This post is co-authored by Matt Lavin (St. Lawrence University) and Bridget Draxler (Monmouth College). We are both teaching first-year classes, and both focusing on ways of knowing in a digital age. Because we’re teaching a similar set of skills, drawing on shared readings, and interested in similar pedagogical questions, we are experimenting with a series of remote mini-collaborations between our classes.
On January 23, we started with a simple exchange: because both of us were teaching Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” we created an opportunity for our students to annotate the text together. Matt used CommentPress, a WordPress plug-in, to create a shared site for commenting, which is available here: http://humanitiesdata.com/digital/letter-from-a-birmingham-jail/.
Bridget’s students read “Birmingham Jail,” noting information about the rhetorical context on their first time through the text. The next day, they re-read it and tagged three passages where King uses either rhetorical strategies or logical fallacies, which we had discussed in class that week.
Matt asked his students to take notes on “Birmingham Jail” with a writing implement and a piece of paper, pairing a short quotation with a paragraph number. He asked them to focus on sections they thought were important, had questions about, recognized as allusions (to familiar or unfamiliar references), or found particularly moving.
Both groups of students annotated paper copies of the text first, then transcribed select comments onto the site. This two-step process allowed us to see where comments would cluster “by accident” rather than as a result of social behavior. From this brief encounter with CommentPress, we could both see the potential for social annotation to turn note-taking into a participatory process.
Because our class times overlap by 10 minutes, we talked briefly on Skype to reflect on the experience: What are the differences between annotating in your own book vs. on the shared site? What passages in King’s letter garnered the most attention, and why? What surprised you most about your peers’ comments? Did you use your full name, partial name, or a pseudonym when you posted, and why?
The activity itself was defined by its limitations--the video feed was pixelated with occasional lag, the sound quality was just so-so. As a result, students were nervous about speaking into a camera and particularly reluctant to reply to other students’ comments.
However, the conversations we had in our individual classes after the Skype session were among the best we’ve had all term. Bridget’s students were fascinated by issues of anonymity and identity, troubled by the creation of an online community with no real-world counterpart, and excited for an opportunity to “test out” some of the ideas we’ve discussed about digital writing and digital reading as a shared, hands-on experience. Readings from Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together and John Freeman’s The Tyranny of Email took on new resonance, as the social annotating and Skyping confirmed, complicated, or undercut these arguments.
Before class ended, Bridget’s students were eager to ask, Will we talk with them again? (Yes.) Will we get to know them better? (Yes.) Will we get to work in smaller groups? (Yes.) Can we take a field trip to New York? (No.)
A few weeks later, when Bridget’s students did a social annotating exchange with a class at the University of Tromso, Norway, they were a bit more comfortable replying to each other’s comments and asking questions of each other.
Matt had much the same experience with his students. Having few details about their Monmouth counterparts, Matt’s students reported a feeling that the entire encounter was surreal. After the Skype session, they talked about how the digital medium shaped (and in some cases ran contrary to) their social expectations.
Later, when Matt staged a brief classwide encounter with “Second Life,” his students were able draw upon their experiences with CommentPress and Skype. In part because of this activity, they were able to engage critically with their own discomfort, and expose its cultural roots.
We hope to share updates over the course of the term here on HASTAC, and we look forward to telling you more about our next steps!