Optimal Annotation?

What’s the optimal amount of annotating?

I’m planning to use Hypothes.is to have my students annotate readings and discuss their reactions and interpretations with each other online, this summer and fall. During the summer session I’m teaching an online “Readings in American Environmental History” course, so any discussion of texts we would do would necessarily be online. But I’m not particularly thrilled with the experiences I’ve had trying to run online discussions in my university’s LMS (D2L), which seems particularly ill-suited to the task. Maybe if we had something available like Slack and Canvas I’d be more excited about trying to do discussions in the shell. Even so, I suspect I’d be leaning toward using Hypothes.is directly. And in my fall classes (three in person, one online), I’d like to grow beyond the model I’ve been using, where the students’ written responses to readings are only visible to me. I think posting responses that their peers will read and respond to could be an incentive to more thoughtful engagement with the material. It will also set a baseline of sorts and may tend to raise the bar a bit as students see the efforts their peers are making. And beginning a discussion in Hypothes.is may make the transition to in-person discussion in class smoother and easier.

One issue I’ve encountered as I’ve begun preparing to assign web-based readings is, how much prior annotation is optimal for a reading I’m going to ask my students to highlight and annotate? There are several possible approaches, which each seem to have their pros and cons. My first thought was I would go with a well-annotated source, such as the famous 1962 Doug Engelbart essay, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework” which I was considering assigning in my fall course, “History of High Tech: Computers and Communications”. According to Hypothes.is, this essay has 408 annotations, including nineteen I made myself. Earlier this year, the essay was the subject of a formal annotation event sponsored by Gardner Campbell and the Doug Engelbart Institute and featuring luminaries such as Howard Rheingold (see Gardner’s video conversation with Howard here). I was personally excited to read the annotations and comments of these folks and eavesdrop on their conversations regarding Englebart’s ideas. I threw some thoughts into a couple of these conversations, and I did manage to find several points to comment on, where I thought there were gaps in the conversation that had been had already.

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I was impressed with the ideas raised by the annotation group, and I suppose I was a bit gratified that the format of the project not only allowed me to add my own comments that would be visile to the previous annotators (a core feature of Hypothes.is), but how the project page includes a feed of “Latest Annotations” that currently lists five of my own made yesterday. Will this feed (or will the notification feature in Hypothes.is itself) lead to some of these previous annotators seeing and responding to my comments? That’s an exciting possibility. But is it a level of exposure I want to impose on my students, the first time they use a tool like this?

Another heavily-annotated volume I might use this fall is Robin DeRosa’s Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature, published as a Pressbook in 2015. I could use this as a source of readings for my World History course like the excerpt from Columbus’s Journal of the First Voyage to America. Once again, assigning this version of the reading in my class will help my students understand that they are part of a much wider community of readers and learners working on and responding to this text. But…is there already too much here? The passage currently has 244 annotations. As I read through them, some seem very insightful and some seem less so. There are sections of the text that are heavily commented and others where whole paragraphs go by without a word. What effect will the annotations and the gaps have on my students? Do I want their reading and responses to be influenced (determined?) by a previous group of students? Would I learn more about their engagement, responses, and gaps in reaction if I assigned my students a new, fresh version of the passage?

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Maybe I’ll give my students links to heavily-annotated versions of some documents, to serve as examples; but then assign them a fresh version to read and annotate in the class. This would mean, though, that I’m denying my students the opportunity to participate in this wider community of scholarship. Their contributions will not become visible to other scholars; their comments on annotations will never be visible to the students who originally annotated the text. No conversations will ensue. And to the extent I use “disposable” versions of readings housed within the LMS, these annotations and conversations will disappear at the end of the semester and won’t even be available to the students themselves to revisit in the future. This seems like the type of situation I really want to avoid. Almost as bad as the “inclusive access” online rental models the publishers seek to impose.

So maybe the solution is to use the power of OER to remix an open but outward-facing anthology of my own for my classes, where all the open-licensed material I’m assigning exists in a fresh form, but in a form where annotations will accumulate as I teach the courses from semester to semester. This provides a bit of continuity and a potential for conversations across semesters and student return to previously-read texts, but it doesn’t overwhelm my students with so much prior annotation that it seems impossible to say something meaningful about the reading. Maybe later in the semester or in more advanced courses, once students are comfortable with annotation, we can move out to more public venues.

If people reading this have already solved these issues to their satisfaction, I’d love to hear about it! Comment via Hypothes.is! Thanks, –D

 

 

 

Weekend reading via Hypothes.is

A couple of the most valuable features of Hypothes.is, for me as a reader, are the ability to easily look through my list of annotations to see what I’ve been reading and pull it together into reflections on that reading. That’s what I’m doing this morning: taking a look at the notes I’ve taken as I’ve read several articles this weekend and seeing what I can learn from that. The second valuable feature is that I can do the same thing with the annotation feeds of other people. That allows me to follow the breadcrumb trails of others who are interested in the same sorts of issues, which expands the discoverable material and potentially begins conversations about that material and the issues we found in it. This can be a two-way street, as I discovered when I began following another Hypothes.is user (gowellja) and commenting on some of his annotations, and he not only responded but started doing the same.

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So what were some of the things I ran into this weekend? Inside Higher Ed ran a story a week or two ago about publisher Wiley buying ed-tech company Knewton, which prompted a response by Rajiv Jhangiani about the distinction between openwashing, where publishers pretend to be embracing OER while really locking resources behind access paywalls, and open-wrapping where publishers provide “value-added services that map onto OER.” My question about this is, aren’t publishers who do this merely shifting their focus from a desire to “eat the lunch” of OER authors to an even broader desire to displace the instructors who normally create and provide the “value-added services” that wrap around textbooks? I assume Rajiv (who is famously outspoken) was trying extra-hard to be nice. But my immediate reaction to open-wrapping is to consider expanding the scope of my CC licenses to include NC, which hopefully would prevent a publisher from wrapping my content into a format that would try to disrupt my role as an instructor.

From there I followed a link that led me to Amy Collier’s essay on “Not-Yetness” which she describes as a “space that allows for emergence.” I like the idea that collaboration happens in this “not-yet” space where the object hasn’t quite hardened into its final form. I’m going to start experimenting with “publishing” Pressbooks OER texts before they’re 100% done and then encouraging students to annotate them with questions and comments as I use them in my classes while I continue to build them. For example, there’s an evolution from a series of lectures to a survey textbook – but why shouldn’t that evolution be visible to the outside world and a bit more collaborative. Rebus seems to be doing something similar with their textbook production projects, but in a highly organized format I find a bit off-putting. Maybe I’ll become more comfortable with their organized collaboration over time, but maybe this more student-centered approach is an alternative until then.

From there I moved on to looking for texts to use in my “History of High Tech” course this fall. I went looking for Chris Hughes’ NYT article, “It’s Time to Break Up Facebook” after hearing Kara Swisher’s May 10 interview him on a Recode Decode bonus episode. I’ve already listened to the audible version of Roger McNamee’s book, Zucked, which I think highlights a lot of the important issues. I’m planning to talk about these present issues at the end of the semester, after tracing the growth of the personal computing and communications sectors that enabled these unanticipated problems. I’ll also be referring a lot to Jaron Lanier for not only historical perspective but a sense that the outcome we got was not inevitable. This led me to Hypothes.is user gowellja’s annotations of Engelbart’s seminal paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect” which mind-blowingly was written in the year of my birth. This article had been on my radar along with Bush’s “As We May Think” which dates all the way back to the end of WWII and will probably be a starting-point of my course. It’s fun to know that others are following similar threads and having interesting thoughts about these texts.

Gowellja had also commented on an EdSurge article a couple of days ago about the Gates Foundation’s attempt to measure the value of college. He made what I thought was an interesting point about measurability, and we had a little discussion about that in back-and-forth responses to his comment. I was also interested in the article’s observation that often “rankings have focused on the input side of the equation, not the output.” I think the Gates approach is often incredibly ham-handed, but not necessarily a bad question to be asking, esp. as digital education begins disrupting brick-and-mortar schools. Can we be more explicit about the value we add as educators?

Continuing to follow gowellja’s annotations, I read an Atlantic article from last August on the “crisis” in the Humanities. The main takeaway from the article, I thought, was ultimately that the surveys that lead to compelling headlines may be asking he wrong questions. Between the lines, it seemed for example that history course enrollment is decreasing the most at institutions (big private universities and R-1s) that offer MA and PhD terminal degrees and may actually be increasing at those (regional universities) that offer only bachelors. A big discovery of the surveys seems to be that for most students, the great recession of 2008 never ended. An unaddressed issue influencing the perception that students have become more vocationally focused was the mountainous debt students now face. Could that be a contributing factor to the more precipitous decreased in Humanities enrollment at the most expensive schools? Another graph showed that between about 2010 and the present the number of women getting Humanities degrees has decreased to be about equal to men. The implication there might be that degrees for women finally relate to careers rather than to general preparedness for the “Mrs” degree. That may be bad for course enrollment, but it may also be a positive change for society.

The Atlantic article linked to an AHA article about declines in history enrollment. This was the source of the info the Atlantic cited about the disparities in decreasing enrollments between large and small institutions. But this article also failed to address the relative costs of enrollments at these schools, OR the likelihood that survey courses (where most of the decline is at the large schools but most of the growth is seen at small schools) at regional universities like mine tend to be taught by fulltime faculty like myself, while at big, expensive schools they’re often substantially or entirely taught by grad student TAs. The AHA article did mention that graduate enrollment in History was down 12% in the three years between the 2013-14 and 2016-17 academic years. Again, that’s unfortunate for History grad programs – but has anybody asked how many new History PhDs should America be producing each year?

All this reading led me ultimately to a reading list from The Disquantified Reading Group which was not only a great source of additional stuff to read but a very interesting example of how to do course content in an outward-facing way that makes it accessible to more people than just the current cohort of the current course. I’m going to try to emulate this, as much as I can, in my summer and fall courses.

 

OER EnvHist!

 

In addition to the Creative Commons course I’m taking this semester, I’m also involved in a project to turn my American Environmental History textbook into an OER (Open Educational Resource) prior to using it to teach a course called “People In the Environment: Environmental History” in the Spring semester. “People In the Environment” is a required course for all Bemidji State University undergrads, and it is usually taught in interdisciplinary teams. It has been ages (literally between 5 and 10 years!) since a historian has been on one of these teams, so I’m going to rectify that in the Spring. I’m going to trach a survey of American Environmental History this Spring, and then I’m putting in a request to teach a more in-depth version of it, with readings from some of the major works in the field, this summer.

As part of that process, I’m going to turn my American Environmental History textbook, which is already a very cheap alternative to the other textbooks available from academic presses, into a fully OER production. I may continue to sell copies of it on Amazon, since that seems like one of the lowest-cost ways to get a decently-printed paperback into peoples’ hands. Currently the book is $25 and the Kindle is either ten bucks or free (if you have Kindle Unlimited or if you buy the paperback you get a free Kindle copy). It will probably come down a bit from there. I’ll also probably be making audio and my course videos available online in a more permanent form. Maybe discussion prompts and quizzes and exam questions, as I put together the course material.

Hopefully turning this authoring project into an OER authoring project may give other Environmental History teachers an incentive to not only use the material but contribute to it and add their own content and perspectives. I don’t claim to have any type of unique insight into Environmental History — except maybe my feeling that it should be much more available to students and that opening this project up a bit might help make that happen!

Anthropogenic Forest vs. Environmentalism? Not really.

The obvious first thing to say about Charles C. Mann’s 2005 bestseller, 1491, is just that. It was a New York Times bestseller. LOTS of people read it. It probably reached a larger audience than any of the classics of Environmental History it cites (among them, The Columbian Exchange and Changes in the Land). And it certainly reached a much wider audience. All kinds of people who would never have been exposed to the ideas of environmental history got a really good taste of them in 1491.

And it’s not a simple story. The San Francisco Chronicle compared Mann to Jared Diamond, but this comparison only works from the perspective of book sales. Next to 1491, Guns Germs and Steel is as simplistic and misleading as the high school textbooks Mann complains haven’t been changed between his schooldays and those of his son. Other reviews congratulate Mann for being both “scholarly” and “hip.” One even praises him on avoiding political correctness, “other than [in] a recognition of the sensitivity of the issues.” But there is controversy in 1491.

Mann’s story of pre-Columbian America exposed many readers for the first time to the idea that there was a lot going on in the Western Hemisphere before the Europeans arrived. But the book’s thesis goes farther: 1491 argues that we need to recognize that the Americas were really never a pristine wilderness — at least not for the past several thousand years. Everywhere European explorers and colonists looked, they saw (but usually failed to recognize) elaborate man-made ecosystems. Nearly everywhere we look, he says, we’re finding evidence of not only ancient cities or settlements, but also of complex land use. Terraced fields in the Andes, causeways and earthworks in the Beni region of Bolivia, elaborate arboriculture in the Amazon. And Mann also tells the stories of the scholars who have argued over these discoveries and how to interpret them.

An interesting element of these arguments has to do with the relationship between the “pristine myth” and the environmental movement. Mann says early ecologists believed humans were “outside” nature, and that there was a natural “climax” equilibrium before humans blundered onto the scene and messed things up. This isn’t a new idea for environmental historians. Back in the 80s, William Cronon talked about the failure of the steady state idea of ecology. But Mann takes the story farther, and shows how the arguments of scientists such as the Smithsonian’s Betty J. Meggers had an extremely political dimension. Meggers, who theorized that the Amazon rainforest had never (and could never) supported more than about a thousand people, attacked scientists who discovered evidence of Amazonian populations as large as a hundred thousand. Her objection, according to Mann, had as much to do with her fear that understanding the Amazon as a place where up to an eighth of the forest was anthropogenic (a forest garden managed by its residents) would be a green light to modern developers intent on exploiting the Amazon.

Ironically, Mann says the most recent science suggests that not only was the ancient Amazon occupied by huge populations, but over time they actually improved the soil fertility of a large area. Slash and burn techniques, he says, are a “modern intrusion” that began with the advent of European steel axes. Earlier Amazonians planted trees that continued feeding people for generations and created a composted soil called Terra Preta that they used to improve the thin rainforest soils. Some experts claim up to ten percent of the Amazon region was improved with terra preta — an area the size of France.

So not only does Mann’s story help restore pre-Columbian Americans to their rightful place in history, it also suggests that human use of the environment doesn’t have to be quite as destructive as we’ve made it. Burning the Amazon is not the only way humans could use the region. The real history of the region shows that the choice is not between a wilderness that only supports a handful of stone-age tribal people and an agribusiness corn/cattle operation. If people living a thousand years ago were able to support huge populations and improve the ecosystem, why can’t we?

Okay, I suppose you could argue that the fruit and nut trees and the manioc planted by Amazonians elbowed out some indigenous plants and may have even decreased biodiversity. This hasn’t been proven, but it could be argued. We could at least agree, I think, that whatever losses this human management of the forest entailed, it was better than burn the forest, plant a monoculture on the exposed soil until it’s depleted, and then repeat. What we need is an Amazonian Bill Mollison and David Holmgren to put it all together in a Rainforest Permaculture to complement their desert permaculture. Or maybe that has already happened, and we just don’t know because we don’t speak Portuguese.

Postscript: In a new Afterword for the 2006 Vintage edition, Mann says the most controversial part of the book turned out to be the Coda in which he described North American Indians’ “insistence on personal liberty…[and] on social equality” as a direct influence on the Revolution and Early Republic. “Historians have been puzzlingly reluctant,” Mann had said, “to acknowledge [the Indian] contribution to the end of tyranny worldwide.” And he was right: Early American academic historians like Alan Taylor said Mann was naïve to suggest that “the Haudenosaunee could have had an impact on the America character,” in spite of the fact that “Montaigne, Rousseau, Locke, Voltaire, Jefferson, Franklin, and Thomas Paine” had all remarked in print about “the differences between native and European ways of life.” Of course, Joseph Brant, the Indian protagonist of Taylor’s The Divided Ground, is a pretty thoroughly Europeanized Indian; so maybe Taylor’s reaction isn’t so surprising. Either way, there’s a lot to discover and a lot of food for thought in 1491.