What's in an Annotation?

What are annotations? How do you annotate texts, and what does that say about how you read?

These are the questions we invited a group of sophomores from Stuart Country Day School to explore with us at a community outreach event that the CDH held last month.  

Assistant Director Natalia Ermolaev gave a quick tour of the CDH, and then the students, teachers, and CDH staff settled in for an eye-opening exercise led by Project Designer Rebecca Munson. Rebecca gave us a familiar task: read and annotate an excerpt by Edgar Allan Poe. Easy enough. But then, like a good Poe story, there was a twist: we were asked to switch papers with a neighbor and annotate their annotations.

After the collective mild panic subsided (after all, we annotate assuming whatever we write is for our eyes alone!), the exercise demonstrated an illuminating point about reading practices: everyone approaches a text differently. We discussed how some of us underlined and annotated to facilitate rereading; others marked literary devices and structures of repetition; still others scrawled summaries or questions in the margins. Most of us do a combination of these things. But the students quickly discerned that we need many perspectives to unpack the richness of a text, and that no two people will annotate in quite the same way.

This insight forms the basis of two of the CDH’s sponsored projects, Derrida’s Margins and The Winthrop Family on the Page. The students had the opportunity to explore the projects ahead of time, and Rebecca taught them a bit more about the design and development process of making a DH website.

Rebecca’s presentation spurred vibrant small-group conversations over lunch about everything from digital humanities and computer programming to study abroad and musical theater. The students had recently completed annotation projects of their own in history class, and they came prepared with smart questions for us. “Intellectual adrenaline,” as the Stuart teacher phrased it, perfectly describes the buzzing atmosphere.

Besides having flashbacks to my own kilt-and-blazer-wearing high school days, I had two big takeaways from my participation in this event. First, it was amazing to see leading women in the field like Rebecca and Natalia inspire the next generation of young women to think at the intersection of the humanities and technology. A room full of future historians, designers, programmers, and humanists were learning for the first time that “digital” and “humanities” could go hand in hand.     

Second, this outreach event offers a model for how institutions of higher education can build bridges to engage the broader community. As last semester’s reading group What Can the Public Digital Humanities Be? attests, this question of community engagement has been at the forefront of our minds. The mutual excitement of the Stuart students and all of us at the CDH shows just how effective and valuable these partnerships can be.    

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