As any English teacher knows, a student’s personal engagement with literature is very difficult to track. In higher education especially, students are expected to complete the reading by themselves and come to class prepared to discuss the texts. But how can teachers gauge the student’s reading experience? And how can they encourage active reading strategies at home? The fact is that reading consists of largely isolated and invisible work, which remains inaccessible to teachers and other students. Furthermore, the habit of responding to text requires thoughtful cultivation through practice and modeling. Many students do not know how to close-read a text, much less to think critically about their responses and questions. How can teachers stimulate the student’s reading process, the moments of insight and questioning that occurs during the act of reading? Building the skills of active and critical reading calls for extensive dialogue between teachers and students, which is difficult to facilitate outside the face-to-face interaction of the classroom.
This proposal explores digital annotation as a solution to making solitary reading practices more visible, and accordingly, social. I aim to modify an existing annotation tool to use in my English 220: Introduction to Writing about Literature class at Hunter College. In general, annotation tools allow students to comment directly on the reading by highlighting the text and typing in their own response. The comments are then indicated to other users by highlighted text, to which they can respond. This tool will be implemented with careful consideration to the intended user, who is a CUNY student in an English class. Living in New York City, this student must make the most of the work spaces available to her, from the library to the subway car. The tool will function on all devices, especially cell phones, to allow accessibility for students on the move. Besides being used to guide independent reading, the tool will also facilitate less vocal students’ responses to texts in the classroom. Overall, the tool will maximize participation from CUNY students, fostering a social reading environment inside and outside the classroom. It will be deployed online, as a plugin for WordPress so that students can use it across all devices (without having to download or configure it) anywhere they have wifi service. Additionally, I hope to make it compatible with the CUNY Academic Commons, which I currently use to teach my English course at Hunter. To build this tool, I will borrow from the existing, open source annotation tools, Annotator.js and Hypothes.is. Though they look slightly different, both tools allow users to comment directly on digital text and to read each others’ comments. The complete code for both projects is on Github, and both Annotator.js and Hypothes.is encourage extension of their work, showcasing how others have customized the tool.