Digital Annotation in ANTH 385: History of Anthropological Thought (Mellon Project Report)

My project has been to implement digital annotation (using into my upper level course in anthropological theory, last taught in the spring of 2016. I was in the middle of this course during my last update, and now I have had almost a year to reflect and plan for the next offering of this course in spring of 2018. The outcomes were so successful that I would not want to teach the class again without using digital annotation. My update will build upon this previous post at the Digital Pedagogy@Austin College site.  

Adding digital annotation into the course led students to dig deeply into difficult texts, which led to two distinct results: higher grades on tasks involving close reading and theoretical thinking; and, more nebulously but also importantly, greater class camaraderie and discussion. 

This upper level class is typically small and therefore highly influenced by the particular composition of students, so the numbers below should not be considered predictive of future classes. I have taught the course three times without this strategy and once with it. The “annotation” class did, on average, between 5% and 10% better on course assignments that rely on either close reading or critical thinking about theory (or both).

  • On analytical papers, which ask students to compare ideas between scholars: 10% improvement
  • On midterm in class exams, featuring short answer questions about specific scholars: 5% improvement
  • On a take home final exam featuring cumulative questions and asking students to deploy theoretical ideas to new situations: 5% improvement

For an upper level course with mostly majors and minors (students who really care about anthropology already), this is significant improvement. This improvement, moreover, is in relation to the primary goal of the course: getting students to engage with theoretical ideas in ways that cultivate critical thinking, reading, and writing about those ideas.

While impossible to quantify, enhanced class discussions may have been the catalyst for the results above, because students had actually already begun having conversations about the texts prior to the discussions in the classroom. In an eighty minute class, I would have to specify a certain amount of time for these discussions, because students simply had a lot to say about the texts, and the quality of their comments were light years ahead of previous course discussions. (Should any former students be reading this, don’t worry; no one person is responsible for class discussion!). If before, I was lucky to get a response to the my question, “What is this article about?,” now students were making inter-textual connections, and, best of all, asking questions more than being satisfied by answers. I have also included the word camaraderie here because this wasn’t an individual achievement. People seemed to enjoy connecting with each other as they worked on these assignments, and I read the sometimes frivolous posts as actually productive in this regard. This is most evident in the nostalgia some of the students have expressed for the class and the group.

I do have some caveats regarding the way I employed digital annotation as well as some possible future adaptations.

  • Time: I ultimately added an extra step in my course preparation every single class session, and given when students actually do the reading for class—sometimes in the hours just prior to class itself—this makes actually using each day’s annotations to guide discussion very difficult. I will likely have a deadline of three hours prior to class for each day’s annotations to ameliorate this, though I cannot think of a way in which to save myself the time required by the extra steps, which happen on top of my own preparation of forty minute lectures and re-reading each text in full.
  • ‘Skip Days’ and Toiling alone: I gave each student a set of “skip days” as a way of managing burn-out in a repetitive task.  Some students used them early, and others saved themselves time at the end by skipping the last few. This gave the impression (and possibly the reality) that students were not reading the last few articles, and those who had to post in them did so effectively by themselves. I may moderate this by giving students a skip day for every calendar month.
  • Thinking about class time: However good the effects of this close-reading task for the course’s objectives, the course also has a responsibility to give students familiarity and confidence with a wide range of anthropological thinkers. I have to balance what we do in class and actively resist the totalizing pulls of either spending the entire eighty minutes discussing a single article, or relying on reading outside of class reading to take care of that aspect of the course. Either would be only partially reaching the overall goals of the class.
  • The next steps: As a professor in a relatively small department, I am responsible for a wide range of courses, and it is important to me that they all be different in content, goals, and assignments. Thus, I am thinking about ways of improving the use of digital annotation in this course, just as I am thinking about its potential in different contexts. One central task of a cultural anthropology classroom is the reading of ethnography, and a few scholars are experimenting with publishing these in interactive digital formats. Because they are often written at the introductory level, one possibility for an introductory course may be to find such a suitable text and to have students read it together through annotation. Another possibility resides in my Language and Culture course, an upper level introduction to linguistic anthropology. It may be possible to annotate digital audio files, like Soundcloud allows, in ways that would help students master that course’s methodological challenge: learning a form of discourse analysis.

Whatever I do, I take away from this a unique opportunity to have students work together in ways that help each separately take on what would be otherwise very daunting tasks. When students realize that nobody in the room has this all figured out, that each student has something to contribute to complex tasks, and that they can master these tasks if they work at them regularly, they learn realities about themselves that reach far beyond a single classroom.