This three-part series on social annotation examines the pedagogical impact of collaborative close reading across diverse disciplinary fields, pedagogical contexts, and instructional modalities. While this first installment focuses on the Humanities and Social Sciences Core, parts 2 and 3 will explore social annotation in the context of language pedagogy and graduate training, respectively. This series builds on a March 2021 post on the ATS blog: “Social Annotation and the Pedagogy of”

Social Annotation Across Contexts, Classrooms, and Modalities

As the 2021-22 academic year begins, many members of the University community are looking to the horizon of the approaching academic terms with eagerness, curiosity, and some amount of trepidation. What will a shift to face-to-face or blended remote/in-person instruction look like and entail for those who have been teaching and learning in a fully virtual modality since April 2020? How will instructors reach all of their students, especially if their classes are comprised of both in-person and virtual learners? And which new digital pedagogical tools and practices – adopted, in some cases spontaneously and with great urgency, over the past eighteen months – might find a home in our classrooms upon a return to largely face-to-face instruction in the near future?

Digital platforms for social annotation and collaborative close reading (such as represent, for many University instructors, new tools that will find a lasting place in their pedagogical practice. As we explored in a previous blog post on the pedagogy of social annotation, tools such as enable students to sharpen their sensitivity and skill as readers across the disciplines, developing and honing field-specific methods of interpretation and analysis. In the context of a gradual return to face-to-face instruction, and other social annotation tools offer a unique opportunity to witness students in the very process of reading, as faculty member Hervé Reculeau (Associate Professor, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations) points out: “It’s very interesting to see their reading, which we don’t see when they’re reading a book. We don’t see them reading. We hear them, what they have to say, afterwards, but we don’t see that.”

In this series of three blog posts, we will revisit three events from the past academic year that have focused on pedagogies of social annotation: the panel discussion “Social Annotation: Tools for Teaching Reading in the Humanities and Social Sciences,” held on 9 December 2020 by the Humanities Division and Academic Technology Solutions (ATS); “ for Language Teaching,” a faculty conversation hosted by the University of Chicago Language Center on 2 March 2021; and “Social Annotation,” a panel conversation hosted by ATS as part of the Symposium for Teaching with Technology on 22 April 2021. In so doing, we will constellate a range of effective practices for teaching with and teaching reading across disciplines that will continue to resonate upon a return to in-person instruction.

Teaching the Core: New Texts, New Fields, New Methods

Pile of books and empty notebook

Instructors teaching in the undergraduate Core take on a complex set of nested pedagogical challenges: engaging students in conceptually rooted courses that can feel abstract to new undergraduates; equipping students with new interpretive methods, approaches, and frameworks; and inviting students into critical conversations about canonical literary and theoretical works. Faculty members Hervé Reculeau and Jennifer Spruill (Senior Lecturer, Social Sciences Collegiate Division and co-Chair, “Power, Identity, Resistance” Core Sequence) use to challenge their students to work and think at a big-picture and a granular level in their teaching in the Humanities Core and Social Sciences Core, respectively.

Professor Reculeau encourages students to use to make the margins of their readings messy – replete with questions, connections, paraphrases – similar to the way he “thrashes” his own books with physical folds and inked-in annotations. Interacting closely and messily with their readings, he reflects, encourages students to approach texts as interlocutors rather than authorities and helps them to balance big-picture ideas with focused insights from their sources. Bringing these two together – abstract conversations about “big problems,” on the one hand, and close readerly analysis and evidence-gathering, on the other – represents a critical goal of the Humanities Core.

Professor Spruill identifies a similar affordance in her use of in the Social Sciences Core, noting the way social annotation requires students to pause and capture their immediate, off-the-cuff impressions. While these intuitive responses do not always strike students as important, she observes, they can yield a great deal of insight about the nuances of a given text, including specificities of tone (sarcasm, subtlety, irony) and intertextual references. Creating a lasting record of these observations in is both pedagogically useful (providing a great deal of material to revisit in moving into new texts) and impactful for students’ metacritical development. As the academic quarter continues, Professor Spruill encourages students to develop a theory across annotations – adding a layer of interpretive complexity and self-awareness to the skills of observation and textual analysis students have been building.

Professor Reculeau and Professor Spruill each reflect on the impact of collaboration in their use of Professor Spruill emphasizes the social and intellectual growth fostered by group reading exercises, which enable course sections to produce a fully annotated version of a dense canonical text that had once seemed inaccessible. Eyeing a return to face-to-face instruction, Professor Reculeau expresses his curiosity about micro-exercises: how students will work together and interact with one another in annotation projects on an extremely small scale – for example, working through ten lines of the Epic of Gilgamesh. These strategies for robustly collaborative engagement invite us to reflect on how our teaching and course design practices can continue to meet students where they are during a time of transition and uncertainty while also making the most of a (long-awaited!) return to largely in-person instruction.

Using Information and Support

If you have any questions about or digital social annotation, Academic Technology Solutions can help. Set up a consultation with us, or drop by our office hours. To learn more about, please see Use the Hypothesis-Canvas Integration and complete the pilot program survey for more information.

Image Attributions

Changbok Ko, @kochangbok on Unsplash. 2018.

Debby Hudson, @hudsoncrafted on Unsplash. 2018.