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Annotations Are The Original Web Writing
The fact that more or less anyone can publish to the web often makes people think that self-publication is its main use. And maybe that is it’s most common use. But the propleptic visions of Vannevar Bush and Douglas Engelbart, writing in the 1940s and 1960s respectively, remind us of the primary importance of annotations.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Even before there was a web, there were dreams of annotations. Vannevar Bush’s hypothetical “memex,” described in “As We May Think” (1945), reaches its apotheosis in imagining the future utility of annotations:
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client’s interest. The physician, puzzled by a patient’s reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The historian, with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail which stops only on the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 The “associative trails” blazed by the expert poring over the record of human invention and creation would, Bush foresaw, soon be themselves available for ready searching. In addition to making repeated research much quicker, such a scheme would also allow for the serendipitous discovery of new ideas. As Steven Johnson has pointed out, 1 systems like DEVONThink, which automatically suggest just associative trails as Bush imagined, facilitate “finding documents that I’ve forgotten about altogether, finding documents that I didn’t know I was looking for,” and “can create almost lyrical connections between ideas” (114). The power and limit of an individual memex such as DEVONThink, according to Johnson, is that “I have curated all these passages myself, which makes each individual connection far more likely to be useful in some way” (116). By contrast, the open architecture of the World-Wide Web, which posits “a global distributed medium in which anyone can be a publisher, and a hypertext document structure in which it is trivial to jump from a newspaper article to an academic essay to an encyclopedia entry in a matter of seconds,” makes for a far more open system of annotation and discovery. 2
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Douglas Engelbart’s 1962 essay “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” already recognized that “It would actually seem quite feasible to develop a unit record system around cards and mechanical sorting, with automatic trail establishment and trail-following facility, and with associated means for selective copying or data transfer, that would enable development of some very powerful methodology for everyday intellectual work.” 3) Recognizing that a mechanical card-based system would be obsolete at the moment it was delivered, Engelbart stretches out just a little, and imagines a situation not unlike our own (the speaker is a hypothetical “friendly fellow” named Joe):
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 “I’m sure that you’ve had the experience of working over a journal article to get comprehension and perhaps some special-purpose conclusions that you can integrate into your own work. Well, when you ever get handy at roaming over the type of symbol structure which we have been showing here, and you turn for this purpose to another person’s work that is structured in this way, you will find a terrific difference there in the ease of gaining comprehension as to what he has done and why he has done it, and of isolating what you want to use and making sure of the conditions under which you can use it. This is true even if you find his structure left in the condition in which he has been working on it–that is, with no special provisions for helping an outsider find his way around. But we have learned quite a few simple tricks for leaving appended road signs, supplementary information, questions, and auxiliary links on our working structures–in such a manner that they never get in our way as we work–so that the visitor to our structure can gain his comprehension and isolate what he wants in marvelously short order. Some of these techniques are quite closely related to those used in automated-instruction programming–perhaps you know about ‘teaching machines?’
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 “What we found ourselves doing, when having to do any extensive digesting of journal articles, was to type large batches of the text verbatim into computer store. It is so nice to be able to tear it apart, establish our own definitions and substitute, restructure, append notes, and so forth, in pursuit of comprehension, that it was generally well worth the trouble. The keyset shorthand made this reasonably practical. But the project now has an optical character reader that will convert our external references into machine code for us. The references are available for study in original serial form on our screens, but any structuring and tagging done by a previous reader, or ourselves, can also be utilized. 4
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 3 This ideal–where both an original work and any markup by other readers might be easily accessible to someone looking to understand a text–is arguably the foundational experience of most liberal arts classrooms, at all levels of the curriculum. When contemplating incorporating web writing into one’s own courses, it can be helpful to remember that annotation has a long and honorable tradition at the heart of web writing.
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Annotating in the Liberal Arts Classroom
When thinking about annotation in the liberal arts classroom, the model that is probably the most familiar is that of a scholarly edition or teaching edition: some sort of primary document, marked up with the commentary of an editor or editors. As Laura Lisbeth shows in “Empowering Education with Social Annotation and Wikis” (in this volume), this model can be quite powerful when extended to include students. Annotations in this situation need not be restricted to clarifying factual, contextual, or textual conundrums, but can indeed be as interpretative as one wishes. Indeed, it would be possible to have classes construct their own self-edited anthologies of source materials—at least as long as the material is out of copyright.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 3 However, as Bush and Engelbart’s examples suggest, when viewed in a certain light, the entire web can seem driven by a massive will-to-annotate. Tim Carmody has argued that the fundamentals of blogging are essentially annotative in the most generous sense: “I have seen something that I feel strongly enough to think and write about, and what would make me happiest is if you look at it, then think and write about it too.” Social bookmarking tools, such as Pinboard.in or Diigo or Delicious, or socially-aware reference systems, such as Mendeley, or Zotero, can also be opportunities for students to mark up and share items that they feel strongly about.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 But there are other forms, too. Adrianne Wadewitz, Anne Ellen Geller, and Jon Beasley-Murray have described the ways in which having students write for Wikipedia 5, which demands citations, turns into a remarkably reflexive process of research, writing, and revision.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Beyond the world of pure text, Mark Sample and Kelly Shrum have described the possibilities of collating multimedia and multimodal forms online. As Sample explains 6:
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 In addition to making student writing public, I’ve also begun taking the words out of writing. Why must writing, especially writing that captures critical thinking, be composed of words? Why not images? Why not sound? Why not objects? The word text, after all, derives from the Latin textus, meaning that which is woven, strands of different material intertwined together. Let the warp be words and the weft be something else entirely.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 More substantial weaving can be done with tools such as Scalar or Omeka, each of which lend themselves well to juxtaposing text with digital objects of all sorts. Omeka is a tool for building online exhibitions, and is commonly used by librarians and museums. Julie Meloni has written an excellent introduction to it, but this video is also helpful:
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Jeff McClurken has outlined some ways to use Omeka in the classroom, and the Center for History and New Media has recently assembled a more comprehensive list of examples.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Scalar is a more comprehensive multimodal publishing platform, but is still very much rooted in Bush’s and Engelbardt’s vision of annotation. The Scalar project aims to “enabl[e] scholars to work more organically with archival materials, creating interpretive pathways through the materials and enabling new forms of analysis. In particular, we aim to draw out more general lessons about the relationship of scholarly analysis to emerging digital typologies or genres; about how best to organize the digital archive to facilitate scholarly analysis; and about efficient and meaningful work flows between primary evidence, research and publication.” Indeed, Scalar’s Annotations feature allows the direct markup of video, images, and more–essentially anything that can be captured in a digital repository. The best way to come to grips with Scalar’s classroom potential is by working through this Scalar exhibit on “Teaching and Learning Multimodal Communications.”
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New Tools for Old Models: CommentPress, Highbrow, and Hypothes.is
In this last section, I want to highlight three tools for annotation that indicate both the potential of new tools and also how radically familiar they should be to anyone in a liberal arts environment.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 CommentPress will of course already be familiar to anyone reading this book, because it is the platform that we’ve published on. CommentPress was developed at the Institute for the Future of the Book as a way to permit “readers to comment paragraph-by-paragraph, line-by-line or block-by-block in the margins of a text. Annotate, gloss, workshop, debate: with CommentPress you can do all of these things on a finer-grained level, turning a document into a conversation.” 7 CommentPress is a plugin and theme for the blogging platform, WordPress, which facilitates more focused conversation than a typical blog site.
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 The basic magic of CommentPress is captured by the left and center arrows. Typically, documents created in CommentPress are chunked into paragraphs, which can be linked to individually (the left arrow). Then, each paragraph has its own set of comments attached to it (the center arrow), whereby readers can comment on a text paragraph by paragraph. The rightmost arrow points up both a quick way to navigate a document, and also where the annotative “action” is.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 1 As Fitzpatrick has pointed out, the visibility of this annotative action is both a gift and a problem. Did most people comment on paragraph 1 because it was the best? the worst? the only one they read? And what is the meaning of no comments? Does that indicate readerly assent, indifference, or worse? An assignment built on CommentPress would want to think explicitly about the distribution of comments. 8
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 2 Highbrow is a “textual annotation browser” developed by Reinhard Engels at Harvard. Pictured above is a Highbrow-enabled version of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House that my students used for a time last fall. What’s nice about it from a teaching point of view is captured in the screenshot: The tool gives you a heatmap, as it were, of where students are commenting in a particular text, information which could then be used to guide discussion.
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 My students found the tool very easy-to-use, and I liked being able to browse annotations before class. Similarly, Augusta Rohrbach and David Tagnani report great satisfaction in using Highbrow for cross-institution collaborations.
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 CommentPress and Highbrow are obviously similar in that they are focused on a collective reading of a single document. The priority is always on the main text, then the comments are important, but still secondary. And the comments remain attached, in some sense, to the primary document.
¶ 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 1 For a quite different approach to annotation, it is worth paying attention to Hypothes.is, an annotation tool that is just in its alpha stages. What’s powerful about Hypothes.is that in principle it allows *anything* online to be annotated, without special tools beyond a browser plug-in. (I highly recommend Dan Whaley’s talk, “The Revolution Will Be Annotated” as a defense of annotating.) Hypothes.is lets you read other people’s annotations, and it also gives you control over your own annotations, so that you’re able to collect them elsewhere. Hypothes.is is even trying to address problems in cross-format annotation, which occurs when the same document appears in multiple formats, or in multiple places. Hypothes.is’s ultimate goal is to allow the same annotation to appear in the same place on all of those formats, and in all of those places, which will truly bring Vannevar Bush’s memex to life.
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Because Hypothes.is is still in an alpha stage of development, it is difficult to anticipate exactly how the service will develop. But Ryan Brazell has described some of the appeal:
¶ 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Whether you are using the browser plugin or viewing a permanent link, all of the pertinent data and metadata is maintained: the full original source, the specific section of the text referred to by the annotator, and any comments that refer to that specific section of text.
¶ 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 1 Hypothes.is is one of the fruits of the Open Annotation project that has been working on metadata standards that will allow different annotation and reference systems to work together. 9 One of the things that this work implies is that, in a few years, there will be less pressure about which tool one chooses, because all of them should in principle be able to work together.
¶ 36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 About the author: Jason B. Jones is director of educational technology at Trinity College (Hartford). With George Williams, he is the co-founding editor of ProfHacker, currently hosted at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Follow him on Twitter at @jbj.
- ¶ 38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0
- Johnson, Steven. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. New York: Riverhead, 2010. Johnson has also discussed his use of DEVONthink online: http://www.stevenberlinjohnson.com/movabletype/archives/000230.html. ↩
- For the latest in web-enabled serendipitous discovery, see the new tool by the Center for History and New Media, Serendip-o-matic: http://serendipomatic.org/. ↩
- http://www.dougengelbart.org/pubs/augment-3906.html#3a7e8 ↩
- http://www.dougengelbart.org/pubs/augment-3906.html#3b7f ↩
- This essay is also available as “Opening up the Academy with Wikipedia in the print edition of Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2013), p. 84-86. ↩
- This is also available as “What’s Wrong with Writing Essays: A Conversation” by Mark Sample and Kelly Shrum in the print edition of Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2013), p.87-97. ↩
- For a discussion of CommentPress in the context of academic publishing, see Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy (NYU P, 2011), or watch this video of her discussing CommentPress at Tulane University. ↩
- For a fascinating discussion of pedagogy and CommentPress, see Matt K. Gold’s interview with Bob Stein: http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/15.2/interviews/?page_id=33 at Kairos. ↩
- Watch Robert Sanderson and Herbert Van de Sompel, both of Los Alamos National Laboratory, discuss “Interoperable Annotation.” ↩