Digital Reading Practices 2.0

On February 26, 2016 by

Last week, Laura and I attended Digital Seminar: Digital Annotation in Theory and Practice, hosted by Dartmouth’s Digital Humanities initiative. The description from Dartmouth’s Digital Humanities site describes the event much better than I could:

Erin DeSilva and Mike Goudzwaard, instructional designers in Dartmouth’s Educational Technologies group, will discuss annotation in the just-launched American Renaissance X course. They will be joined by Brian Johnsrud, PhD candidate in Stanford’s Program in Modern Thought and Literature and Project Manager for Lacuna Stories, a new digital annotation tool, and Jed Dobson, Lecturer in English, Writing, and the MALS program, who will introduce his current research project on theorizing the link between metacommentary and annotation.

In his talk, Brian explored the current use of Lacuna Stories at Stanford, where it seems used primarily in discussion-based humanities classes. Students can choose to keep annotations private or make them “public” to the rest of the class. Before class, graduate student TAs go through the annotations and organize them into threads that the professor can then use to guide the discussion. Whether this model would succeed at Dartmouth, where there are only a few humanities graduate programs and almost all classes are taught directly by professors, remains to be seen.

In the discussion afterwards, professors and librarians shared three main concerns with social annotation:

  1. Groupthink (“Wow, 12 people annotated this so it must be important.”)
  2. Poor quality annotations (examples of this were debated at length, including the following scenario: a comment about someone’s Aunt Marge could be incredibly relevant and powerful to them, but not to the rest of the class.)
  3. Anxiety (A first year student thinks, “I don’t know what I’m reading, so I shouldn’t comment at all.”)

In response, Brian pointed out that to counteract 3, educators need to create a learning environment that is positive, open, and constructive–whether at a seminar table or online. To deal with 1 and 2 would be more complicated, as both cross the line into judgment about what is “appropriate” or “quality.”

These same issues also existed for medieval scribal annotations, which were also a kind of social activity as books passed through multiple owners in their long lives. In the Brut, some of the annotations clearly cluster around particular passages: does this mean these passages are particularly significant or that groupthink is at work? There is no way to tell. Are these annotations “quality” because we assume the people who wrote them were educated (and therefore socially significant)? Is it even possible to judge the half-life of anxiety, which tends to result in no response at all? Scholars have tackled this issue with our own Brut: Emily Ulrich used the annotations to build an argument concerning the Brut‘s ownership (“Echoes in the Margins: Reading the Dartmouth Brut in Early Modern England”), while Julia Marvin’s article ‘“It is to harde for my lernyng”: Making Sense of Annotations in Brut Manuscripts’ explores the “promise and hazard” of reading too much into annotations.

Lacuna Stories holds the answer to some of my previous desires for an annotation platform (though it still doesn’t let users draw manicules!). Currently, though, it is probably not a feasible tool for Remix. As Laura appropriately brought up, this tool will not work without institutional buy-in. For Remix, it would be a dream to have this workspace to annotate the manuscript–but this would require a total overhaul of the current reading widget (Issuu) on the Library’s website. Or an upload to Lacuna Stories of the digital files compiled into a PDF.

The question of access remains. Lacuna Stories requires a log-in, unlike the current Brut reading experience, where anyone with an Internet connection can access the text. Who would comment on the Brut? Could social annotation really work with manuscript pages in Middle English? What could be done instead with an edition in Middle English? Nonetheless, this platform could one day allow geographically dispersed users to collaborate on a digital set of scholarly annotations for the Brut.

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