Online Annotation and the Future of Reading


Introducing the discussion, Noel Jackson starts off with a series of images. Fra Lippo Lippi depicts the solitary St. Jerome reading at a desk; Rembrandt’s mother, dressed austerely in black, hunches over her book; in the “classic” and “much imitated” painting by Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson sits alone, intensely staring at his reading material. Jackson asks: Is this the picture of reading that is now being disrupted and revolutionized by new social forms of reading?

Noel Jackson

Noel Jackson

In the next few slides, Jackson presents images that represent reading as a social rather than a solitary activity: a third century A.D. mosaic of the poet Virgil being read aloud (or dictated) to by the muses and a sketch of Lowell Massachusetts factory women reading together, for example. Jackson observes that social reading predates solitary reading and has coexisted with it for centuries. However, the practice of digitally annotating texts using applications such as Annotation Studio and Rap Genius strike Jackson as “a development of undeniable importance” to the history of reading.

“As long as people have been able to read,” Kurt Fendt says, “they’ve also been annotating.” Fendt presents on Annotation Studio, a tool developed at HyperStudio, MIT’s laboratory for the digital humanities. Annotation Studio provides “a way to get students back into the process of close reading.” The tool emerges from “a clear pedagogical practice,” developed in conjunction with colleagues who use Annotation Studio in their classrooms. In this digital space, Fendt says, readers’ marginalia become social. Annotation Studio allows students to control how they’d like to share their ideas: users can keep their annotations private, make their annotations public to their class, or share annotations with a smaller working group.

Kurt Fendt

Kurt Fendt

Because Annotation Studio is open-source, other organizations and institutions can create their own version of the web application and modify it for their own needs, as Stanford University has done. Currently, around 80 to 90 institutions are using Annotation Studio in their classrooms for a wide range of subjects, both in and outside of the humanities.

While Annotation Studio was developed for the classroom setting, activity on Rap Genius takes places in the public at large. Jeremy Dean explains that Rap Genius started as a lyric website in which users could annotate lines in hip hop songs; “now,” he says, “you can read Moby-Dick on the site.” He then asks the audience to analyze a line from a song by Kanye West that reads “I’m like the fly Malcolm X, buy any jeans necessary”—a play on the activist’s well-known phrase.

On Rap Genius, all contributors are called “scholars” so as to emphasize that anyone can take control of the reading of the text. One annotation might be authored by many users around the world. Rap Genius also adds what Dean described as “a social network functionality”: in addition to reading other comments, users can up- and down-vote annotations, follow other users, and receive update notifications regarding posts they had previously annotated. In effect, Dean says, the “annotations and comments become a conversation.” As an example, he shows author & CMS/W professor Junòt Diaz’s comments on a footnote in his Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—“an annotation of an annotation.”

Jeremy Dean

Jeremy Dean

Wyn Kelley

Wyn Kelley

Wyn Kelley opens her presentation by considering “what we do when we write all over a text,” both in relation to her experience using digital annotation in literature classes and to the larger question of the future of reading. At MIT, she has found that using Annotation Studio in class helps make texts “relatable”—a word that “students love and scholars hate.” With Annotation Studio, Kelley says, her students become editors, producing commentary on texts that makes the work relatable to a community of peers.

But in another sense, Kelley suggests, annotations might have the opposite effect, and create distance between readers and texts. She invokes the scholarly work of Lisa Zunshine, who believes that literary texts “reward what cognitive scientists call a theory of mind.” We are constantly trying to read other people’s minds—attempting to understand their beliefs, intentions, and desires. Literature acts as a “safe space” for this “mind reading” practice, “relieving the stress of not understanding social signals and creating characters whose motives we may eventually understand.” A theory of mind, thus, could suggest that relating to a text serves as important social training. Ralph Savarese, who studies autism and whose son is autistic, finds that autistic readers encounter a text without a theory of mind. [Clarification appended.] Ultimately, both Zunshine and Savarese suggest that we cannot ever fully trust our readings of a text. Kelley agrees: “We cannot assume we know what we think we know; we cannot be sure we have the right or the knowledge to write all over someone else’s text.” By helping to bring students to these realizations, Kelley suggests, digital annotation can “protect the strangeness of texts,” training readers to respect that many legitimate readings of a text can coexist.

Kurt Fendt and Wyn Kelley

Jackson asks the panelists about the kinds of annotations they’ve observed or assigned. Do educators using the Annotation Studio or Rap Genius give guidance on the kinds of annotations students should make? For Kelley, the approach depends on the class. She often asks students to start annotating with their first impressions, then slowly asks them to build to interpretations. She often projects students’ annotations onto a screen in order to share peer work with the class. In one class, she was surprised to find annotation taken place during the class session—students were using digital annotation as public note-taking. Kelley also believes Annotation Studios’s private/public option is valuable for students. The “choice to go private is something that gets [students’] feet off the ground” before they “toggle to decide when annotations go to the world.” On Rap Genius, however, all annotations are public. Dean agrees that having private comments could be beneficial for students, but argues, “you will never become a good writer until you start to think about your writing as something not just for teachers.”

During the Q&A, MIT Communications Forum director David Thorburn asks if there is a dark side to digital annotation. For Dean, one of the potential drawbacks to online annotation is the loss of the personal, solitary experience of reading. Jackson points to the loss of physical inscriptions in manuscripts and books as annotation moves online.

Comparative Media Studies graduate student Desi Gonzalez wonders whether public annotations of texts on the web could follow the path of SparkNotes, a study guide website infamous for being used by students who skim its book summaries instead of reading original texts.  As a former teacher, Dean has “a deep anxiety” about Rap Genius going the way of SparkNotes. But he pointed to two reassuring facts that, on Rap Genius, the original text is always there; and users can continue to add new interpretations.

Visiting scholar Kelley Kreitz asks how digital annotation is being used outside of the realm of education. Wyn Kelley imagines using annotations as a form of creative writing. Later, Comparative Media Studies graduate student Liam Andrew wonders if tools like Annotation Studio or Rap Genius could be used for remixing literary texts to give birth to new works. Fendt mentions that future functionalities of Annotation Studio might allow users to do so. Annotation Studio is taking on the transition from annotation to writing, developing features that would allow users to start composing their own writing within the website. Additionally, users will be able to annotate two texts side-by-side, allowing readers to find commonalities across works.

CMS/W Professor James Paradis, CMS/W professor and part of the Annotation Studio team, asks what the panelists think reading might look like in the future. Dean believes that the future of reading will be very different from the future of the book, the latter of which he is less optimistic about. He thinks that, because of the proliferation of digital technologies and social media, young people are reading and writing now more than ever. These may not in all cases be the most responsible forms of reading and writing, so we should “help them learn how to write for the twenty-first century.” Fendt finds that, as texts move to the digital space, annotation can be a way to sustain readers’ engagement with longer works. Kelley observes that tools like Rap Genius can turn reading into a kind of game, making learning a more engaging and interactive process.

Jackson asks Kelley to expand on a suggestion from her presentation that digital annotation can help students cultivate a sense of responsibility toward texts. As more and more text moves to the digital space, Kelley says, she is concerned about “keeping alive” frail manuscripts and perishable physical reading material. Perhaps online annotation tools can offer one solution: “I see annotation as a form of nurturance,” she says.

Desi Gonzalez

About Desi Gonzalez

A researcher, writer, educator, and media maker, Desi Gonzalez studies the potential of digital media to encourage meaningful engagement with the arts. Her research investigates how change and innovation occur in cultural institutions, specifically focusing on an emerging wave of initiatives in art museums that invite visitors and artists to create with new technologies. At MIT's HyperStudio, she worked on the design and evaluation of tools dedicated to supporting research and learning in the humanities, including an art discovery mobile app and a collaborative annotation platform. Before coming to MIT, Desi spent a year as a Kress Fellow at the Museum of Modern Art developing educational materials such as wall texts, audio tours, games, websites, and the interactive learning space MoMA Art Lab: Movement. Prior to that, she managed and wrote texts for the Whitney Museum of American Art's website for young artists, For Kids. Puerto Rico-born and Maryland-raised, Desi graduated from Emory University with majors in art history and linguistics. She writes for various culture publications about art, language, feminism, and occasionally the intersection of all three. In her spare time, she’s probably eating dessert. Thesis: Museum Making: Creating with New Technologies in Art Museums


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