Better Reading Through Annotating: An Anthropology Example

“This class would be a lot less fun without”
—–student comment about “A History of Anthropological Thought”

At the recent conference for Mellon Digital Pedagogy grantees at Austin College, Brian Watkins, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, presented his project on digital annotation in the anthropology classroom. In his update posted prior to the conference, Brian briefly described the project and reported a largely positive experience to date:

My project has been to implement digital annotation software ( into my upper level course in anthropological theory. Though the semester is far from over, I can say that it’s going better than expected. For every day in class, I have assigned short and challenging texts by significant figures in the history of the discipline and which are relevant for my plan for that day. Using, each student must make three annotations to those texts prior to class. After a few days of mostly linking certain concepts to wikipedia articles, the students have started to engage the texts and each other, and happily, it spills over into class.

I have been bringing some of those comments into class to provoke the same kind of discussion. I’ll say that I have never had a group of ten students go so deeply into discussion about Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society or Malinowski’s Kula text. The challenge in class so far has been to reign in the discussion and re-orient it toward the theoretical content. In the past, such discussions have generated only an unfocused smattering of commentary. Some early indicators:

  • Every student in the class is so far meeting the standard set by the assignment.
  • Within the last month, students have begun to debate points between themselves on, even if it takes them beyond the three annotation requirement.
  • Student performance on the first exam has been better than in previous years, though these exams do not test the same close reading practices exactly. Rather, the close reading practices may be enriching student understandings of the theoretical content of the various authors.

Here are a couple of screenshots from Brian’s class that demonstrate annotation in action. The side panel toggles open and closed, while the annotated sections passages of the main text are highlighted (student names are redacted to preserve privacy):


Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 6.10.31 PM


As the semester began, Brian provided students with a set of guidelines and instructions, explaining why students would be using social reading and annotation, and how to use the platform. He did not provide specific prompts to which students should respond, but rather described in general terms the kind of substantive and constructive annotations–questions, commentary, responses, close reading, contextual references–that would be required. This gave students the latitude to develop various forms of engagement with the texts.

The annotations provided Brian with diagnostic information about student reading practices and modes of textual engagement. Students are making important connections among different authors and texts, and even among different disciplines. Questionable interpretations become opportunities for deeper analysis and discussion. Sometimes, the difficulty and challenge of a passage leads students to share their frustrations with one another. At other times, students adopt a playful attitude to the text, riffing on a passage with creative improvisation. Most importantly for this class, Brian is seeing evidence that students are making new insights into the world of anthropological theories.

Colleagues at the conference were intrigued by the project and proposed several interesting observations and questions. There is extra class prep work involved in reading the annotations, but it’s a relatively small class and the benefits seem well worth it. Brian does not grade the annotations as such, but does a weekly audit to check if the work has been done and sends reminders to those who still need to complete the requirements. There are in all twenty-two texts to be read and annotated, so there was some concern about the repetitiveness of the annotation task, although one person observed that this could be an advantage for the students as they gain practice and skill over the course of an entire semester. Another question was whether the next iteration of the class will read the annotations of this current group of students. The benefits of such a cross-semester collaboration would have to be weighed against the value of having the new group of students approach the texts in a fresh form without being influenced by previous comments and markups.

If you are interested in exploring how digital annotation with could enhance your course, you can chat with Brian or me about the details of implementation.


Webinar on Web Annotation this Wednesday

Looking for a spring break opportunity for professional development? Of course you are! So you didn’t make it down to Austin for, but…this Wednesday, you can participate in a webinar on digital annotation with Dr. Jeremy Dean of Brian Watkins is using this semester in his course on the history of anthropological thought, and reports that student reading comprehension and engagement with assigned texts has improved dramatically. We’ll have more details from Brian in an upcoming post, but this is a good opportunity to learn more.

Texas Digital Humanities Consortium invites you to participate in an online workshop with Dr. Jeremy Dean, Director of Education at

Web Annotation: Updating an Age-Old Humanities Practice for the 21st Century
Dr. Jeremy Dean

Wednesday, March 9
1-2 p.m

This workshop explores web annotation as an digital humanities practice for the 21st century classroom. This emergent technology allows Internet users to privately comment on or publicly discuss any web page. It can be leveraged to teach students traditional literacy skills like close reading but also newer forms of digital and media literacy. Workshop participants will be introduced to the pedagogical value of web annotation and gain hands-on experience with an open-source, standards-based annotation client. Participants will leave with a solid orientation in the basic functionality of web annotation as well as specific collaborative annotation exercises that can be used in the classroom.

Join from PC, Mac, Linux, iOS or Android:


Jeremy Dean is the Director of Education at, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving online discourse through annotation. He was previously the Director of Education at Genius where he facilitated educational applications of their interactive archive of literary and historical texts. Jeremy is a scholar-educator with fifteen years of experience teaching at both the college and high school levels. He received a Ph.D. in English from the University of Texas at Austin where he worked as a Project Leader in the Digital Writing and Research Lab for four years developing units and lesson plans around a variety of digital tools.

Annotate the Web with

This week’s Digital Pedagogy workshop, “Annotate the Web with,” will occur Tuesday, November 3, from 4:30–5:30 pm, with a repeat on Wednesday, November 4, from 11:00 am–noon. The location is the library computer lab (Abell 208).

A previous DP@AC blog post explored the theme of annotation, marginalia, and textual commentary and markup as we transition from analog and print to digital forms of text and media. There is growing interest among academics, scientists, and journalists, among others, for making web-based documents open to enrichment with comments, questions, explanations, references, links, glosses, and other forms of markup that are tied to specific words and phrases of the text and that are situated in the context of the document itself. Among the applications being developed to make this possible is, which “seeks to enable a conversation over the world’s knowledge” by “leveraging annotation to enable sentence-level critique or note-taking on top of news, blogs, scientific articles, books, terms of service, ballot initiatives, legislation and more.”

Brian Watkins is planning to use in his spring 2016 class, History of Anthropological Thought. As Brian points out in his Mellon grant proposal for the project,

I have taught my upper level course, History of Anthropological Thought, three times in three different institutional settings, and I can say that students have consistently found one part of the class to be the most important and yet the the most impenetrable: the texts of the anthropological theorists themselves. I wondered if there was a way to make them more accessible. I can’t make the text any easier to read, nor could I legitimately choose simpler theorists. What if, instead, it were possible to change the way students engage with the texts? I recently learned about a set of technologies which I believe could achieve this goal: social annotation software.

…[M]y current plan is to use software called Instead of struggling alone with Claude Lévi-Strauss or Victor Turner, students could connect with others in sharing their struggles and insights. Students would log in and see where in the text other students had questions, tentative answers, or are debating over the meaning of a key term. I would be able to log in before class and see how the reading went and adjust the class discussion accordingly. In an 80 minute class, I would typically spend the first half discussing the texts with students, and it is my hope that this software makes that discussion much more interactive.

Brian’s students will be reading many texts in pdf format; the texts will be scanned, processed with optical character recognition, and uploaded to the course Moodle site. This past summer he and I tested with one of those texts, a journal article by Bruno Malinowski entitled “Kula: The Circulating Exchange of Valuables in the Archipelagoes of Eastern New Guinea” (Man, Volume 20 [Jul., 1920], 97-105). Here are a few screenshots displaying some annotations we made on the first page of the article. First, this is the page with several highlighted phrases, each indicating a distinct annotation, but without the annotation panel visible:


Next, I click the first highlighted spot to open the side panel and reveal the associated annotation. I had annotated Malinowski’s passing reference to “Dr. Seligman’s Melanesians” to provide the full title and a link to the book in Google Books:


Another click on the phrase closes the panel, and returns us to the original view. For the second annotation, on the phrase “Gulf of Papua,” I inserted a map of that region; again, clicking on the highlight opens the annotation panel to reveal the map:


The third annotation shows a comment and reply:


And we could continue, but I think you get the point. With, you can easily annotate any text that can be displayed in a web browser. Students can pose questions, register observations and analyses, debate interpretations, add supplementary resources, and create further forms of marginalia. They can reply to one another’s comments and generate conversation threads. These annotations remain attached to the original document but can also be tagged and searched. Students thus read and annotate texts in a social environment that opens up greatly enhanced possibilities for engaging the subject matter and one another. Jeremy Dean’s recent blog post, “Back to School with Annotation: 10 Ways to Annotate with Students” offers an excellent overview of distinct annotation use cases. is also being used by a group of climate scientists at the Climate Feedback project to comment upon and evaluate articles and documents related to climate change:

Using the Hypothesis annotation platform, our community of scientists go through a variety of online media articles and provide ‘feedback’ on the scientific accuracy of the information presented. Readers can view these annotations directly alongside the original texts and see exactly where the article’s information is consistent — or inconsistent — with scientific thinking and state-of-the-art knowledge in the field.

For example, here is a small section of their analysis of a recent article in Forbes, “Updated NASA Data: Global Warming Not Causing Any Polar Ice Retreat” (they rate the entire article as having “very low” scientific credibility):

climate thus seeks to fulfill the original vision of those who developed the web browser: to make it possible to mark up and creatively interact with web pages and to enable robust conversations about their content.

There’s much more, so check out the resources listed below and come to our workshop this week for conversation and demonstration.

Curated Resources

Digital Reading in the Liberal Arts–Deep or Distracted?

chrome-extension-reading-thumbWe hope to do several followups to our previous post on Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, diving into the details of individual essays and exploring the implications for digital pedagogy at Austin College. Web writing is, of course, intimately related to web reading, that is, reading on digital screens in a networked environment. As the texts we read increasingly migrate to and originate in digital formats, concerns have been raised about the effects on our reading habits and comprehension. Can the liberal arts ideal of “close” or “deep” reading of complex long-form texts be maintained? There is extensive literature and debate on the topic, but here I’ll just draw attention to a couple of recent points of reflection.

First is this article, “Distracted Reading in the Digital Age,” which reports on conversations at Vassar College around the topic of reading practices and digital texts. Faculty forums and discussions have led to observations about shifting student reading practices and in particular the struggles of students to read intricate texts that require sustained focus and attentiveness. Some professors suspect that “hyper-digital culture” and the lure of frequent interruptions and multitasking is making it more difficult for students to concentrate and read effectively. For example, in one forum colleagues in history and English comment that

Since both of us teach rich, dense historical materials that require long stretches of concentration, we began to wonder whether the students’ unresponsiveness to assigned reading was just coincidence—classes have personalities—or whether we were witnessing some larger shift in the reading habits of our undergraduates, perhaps one brought on by their digital habits.

Faculty have been led to reflect more intentionally on the implications for teaching and learning: if student reading habits and competencies are shifting, how must pedagogies be adapted and realigned? What new strategies are needed to encourage active and effective reading of challenging texts? The article describes several responses to the situation, and suggests that there are ways of using the very technologies seen as “distracting” to actually increase student engagement with texts. One strategy for doing so is “digital annotation,” a theme that we have visited before on this blog. Classics professor Bert Lott describes using the digital annotation platform Annotation Studio in his classes:

“I require students to examine the text before and after class,” says Lott. “They write annotations about grammar, syntax, and lexicography and compose interpretive comments. Strands of conversation emerge between students as they do it.” Lott says there are many benefits of this approach, in addition to encouraging students to more deeply examine the text. “Having students write down their grammar questions carefully and ask them before class adds elements of the ‘flipped classroom,’ ” he says. “It allows us to get those technical questions answered outside of class, so the expectations for what they know in class are higher. It allows them to formulate their thoughts better and to participate more fully in class discussion because they have thought through some of their ideas beforehand.

Lott goes on to make some more general observations about how professors should approach reading and technology:

Seeing what such technologies can bring to the classroom, Lott says he’s “not entirely sympathetic to the notion that distracted reading and devices are wholly bad, that our job should be to protect the classroom as a space for only the old kind of reading. It’s much more complex than that.” “I think this is going to be the way in which students are going to engage and get information. Technologically enhanced reading can have huge benefits to education and scholarship. We’re just not sure what they are or we’re not entirely convinced of them yet,” he says. “This is one way for my students and me to practice what it means to read texts in the form they will undoubtedly read them as their lives move on.”

The theme of attentiveness and reading is also taken up in a recent presentation by Alan Jacobs of Baylor University entitled “The Attentive Reader.”  Jacobs is a distinguished professor of humanities at Baylor and a leading voice on textuality and technology. His Text Patterns blog at the New Atlantis is a valuable resource on this topic; he is also the author of, among other books, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.

Building upon Katherine Hayles’s distinction of hyper attention and deep attention, Jacobs proposes that any serious analysis of how we read must take into account distinctive modes and environments of attention and the various technologies that operate within them. Modes of attention take in relatively more or less of the ambient environment. All modes of attention are contextually valuable; for example, when driving a car it is better to be hyper-attentive, continually scanning a wide range of stimuli and phenomena, than to be narrowly focused on only one sensory input. Managing a digital life of frequent notifications and task-switching is also a form of hyper-attentiveness. Yet it remains incumbent for liberal arts colleges “to be distinctly hospitable to focused attention,” which they can only do “if they become more thoughtfully intentional about environments and devices.”

Jacobs has also promoted annotation and commentary as a positive affordance of digital technologies and a means of prompting greater attentiveness to and engagement with texts. Among his “79 Theses on Technology. For Disputation,” he proposes that

  • Digital textuality offers us the chance to restore commentary to its pre-modern place as the central scholarly genre.
  • Recent technologies enable a renewal of commentary, but struggle to overcome a post-Romantic belief that commentary is belated, derivative.

In other words, the digitization and networking of texts is good because it invites greater levels of commentary and annotation on those texts (“deep reading”), which is at the same time, for Jacobs, the preferred form for learning how to write well. Taking up the challenge of the disputatio, Andrew Piper of McGill University further elaborates the pedagogical implications of the “annotated web:”

There is a vibrant movement afoot to remake the web as a massive space of commentary. The annotated web, as it’s called, has the aim of transforming our writing spaces from linked planes to layered marginalia ….

Missing from these models is pedagogy. The annotated web gives us one example of how to remake the technology of writing to better accommodate responsiveness. It’s a profound first step, one that will by no means be universally embraced (which should give us some idea of how significant it is).

But we do not yet have a way of teaching this to new (or old) writers. Follow the curricular pathways from the lockered hallways of elementary school to the bleak cubicles of higher education and you will still see the blank piece of paper or its electronic double as the primary writing surface. The self-containment of expression is everywhere. It is no wonder that these writers fail to comment well.

It’s all well and good to say commentary is back. It’s another to truly re-imagine how a second grader or college student learns to write. What if we taught commentary instead of expression, not just for beginning writers, but right on through university and the PhD? What if we trained people to build and create in the annotated web instead of on pristine planes of remediated paper? Now that would be different.

Whether or not one is in full agreement that commentary is “the central scholarly genre,” the discussion raises intriguing questions and opportunities for reflection about digital textuality. Do you have observations from the classroom about student reading and writing in the digital age? Let us know your comments.

Using Tablets for Presentations and Grading–A Biochemistry Case Study

interactive slide

With their Mellon Digital Pedagogy grant, Austin College professors John Richardson and Jim Hebda are experimenting with new methods of teaching biochemistry. In their spring 2015 course on biochemical metabolism, John and Jim are using tablets for untethered, dynamic PowerPoint-style presentations and electronic grading. Here’s how they describe the results so far:

The rationale of our Mellon project is to recapture some of the personal hands on approach that is lost when using PowerPoint presentations.

Biochemistry is a complex topic with a significant amount of intricate structure and visual content, which makes the traditional “chalk talk” difficult for both students and instructors.  By using PowerPoint lectures, students and instructors are free to spend more time on theory and less time on drawing out structures.  However, in-class questions and additional content that ends up being written on the board becomes lost and disjointed with respect to the pre-made slides when the students begin to study the material at home.

To this end we are using tablet technology to create the presentation, project it wirelessly to a large display screen, annotate slides during class and, if need be, add additional slides to the presentation on the fly. The advantage to the student is that after lecture the presentation (including the audio narration during class) can be uploaded to Moodle for future reference. An additional advantage of using the tablet is that the instructor is free to move around the room, enhancing class engagement and student participation. Furthermore, it would be possible to incorporate student use of the tablet during lecture as a novel way for them to mark up a slide during class.

To support this approach, we assessed the hardware available and settled on the Samsung Note 12.2 for its price point, extremely usable stylus technology, and ability to wirelessly mirror the display to a projector with an inexpensive device (we are experimenting with several streaming media adapters, including the Google Chromecast and the Amazon Fire Stick). On the software side, we are using Explain Everything for slide creation and annotation. As noted above, Explain Everything has the capacity to record audio and turn the presentation into a screen-mirrored movie, which we have done for most of our lectures this semester. Here is a portion of the presentation that we gave in the workshop, which was created using the method described here:

A second major feature of using the tablet is that we can grade student work electronically, thus preserving a record of the original and graded assignment. The students upload pdfs of their assignments, and we use a program called Papyrus to open and annotate those documents. Papyrus allows us to grade the assignment with a stylus, so the student still receives the exact same handwritten comments as before, but now in a digital format. Students thus still feel the direct connection of their instructors taking the time to make thoughtful commentary on the work handed in. Papyrus also has Dropbox support to allow easy import and export of files from the tablet. After being graded, the documents are uploaded back to Moodle in such a way that students can only retrieve their own work. We find it advantageous to keep a record of all our feedback to each student. In this way we can track student progress across the semester by accessing comments made on prior assignments rather than by relying on memory alone.


The objective of the project was to integrate tablets into lecture and grading, using the smaller CHEM 352 class as a pilot. We have done that and are continuing to refine the apps and software that best allow us to do what we want. We are confident that this approach can be successful with a large class like CHEM 351, Introduction to Biochemistry.

“Nota Bene”–Collaborative Digital Annotation

At tomorrow’s Mellon Digital Pedagogy Workshop there will be several breakout sessions on themes shared among grantee projects. We’ll be blogging about those over the coming days and sharing insights and perspectives.

One of the shared themes is “collaborative digital annotation.” Several grantees, including Dan Dominick, Elena Olive’, and Kirk Everist, have projects in which students mark up and comment upon digital documents, including texts, images, audio, and video. What is that and why might you be interested? Actually, we did a presentation on this topic last fall at a Johnson Center luncheon, so I’ll reprise those remarks here to provide some background on the subject of annotation.

You are no doubt familiar with marking up things that we read in print form…underlining, highlighting, writing notes and comments in the margins of books and papers, or special symbols and doodles that signify something important about what we’ve read. This is nothing new…readers have been marking up texts ever since, well, there have been texts. For example, in this brief video classicist Gregory Nagy describes the annotation of manuscripts in the ancient era with notes (scholion) and marginal references (hypomnema):


After the emergence of print and the explosion of books in Europe in the early modern period, the practice of marginalia flourished as an art form. Literary historians tell us that the golden age of marginalia lasted from roughly 1700 to 1820, and that it was not unusual for people to mark up books for one another as gifts. The English poet and literary figure Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) even published several volumes of his marginalia (and apparently coined the term itself).


More recently, the American author David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) was renowned for marking up books in his library. For example, here is an image from his copy of Don Delillo’s Ratner’s Star (click on image to make it larger):


Today, of course, more and more of our (formerly print) documents are in digitized formats…narratives, essays, electronics books and journals, lab reports, legal briefs, play scripts, musical scores, computer code, diagrams, drawings, sketches, photographs, maps, etc. And of course there are increasing amounts of digitized audio and video material.

So the question is, are there ways to annotate these digitized documents in a way analogous to the marking up of books and manuscripts in the past? Can we make digital annotations in the context of the original document, using multiple forms of media, to which other readers, listeners. or viewers can respond, thus creating a dialogue or conversation? What we want is an arrangement in which the original content remains in the center of the online space, and comments, notes, and questions are connected to it at specific points…particular words, phrases, or sentences in a text, regions of an image, and timelines and frames of audio and video files. And this space should be a collaborative space in which scholars and students interact with one another’s annotations in the context of the original document.

The concept of collaborative annotation was actually part of the origin of the World Wide Web. Marc Andreessen, co-developer of Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, recently recalled what he was thinking back in the early ’90s:

Only a handful of people know that the big missing feature from the web browser – the feature that was supposed to be in from the start but didn’t make it – is the ability to annotate any page on the Internet with commentary and additional information.

Back in 1993, when Eric Bina and I were first building Mosaic, it seemed obvious to us that users would want to annotate all text on the web – our idea was that each web page would be a launchpad for insight and debate about its own contents. So we built a feature called “group annotations” right into the browser – and it worked great – all users could comment on any page and discussions quickly ensued. Unfortunately, our implementation at that time required a server to host all the annotations, and we didn’t have the time to properly build that server, which would obviously have had to scale to enormous size. And so we dropped the entire feature.

I often wonder how the Internet would have turned out differently if users had been able to annotate everything – to add new layers of knowledge to all knowledge, on and on, ad infinitum.

And Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, reflected back on the origin of the PageRank algorithm, the heart of Google’s search engine:

It wasn’t that we intended to build a search engine. We built a ranking system to deal with annotations. We wanted to annotate the web – build a system so that after you’d viewed a page you could click and see what smart comments other people had about it. But how do you decide who gets to annotate Yahoo? We needed to figure out how to choose which annotations people should look at, which meant that we needed to figure out which other sites contained comments we should classify as authoritative. Hence PageRank.

Only later did we realize that PageRank was much more useful for search than for annotation…

Over the last two decades, any number of annotation tools and platforms have been developed to try to realize this earlier vision of Andreessen and Page, with somewhat limited success. Projects such as Annotations at Harvard and the Hyperstudio Digital Humanities Lab at MIT are working to develop tools and standards for use in scholarly annotation projects. Some of the tools we have recommended and/or are looking at include:

Several faculty, including the grantees mentioned above, are experimenting with Classroom Salon, with promising results so far. They will be sharing their experiences here so that we can all learn from them. In addition, Brett and Mo are both users of Diigo to collect and annotate web-based content, so we’ll probably do a post on that at some point.

Finally, the W3C, the international body responsible for determine the protocols that make the Web work, has just established the W3C Web Annotation Working Group. Their goal is to develop a common set of standards for annotating on the web. According to the group,

Traditional annotations are marginalia, errata, and highlights in printed books, maps, picture, and other physical media. Web annotations are an attempt to recreate and extend that functionality as a new layer of interactivity and linking on top of the Web. It will allow anyone to annotate anything anywhere, be it a web page, an ebook, a video, an image, an audio stream, or data in raw or visualized form. Web annotations can be linked, shared between services, tracked back to their origins, searched and discovered, and stored wherever the author wishes; the vision is for a decentralized and open annotation infrastructure.

So we look forward to ongoing developments and improvements that will become available for us to enhance scholarship and the engagement of students with content of every kind.

Guest Post: Classroom Salon–Using Video Annotation to Reflect on Student Teaching

classroom salonLast year I read Focus on Teaching: Using Video for High-Impact Instruction, by Jim Knight, and was sold on the idea of having my student teachers record themselves in the classroom and then reflecting on the video with them. I decided to implement this strategy in my Fall 2014 course, EDUC 475, “The Learner, The Teacher, and the Curriculum,” and began to explore what technology would be required. Where would students store and post their videos, and how would we engage in discussion about them in a private and secure space?

About that time I talked to Mo Pelzel, AC Digital Pedagogy Designer, who told me about a resource that would meet my needs. Classroom Salon is a web-based document and video annotation platform. Learning spaces, called “salons,” can be set up for individuals or groups of students to access, annotate, and discuss written documents as well as videos. For this class, students each have their own private salon. They post videos of their teaching that only the two of us can see. This means that they feel very safe in the learning process. I provided them with four sets of prompts to guide them in their video analysis. Students examine themselves, their students, teacher-student interactions, and pedagogical strategies. The ability to comment upon the video at specific points in the timeline makes possible a deep level of reflection and metacognition. As I watch the videos I type in my comments. The students also can see exactly where my comments are in the video. These can then become talking points as we discuss their growth as teachers.

The result is that I have seen students that are empowered to look at their work and make instructional decisions based on their analysis. They are taking ownership of their growth and development as teachers. Classroom Salon was a very helpful tool for me and my students, and I will utilize it again this semester. Several of my colleagues are following suit. I will also continue to collect data to better understand the efficacy of this approach and fully expect to share my findings at a conference on teaching.