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.


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