Collaborative Annotation Assignment

Description: This assignment provides an opportunity to experiment with different approaches to annotation and contextualization of primary sources. It could be conducted as an in-class exercise over several class sessions, or as an out-of-class assignment (perhaps with the final discussion in class, or presented as an in-class report from each group).

Pedagogical goals:

  • Learn to write scholarly annotations on a primary source text
  • Work collaboratively to annotate a text
  • Work collaboratively to decide on a rationale for annotation
  • Learn about the ways in which primary texts are presented and contextualized for a modern readership
  • Learn about the relevance of audience and readership to textual presentation
  • Gain critical awareness of annotation processes as part of scholarly textual study
  • Gain critical awareness of the historicity of texts

In preparation, divide the class into small groups and have each group of students choose a short text (or a few sections of a longer text) to work on. (Some suggestions are given below.) After reading the text through carefully, have each group discuss the following questions in preparation for the annotation process:

  • What aspects of the text most need explanation for a modern audience? (For instance, unfamiliar names, references to places and events, unfamiliar words, historical and political background, information about the author’s life, etc.) What kinds of information would a contemporary have had which modern readers no longer possess? What kinds of information might we want to have that a contemporary would not have had access to?
  • What would be the most important things to explain for a novice reader? What would most contribute to a productive reading of the text? What do you not need to explain?
  • Identify the specific details you plan to comment on in the annotation process, and describe why you chose to focus on these. For instance, if your group decided to identify individuals and events named in the text, explain the rationale for your decision. What kind of reading and research will your annotations support?
  • How should your annotations be presented to be most effective? (As footnotes, endnotes, marginal notes, some other format?) What difference does this make to the reader’s experience of the text?

Next, have each group copy and paste the text they’re working with from the WWO site into a wiki, word processor, or other software environment for writing and editing. This will serve as the basis for the new, annotated version of the text. Working as a group (or dividing the text into sections so that each student can work independently on a separate section), the students should go through the text and add annotations following the rationale developed by the group in the earlier discussion.

When the annotation process is complete, have each group exchange materials with another group (so that each group is now looking at an unfamiliar text). Ask each group to compare the annotated version with the original, and then in discussion consider the following questions:

  • How much difference did the annotations make to the comprehensibility of the text? What insights were possible with the annotated version that were not possible with the original?
  • What kinds of annotations were most helpful? Which ones were least helpful?
  • What is the overall effect of the annotation on the text? How does it alter your impression of the text?
  • How did the annotations address you as a reader? What knowledge did they assume you had? Did you feel comfortable in that role?

Suggested Texts

The following short texts from the earliest period in the WWO collection are easily divided into manageable segments and also contain ample material for an annotation exercise: