4: Annotation Sparks Conversation
Engaging with a text has the potential to be an animating encounter rather than just a diagnostic exercise.
—Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique1
In the early 1990s, the artist Prince - who, at the time, was referred to as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince and as an unpronounceable “love symbol” - was embroiled in conflict with his label, Warner Bros. In response, Prince began to appear in public, first at a press conference, then again at an award ceremony, then while on tour, and even on the Today Show, with the word “slave” inscribed on his face.
As Prince told Rolling Stone in 1996, “People think I’m a crazy fool for writing ‘slave’ on my face. But if I can’t do what I want to do, what am I? When you stop a man from dreaming, he becomes a slave.”
At the time, Prince’s action resonated across multiple social contexts as different messages were communicated to and discussed among his fans, fellow musicians, and record company executives. Looking back at this moment in music history, can we read “slave” as annotation? In this circumstance, is Prince’s body considered a text and “slave” a note he added to himself? Certainly, “slave” was not marginalia, yet it was both responsive and discursive commentary. While “slave” was not a tattoo permanently anchored to Prince’s face, this repeated act of writing has left an indelible mark on subsequent discussion about the musician’s insight, advocacy, and legacy. However one might debate both the merit and the form of Prince’s note, we consider “slave” a provocative example of what can count as annotation and how annotation can spark - and shape - conversation.
Having considered how annotation provides information and shares commentary, we now look at annotation sparking conversation. Because annotation can serve multiple purposes at the same time, we recognize that we’ve already shared some noteworthy examples of annotation sparking conversation - such as hip hop aficionados interpreting then debating the meaning of an artists’ lyrics, or Climate Feedback scientists peer reviewing climate change journalism. We have also discussed how annotation has long been a social activity, whether with medieval scholars who commented upon a manuscript to instruct others through translation or evaluation, or with marginalia written inside a book addressed beyond the inquisitive self to a group of friends, colleagues, or the author.2
We have also discussed examples of annotation that may be instructive but are not intended to spark conversation. Private musings while reading a book, copyediting marks, and data labeled and categorized for either machine learning or computational biology are among the types of annotation that inform but may only incidentally inspire a conversation. All of which raises an important question: While some annotation may be informative, and other annotation responsive or evaluative, can annotation be a conversation?
Some people don’t think so.
You’re not actually talking to Toni Morrison when annotating Beloved. Jackson’s study of book marginalia, which we previously examined when discussing forms of annotation that provide information, suggests a reader writing in her book isn’t having a substantial tête-à-tête with the author (or whatever “author” the reader imagines). In Jackson’s assessment, “Writing marginalia is not so much akin to conversation or collaboration or correspondence as it is to talking back to the TV set - and readers like it that way.”3
We should recall that Jackson is discussing book marginalia primarily in historic contexts. Moreover, Jackson’s analysis suggests such annotation went “public” around 1820, henceforth becoming an established practice and feature of book culture and the literate public.4 This is a useful reminder, as we’ve also argued, that annotation is a dynamic social practice - particularly in our digital era. The forms and purposes of annotation are changing, with conversation an increasingly important quality of annotation.
While many readers, from centuries past to the present day, value annotation as a private and at times anonymous dialogue, some annotation is intentionally authored, shared, and read so as to converse with a public audience. Coleridge’s initial use “marginalia” in 1819 appeared in a popular literary magazine; his criticism began, “Mr Editor.”5 As with Prince, Climate Feedback, and many others - including, we should recall, much of what passes for engagement on social media platforms like Twitter - the intent and effect of some annotation can be social and public dialogue about art and literature, politics, science, and religion.
Whether sparked incidentally or intentionally, annotation can be written and read as conversation. In this chapter, we examine how annotation sparks, and can also sustain, conversation that is meant to be authored publicly, discussed and debated openly, and recursively rewritten by many.
Yes, Twitter may be digital marginalia on everything. But that cloud of conversation is a bit too diffuse for our purposes; we need to lower our signal-to-noise ratio just a bit. Which means we should recognize how annotation sparks and sustains conversation under certain conditions.
What are those conditions? This chapter discusses examples of annotation in which people are invited to read, write, and discuss a text together. The affordances of emerging media, digital publications, and social networks often work in concert to locate this reading, writing, and discussion online. All the forthcoming examples of annotation featured in this chapter live on the web and spark conversation thanks to digital technologies and practices. Moreover, annotation is the agreed upon means of starting and sustaining that conversation.
In other words, we’ll be discussing examples of conversation that are curated.
Curated conversations are not merely digital chit chat. Rather, such conversation serves an explicit collaborative purpose that requires a group to collectively gather, even if across physical space and time, so as to accomplish something. There is a careful selection of tools in order for these conversations to grow and thrive. People are invited because of interest or their expertise, and join because they are inherently motivated. Collectively, the participants in these conversations are either fluent with forms of annotation or they quickly grasp how a particular annotation technology or practice can mediate meaningful exchange. It is under these particular conditions that we can discuss - and share our own curated list of - annotation as conversation.
An Animating Encounter
Our exploration of annotation sparking conversation is inspired, in part, by the English professor Rita Felski’s discussion of literary criticism and her observation that engagement with a text may be “an animating encounter.” What is animating about encountering a text through annotation?
Let’s illustrate this quality of conversation with a text that is expressly about an animating encounter. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, published in 1818, needs no introduction. It’s quite likely that you may have read - and even annotated - the book while in high school.6 We do know that Shelley, herself, annotated her drafts while revising and copyediting the novel starting in 1816.7 In the book’s third chapter we find our protagonist, the young scientist Victor Frankenstein, recounting: “After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.” Spoiler; Frankenstein creates a monster.
In celebration of Frankenstein’s 200th anniversary, Arizona State University facilitated a global celebration of the book with The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project. One of the project’s efforts was Frankenbook, “a collective reading and collaborative annotation experience.” So as to encourage readers to engage socially with Frankenstein, Frankenbook was created as an openly accessible and annotatable version of the book published using PubPub, an online publishing platform originally developed at the MIT Media Lab.8 The Frankenbook “annotation experience” also drew upon the 2017 book Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds, an edition of the original text featuring annotation about the scientific, ethical, and creative tensions of the classic.9 As a complement to this expert commentary, Frankenbook was published and organized as a public invitation for scholars, students, and enthusiasts alike to collectively read, write about, and discuss Frankenstein.
Frankenbook went live - sorry, we couldn’t help it - and, as of this writing, features over 400 annotations. Each annotation appears both as in-line marginalia and also within a collection of footnotes. Every annotation is first encountered as an interactive visual element in the right margin next to a corresponding and highlighted passage of text. The same annotation is also curated among all others as footnotes; the footnotes are labeled public “discussions” at the bottom of the web page. When authored, an annotation may also be tagged using eight “labels” that correspond to prominent themes in the book: Equity & Inclusion, Health & Medicine, Influences & Adaptations, Mary Shelley, Motivations & Sentiments, Philosophy & Politics, Science, and Technology. Readers of Frankenbook can filter the annotation corpus by these labels if, for example, they are curious to read - and perhaps also join - any of the 39 discussions specific to themes of equity and inclusion.
Perusing the annotation corpus, readers have engaged with the text and one another in order to converse about both Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein’s stance toward gender and gender politics, emotion, identity, and the creation and meaning of human life, among many other topics. With the express purpose of social reading and collaborative annotation, we consider Frankenbook akin to an online book club. Yet unlike a book club that may be limited to a particular group of people having a conversation at a certain place and time, Frankenbook and the collaborative conversation are publicly accessible. Anyone can access, read, learn from, and help to continue the book club’s conversation. The open access text and accompanying conversation are curated for ongoing contribution and collaboration. And annotation animates Frankenbook and mediates how people encounter this classic text.
Someone once remarked upon the similarities between legislation and sausage; perhaps it’s best not to see either being made. Yet in the case of legislation, there are many who care deeply about their communities and cherish opportunities to shape civic life. For people who are concerned about transparent political processes, the project Madison was a unique opportunity for citizens, politicians, and policy makers to collaboratively draft and deliberate legislation.10 And the entire project was driven by annotation as conversation.
Between 2011 and 2019, The OpenGov Foundation supported Madison to successfully demonstrate how “digital-first and inclusive policy-making is the best way to govern in the Internet Age.”11 How did this process work? Madison’s online “co-creation platform” hosted draft legislation as both an openly accessible and openly annotatable document. Over 75 municipal, state, federal, and international governments posted proposed legislative documentation to the platform. Everyday citizens - whether from a particular geographic area, or with particular expertise, or who cared about a given policy - could easily find the draft legislation, read it, and then annotate it.
Whenever an annotation was added to a Madison document, a few technical features helped to further facilitate conversation. First, the document’s sponsor was automatically notified of a new annotation. Second, the annotation also appeared in-line as marginalia that could be responded to, liked, or flagged by others. And third, the annotation was displayed as a “comment” along with others at the end of the document. This process was described as “the future of crowdsourced legislation,”12 and illustrated how social and collaborative annotation could contribute to and improve civic life.
Among notable legislation drafted and deliberated using Madison was the OPEN Act in 2012. The OPEN Act proposed, first, that Americans have a right to benefit from what they create and, second, that Americans have a right to an open internet. Over 150 people annotated the OPEN Act, helping to clarify how the legislation protected artists and their work, defined the concept of counterfeit, discussed the rights of website owners, and considered implications for international trade. Some legislation annotated using Madison eventually become law, too, as with policy about police body cameras in Syracuse and the privacy of “smart city” data in Chicago. When, in 2015, the Obama Administration announced the Public Participation Playbook, a “resource for government managers to effectively evaluate and build better services through public participation using best practices and performance metrics,”13 iterative drafts of the playbook were first shared and subsequently annotated using Madison.
Although the Madison project closed in early 2019, the effort demonstrates how technical and social supports for collaborative annotation can power crowdsourced civic deliberation. In our assessment, projects like Madison echo - and greatly improve upon - collaborative writing and editing processes that have long-defined American democracy, as with the Continental Congress “emending, correcting, and, especially, cutting” the draft Declaration of Independence in late June, 1776. Then, Congress’ group writing deliberations reduced by about 25 percent the draft declaration initially presented by Thomas Jefferson’s Committee of Five. Most famously, this included striking an entire passage that denounced King George III’s participation in the slave trade. No longer did the declaration decry how “He [King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself.”14 Today, scholars can only speculate as to how and why that 168-word passage was removed.15 Should platforms like Madison becoming a feature of twenty-first century governance, perhaps annotation-powered group writing might enable more participatory politics, transparent civic deliberation, and a healthier democracy.
Annotation has, for centuries, functioned as a “legitimate and desirable way for scholars” to interact with texts and their colleagues.16 Today, in our digital era, scholars across disciplines are using collaborative annotation technologies and practices to make their research processes more transparent, to participate in peer review, and to communicate with various publics.
What does annotation, as a form of scholarly dialogue, look like?
Let’s consider the scholarly practice of peer review. In 2006, the journal Nature - which publishes about eight percent of submitted manuscripts - introduced a voluntary “open peer review” using annotation to complement the required and traditional blinded review process.17 Authors could opt into the open review, and annotation by open reviewers was signed, attributing the commentary to an actual individual (and not “Reviewer 2”). Ultimately, however, few authors participated in the trial and author satisfaction was mixed. As Nature’s editors concluded, “Feedback suggests that there is a marked reluctance among researchers to offer open comments.”18
Despite the limitations of Nature’s experiment, more than a decade later promising approaches to open and transparent peer review have emerged. It’s important to note that open peer review is a term that refers to a number of traits. These include: open identities, whereby authors and reviewers are known to one another; open reports, in which reviews are published with an article; open participation, when various communities contribute to review; open interaction through direct and reciprocal discussion among authors and reviewers; open pre-review, whereby pre-prints are made publicly available prior to formal review; open final-version commenting, also known as post-publication review, atop the published version of an article; and open platforms that de-couple review from a publication venue.19
The open annotation tool Hypothesis - with the ability to support collaboration reading and writing anywhere on the web, including as a part of publication platforms - is powering multiple approaches to open peer review. Hypothesis has partnered with the Public Knowledge Project’s Open Journal Systems platform, is integral to the In Review service associated with some of Springer’s biomedical journals, and is a default feature for all the preprints shared via the Center for Open Science’s many discipline-specific archives, among Hypothesis’ broader collaborative annotation efforts in scholarly publishing.20 The Open Review Toolkit, developed by the sociology professor Matthew Salganik, also uses Hypothesis annotation to improve the process of book publication. Salganik used the toolkit to converse with readers, openly review, and publish the first version of his 2017 book Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age.21
And as we write this book about annotation, The MIT Press has launched a Works in Progress program built atop the PubPub platform to encourage open peer review and “open access to new ideas” by researchers and other readers interested in a given topic.22 The first work to pilot this service was Open Knowledge Institutions, a book co-authored by 13 scholars from five countries over the course of five days.23 Following a self-described “Book Sprint,” the authors hosted the manuscript via Works in Progress: “We present the results of our work here to the wider community for annotation, commentary, constructive criticism and engagement, with a view to extending the collaborative spirit further. We want the book to gain further analytical richness and precision from crowd-sourced expertise.” Open Knowledge Institution’s ten chapters currently feature 45 annotations as a means of open peer review conversation. The MIT Press has, on multiple prior occasions, leveraged PubPub to support open peer review, as with books like Data Feminism.24 And one of the first volumes in the Essential Knowledge series, Intellectual Property Strategy from 2011, now features a complementary PubPub website with additional complementary and openly-licensed content.25
These examples suggest annotation can assist scholars and publishers as they pull back the curtain on what some people perceive to be the opaque, confusing, and exclusionary practices of peer review, publication, and the sharing of scholarly knowledge. And yet, studies of scholars’ actual experiences with open peer review indicate that generally favorable views are accompanied by concerns about bias, self-censorship, and the relationship between anonymity and openness.26 As academic communities adopt and refine their use of open peer review technologies and processes, open and collaborative annotation may help peer review become more like a conversation that leads to - and less like an inevitable conflict that prevents - publication and knowledge production.
Educators Discussing Equity
Classroom teachers work hard and care deeply about the wellbeing of their students. In America, many educators are painfully aware that disparities among the nation’s public schools have exacerbated inequities that differentially impact students of color, students whose families have less social and financial capital, and students whose home language may not be English or who may have recently arrived in this country. Equitable learning opportunities and outcomes are a concern for many, from researchers and policy makers, to parents and their children. And so, too, educators. Some educators have embraced annotation to discuss educational equity topics and advance their own professional learning in response to related teaching challenges.
The Marginal Syllabus is a professional development initiative that uses open and collaborative web annotation to guide educator discussion about educational equity.27 Since 2016, the Marginal Syllabus has organized dozens of ongoing “annotation conversations” thanks to a multi-stakeholder partnership among the National Writing Project, Hypothesis, K-12 educators, university researchers, and publishers of scholarship like the National Council of Teachers of English and the journal CITE: English Language Arts. Over three years, hundreds of educators and university students have participated in Marginal Syllabus conversations by authoring thousands of Hypothesis annotations. And full disclosure, we (Remi and Antero) have helped to organize, facilitate, and research this project given our interests in literacy, learning, and equity.28
What’s an annotation conversation look like in the Marginal Syllabus? First, authors contribute open access scholarship related to an educational equity topic like culturally relevant literacy instruction. Then educators use open and collaborative annotation to publicly comment upon and discuss the scholarship over weeks and months. In some instances, partner authors join the annotation conversation, too, creating an opportunity for educators to converse directly with authors. The Marginal Syllabus enacts a participatory form of public discourse that exemplifies what other educational researchers call the “social scholarship of teaching.”29 This “social scholarship” encourages educators to generate and share new knowledge about their teaching through public annotation about, in response to, and directly atop academic literature. The Marginal Syllabus has also been described as public scholarship that helps researchers “imagine a different paradigm for conducting, consuming, and responding to research.”30
In our own research about educator participation in the Marginal Syllabus, we have studied how open and collaborative annotation can encourage educators’ civic writing practices.31 Civic writing is a way for groups - like educators - to remark upon issues that are germane to their social fabric and political concerns. For educators who participate in the Marginal Syllabus’ annotation conversations, civic writing practices help turn academic texts into pedagogically and politically relevant contexts for their professional learning. We have described this process as sublimating a text - or elevating a text from the mundane to the meaningful - through civic writing that relies upon open and collaborative annotation. The acronym SUBLIMATES is our useful heuristic to cohesively describes ten civic writing practices that educators have demonstrated during annotation conversation: summarizing, unpacking, building, linking, illustrating, musing, affiliating, translating, evaluating, and sharing. For example, educators might write annotation to question assumptions about civic education (unpacking), critique claims about students’ learning (evaluating), or explain the pedagogical or political relevance of a topic (illustrating). The annotation-enabled civic writing practices that we have studied echo other researchers’ assessment of Marginal Syllabus conversation as an open educational practice that advocates “non-traditional approaches to online collaborative reading of texts… [to] promote transformative learning as dialogue.”32
As an interest-driven opportunity for educators to publicly read and write together about educational equity, the Marginal Syllabus is a promising model for professional learning powered by open and collaborative annotation.
From Curated Conversation to Counternarrative
We began this chapter by recognizing that some annotation is not conversation. If you’re writing marginalia in this book right now, you’re not really having a conversation with us. Sorry. However, when groups of readers come together and collectively read and write annotation in response to a shared text, then annotation can - under curated circumstances - spark and sustain conversation. Frankenbook, the Madison project, efforts to promote open and transparent peer review, and the Marginal Syllabus all indicate how various forms of annotation are collaborative and discursive. In our digital era, and across personally, professionally, and politically relevant texts and contexts, annotation can be practiced as a meaningful form of conversation.
If, however, we read between the lines, and if we critically consider the examples shared in this chapter, we can further observe how much of this annotation is the result of someone or some group exercising power. Madison was an effort to crowdsource legislation and directly engage everyday citizens in writing their democracy. Open approaches to peer review are an acknowledgment that a select group of experts should not have the only, or the final, say in how research is improved and shared with multiple audiences. The Marginal Syllabus intentionally supports educators to publicly share their expert knowledge and write their professional truths in dialogue with academic research.
Annotation, in these instances, helps author a counternarrative, or an alternative to conventional methods and messages. In writing about the social practices of annotation, the English professor Ralph Hanna once observed: “Questions of annotation always come back to issues of communities and institutions, and consequently questions of power.”33 Notes may be added to texts as an expression of authority, position, or spunk. And that’s what we’ll examine next, annotation and power.