Encouraging the Impulse to Annotate

Annotating has remained unidirectional—someone comments on a text —ever since novelists and scholars wrote prose to accompany Paradise Lost and didactic Greek verse.

However, annotation does not adequately signify the complexity, creativity, and multiplicity of communication that have resulted from the Web 2.0 renaissance of (mostly) free social media tools--tools that make it easy and exhilarating to mashup, add, delete, comment on, critique, or reinvent text and media. To express this dynamism more, I like the term glossing...

Glossing - To introduce a gloss, comment, or explanation upon a word or passage in a text. Also in a wider sense, to make comments or remarks upon a person's words or actions

Glossing with social media involves the creation of conversational “layers” which adhere to the original text and produce a richer cultural artifact so that the original text is not obscured, but enhanced. Gloss suggests the multiple veneers that adolescents create to make texts their own. Glossing also denotes the slipperiness of the online world—the Internet being a frictionless distribution system.

In the section below, I explore glossing more fully. Trust me, I'm building to a point. 

5 Glossing Explorations

Story #1: Glossing goes riral

Shepard Fairly, the skateboarding street artist creates the iconic red and blue “Hope” poster for the Obama campaign from a photo that has been re-interpreted beyond the recognition of even the original photographer. Soon, hundreds of thousands of Internet users create Obamicon.me webicons, stylizing their own Fairly-like images and slogans, and then using them for Facebook and Myspace avatars. Andy Warhol’s silk-screens of Campbell’s soup cans and Marilyn Monroe are prototypes of the remixing genre. Today, in one click, an image becomes part of a mass electronic conversation in the WWW echo chamber.

Story 2: Teens annotate when they aren’t doing schoolwork.

On a rainy North Carolina afternoon a few years ago, my fourteen-year-old daughter, Rachel, and five girlfriends spend hours shrieking at an old computer connected to our house’s wifi network. Then the girls usher my wife and me into Rachel’s bedroom for a computer screening: a video re-enactment with puppets of Beyonce’s popular “Single Ladies” from her "I Am Sasha Fierce" album. The creative effort leaves the girls exhausted and emotionally elevated. The focus and effort to negotiate, choreograph and artistically edit the short digital movie, using a cheap Logitech camera ball and Window’s Media, is startling. Jump cuts, fades, and multiple audio tracks are all incorporated to create a witty and compelling parody of Beyonce’s dance moves. The girls make us watch the video three times. 

Story #3: Glossing might be a new form of reader response.

In the 1990s, my doctoral advisor at the University of Minnesota, Richard Beach recommended that English Language/Arts (ELA) instructors help students understand and employ multiple perspectives: feminist, Marxist, historical, biographical, archetypal, etc., in order to resist or contextualize fossilized ideologies.

In the 1993-1997 MTV cartoon, the eponymous cartoon slobs, Beavis and Butthead —watched music videos and critiqued effeminate artists, while burping. My University of Minnesota professor was perturbed. Explained Beach, the two cartoons modeled a response to texts that was homophobic (“wussies”) and anti-literate (“turd”). Adolescent boys, he worried, would uncritically adopt the presentation of the TV duo’s model. Was he right? Maybe. I noticed a lot of Beavis and Butthead references in the classes I observed.

Story #4: Books are fetishized over e-readers.

An English teacher I know says that without books, readers cannot annotate in the margins, a statement that overly simplifies reading, texts, and, even annotation. The statement further suggests, implicitly, that reading is a transaction between a singular reader and a singular author, overlooking the fact that online annotation tools encourage readers to converse with others. Here are some of those tools:

Story # 5: Students resist annotating texts, but are compelled to gloss.

According to the the technology and information skills company, Big6, students resist annotating in schools:

"The paper note-card method really isn’t a very efficient way to take notes from a source: (1) it is laborious, (2) takes a lot of time, and (3) uses a lot of cards. And, most kids hate it! In fact, most teachers probably wouldn’t use the paper note-card method themselves if they were asked to write a research paper on some topic."

If the number of annotation tools and users is growing so fast, why is the process of annotation so unpopular with high school students?

Although the practice is hotly debated in the schools that I visit, many ELA teachers in my area still direct their students to fill out index cards with 100-200 word descriptions and/or criticisms of a source. These note cards are eventually assembled into an annotated bibliography.

Maybe it's time to do a lot less annotating in classrooms and a lot more glossing. ​

It is the nature of technology to disrupt an existing system. Sometimes, the power that is disrupted feels the swift change. Other times, the shift occurs in spaces outside of the authority’s mind space, so they either don't notice or don't care to. 

To impose note-card annotation on students who so deftly absorb and extend culture as a form of imaginative and critical imitation strikes me as doctrinaire, especially given the abundance of glossing technologies that allow more imaginative forms of critical response--technologies that are already widely adopted. 

Todd Finley

Edutopia Blogger and Asst. Editor || ECU Ed Professor || Founder of Todd's Brain at www.todd-finley.com || Books: Dinkytown Braves and Rethinking Classroom Design.

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