• October 20, 2014

Mark It Up

Careers Illustration - Writing With Style

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

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close Careers Illustration - Writing With Style

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

As an undergraduate, I did not often annotate the texts I was assigned to read for class. Nor was I encouraged to. When I look back through the books I read as a freshman, I find they are utterly devoid of notations. A survey of my texts from sophomore and junior year yields a small amount of underlining and a few scattered notes.

I remember often being unsure about what constituted good annotation, so my initial forays felt forced and uncertain. Each sentence presented me with a conundrum: What should be noted here and what left alone?

I finally discovered the benefits of annotation only in graduate school. During the past six years of teaching literature and writing while working on my Ph.D. in English, I found that roughly half of my own students had no idea what annotation was, and most had no clue how to do it. I've gradually become convinced that a key way to help students improve their reading and writing is for faculty members to spend some classroom time teaching annotation (making notes anywhere in a text) and its first cousin, marginalia (making those notes in the margins).

Annotation is often the underemphasized link between what we read and what we write. Many high-school students never learn how to annotate because their cash-strapped schools do not allow them to write in textbooks that are reused year after year. (One wonders what the schools really have to lose; it might be interesting to see what generations of students would write and scribble in a single text.) Yet college professors often mistakenly assume that their students know how to annotate. Students are therefore caught in the gap between a high-school education that doesn't permit annotation and a college system that assumes they already know how to do it.

Teaching annotation sounds formulaic and boring, a potential waste of an already too-short semester. But in fact, it can help students more deeply engage with a text, just as it can help teachers understand how different students read. Perhaps most important, it can train students to think about their own thinking.

In my own studies, annotation made it easier for me to make connections among ideas in a text, chart developments, quarrel with an author, and develop my own voice in the process. I have found that annotation aids my comprehension of a text and sharpens the questions I bring to it. Annotations help us build a body of textual evidence that we can employ for class conversation or initial paper ideas.

When I teach annotation, I try to avoid taking a formulaic approach. I share my own experiences with my students, offering them insights into the strategies for marking up a text that have worked for me over the years. Ultimately, students need to be guided to figure out how—and if—annotation works for them. People have different ways of learning, so the number of styles of annotation can be equally as diverse as the people doing the annotating.

Often I'll pass out one of my marked-up books in class to give my students an example of how I annotate. If some students annotate their texts already, I might also ask them to share their techniques.

A student's language of annotation can be developed over time. For example, I circle words that I need to look up, as well as the page numbers of passages that are significant in the text. I also have a complex and intuitive system of checks, squiggles, lines, and question marks that cover the page and probably look chaotic to anyone else. In addition, I make a few different indexes in the back of my book. I'll use one page to keep track of characters, another to track themes, another to write out questions or observations.

I developed some of those techniques by looking at the ways in which my professors marked up their texts. Especially in graduate school, my professors would scan copies of their own marked-up articles, which helped to orient me to the particulars they found important in a text. Those examples served as constant reminders of the depth of engagement my professors would make with a reading. Some of the most memorable articles I read in graduate school would be the ones laden with annotations. I would revel in adding to or challenging my professors' comments, feeling as though I was part of a larger conversation before I ever got into the classroom.

The more I was exposed to annotation, the more confident my own style became. Students sometimes ask me, in effect, "How do I know what is important to mark when I am reading something for the first time?" I respond: "Mark it up. Only then will you know what you think is important about the text." The process of annotation is itself an attempt to cobble together a semblance of meaning, a better understanding of what you think, and an attempt to reconcile your own ideas with the textual evidence.

So there is no right or wrong way to go about teaching annotation. The key, I think, is to emphasize creativity and the many different ways students can mark up a text, depending on what works best for them. I've noticed over time how my own technique has changed. Throughout graduate school, my books were laden with annotations, but now I use fewer and the process seems almost effortless.

I have begun experimenting with annotation in the classroom as a way to get students more actively reading the material. After emphasizing the importance of annotation in my class and giving students different ways of doing it, I give them a reading assignment and ask them to annotate it. In the next class session, I check their texts. I don't look to see how much they've annotated, or what they've written, only that they've made an attempt.

Annotation can also help to orient students in the class conversation. When a student makes a statement like "I didn't understand the book," I can ask what specifically he or she did not grasp. I follow up by asking students to go back to their books and use their annotations to be as specific as possible about the parts of a text that confused them.

Finally, I use annotation to help shy students who say that they are too nervous to talk in class. I urge them to use their annotated notes to bring up a comment or ask a question, rather than staring at a blank text after the discussion has already begun, wondering how to contribute.

By teaching annotation we can encourage our students to slow down in their reading, pay attention to more subtle elements in the book, and ultimately get deeper into a text. Students who annotate seem to have a better grasp of the material, as evidenced in class discussions and in their own writing. If we can demonstrate the importance of annotation, perhaps some students will see the value in this sometimes-neglected tool as a path toward insight and, quite possibly, pleasure.

Do you teach annotation in class? If so, what techniques do you emphasize, and what challenges have you encountered?

Charlie Wesley recently earned his Ph.D. in English literature from Binghamton University of the State University of New York and is an adjunct at Daemen College, in Amherst, N.Y.

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