As a child, I was horrified by people who wrote in books. In high school, I’d go through my textbooks at the start of the new school year and carefully the penciled scribbles and doodles left by previous students. Once I started college I was expected to write in books, to annotate books, to know how and what to annotate. At the time, I rejected the very thought of annotating books; it just felt wrong. I wasn’t going to to do it.
I successfully avoided annotating books until my senior year as an undergraduate English major, when I first took my first Chaucer class in Middle English. The Robinson Chaucer, while an admirable scholarly text, was not student friendly. There were no notes on the page; they were all appendices at the back of the book. I resorted to making careful glosses using a fine point orange-body Bic Pen (my favorite tool for annotating books for decades).
As I read more texts in Middle and Old English and Celtic languages in graduate school, I used marginal notes to help me find particular passages, and glossed difficult words and concepts that weren’t otherwise explained by the text. Once I started teaching, I glossed with colored pencils in order to make finding a particular passage or note easier while lecturing and leading discussions. I still regularly annotate books, and thought I might save others some time by explaining how and why I annotate.
What Does it Mean to Annotate
Here’s a formal dictionary definition of annotate from the American Heritage Dictionary:
v.tr.To furnish (a literary work) with critical commentary or explanatory notes; gloss.
v.intr.To gloss a text (s. v. American Heritage Dictionary annotate).And here’s the entry for annotation:
- The act or process of furnishing critical commentary or explanatory notes.
- A critical or explanatory note; a commentary (American Heritage Dictionary, s.v. annotation).
In other words, when we annotate a book or text, we mark it up, via marginal notes or glosses, marks in the text itself, or highlighting and underlining passages in order to create additional meaning and understanding for ourselves. By careful annotation, we make a text our own. Careful, thoughtful annotation helps us engage with the text and remember it.
Annotating books (or other reading matter) helps us read as an active, engaged reader more likely to remember what you read. When we annotate or mark texts to emphasize the important information, the goal is to emphasize the key points or concepts. Don’t simply highlight or underline everything. Prioritize the material that you know you will use later in your own work, or that you want to be able to find quickly and easily later.
Glossing and Marginal Notes
Glossing, or making notes in the margins and within the text itself can help enormously when you locate something you read and need to remember. Glossing can be either a note that summarizes or comments on a passage or it can be a label, for instance, adding the word distinction in the margin, to note when an author draws a distinction between two items, or analogy, when an author compares an unfamiliar concept to a familiar one. Or you might gloss something with short note to provide a definition of an unfamiliar term. This last method was the most common kind of gloss in earlier eras when scribes would annotate a foreign term with a marginal note, as in the image to the right from the 8th century Gospels of Lindisfarne. A monk named Aldred added Old English glosses between the lines of the Latin text of the Gosples as a translation aide. Medieval and earlier glosses like this eventually resulted in the modern glossary, a collection of terms appended to a book). Etymologically Modern English gloss derives from Middle English glose, from Old French, from Medieval Latin glōsa, from Latin glōssa, foreign word requiring explanation, from Greek, “tongue, language” (American Heritage Dictionary s.v. gloss 2).
Highlighting and Underlining
Highlighting, that is using a colored marker or pencil that colors text so that the text is still readable through the color, is a useful technique for annotating books. It is different from underlining in that the entire line(s) of text are colored in highlighting, whereas underlining usually means to draw a thin line under the line of text.
Don’t get carried away with underlining or highlighting. If you highlight or underline more than about 15% of a given page, you’re probably not prioritizing the information. Only highlight those concepts or points that are most important.
As an alternative to underlining or highlighting, consider annotating by drawing a vertical line in the margin to mark the passage in question, possibly with a note in the margin about why it’s important.
Annotation Styles and Codes
It’s a good idea to create your own personal style of annotating books. You might circle important concepts, and underline terms and definitions. Consider using the margin to summarize key points with a brief note. It can also be useful to use the margin to ask questions that are answered in that section of the text. Many readers use a question mark in the margin to make it easy to find a section or concept that they do not understand. It’s helpful to create your own personal style of annotating. You might circle important concepts, underline terms and definitions, or summarize key points with a brief note in the margin. You can see an example of one way of annotating a text here.
In some cases, you might want to have a short note on the flyleaf of a book, if you’ve used special annotation symbols just for that book.
Keep It Clean
Many readers particularly students planning to resell their textbooks hate the idea of annotating books. Sometimes it’s just a personal dislike; sometimes it’s because the book in question isn’t yours, so you shouldn’t mark it permanently. In that case, consider using post-its that you can remove before selling the books or keep in books you own. There are special stickynotes designed explicitly for making notes about a page as you read. Alternatively, I often take notes by hand in a notebook or pad of paper or on my computer as I read instead of or in addition to marking up the book.
If you routinely use .pdfs or ebooks, there are digital equivalents for the forms of annotation used in printed books. There are minor differences in the methods for accessing and creating the annotations based on the app in question, but the basic methodology is similar. Typically you can make digital marginal sticky notes, dog-ear pages or book mark them with a note, highlight text, and underline. With most .pdf readers, you can also draw circles, arrows, and other shapes, on the .pdf pages.
Annotating has two primary purposes; it allows us to find particular passages or ideas in a text, and it aids our memory and understanding because as we closely read and think about the text, and engage with it by annotations, we make the text our own. We add personal meaning and interpretation.
Tools for Annotation
You don’t actually need fancy tools to annotate books or documents. But the right tool can make a difference in legibility and utility.
Smaller sticky notes, the familiar 1 3/8 inch x 1 7/8 inch notes are useful for making marginal notes without marking the page. Page flags make it easy to find the pages and passages you know will be important without writing in your books.
Sometimes it’s helpful to take extensive notes about a page without writing on the page. These removable notes have tabs that you can label, making it easy to find the specific topic you’re looking for. And you can use them to take notes while you read and then remove them, either to save in a notebook for later use or discard when you no longer need them.
There are a lot of different kinds of sticky notes, with all sorts of uses. It’s often convenient to have a portable assortment to use not only for annotating, but for note-taking, and marking sections for review.
Taking notes while you read, either in the book or text itself or on paper is often particularly useful when you’re researching for use in something you write later. Cornell notes, which have a central area for the note, a margin for comments or page references, and a summary field at the bottom for questions or ideas to emphasize can be particularly helpful in annotating and taking notes about what you are reading.
The standard highlight is a neon yellow or hot pink felt marker. These double-ended mildliners are attractive pastels with a broad tip at one end and a narrow tip at the other, allowing for both highlight and underlining. Be cautious; thin paper will mean that the highlighting will show through the paper to the opposite side (thin-paged English literature anthologies are particularly prone to show through). You might consider avoiding felt-based ink highlighters in favor of a dry highlighter, or even a color pencil.
A dry or pencil-based highlighter will work better with thin paper. Though the colors of dry highlighters are lighter in general, they tend to be fluorescent and are still quite noticeable. Depending on how you sharpen them you can have a thin or a broad line of color.
These Platinum Preppies are highlighting fountain pens. They’re refillable with cartridges and you can replace the tips. They work surprisingly well on paper print-outs, for instance of journal articles. They can be too wet for the paper used in some books, and will smear photocopies. They have the virtue of being refillable, both an economic savings, and a favor to future generations.
A multi-pen with red, blue, and black ink, and a .05 mm mechanical pencil is exceedingly useful as an all-purpose writing and annotating tool. You can use it to make color-coded annotations, take notes, and you have erasable pencil too.
The utility of highlighting passages with very visible color is that they’re easy to find. But sometimes it’s better or easier to use pencil to make notes and marks that you can erase later. These Apsara pencils are smooth-writing dark graphite wood-case pencils and they come with a sharpener and an eraser. You will be surprised how nice these are to write with, and by the quality of the sharpener.
This post contains affiliate links.
Via Michael Bruening:
Evernote is giving giving away premium Evernote accounts good through the end of the school year (June 30, 2012), to US college students with a .edu email address.
This is a fabulous offer; Evernote lets you take notes, stash .pdfs and Web pages for research and access them from just about any computer, or iOS device. It’s a super tool.
See the link above.
This is a really smart article by Mathew Ingram: “Our Relationship with E-Books: It’s Complicated“.
Ingram quite even-handedly covers the bases on sharing ebooks and ebook annotations, complete with lots of links, in clear language. He notes:
Will we ever be able to download a digital version of the print book we just bought, and then share that book with friends — or even sell it to someone else at a discounted price, as we can with real books — or share our margin notes and highlights with others, regardless of what e-book reader they use? . . .
The unfortunate part of all this, of course, is that publishers would likely be able to sell far more books if they made it easier for readers to download, read and share them — or passages from them — with anyone regardless of what device they owned. Until that happens, e-books will continue to be a Balkanized mess of competing standards and sharing silos, and the book-reading public will be the worse for it.
Go read the whole thing, and do follow the links in his post, because they provide examples that support his central argument.
Trying to teach with ebooks in an English literature class is almost impossible in terms of using them for analyses by students because they can’t annotate the text, and export their own annotations as notes along with the passage they’re analyzing. Ideally, I’d like a highlighted passage, the annotations or notes associated with the passage and a citation (author, title, chapter and/or section and publication data) to be easily exported. Restricting the excerpt by character or word would be fine; but the practice of not allowing any passages to be copied and pasted is frustrating for teachers, academics, scholars and students.
Ironically, The Voyager Company’s Expanded books had this feature (among others) in 1992.
My original 5 gig iPod, purchased in November of 2001, still boots, still charges, and still works. October 23 was the anniversary of the initial announcement regarding the then new iPod, and while mine still works pretty much as well as it did in 2001 (the battery is not what it was), I subsequently became a delighted owner of first a first generation iPhone (now, sadly, with a damaged sleep/power button) and then, an iPod Classic, and, last January, an iPhone 3gs.
But it’s been interesting to look back via this Macworld piece on The Birth of the iPod, and to look back at the pundits’ initial takes on the first iPod via a companion piece on The iPod: What They Said.
I started using my first iPod at first to store music, and then to sync data. It wasn’t long at all before it became an essential teaching tool for me, as I noted in this blog post from 2004 written in response to a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the Duke iPod project.
I note for the curious, that The Chronicle is still usually hopelessly inane regarding teaching with technology, despite their recent harried push at becoming cool with respect to instructional technology.
I’ve written a short article on Peachpit’s site on “iPad Tips for the College Student.”
I suggest several useful and time-saving iPad apps for students. None of the iPad apps I’m discussing cost more than $10.00; most are under $5.00 and quite a few are free.
Read the rest of “iPad Tips for the College Student.”
As educators, we spend a great deal of time trying to teach students how to research, how to use sources, and, perhaps most importantly of all, how to tell a good source from a bad one. I know how to help students do this in person, where we can work with lots of practical examples; I used to think it was possible to actively teach source evaluation online. I’ve created guides and handouts on source evaluation, as well as linked to other guides, like this one on “Evaluating Web Pages: Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask” from UC Berkeley.
Of late, I’ve grown less sure that it’s possible to teach resource evaluation remotely, and more sure that it’s a skill that many people desperately need.
I’ve spent the last year working as a paid blogger. I’m writing about a variety of subjects in which I have some expertise, and I’m blogging much as I do on my own sites. I strive for accuracy and specificity, I provide citations, and I link to solid sources.
Some of my peers are much less likely to link to sources, or provide citations; and when they do link to a source, more often than not, it’s one that I’d identify as a resource to avoid. I note that most, if not all, my blogging colleagues are college educated, and many have graduate degrees. But increasingly, I’m noticing not only my colleagues’ blog posts have citation problems, but others are problematic in terms of sources. I’m seeing blog posts, and articles by professional journalists (both on line and in print), and discussion forum posts that suggest that the writers can’t tell if a resource is decent, or utter crap.
Here’s an example of a source a fellow paid blogger linked to in a post about Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. The piece “Frankenstein: Themes, Images and Metaphor Birth, Biology and the Feminist Angle in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” is from a Suite 101 site; pretty much anyone who is functionally literate in English can (and does) post on Suite 101. That’s generally true of most content sites, and I’m not meaning that as a slam; I think it’s a virtue. That said, there are problems with treating all content, from all sources, as equally valid. This piece opens with this sentences:
In 1818 Shelley created a much loved Gothic novel, Frankenstein, which she would use as a medium to present her ideas and thoughts on birth, biology and feminism. Birth is, for most women, considered to be one of the most important, precious and life-changing event ever to be experienced. Mary Shelley, in her novel Frankenstein took this theme and distorted it in order to produce one of the most famous gothic novels ever written.
There are some minor infelicities; much-loved needs a hyphen, Frankenstein isn’t the actual title of the novel, nor is it italicized as a title. But the real problem is that the ideas are trite, and that they are expressed as a string of prepositional phrases. There’s an ugly duplication in “ideas and thoughts,” and a fair amount of “hesitation” padding—“for most women,” “considered to be,” and then more synonym phrases—“precious and life-changing event ever to be experienced.”
And there’s the paucity of thought inherent in the assertion itself—and the disconcerting agreement problem inherent in “considered to be one of the most” to modify “event,” in the singular.
No one is perfect, and heaven knows, I can’t spell or proof my own prose. I make mistakes all the time. But those two sentences were bad enough, given the absence of content, that I read them and wondered “who wrote this?”
The author is a grad student enrolled in a Comparative Literature M.A. program in London.
In other words, if you don’t know enough about Mary Shelley or her novel to realize that the piece is stupid, if you aren’t a sophisticated enough reader to know that the English is less than acceptable in terms of basic grammar and syntax (never mind style), then the author appears to have legitimate “credentials.”
I’m also noticing another issue related to an inability to evaluate a source; a phenomenon that researchers call the Dunning-Kruger Effect; that’s when “people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it” (Kruger, Justin and David Dunning. “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 77 no. 6 (1999): 1121–34).
[A]s a famous paper by Kruger and Dunning showed, people who are bad at what they do are generally also incapable of understanding that they suck&hmdasand this directly contributes to inflated self-perception. So, incompetence tends to make people cocky and people prefer cocky judgements over demonstrated expertise, which is pretty much the worst of both worlds.
On a community forum post recently, a mother explaining why she is against vaccination for her kids wrote:
I’ve read over thousands of pages of actual studies that were conducted on the individual adjuvents and attenuated viruses and bacterials. History of vaccines, of disease, demographics with a medical jargon book at hand if I didn’t understand something. I’ve read all the inserts to the vaccines, I’ve watched the vaccine (aka drug companies) companies. I’ve come to my conclusion that vaccination is not for me or mine.
This is someone who thinks Internet research—research she can’t understand without a specialized dictionary—gives her the same sort of qualifications as someone with an M.D. One reason I know that she isn’t an M.D. is that she gets basic science facts wrong, repeatedly, refers to outdated descriptions of how vaccinations are made, and thinks http://vran.org/ is a medically researched and scientifically valid site.
I don’t really have a solution on an individual level. But I do think one of the things we can do, all of us, as writers and educators, is keep providing better sources, better links and as kindly and gently as possible, point out why a particular citation is less than respectable. At least that way, by linking to good sources, we’ll eventually drive the lesser citations down in search engine rankings.
Tony Woodlief has written a thoughtful, and thought-provoking, opinion piece about why he and his spouse have chosen to homeschool their children. He writes, in part:
The reason we’ve broken with tradition, or perhaps reverted to a deeper tradition, is not because we oppose sex education, or because we think their egos are too tender for public schools. It’s because we can do a superior job of educating our children. We want to cultivate in them an intellectual breadth and curiosity that public schools no longer offer.
Somewhere there is now an indignant teacher typing an email to instruct me about his profession’s nobility. Perhaps some public schools educate children in multiple languages and musical instruments, have them reading classic literature by age seven, offer intensive studies of math, science, logic, and history, and coach them in public speaking and writing. The thing is, I don’t know where those schools are.
I think were I to have children, I’d want to do much the same thing. Not so much because my own K-12 experience was mostly horrendous, but because of the education I received from my over-educated, intellectually curious book-loving parents. They encouraged me, and provoked me, and fed my brain and mind, while most of the time I was, quite honestly, just parked in a holding pattern by well-meaning but over-worked teachers. (Granted, there were some exceptions: Mr. Muchnick, and Virgina Hall, to name two).
Had I stayed in high school, I would have graduated in 1980. My high school was, and is, one of the better ones in N.H., but I was essentially warehoused. I spent every spare moment in the library, and in the Keene Public Library, the tiny Westmoreland public library, the Brattleboro Public Library . . . not to mention reading pretty much everything else I got my eyes near, and being regularly “fed” books by my older siblings.
But, for a variety of reasons, despite some wonderful teachers, like Mr. Jobin, endlessly patient in French, I was invisible in high school; my guidance counselor told me that I wasn’t college material, and suggested I attend Colby Sawyer for a secretarial degree, where I could meet a nice young doctor from Dartmouth.
It’s much worse now, where “No child left behind” has frequently resulted in a cult of mediocrity.
Go read what Woodlief has to say. He makes a lot of sense.
I’ve copied the following, with permission, from a post on an online forum. The original poster is a professional educator and adminstrator in a graduate program which relies on online instruction. I think the post asks some good questions.
It will come as no surprise to anyone here that the biggest challenge I face is not in finding excellent teachers who know their subject cold. Rather, it’s (you got it) finding people with all of that going for them who can write in the way that you have to in order to give of yourself, show yourself, online.
My big hiring mistakes have all had the same thing in common — they all glide around classrooms like they’ve spent a lifetime in the theater (i.e., they’re great “performers” and know their stuff so cold that they can hold students spellbound for three hours)… but ask them to commit that to paper, and it’s just no go. We’ve always given our own graduate faculty first crack at writing these courses… usually disastrous, because they’re as bad at writing what they do as they are good at doing it!
Asking for writing samples has been a waste of time… it’s just plain not the same genre, and there’s absolutely nothing to be gained from their last article in The Journal of American YouPickIts.
The same thing happens from time to time with the folks who tend the discussions in the class… they don’t know how to show or give themselves to students in their writing… and that’s what it takes when teaching and learning relationships have to happen and develop in print.
How can I “screen” those applicants with credentials and teaching success for their ability to function online, whose persona in print reflects an appreciation for the very specific art of being able to “talk” in black and white like they do in a classroom? Or am I doomed to a lifetime of having to endlessly edit the stuff of people who know something I need them to share, so that it doesn’t put my students into a coma?
What suggestions can we offer about finding applicants who will excel at online instruction?
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Google is no longer accepting AdWords ads from mills:
Academic paper-writing services, or “paper mills,” will no longer be able to buy search terms in the Google AdWords program, and thus their ads will no longer pop up in the “sponsored links” sections of a Google search-results page.
You can read the article here, if you’re a subscriber, anyway. They know they’ll have to hand-check sites, but they do seem to have an idea of what a mill is, and does, and how they work, which means they might even spot the more clever ones.
If I see a Google press release, or a more public article about Google’s policy, I’ll link it here.