Reading with the Stars: Teaching with the HIGHBROW Annotation Browser

[This is a guest post by Augusta Rohrbach and David Tagnani. Augusta Rohrbach is an Associate Professor of English at Washington State University and Editor of ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance. She's working on The Gallows Diary of Mary Surratt, Presidential Assassin, a book that uses this case history to examine the conditions of subjectivity when accessed exclusively through secondary archival sources only. David Tagnani is a PhD student in the Department of English at Washington State University. He studies ecology, mysticism, and the coincidence of the two in British and American Literature.--@jbj]

There are lots of tools out there that aggregate existing information and even organize it for users to interpret. Since the early Hypercities, GIS tools, for instance, have been very much the rage among humanists who wish to add geographical and census data to enhance the “lived experience” of a text. But there are fewer tools that actually build an archive of live interpretation—as opposed to facts layered and ready for interpretation–around a stable text. And that’s where what I call “Reading with the Stars” comes in.

Last year I attended a presentation by Reinhard Engels (Harvard University Libraries) in which he demonstrated a deep zoom widget he was working on called “HIGHBROW.” Using important texts such as the Bible, the Divine Comedy, and Shakespeare (First Folio), Reinhard’s widget brought these texts together with some of their more famous commentaries. A spike graph at the top of the screen showed viewers where the text had received more (or less) comment, and scrolling down into the text allowed viewers to see specific comments from a range of well known thinkers such as St. Augustine and Sir Thomas Moore on the Bible. Highbrow offered viewers a snapshot of the text’s reading history through the lens of established experts. As a teacher of ENGL 372, a large undergraduate lecture class required for our major at WSU, that focuses on the Transatlantic 19th century, I wondered if the static archive Highbrow could create might be transformed into a dynamic archiving tool for student comments around major texts.

Several conversations and many emails later, Reinhard and I conspired to load the texts of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Why Emerson? Well, in part because he urged his readers to write their own books and using Highbrow to engage students in his text would provide them a way to “speak (their) latent convictions,” as he adjured in “The American Scholar,” as a way for them to discover “the universal truth.” There were other reasons, too. Emerson was a good fit because he is a major figure of the transatlantic 19th century, because I am the Editor of ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, because David Tagnani (my co-teacher for ENGL 372) and his fellow graduate students in ENGL 529 are building Digital Emerson: a collective archive, and (perhaps the best reason of all) because it’s fun to have a rocking good time in the classroom.

Screenshot of The Study Habit

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But, as we all know, having a good time in a large readings course of 60 people that is part of a series of four readings courses required by the major takes a level of orchestration that isn’t all that fun. Reinhard’s widget promised to be just the thing. By mid-August, David and I were figuring out possible assignments to help students use Highbrow as a means to “read with the stars.” On the theory that more is merrier, I also posted an invitation to join my class’s experience on the C19 list; several people responded and decided to pilot the Emerson archive along with us. We shared our assignment, got some helpful feedback and geared up for the semester.

Unlike traditional wikis, “Reading with the Stars” allows students to see, using the spike graph at the top of the screen, and the heat map of the text on the screen, where activity is in the text; reader comments have a life alongside the text. (View Reinhard’s screencast for easy to follow instructions.) And using the “Reading with the Stars” approach in our rather large classroom helped to mitigate the limitations of the seminar format. A truly dynamic and participatory seminar is not practicable in a room of over four dozen students. There is simply not time for everyone to contribute every class period, and the less confident and more introverted students find it easy to just hide in the crowd. This technology extended the seminar dynamic beyond the physical class space.

Annotations in HIGHBROW

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That’s important because it established a relationship between reader and text and proved mighty useful in supporting students in their efforts to engage the text.

We found that students often wrote annotations in response to other annotations – debating, disputing, supporting, or otherwise engaging with the ideas of other students. In a questionnaire designed to gauge student reaction to the technology, students consistently identified the interaction with their peers as the most rewarding feature. Students said that seeing what other students thought exposed them to new ideas and enhanced their experience of the text. This space functioned as a virtual conversation that helped the students think more critically about the text and about their own ideas. One even went so far as to say, “I didn’t feel alone in my thoughts.”

Annotations in HIGHBROW

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Clearly the sense of community and collegiality was transported outside of the classroom for that student. A few students even observed that Highbrow exposed them to a greater diversity of voices and ideas than actual class discussions due to the reticence of some students in class and the compulsory nature of the assignment. As this interactivity is the keystone of the seminar, Highbrow can be said to have been a success in this regard.

We noticed that aside from the interactive dynamic of the annotations, students were interested in simply seeing which passages solicited the most attention from their classmates. This led students to think more deeply about those passages, passages that they may have initially ‘took at surface level,’ in the words of one. Other students said they were impelled to think more deeply and focus more closely in order to write annotations. Some even revealed that the Highbrow assignment provided additional pressure to actually complete the reading before coming to class. All of these factors contributed to an increased sense of comprehension. Many students wrote that the annotations helped them understand other ideas about the text and to reveal layers of meaning that had eluded them.

As it turned out, only one other colleague ended up having her class annotate an Emerson text. Laura Saltz’s Colby College course in American Studies, took a shot at “Nature”. “My class is small,” Saltz explained, “so for my students, the excitement was less about communicating with each other than about the fact that their comments would be public, read by people beyond the classroom.  One student even developed a kind of performance anxiety–she couldn’t decide which passage to write about or what to say.  When we later talked about it as a group, we agreed that having a real (though virtual) audience changed they way they thought about their responses to the text.  They were also fascinated by the fact that a few select passages drew so much commentary from their fellow classmates.”

Indeed, when our students at WSU found out that they could read comments from a group of students approaching the text from a different context, the excitement was palpable: they wanted to see what students from another school and another kind of class thought about the text. I couldn’t fit in another reading on the syllabus, alas, but students were eager to see future iterations of the archive. This is an open invitation for you to add to this archive by bringing it into your classroom.

Photo “claude levi-strauss — annotated” by Flickr user uair01 / Creative Commons licensed

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