably, as noted above. We have also greatly developed the tool, advanced the partnerships with instructors and developers that sustain it, and performed the assessment necessary for moving ahead.

3. Software Development
As we plan and implement new features in the Annotation Studio web application, we are careful to do so in response to the needs, preferences and demands of instructors and students in humanities classrooms at MIT and at partner institutions. The main features of the tool are all drawn from what those audiences have articulated as functionality they need in their disciplines.

Guided by that approach, we have written Annotation Studio using an agile software development methodology, which accommodates continuous feedback from users and permits refinements based on that feedback.

In addition, we have integrated an open source annotation engine from the Open Knowledge Foundation, called the Annotator, which has an open architecture that has made it possible for us to add functionality specific for the educational context. Further, we have released Annotation Studio itself under an open source license. Engaging in this way with other communities of developers has accelerated progress on our own software, and has made it possible to connect with coders and instructors at other institutions.

The combination of an iterative development process and engagement with other developers has produced an increasingly functional tool, and one which is also increasingly focused on the peculiar needs of the humanities classroom.

In that context, we will describe some architectural and user-facing features of Annotation Studio which will serve to illustrate our approach, including aspects of technical planning and decision-making, our process for selecting, sequencing and implementing features, and our experience collaborating on open source projects as those may be useful to others writing software for Digital Humanities.

4. Conclusion
With its tight integration into classroom practices and use of iterative software development practices, Annotation Studio has proven to be an easy to use yet powerful tool that has helped students practice traditional humanistic skills within a social environment. At the same time, the web application has made the reading process more transparent, not only to the instructor but to the students themselves. Such a renewed focus on close reading opens up exciting new possibilities for engaged forms of writing that have the potential to reflect source texts more deeply.

1. Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, Jeffrey Schnapp (2012), Digital Humanities Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press

2. See H. J. Jackson (2001), Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

3. Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley, Katie Clinton, Jenna McWilliams, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, Erin Reilly (2013), Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom (New York: Teachers College Press).

4. On fluid texts and theories of editing, see John Bryant, The Fluid Text: A Theory of Revision and Editing for Book and Screen Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2002.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2014
"Digital Cultural Empowerment"

Hosted at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Université de Lausanne

Lausanne, Switzerland

July 7, 2014 - July 12, 2014

377 works by 898 authors indexed

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Attendance: 750 delegates according to Nyhan 2016

Series: ADHO (9)

Organizers: ADHO