My MLA Presentation (Draft) – Annotating the Paperless Classroom: Collaboration and the Individual Reader

[I am posting my presentation for “Annotating the Paperless Classroom” here a week before the MLA conference. I may revise it once or twice before the presentation. Feel free to offer insights, constructive criticism, or questions. The presentation is part of Katherine Harris’s “E-Roundtable on Digital Pedagogy.” The roundtable has already received attention, as it was included in  a list of panels relating to the 2012 Presidential Theme: “Language, Literature, and Learning.” All of the presenters are given 3-5 minutes to introduce their topic, and then audience members are encouraged to interact with the presenters. I decided to make a mini-Pecha Kucha to introduce my topic.]



As someone who is dedicated to digital pedagogy, I decided about a year ago to figure out some strategies for making a paperless classroom. Now, I love books as much as the typical MLA conference goer, but I also feel that there are some compelling reasons for going paperless, both in providing texts for our students to read and in assignment design.



Why? Well, we all know about the crisis in academic publishing and the textbook industry. According to the United States Government Accountability Office, the price of student textbooks tripled from 1986-2004. Anya Kamentz, author of DIY-U, argues that this situation merits a look to other tools to deliver course content. “Why should we be content with static, rapidly outdated, heavy print textbooks that can cost community college students as much as their tuition,” Kamentz questions, “when professors and students can work together to create dynamic, rich-media learning environments instead using free and open source software tools?”



The paperless classroom is, for me, an ideal. I was not able to be completely paperless in my last Blake class. I had, for example, picked Mary Lynn Johnson and John Grant’s Blake’s Poetry and Prose. But Adam Komisaruk’s challenge inspired me. How would readings, assignments, and especially annotations be different in a paperless classroom?



Further, I wondered how marginalia would change if we started using e-texts rather than print books. I had also recently read the New York Times article by Dirk Johnson that lamented saw a “dim future” for marginalia. “It [marginalia] is a rich literary pasttime,” Johnson argued, “sometimes regarded as a tool of literary archaeology, but it has an uncertain future in the digital world.”



Is there a value to marginalia in the digital world? And, if so, how does it need to change to reflect the needs and opportunities posed by technology? The nostalgic lament of the NYT author reflects a certain ideology of the reader: someone who is alone, who reclines in relaxation while enjoying an afternoon of reading, and who sketches thoughtful or funny or even practical notes on the margins. I felt that a class which truly embraced a paperless ethos needed to rethink how readers interacted with their texts.



Two technologies that helped me to rethink the relationship between reader and text were Twitter and GoogleDocs. For those of you who prefer Open Source programs, Zoho offers an analogous (if not identical) experience to GoogleDocs. Twitter allowed me to create a constant stream of discussion that students could use to help elucidate the frequently esoteric lines in Blake’s poetry. GoogleDocs allowed students to experience a collaborative writing environment where they could use their intelligence collectively to explain Blake’s work.



For my Twitter assignment, students were asked to tweet three times during each class session and three times outside of class. Further, I only accepted tweets that are, as David Silver identifies them, thick tweets. Thick tweets “convey two or more [layers of information], often with help of a hyperlink.” Students were encouraged to write thin tweets – like “I had Bagels for Breakfast,” to create a sense of community in class. However, thick tweets were the only ones that were given credit towards the course requirement. Kelli Marshall has shown how thick tweets refer to other Twitter accounts, link to articles, direct themselves to an audience, and concisely summarize information from potential articles.



The Twitter backchannel was useful because it modeled a form of reading based upon collective intelligence. Collective intelligence, as the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence argues, is based upon the idea that no one person needs to have all of the knowledge or participate individually in the reading process. I argue that a much more immersive and powerful reading experience occurs when we give students the tools to read together. There is nothing new about collective reading. Students participate in collective reading when they discuss texts in class. However, using tools like Twitter give students another dimension for working together on reading difficult work like William Blake’s.



Twitter was also extremely useful when watching films in class. Students asked questions about particular shots, celebrities who appeared in the film, imagery, etc. I could engage in the conversation immediately, as the events or shots were occurring on the screen, or I could let them solve the question collectively.



I also used GoogleDocs extensively in class, partly as a response to one student who tweeted that Blake’s poem Milton was confusing and he wish there was a reliable guide to the ideas presented in the poem. Instead of taking three days to see if students were brave enough to discuss the poem in class, I decided to use class time to have them craft their own guide to Milton. Students were asked to list Characters, Events, and Places in the poem. I also participated in the project, revising student work and having my own work revised by students.



GoogleDocs also gave students the means to struggle with the way Biblical ideas were transformed in Blake’s work. For example, you see that Eternal Salvation and Eternity have very different and almost contradictory meanings. The GoogleDoc exercise gave students the opportunity to grapple with complex theological and philosophical ideas even as they worked together to identify how Blake understood those ideas.



In the end, I believe that working on collaborative exercises like those mediated by Twitter and GoogleDocs gave my students a wide variety of experiences that simply aren’t available in classrooms that favor individual reading and private annotation. Foremost, it gave my students a much deeper appreciation of the complex poetic ideas presented by Blake throughout his work – even as it gave them more confidence in their ability to solve complex problems collectively.






  1. Hi Roger,
    Thanks so much for posting this, very interesting and informative. I wonder, though, what the overall costs of the classroom and personal tech you describe here are relative to books and about your thoughts on how costs of software, new lab spaces, permissions (here in Canada often a must) might eventually be dealt with, if not passed on to the student somehow. Also, what kind of impact the market shift from publishing houses to digital tech providers as consumable course companion might have on access to texts and materials for students and educators.

    1. Hi Jessica,

      Those are all really good questions. Obviously, a major shift in the funding infrastructure of the University should occur that would give students and faculty the opportunity to use the technology I describe here. Georgia Tech requires students, for example, to purchase a laptop before their freshman year. And there are all sorts of issues with digital divides that would make some students more able to purchase said material than others. I haven’t done much research in the areas you describe, but certainly they are important things to consider.

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