Collaborative Annotations in the Classroom: Visual and Electronic Communication

To strengthen students’ critical reading strategies in my literature-based composition courses, I employ an in-class activity that reinforces skills in both collaborative online writing and interpreting complex prose passages. Used towards the beginning of the semester, I ask students to annotate and transform passages to illustrate how students can work together to analyze fiction and create either diverse or unified interpretations of fiction. This assignment is designed to put into practice close reading, digital literacy, and multimodal communication.

The focus of this activity is to answer the following questions: how can we discretely analyze one particular section, a portion of text that might not even be a full paragraph, to see how this section relates to the whole corpus of the novel, and how can we respond to such a selection in a productive way to arrive at an interpretation or analysis of said text? These questions begin the process of critical thinking by tasking students to share their own reading and note-taking processes. By getting each other to think directly about how sharing our own unique reading or thinking of a text can be transformed with others’ input, students begin to realize the significant role that discussion, a specific form of communication that foregrounds collaboration, can play in interpretation and analysis.

The activity’s instructions are simple:

1.Comment on, highlight, underline, and transform your selected passage at your own discretion

2.Respond to each others’ comments using the digital tools available to you

3.Synthesize your responses by creating a visual collage that illustrates your group’s unique interpretation of your selected passage

*A quick note about the secondary goals of the task regarding multimodality. By charging students to respond to the passage using visual and electronic means, I am asking them to think about the affordances of the technology they are using to complete the activity. The synthesized visual collage version of their interpretation is meant both to condense and convey a multimodal response to written text.  

 

Case Study using Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927)

In my course on visual writing and book arts in the 20th century, our first novel-length reading of the semester was Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. For this assignment, I selected six unique passages from my students to markup using Google Drive [see Figure 1], though this assignment could also easily be done using a program called A.nnotate by Textensor Limited. The selected passages were particularly striking because of Woolf’s depiction of characters, the evocation of important themes in the novel, and instances where the novel began to foreground how it was influenced by the visual arts.

Figure 1. Sample student work. An annotated passage of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What stands out to me as an instructor when reviewing the results of the task is how students used the commenting feature. While the groups did manage to transform their passages in colorful ways using word processing software, it was the questions that they posed and responded to that demonstrated a productive use of this digital tool. By having a shared, collective text as a resource, the act of annotation took on a level of importance generally neglected in students’ private copies, which follows along much of the research by Catherine C. Marshall and A.J. Bernheim Brush. The transformation from personal to public annotations that is an affordance of the digital mode encouraged collaboration and a more sophisticated response to complex texts.

The second part of the activity, the multimodal/visual response, involves getting students to take what they accomplished using the affordances of word processing software and transform that work into a visual collage [see Figure 2]. Since students have isolated key passages and moments, important words or descriptions, I ask them to think how what they have read can be represented visually. This part of the activity allows them to think critically about how they can represent their passage using images rather than written text, essentially through a small-class, low stakes version of what they will be doing in the formal assignments for the course.

 

Figure 2. Student collage from an annotated scene in which Woolf discusses Nancy’s generative transformation of water. They noted the ways that Woolf used concrete words and images to depict an activity that was much more abstract—that of creation—and their collage reflects this analysis. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inevitably, a discussion starts here about how to use software, cite images, and connect their critical thinking to more creative projects—only a few of the intellectual gains of this activity and the larger assignment it is linked to in the course. Because they are tasked with making a collage, students already begin to explore how the formatting of visual images requires skills that students do not necessarily need in a standard, written-text only composition course.

 

Michael Griffin, Georgia Institute of Technology

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