By Andy Stuhl on March 19, 2015
On January 23, 2015, HyperStudio hosted a workshop that convened more than seventy educators and technologists to discuss the future of annotation. “Collaborative Insights through Digital Annotation: Rethinking the Connections between Annotation, Reading & Writing” drew thoughtful perspectives on the opportunities and challenges facing HyperStudio’s Annotation Studio and other pedagogical tools more broadly. The workshop’s dynamic combination of formal panel conversations and unconference crowdsourced breakout sessions allowed particular topics of interest to emerge as flashpoints over the course of the day; these themes became the organizing basis for the closing remarks delivered by HyperStudio research assistants Andy Stuhl and Desi Gonzalez.
One issue that arose over and over was the question of copyright. What kinds of texts can educators share on Annotation Studio? In our terms and conditions, we ask users of Annotation Studio to respect intellectual property and not post materials that violate copyright. But the question of what constitutes fair use for educational purposes is itself difficult to answer. However, there are a few guidelines that one might want to follow. A useful guide has been put together by the Association of Research Libraries specifically for faculty & teaching assistants in higher education.
When digital annotation tools are used for public humanities projects, these questions become all the more pressing. During a breakout session on using annotations in public humanities projects, Christopher Gleason and Jody Gordon of the Wentworth Institute of Technology shared their digital project on the legacy of former Boston mayor James Curley. As a part of the project, Gleason and Gordon asked students to annotate a historical text describing Curley’s mansion near Jamaica Pond. The student-scholars added comments that would better help them understand the original interiors of the house, complete with definitions and images of historical furnishings. This project stressed a recurring question for Annotation Studio: how do we best deal with issues of copyright—not just of the original text, but also of the content with which the text is annotated? The Annotation Studio team is exploring ways to simplify the addition of metadata, including copyright information to media documents used in annotations.
Pedagogy first, tool second
Both Ina Lipkowitz and Wyn Kelley have used Annotation Studio in multiple classes in the Literature Department at MIT. But the kinds of texts they teach—from classic novels to recipes to the Bible—and the ways in which they and their students annotate differ wildly. When reading entries from the medieval cookbook Forme of Cury, annotations might be used to translate Old English words; in Frankenstein, students might share anything from personal impressions to interpretations of the text.
Annotation Studio was built as an easy-to-use web application with a core functionality: the collaborative annotation of texts. This one simple software, however, has yielded a multiplicity of affordances. It’s not the tool that determines how texts are used in the classroom, but rather the texts determine the tool: for one, we implement new features based on how educators hope to teach texts to their students; moreover, educators constantly find new strategies for using collaborative annotations in their classrooms.
Advancing technical and scholarly literacy together
The workshop demonstrated how annotation is a perfect case study for a bridging of readerly, writerly, and technical skill development central to the digital humanities. In the first panel, Mary Isbell documented how both reading/writing assignments and the work of learning and troubleshooting digital tools can both be mutually reinforcing components of a DH curriculum: by factoring in space for learning and troubleshooting these tools within the course plan, she’s found that formerly stressful encounters with software become opportunities to engage with and adapt the technical piece of the puzzle. This type of work often includes putting different tools and different types of media into conversation with one another, as Annotation Studio’s multimedia annotation evidences. Through these uses, students, as HyperStudio’s Executive Director Kurt Fendt noted, come to “think across media” and thereby expand their understanding of how meaning is constructed and conveyed differently through different media.
In the Teaching Annotation breakout session, participants brainstormed ways to create new kinds of assignments that integrated the new affordances of digital tools with existing pedagogical goals. This conversation included suggestions about directing students to turn to one another for technical aid in using these tools—this conversation, in turn, was part of a larger one about challenging notions of expertise and conceptual categories in the classroom. This subtle back-and-forth between technical and scholarly engagement offers instructors and students alike new ways to expand and combine their skill sets.
Voices in (and voices of) annotation
Much as digital annotation recasts and recombines different kinds of expertise from different sources, the voices of those annotating and of those annotated are also put into a dynamic exchange. The notion of voices cropped up at the center of insights both about annotation’s potential in the classroom and about considerations we should carry forward in refining our approaches to it. In his keynote, John Bryant demonstrated how annotation and revision can help expose the multiple voices of a singular author, giving scholars a more nuanced access to that author’s voice and to the process of critical thinking via that voice. Panelists including Suzanne Lane and Wyn Kelley touched on how environments like Annotation Studio can put students’ voices in the same plane as the authorial voices they study. Co-mingled voices of informal debate, of traditional student roles, and of teacherly authority can democratize the learning space and inspire confidence; they can also, as participants noted, require a careful negotiation and reassertion of pedagogical roles in order to advance a constructive learning conversation.
These opportunities and challenges are at the foreground of HyperStudio’s design process, as Lead Web Applications Developer Jamie Folsom described, in building more writing-focused features that will help students transform their reader voices into authorial voices. More broadly, the theme of voices opened to all participants exciting ways to think about the project of helping students discover, build, and reinvent their own scholarly voices—a project in which, as the workshop made clear from many angles, annotation has always been and continues to be a very powerful method.