Tagged digital pedagogy


Teaching the Digital Caribbean: The Ethics of a Public Pedagogical Experiment


In this essay, I discuss my methodology in choosing course content for a “Digital Caribbean” course at the CUNY Graduate Center and some of the challenges, expected and unexpected, that I encountered with my approach. In particular, I focus on some of the ethical and methodological questions I grappled with in melding the study of digital technologies with interdisciplinary study of the Caribbean. Formally a narrative assessment of the ways “not to” build a graduate humanities course that engages digital content, this essay primarily explores what it means to work publicly, in a digital format, with graduate-level research on the Caribbean in academia.

You have to be sure about a position in order to teach a class, but you have to be open-ended enough to know that you are going to change your mind by the time you teach it next week.
— Stuart Hall

In the spring of 2014, I taught a course entitled “The Digital Caribbean” at the CUNY Graduate Center. The course was run by the M.A. in Liberal Studies program (MALS) and cross-listed for the PhD certificates in American Studies and Africana Studies. As far as I could tell in doing my research for the course, it was the first of its kind to be taught at either the graduate or undergraduate level. As such, I found myself cobbling together materials for the course with no precedents or guidelines. This was somewhat easier when I taught the course a year later in the doctoral program in English (again at the CUNY Graduate Center) and then again in Spring 2017 as an undergraduate course at Williams College. In the patchwork essay that follows, I focus on that initial creation for the MALS course, discussing my methodology in choosing content and some of the challenges, expected and unexpected, that I encountered with my approach. In particular, I focus on some of the ethical and methodological questions I grappled with in melding the study of digital technologies with interdisciplinary study of the Caribbean. In part, this is a narrative assessment of the ways “not to” build a graduate humanities course that engages digital content. Mostly, however, it is an exploration of what it means to work publicly with graduate-level research on the Caribbean in academia, particularly with students who have set ideas about their own personal and intellectual relationships to digital technology and to the region.

There were several considerations in both setting up and running the course. Some were foreseeable at the outset, but others part of the learning process of working with living, variable (and often ephemeral) material. In building the initial version of the course, I worked from what at the time was the fifth chapter of a book in progress on Caribbean cosmology. That project has since changed, primarily I believe because of my experience creating and teaching the course. There was a symbiotic relationship such that what was once merely a chapter became pretty much the book. Nevertheless, the former project did shape my approach to the course in that the idea of cosmology (in the most general, universal, sense of the word) helped me to draw together material I was already comfortable teaching – on Caribbean literature and culture – with the Digital Humanities material that was either entirely new to me or new to me in a classroom setting.

Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning the Digital Caribbean

During the course proposal stage, I was not entirely sure what direction the syllabus would take, so, as many of us do at this stage, I left the course description relatively open. The following course description was part of that proposal and appears in slightly abbreviated form on the course website:

Text of course description for Digital Caribbean course

Figure One: Course Description for Digital Caribbean

Much like a presentation abstract months before a conference, the course description above sounded great ahead of time, but in reality I had no template ready for the course. I had not previously appreciated how much I rely on a literary tradition in my pedagogy. In teaching courses like “Caribbean Literature,” “Literary Theory,” and “Women Writers,” I had always had sample syllabi available to me either via the internet or departmental archives. I had also taken similar courses myself as a graduate student. With the digital component, I was charting new ground in Caribbean Studies; and I was teaching in an interdisciplinary program. Thankfully, there was a relatively established body of work on the intersection of race and digital culture by scholars such as Anna Everett and Lisa Nakamura, as well as a newer but also visible and growing body of work on global digital cultures by scholars such as Jennifer Brinkerhoff and Karim H. Karim. However, work that directly addressed digital technology and the Caribbean was much more difficult to find in 2013. Prior to teaching the class, I knew only of very few sources, most notably, Curwen Best’s 2008 monograph, The Politics of Caribbean Cyberculture, articles in the 2011 sx salon discussion “Caribbean Culture Online,” and Annie Paul’s essay in the 2011 Routledge Companion to Anglophone Caribbean Literature, “Log On: Toward Social and Digital Islands.”

Though few and limited to the Anglophone Caribbean, these texts spanned the disciplinary spectrum and so formed a good base from which to begin. My approach to interdisciplinarity has always been to begin with my strength – literature and close reading – and branch out from there. I was also guided by the description of the “second wave” of digital humanities posited in the “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0”:

The first wave of digital humanities work was quantitative, mobilizing the search and retrieval powers of the database, automating corpus linguistics, stacking hypercards into critical arrays. The second wave is qualitative, interpretive, experiential, emotive, generative in character. It harnesses digital toolkits in the service of the Humanities’ core methodological strengths: attention to complexity, medium specificity, historical context, analytical depth, critique and interpretation.[1]

Though I am sure there are scholars who would argue with the portrayal of the “first wave,” the rest of the description resonated with me because it spoke so directly to what I wished to achieve in the classroom and in whatever scholarship I produced on the topic. This class, this project, was to be generative in nature, for my students, my colleagues, my field, and myself.

But how to pull these varied texts together in a coherent way for these varied audiences? I began with a provisional syllabus that covered only the first three weeks. This decision was motivated by two realities: 1) I simply was not sure what to put in the following weeks as I was still hoping to seamlessly meld Caribbean studies and digital humanities, 2) I wanted to be transparent with my students about the experimental nature of the course and the need for their active participation in generating course content. For various reasons – professional and personal – I was hesitant about this as a pedagogical strategy, but later in the semester some of the students expressed appreciation for this contingent beginning. My openness about the course as an experiment allowed them to feel part of the creation of the course. Throughout the semester the students were comfortable enough to suggest sites, though not readings, for us to analyze. It also helped that I left space in the syllabus for them to do so and designed some of the assignments to require that they find their own examples to illustrate connections between the readings.

At the time, I was unaware of the wealth of research, case studies, and practical advice regarding co-creating course syllabi with students already amassed by scholars steeped in learner-centered pedagogy. The experimental nature of the Digital Caribbean course was not entirely student-centered, but the openness of the syllabus did allow for a foregrounding of some of the students’ interests throughout the semester. In particular, in response to our first class discussion about topics, I scheduled weeks for us to focus on Caribbean tourism online and queer sexualities in Caribbean digital representation(s), topics I had not previously planned to cover. For these especially, but generally throughout the semester, I became a “co-learner” with my students as the course progressed. Much of what I learned from students in this first iteration of the course shaped the next two versions, which were not quite so experimental in syllabus creation.[2]

Our first day was organized around the traditional discussion of the syllabus, texts, and what students hoped to get out of the class; however, I left the second half of class for setting up the course website. We used the CUNY Academic Commons, which is a robust network that offers members not only WordPress-based websites, but also backend privacy for file-sharing and discussion; this helped to avoid the question of copyright with the readings for the course and gave students a space to communicate as a group.[3] We had a lively discussion about what the URL should be for the site as we tried to take into account our current needs, the potential needs of future scholars, and the ways the site might be accessed and for what reasons. The discussion extended to a consideration of what dependencies we had on such tools as search engines, link condensers, and social media. In the end, we decided that though it may be long (so much so that the Commons site creation tool warned us that we would be better off with something shorter), we would choose digitalcaribbean.commons.gc.cuny.edu. It was easy to remember and had a distinct clarity of purpose – two qualities important for both current and potential future users.[4]

Platforms and Privacy: The CUNY Academic Commons

The decision that seemed in those early days to be the easiest – that of which platform to use – became in time one of the most troubling. The CUNY Commons has been a model for several organizations’ digital platforms in the near-decade since launching in 2009. Though there are always improvements to be made, the platform is well-developed and the community is welcoming and supportive. I had no doubts about it being the proper home for our course site. However, as the semester wore on, many of the assumptions that led to my choice of this platform – some of them about the very topic we were studying – proved to be short-sighted.

First, there was my assumption about students’ (and by extension other professors’) usage of the CUNY Academic Commons. During that first class I realized that several of the students had not yet set up their Commons accounts, even though this was the Spring semester and so all but one of them had been enrolled at the Graduate Center for at least one semester of classes. This highlighted the assumption I had made about my students’ technological savvy. It would become more clear throughout the rest of the semester that I would need to set aside time for a “practicum” at the end of some classes to cover some of the technical details of using the WordPress-based Commons to complete assignments. Of the eight students, about half had never blogged, even more had never blogged using WordPress, and the CUNY Academic Commons was new to the majority.[5]

As scholars we are inundated with information (and in some cases exhortations) about digital pedagogy and digital scholarship. Regardless of our field and topic, our research is increasingly done via screens rather than via printed material. According to David M. Berry in Understanding Digital Humanities,

Across the university the way in which we pursue research is changing, and digital technology is playing a significant part in that change. Indeed, it is becoming more and more evident that research is increasingly being mediated through digital technology. Many argue that this mediation is slowly beginning to change what it means to undertake research, affecting both the epistemologies and ontologies that underlie a research programme […] it is rare to find an academic today who has had no access to digital technology as part of their research activity.[6]

As such, we can easily make assumptions about not only about our colleagues’ usage of digital technology, but also the digital readiness of our students; we know they use computers to write for us and we observe them (sometimes during class) utilizing their ever-smarter phones. Additionally, advertising and mass media in general would have us believe that everyone is accessing the internet to conduct business and pleasure. But in truth, access does not mean use, and use does not mean full engagement.

This question of engagement, my first hurdle beyond creating a syllabus, was a peculiar reflection of what we were to study in the class. Six of my eight students were of Caribbean descent and the ways in which they used the internet to enhance their understandings of Caribbean culture was repeatedly a topic of discussion across the semester. More relevant for my purposes here, however, is the way in which they did not use the internet. The students’ lack of engagement with the CUNY Academic Commons spoke to their concerns about privacy and the distinction they imagined (or ignored) between their professional and personal digital lives.

Because the field of Caribbean digital studies could, at best, be termed small, one of my objectives was to build a resource for future teachers, students and scholars of similar material, a group that was at that time, and still is, noticeably increasing in number and visibility. This envisioned resource included, in large part, my students’ blogging activity, depending on these posts to convey some of the content of our discussion and the nature of possible connections between the materials. I had once before, as an extra credit exercise, assigned public blogging as part of a course, but that was with undergraduates, and optional. For this course I had, without proper forethought, made public blogging a requirement for students who were more invested in academia than my undergraduates and still had further to go on the track (I had one PhD student and the others were Master’s students, most of whom were planning to apply to doctoral programs). One student was vocally hesitant about blogging publicly, especially since our use of the CUNY Academic Commons meant he could not write pseudonymously.[7] I encouraged him to continue to participate, but I offered the option to delete the blogs after the course, which made him much more comfortable. In later discussions with colleagues I found that many offered the opportunity to blog privately. I could have offered this option, but I wanted the “pressure” of public writing to shape the students’ responses. I also, selfishly, wanted to build the site with curated content.

Despite this choice to stick with my original plan, I was torn about the decision as the unevenness of my students’ writing and abilities became more apparent. Public writing is its own genre and the students approached it in different ways; some with previous blogging experience took to the writing requirement easily, as did others comfortable with writing and/or public performance. The distance between these students and those more hesitant about blogging grew as the course went on. Included in my original course description was the objective to “consider the pedagogical and professional aspects of working with not only digital texts, but specifically those produced to represent a minority culture, particularly given the increasing digitization of academic work.” Somehow, I had not envisioned the work produced in the class itself to be part of this objective, but learned quickly that I needed to treat my students’ work as part of these “digital texts” as well. As Trevor Owens writes of his course site in “The Public Course Blog: The Required Reading We Write Ourselves for the Course That Never Ends,” my students’ blogging “was not simply a supplement to the course; rather, it played a cognitive role in the distributed structure of the class, moving it from knowledge consumption to knowledge production.”[8] Their blog posts were producing knowledge not just for our little community in the course, but for a larger (albeit still largely imagined) community beyond the classroom.

On the first day of class we had been optimistic enough to choose a hashtag for sharing our course materials on social media but my concerns about my students’ right to relative privacy kept me from directly linking to their work until the final projects at the end of the semester. The question that repeatedly haunted me was: to what extent are we responsible for shielding our students in this manner? It seems a bit silly to think of myself as “shielding” my students when their work was available on the World Wide Web, but given the relative obscurity of some (even most) web content, it is easy to forget about the public nature of material created for a small group. Could I strike some balance between public encouragement of their work and the traditional private safe space of the classroom? A related concern was that all my students were students of color and I did not know which approach to public writing would most benefit them in an academic system and space ill-designed for their success.  As a compromise, I began to suggest revisions in my reading of their blogs. Though I occasionally commented on their blogs publicly, I also periodically “graded” the blogs privately with comments about each. This resulted in more work but sat well with me ethically as it gave my students the option of going back to revise the blog posts both before and after the “grading.”[9] In retrospect, this was the best approach possible given the varied rationales for the course site: a conversation between the course participants, a contemporary resource for interested readers, and an archive for potential future scholars.

Sooner than expected, I had cause to question the ways in which the course was framed on the site for this latter audience. That summer, after the course had closed, I was contacted by Elena Machado Sáez, who was doing research on Robert Antoni’s As Flies to Whatless Boys. Her project was on reader responses to the text and its accompanying website and in doing research she encountered my students’ posts on the Digital Caribbean site. Antoni was one of our class visitors and so there had been significant activity on the blog surrounding his novel and its experimental website. Because many reviewers were ignoring the website (possibly due to how unusual and “out there” it is), my students’ online conversation represented the largest resource of rigorous engagement with both the novel and its website that a scholar could access at the time. Machado Sáez contacted me about the posts and the site in general. Her email and her subsequent usage of material from the site brought me up short and made me realize the ways in which I had not been careful enough in my creation of the site and contextualization of the course.

The irony here is that our last class was on how search engine optimization (SEO) – via Google in particular – affects one’s exposure to information. Therefore, I should have been more cognizant of how the site appeared to an outsider. But I was, again, operating under myopic assumptions about internet usage. Unfortunately, I did not fully realize this until my students’ work had already made it into Machado Sáez’s book. Her reference to the students’ writings begin: “The digital marginalia accessible via CUNY Academic Commons and produced within a classroom setting indicates the discomfort of readerships with the (im)possible intimacy of Antoni’s online archive, as well as its appeal.”[10] This was footnoted with reference to our email exchange:

Kelly Josephs taught a Spring 2014 graduate course at the CUNY Graduate Center on the “Digital Caribbean,” which produced the blog postings on CUNY Academic Commons (“Introduction”). Since I accessed the blog commentary via Google and the classroom context was not directly acknowledged by the posts, I contacted Josephs via e-mail on June 2, 2014, to see if she knew who had generated the posts. Josephs was kind enough to provide me with her course syllabus and a description of the blog post assignment, but she was unaware that the posts could be disconnected from the course content, or rather, read without accessing the relevant online course description and materials. As she noted, “The CUNY Academic Commons is a large conglomerate and this is just one site within it” (“Re: CUNY Academic Commons,” 2 June 2014). Our academic exchange speaks to how classwork may circulate digitally in ways that we as teachers might not imagine, namely, decontextualized from the pedagogical frame that produced that work.[11]

I quote the note in full here because it speaks to the various ethical, archival, and pedagogical dilemmas I highlight above. Machado Sáez raises a salient point about the circulation of digital material. My disconcertion here is not that the student posts were accessed without context, but that the content of the course could then be “decontextualized from the pedagogical frame that produced that work.” This was in part due to my neglecting to properly “brand” the course and its proliferating content, relying too much on the assumption that readers would navigate their way to the syllabus and the course description. Indeed, we had the public in mind when creating the site – that was in large part the point of our first class discussion about what to name the site and how to frame it – however, the prominence of the “CUNY” branding vis-à-vis the name of the site itself had not been part of that initial discussion (nor had it occurred to me during the course). The potential divorcing of student work from the entirety of the course experience raises for me the following questions:

  • What assumptions do we make about the holistic nature of a course when building a public site to house student work? Do these assumptions really matter to future “use” of the work?
  • What does it do to add the public as an audience for coursework? How does that reflect on content choices? How does this additional component shape assignments and “performance” in the course?
  • How does the choice of platform affect reception of the work? If we rely on platforms provided by our academic institutions, how does the institution continue to own our intellectual labor in ways we did not envision – or ways we do not mean to occur?

Three iterations of the course later, I am still grappling with these questions.[12] Before teaching the course again in 2015, I made small revisions to the course site in an effort to more clearly signal the course context for public readers, but kept the general structure and all the previous student work as part of the archive. For the 2017 undergraduate course I decided to build a new site with a different theme and organization, partly to speak to the distinct needs of my undergraduate students but also in an effort at embracing the ephemerality of a site hosted by an institution within which I was contingent faculty.[13] Rather than answering the questions above, teaching the course again has simply nuanced them, foregrounding for me the ethics of scholarship vs pedagogy, particularly when the Caribbean as subject matter and identity politics in the classroom – engaging underrepresented peoples and places – underlie these questions of ethics and public distribution.

We learn as we teach. As I teach this course, I am learning to err on the side of impermanence whenever my drive to build a site as part of the “product” of the course seems to be in tension with the needs of my students to learn in a private, safe space. I am learning to incorporate space and time for opacity in such ventures; space and time for students to create, and revise, and perhaps even refuse work in ways ultimately invisible behind the screens of outsiders. Impermanence and opacity – these are not easy choices for a Caribbeanist in the age of livestreamed conferences, recorded lectures, and hashtagged events. In the digital age, we want access to everything, archives of everything. As a Caribbean scholar, I also desire to build evidence of the complexities, the very existence, of our cultures; evidence against, as Derek Walcott phrases it: “the way that the Caribbean is still looked at, illegitimate, rootless, mongrelized. ‘No people there,’ to quote Froude, ‘in the true sense of the word.’ No people. Fragments and echoes of real people, unoriginal and broken.”[14] The lure of digital archives is their potential to make such evidence of history, of humanity, accessible in all senses of the word. I am learning to weigh this drive toward visibility against my students’ needs for invisibility, reminding myself each time that impermanence and opacity, difficult as they may be for a digital humanist, are longstanding strategies of resistance in Caribbean cultures.


[1] Jeffrey Schnapp, Todd Presner, and Peter Lunenfeld, “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0,” http://www.humanitiesblast.com/manifesto/Manifesto_V2.pdf. Emphasis in original. This citation is limited as according to Presner, “Parts of the manifesto were written by Jeffrey Schnapp, Peter Lunenfeld, and myself, while other parts were written (and critiqued) by commenters on the Commentpress blog and still other parts of the manifesto were written by authors who participated in the seminars. This document has the hand and words of about 100 people in it.” (Todd Presner, “Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 Launched” 22 June 2009, http://www.toddpresner.com/?p=7, accessed 15 November 2017). Thus, while I note all three authors in the bibliographic record, I wish to also acknowledge that, in keeping with the gestalt of DH work, it is a collaborative document.

[2] For an illustrative discussion of the hows and whys of co-creating syllabi and course assignments with students, see Cathy Davidson’s 2015 HASTAC series “How Do I Get Started? A Step-by-Step Guide to Designing a Student-Centered Classroom,” https://www.hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2015/08/04/how-do-i-get-started-step-step-guide-designing-student-centered

[3] The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy is also part of the CUNY Academic Commons, though the site does not have a Commons URL or the Commons header.

[4] I was already using the simpler URL caribbean.commons.gc.cuny.edu for another site. It pays to be an early adopter in this field.

[5] The Commons team has since focused some of their resources on orienting new CUNY Graduate Center students to the platform and so both knowledge and usage of the Commons has increased in the past four years.

[6] David M. Berry, ed. Understanding Digital Humanities (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 1.

[7] I learned afterward that this is a possibility with the CUNY Academic Commons and have since offered the option to students, though none have yet chosen to blog under a pseudonym. In an unexpected turn of events, the student most hesitant about public blogging in this first version of the course later included his posts as part of his online resume of writings.

[8] Trevor Owens, “The Public Course Blog: The Required Reading We Write Ourselves for the Course That Never Ends.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012). http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/6

[9] The course site remains public and as of this writing – as far as I could tell from the dashboard – none of the students have erased their blogs. This may, of course, speak more to their forgetting to remove them than any considered decision about their academic portfolio.

[10] Elena Machado Sáez, Market Aesthetics: The Purchase of the Past in Caribbean Diasporic Fiction (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015), 207.

[11] Ibid, 228.

[12] The initial course ended with student digital projects (though I gave the option of a traditional paper, six of the eight students chose to build digital projects). The projects were extremely gratifying for me and I felt much more comfortable sharing these projects via social media because the students had “owned” them in a way they had not “owned” the blog posts for the course. What I found most interesting was that each of these projects was built “elsewhere.” That is, none of the students chose the CUNY Academic Commons to house their work. Perhaps they were much more aware of these questions of ownership and reception than I was at the time.

[13] This course was part of my teaching responsibilities as a visiting professor at Williams College. As of this writing, the site is still accessible, but my access to the administration of it will expire when my Williams College email account expires.

[14] Derek Walcott, “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory” Nobel Lecture, December 7, 1992. https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1992/walcott-lecture.html

About the Author

Kelly Baker Josephs is Associate Professor of English at York College, CUNY. She is the author of Disturbers of the Peace: Representations of Insanity in Anglophone Caribbean Lit­erature (2013), editor of sx salon: a small axe literary platform, and manager of The Caribbean Commons website. Her current project, “Caribbean Articulations: Storytelling in a Digital Age,” explores the intersections between new technologies and Caribbean cultural production.

ACERT presentation at Hunter College. Photo Credit: Jessie Daniels @JessieNYC

JITP Roundup: “Why Failure Matters”, a Lunchtime Presentation for ACERT

ACERT presentation at Hunter College. Photo Credit: Jessie Daniels @JessieNYC

Photo Credit: Jessie Daniels @JessieNYC

On October 27th 2016, the Academic Center for Excellence in Research and Teaching (ACERT) at Hunter College held a lunchtime seminar entitled “Why Failure Matters: Editors from CUNY’s Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy on Learning from ‘Teaching Fails.” The Managing Editor of JITP, Laura W. Kane, introduced the aims and editorial guidelines of the journal, and discussed how the journal operates through a collaborative effort between 23 faculty members, graduate students, and academic staff at CUNY and other institutions.

Also joining the lunch was Sarah Ruth Jacobs, the editor of the journal’s Teaching Fails section. The Teaching Fails section provides an opportunity for faculty members from all disciplines to reflect on the ways in which their use of technology in the classroom fell short of their expectations. These failures can help instructors gain insight and improve in their future class plans. For example, in her Teaching Fails piece, Professor Karen Gregory reflected on how her public-facing course inadvertently failed in giving students a private space for assignments and online discussion.

As part of the session, attendees were asked to reflect on how their uses of technology had failed in the classroom. One insight that came out of this discussion was how it was important when introducing a new technology to students to explain not just “the how” but “the why:”  why the technology is necessary and the ways in which it benefits students. When students don’t understand the motivation for learning a new technology, they are less engaged and willing. Attendees also reflected on how students need a lot of time and detailed instruction in order to properly use new technologies in their assignments; that is, the myth of the “digital native” who perfectly implements technologies can be a faulty line of thinking.

You can read more about the presentation on the ACERT blog. Details about our Teaching Fails section can be found on our sections of the journal page. We encourage submissions about ideas that didn’t work in the classroom – assignments that didn’t work out, readings that none of your students understood – that may help others to fail better. Questions about our Teaching Fails section should be sent to teaching.fails@jitpedagogy.org

Image courtesy of Flickr user Andrea Hernandez

Participatory Culture and Distributed Expertise: Breaking Down Pedagogical Norms or Regulating Neoliberal Subjectivities?

Kimberly Mair, University of Lethbridge


While participatory pedagogies and inverted classrooms contest the norms and forms authority that operate in the conventional classroom and attempt to respond creatively to the challenge that Web 2.0 presents to higher education, they may also reinforce the requisite affect and rhythms of production that are characteristic of flexible labor. Drawing upon observations from a course on digital culture delivered in an inverted and participatory classroom, this article discusses the effectiveness of experiential, decentered, and collaborative classroom environments for meeting the demands of early twenty-first century higher education but examines contradictions inherent to these critical pedagogies. This paper argues that the intensive labor and constant affect-based interactions that participatory pedagogies demand may inadvertently undermine their critical force by enacting forms of neoliberal governance. The discussion concludes with provisional thoughts about how to navigate these contradictions by building a critique of the pedagogy into the course structure.



Critical pedagogies that emphasize performative and participatory activity are effective in breaking down and contesting the norms and forms of authority operative in the conventional classroom that otherwise tend toward passive absorption and recall on demand. The move away from both older banking (Freire [1970] 1997, 61) and newer information exchange models in education is even more urgent when we take seriously that “knowledge and information in their exchangeable form are easily accessible on the internet and Wikipedia,” an observation that prompted Groot, Pape, and Vilvang (2015) to ask: “What, then, is the singular project of higher education that stands out from a mass of knowledge traders?” (1). For them, that project would entail the generation of “movements of thought,” in which “it is not a stable piece of information that moves from point A to point B” (1), but one that engages directly the problem of “how to make different modes of thought resonate, how to think with another thinking” (2).

In preparation for a third-year undergraduate course entitled Digital Culture and Society, I attempted to shape its curriculum into a metaphorical platform for experiential engagements that would disrupt conventional assumptions of the economy of knowledge in the classroom by positioning the students as collaborative knowledge producers who each bring plural knowledges into the space for reworking, rather than as receivers of ostensibly crystallized, knowledge. Since I gave the course a thematic focus on Participatory Culture in Web 2.0, I wanted its form to make operative the social processes of concern in the course, such as shifts in communicative practice and values, the withdrawal of the singular author or originator of knowledge claims, and so forth. Making such processes operative indeed made space for “movements of thought” (Groot, Pape, and Vilvang 2015, 1). I noted how easily the values of critical pedagogies, such as those central to the inversion of classrooms, synthesized with the unique concerns of the course topic of digital culture, as these are in many ways consistent with the emergent norms of Web 2.0 culture and its “central cultural logic” of sharing (Shifman 2014, 19). Yet, over the duration of the course, I became aware of inherent contradictions in the participatory and performative potential of inverted pedagogies.

Concerns have been raised about inverted models, particularly in the context of fiscal pressures on education that may emphasize technology as a solution to increased demands with fewer resources, while de-emphasizing the value of immediate engagement with instructors. As Harden (2015) has observed, however, the critical focus of inverted models does provide “means for educators to resist that outcome” (378). Perhaps this danger pivots on where the imperative to invert classrooms emerges, with the institution or with the educator, and whether it is administratively or conceptually driven. But, my immediate concerns depart from the possible administrative exploitation of what are meant to be critical learning models that, done well, are usually more, not less, labor intensive. That these learning models are more labor intensive, not only for faculty but for students as well, is my point of departure. With the learning strategies and forms that my course implemented, student labor was both extensive and sometimes invisible as work. I argue that, as much as these forms rework and disrupt conventional classroom practices, they may inadvertently contribute to the regulation of subjectivity in preparation for entrenching flexible labor arrangements. Following this, I will conclude with a brief preliminary reflection upon how I have attempted to activate this critique as part of the content in a subsequent offering of this course. Before developing my critique, I will situate my discussion in the course’s pedagogical underpinnings.

Participatory and Web 2.0 Cultures as Content and Pedagogy

The course’s thematic focus on Participatory Culture in Web 2.0 culture followed Henry Jenkins’ work in both of its streams: fandom studies and participatory classrooms. Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley, et al (2013) advocate the “participatory classroom,” which acknowledges the emergent shift from the expert paradigm of one-directional knowledge transfer to a collaborative model of knowledge production known as distributed expertise (188–189). Distributed expertise anticipates that each participant has knowledge and experiences to contribute. It favors course designs that enable and encourage the active mobilization of each participant’s expertise in both learning and teaching, although the latter often occurs through informal mentorship—a central value of some fandoms [1] and one that is consistent with the positive popular discourse of so-called Web 2.0 culture generally.

The respective characteristics of Web 2.0 culture and participatory culture overlap but are distinct (Hadas 2009, 1.2). Web 2.0 culture denotes the practices that emerge from the platform infrastructure of the Internet that provides sites to be filled with users’ content and generates sharing and interactivity that the read-only websites of Web 1.0 were not equipped to support. The ideological promise of Web 2.0 culture, however, recasts consumers as participants and creators and, therefore, it elides the distinction between producers and consumers (Hadas 2009; Jenkins [1992] 2013). More significantly, the discourses that surround Web 2.0 culture suggest a democratic communicative sphere by emphasizing its ostensible decentralization. Tim O’Reilly, who acknowledged the “interactivity, flexibility, and participation” (Coleman 2013, 207) of platform-based applications on the Internet by proposing the name Web 2.0, stresses its potential to foster “collective intelligence” (Hadas 2009). Web 2.0 also purportedly has the capacity to endow the speculative “noosphere” of the fused global mind (Manivannan 2012) with a “perfect memory” (Mayer-Schönberger quoted in Manivannan 2012). Tensions reside here due to the broad signifying force that the name Web 2.0 has taken on in a “constant conflation” of technologies and practices that “obscures the sociology and history of some digital projects” (Coleman 2013, 208). While the appeal to the supposed decentralization of Web 2.0 is often challenged (Mayorga 2014; Shifman 2014; Lanier 2011), Coleman asserts the distinction between “corporate-owned, proprietary platforms” and free software development or collective projects (208). So, while the promise and potential of so-called Web 2.0 cannot reside above critique, Coleman reminds us to give attention to which efforts and technologies we mean and how they operate “ethically, politically, and economically” (209) when we use this term.

The concept of participatory culture, however, speaks to long-time fandom practices, involving both affective and critical reading (Jenkins [1992] 2013, 277–278); the production of “borderlands” between texts and everyday life (3); cultural activism; aesthetic production that blurs the creator-consumer distinction; and the making of alternative communities (278–282). It long precedes the advent of digital platform infrastructures, but its characteristics overlap with the creative, non-hierarchical promise of the Web 2.0 culture of sharing. Jenkins and Kelley, et al (2013) outline the characteristics of a participatory culture as follows: “low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement”; mutual “support for creating and sharing”; “informal mentorship”; members’ belief that their contributions are significant; members’ feelings of social connection that extend to contributions made by members of the group (8).

In several respects, contemporary understandings and practices of participatory culture, now extending to more anonymous and ephemeral digital communities, rely upon the technological infrastructures of Web 2.0. Paul J. Booth’s (2012) study of video mash-ups forwards that today’s remix culture relies heavily on the use and re-working of different texts and genres to produce cultural “rupture” (5.4). In the context of the digital sphere and its reconfigurations of communication, participatory culture promises to re-work cultural logics and social arrangements, giving the impression of control to participants who make up networked communities. This control, however, is highly dependent upon the digital spaces in which activities occur. Financial and digital capitals, as well as membership in new social arrangements, are unevenly distributed (Mayorga 2014).

Having made this distinction between these overlapping concepts, I will elaborate how they inform and mirror my pedagogical assumptions in the design of this course. Like digital spaces and networks, classrooms are marked by uneven distributions of various capitals, and while a participatory course design does not level this terrain, it does make interventions into models of teaching that appeal to the image of a knowledge economy. As with Freire’s critical use of the word “banking” to describe one-directional teaching strategies, a course that is designed to participate in the knowledge economy assumes its material in terms of units possessed by teachers or books, consumed by students, and then exchanged for credit in examinations and assignments. A course that approximates a participatory culture emphasizes experiential learning by having students engage directly in the processes relevant to the course topic rather than primarily consume course materials that explain them. By focusing on processes, knowledge is then understood as ways of thinking and making rather than information or facts that are today readily available, and even debated, without classrooms of higher learning.

In this course, students’ experiences were supposed to be much like those in Web 2.0, as students ‘shared’ their ideas and took control of their activities through the collaborative production of their term projects. Groups were also to approximate participatory culture by fulfilling the characteristics outlined above. Although I assigned scholarly literatures, the experience of working in this way was intended to be a central ‘text’ of the course by which emergent social arrangements, communicative practices, and values in digital culture could be felt and negotiated rather than merely read about. Finally, this pedagogical approach assumes that learning is not an interior process but happens through active meetings among thinkers, objects, and environments. Having elaborated the critical pedagogical assumptions that draw from inverted models as well as from the scholarship on participatory classrooms and distributed expertise (Jenkins and Kelley et al., 2013) that guided the development of this course, I will provide some details about it before moving on to my critical observations about the contradictions presented with this approach in terms of its inadvertent complicity in preparing students for neoliberalism’s flexible labor arrangements.

The Participatory Course and Fan-Fic as Scholarly Activity

I responded to the official course title of Digital Culture and Society with a thematic of participatory culture, using scholarly readings to emphasize the following in the content: oscillations between materialization and dematerialization (Hayles 2012); new modes of communication; emergent norms and values; and new forms of subjectivity that are tension-ridden between, on the one hand, Barry Wellman’s concept of “networked individualism,” concerned with self-branding and production of social connectivity and communion, which is often used to describe contemporary social production (Shifman 2014, 30, 33–34), and, on the other hand, the economy of unreality that David Auerbach observes on 4chan message boards, which minimizes identity, trading subjects for knowledges and experiences (Manivannan 2012). In the course’s formal organization, I primarily used an inverted, or ‘flipped’, classroom model. I did minimal lecturing each week. Lectures focused on the most challenging aspects of theoretical matter in scholarly literature, and students were required to engage with learning materials and do preliminary work outside of class. Given its thematic, the course was participatory in its content and form. Mirroring the conceptual content of the course, students engaged directly in creative fan culture production in collaborative groups online outside of class time and face-to-face in the classroom over a period of three months.

Fandom production that values free space to create resonates with the ways in which communication ideally occurs in Web 2.0. The perceived gap between students’ routine communication practices and the scholarly conventions expected in the academy has perhaps never been greater. Instructors can build upon the ways that students communicate, and students can also be positioned to see how their communicative practices implicitly cross into scholarly conventions. I suggest that fandom practices, such as fan-fic, offer a productive meeting ground. Fandom strategies displace the authority of primary texts and offer creative license to students making their own texts using informal types of citation through intertextuality. More crucially, fandom strategies encourage active reading and re-writing practices that extend or question, fill in gaps, and posit cultural critiques of dominant narratives (Jenkins [1992] 2013). I used fan-fic prompts from the second class meeting on to unsettle classroom routines, initiate collaborative work, develop relationships, and explore assigned texts.[2]

The novel S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (2013) provided a common point of departure for the collaborative projects. S is an example of an ergodic novel because it requires unusual and laborious reading practices. It was particularly relevant to the course because it demands reading practices that mimic and amplify the non-linear experience of reading online, while calling for supplemental searching that crosses into other media external to the book to meet its intertextual knowledge requirements. Yet S also exaggerates the sensorial experiences of reading a material, hardcover book. The book is heavy, difficult to handle, and its specifically placed interleaved objects will fall out if the reader is not careful with every movement. The pages are artificially aged and seem to have been treated with the subtle scent of old books. Its content is broadly concerned with communication technologies and reading as authorship.

The students’ ongoing task was to work intertextually between scholarly literature, the novel, and their experiences of participatory culture in various modes. Many of their assignments, including the central collaborative project, demanded that they relinquish attachments to individual ownership and authorship of their production. In a limited sense, their contributions were ideally anonymous, as on 4chan, but not quite, obviously. I gave no specifications about what the final products should be. In terms of content, they were simply instructed to respond to S., while drawing from the conceptual materials in weekly academic readings. Evaluation was process-based and focused on groups’ routine practice of the principles of a participatory culture, as observed on their discussion and planning blogs and in participatory group time, for which they had between fifty and one hundred minutes per week over the term.

In addition to the attempt to subvert conventional authority emanating from the instructor and from assigned texts by animating participation in active knowledge production and contestation, the submitted assignments were creative, and relied upon popular cultural texts as well as on experiences. One aspect of Henry Giroux’s notion of border pedagogy as a “counter-text” (1991, 52) to traditional forms of pedagogical authority involves the treatment of official texts and popular cultural texts—not as the conduits for knowledge transmission, but as objects of study in themselves. Border pedagogy also enables students to “create their own texts” (54) under “conditions that allow students to write, speak, and listen in a language in which meaning becomes multi-accentual, dispersed, and resists permanent closure” (52).

The participatory modes operating within and outside of the classroom produced a high-level of solidarity among the students, and fostered intense friendships among many of them. Of the six groups, social connectivity was indeed achieved in all but one group that organized their activity with a means-ends logic. Having individual work from the students in the course from which to draw comparisons, the scholarly and creative quality of the works produced were, in most cases, higher than what would have been produced by individuals, as they were marked with the different strengths and interests of each group’s various members, which had dialogical mobility within the strongest groups over the duration of the term.

Despite the successes of the course, it became evident to me that the participatory modes of learning embedded into the course design presented inherent contradictions. While the pedagogical practices associated with distributed expertise and participatory collaboration break down the norms and forms of authority operative in the conventional classroom, they also appear to contribute to the regulation of subjectivity in preparation for immaterial and flexible labor arrangements. I observed that these strategies encourage practices that are consistent with the policy and human resource buzzwords of “creativity,” “participation,” and “community” that art historian Claire Bishop notes have been borrowed from 1960s discourses and deployed in service of self-sufficiency in the so-called “new economy” (2012, 14).

Do Participatory Classrooms Produce Post-Fordist Laborers?

Alexander R. Galloway has argued that, in post-Fordist arrangements, we can no longer distinguish between leisure and labor activities. Drawing upon Galloway’s observation, as well as Tim O’Reilly’s uncritical concept of “algorithmic regulation,” which denotes a process by which algorithmic adjustments respond to immediate data that evaluate whether algorithmic outcomes are aligned with preferred ones, Steve Holmes (2014) addressed the practice of bitcoin mining as a “hybrid game-like” environment that directly “participate[s] in structures of knowledge/power” that appropriate not only game play, but also browsing activities, social media posting, blogging, and so many of the routine activities that many of us do in daily life. He shows how these leisure activities are submitted to the surveillance of algorithms and become acts of immaterial labor that convert “play into [someone else’s] profit”. Holmes’s aim is to extend critiques that focus on game play that simulates other environments to show that “global communications networks have converted all of space and time to gamespace” and produce a sort of “algorithmic subjectivity” that responds to neoliberal demands both economically and at the level of conscious desires. It is a surveilled and regulated subjectivity, but it gives the appearance of individual agency. While we learn from Holmes that the mining of crypto-currencies brings into sharper focus the relationship between leisure and labor—a relationship which is more subtle in the context of browsing on Google Books, being engaged in what Mayorga (2014) describes as the “playful labor of participation in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms,” or even in gaming where informal markets flourish—this presents an intractable contradiction to the subversive potentials of new modes of communication in digital space, as well as to the emergent values that are associated with these modes.

These participatory and inverted pedagogical tactics also creatively blur the lines between leisure and labor for students. While this animates the class and the course material, it also normalizes patterns of self-exploitive labor (Bishop 2012, 236) for the precariat of the new economy. Related to this, the participatory principles of social connectivity and mutual valuing of contributions make affect, an integral aspect of what mobilizes the emergent flexible immaterial laborer, central to the student experience. When the collaborative groups achieved strong social connectivity, something that could only be accomplished through sustained attention to the building of relationships, their work sometimes appeared less like work and perhaps felt like mere play or social activity. Sometimes, their work took the form of care and mutual support, as a couple of students encountered personal life challenges and sorrows over the course of the term, which seemed to become part of the groups’ interactions. Given that the participatory form of the work was so relationship-based, personal grief could not be tidily externalized, as it is in most conventional classrooms. At the same time, the digitized, inverted learning arrangement that supported these participatory collaborative projects could, in fragmentary and undifferentiated time-space, intrude upon the most precious aspects of whatever could be said to be left of personal time or existence in always unanticipated moments. As Italian Autonomist scholars have been warning, work time in post-Fordist arrangements is increasingly separated from the physical laborer: “When we move into the sphere of info-labor, Capital no longer recruits people, it buys packets of time, separated from their interchangeable and contingent bearers. De-personalized time is now the real agent of the process of valorization, and de-personalized time has no rights” (Berardi 2009, 192). But, while time is separated from the physical laborer, work is not. The present structure of labor, Marazzi (2008) observes, is one that aims “to fuse work and worker, to put to work the entire lives of workers,” including or especially their “emotions, feelings, their after-work lives” (50), under the relentless demand for the worker “to respond to unforeseen and unforeseeable situations, emergent situations, those situations which make any sort of planning impracticable, assigning a central role to occasionality” (51).

I saw students attempting to respond to the paradox presented by the simultaneous separation of time and fusing of work. It was common for students to log on to group blogs well into the night to produce complex contributions and detailed, personalized, and affirmative responses to other contributions that had accumulated over the day. This was, after all, what I had hoped for, but I did not anticipate the ways and extent to which it would draw students into the temporal rhythms and the hijacking of care that is characteristic of the new shape of labor. Alternative pedagogical models are indeed grounded in critical perspectives, but the practical effects of their forms may support kinds of learning and practice contrary to the critical spirit of such models.

Bishop (2012) observes similar political ambiguities in the rise of post-studio participatory art since the 1990s. Some of the observations that Bishop makes about participatory art resonate with the kinds of pedagogy I am describing. She notes that both contemporary participatory artistic and curatorial production re-work conventional ways in which artistic production and consumption have been conceived; involve “post-objects,” which are situational, process-based, and conceptual; and disrupt the positions of artist and spectator to make all positions into those of participation (2).

Participatory and creative pedagogies can make similar interventions into knowledge formations. First, participatory classrooms overturn the expert model of knowledge production that assumes only an elite few possess knowledge to be imparted to others (Jenkins and Kelley, et al 2013). Second, these pedagogies involve process-based collaborations that are assumed to translate into flexible skills and knowledges that extend beyond the classroom context, rather than conventional pedagogies that focus on completed assignment-objects. Third, in some ways, they flatten and disrupt the positions of instructor and students and make them all participants (with the significant exceptions of course design and evaluation).

On the surface, these interventions into the dynamics of one-directional models seem positive, but Bishop argues that artistic practices are increasingly blurring with those of formal social institutions under the demands of the current neoliberal political context of fiscal austerity, privatization, and individualism. She considers how public arts funding criteria, coupled with the receding of social institutions, has meant that art is increasingly evaluated and publicly supported in terms of its achievement of a desired “social task” previously pursued by social services agencies, education departments, and so forth, rather than by its achievement of formal aesthetic properties. One of her concerns about the assumption that artistic production ought to fulfill social tasks is that it relies upon “‘post-political’ consensus” (277) to legitimate art. Bishop remarks that:

this is a story that runs in parallel with the rocky fate of democracy itself, a term to which participation has always been wedded: from a demand for acknowledgement, to representation, to the consensual consumption of one’s own image – be this a work of art, Facebook, Flickr, or reality TV. (277)

Similarly, participatory pedagogies and their collaborative assignments may rely upon a student-driven consensus that hastily resolves contradictions (Marlow 2012), erases dissent, and produces difficult contributions as refuse rather than as potential generations of “movements of thought” that provoke us “to think with another thinking” (Groot, Pape, and Vilvang 2015, 1-2).

Activating Critique within the Course Structure

Having acknowledged the unwitting complicity of this course design with the regulation of “good” neoliberal subjects, the outstanding task is to discover how to turn that complicity into an object of critical interrogation, without losing the animating potentials of alternative learning practices. This is one of the ubiquitous tensions that university workplaces present to instructors: how to assert a boundary between work and life while still activating your care in your work. For instructors, one way of activating care (but not necessarily boundaries) is to experiment with learning models, but when that experimentation seems to support the most exploitative aspects of contemporary work conditions in the structure of student learning, this calls for further intervention. A possible route for navigating this contradiction would be to retain the form of the course but to activate the critique within its content—it is after all inherent to the topic of digital culture—to prompt engagement with the ways in which the course has enacted forms of neoliberal governance and normalizes flexible rhythms of labor.

In a more recent iteration of this course, I incorporated this critique by assigning texts that underline the connections between digital leisure and flexible labor to show how activities in the course participated in the simulation of neoliberalism that Holmes discusses. For instance, since collaborative groups communicated outside of class time using a free blog platform that featured advertising space, which would be populated if their sites attracted enough visitors, they were prompted to consider how their posts to each other could make profit for other organizations. Further, not only did groups use texting and social media to keep in touch between meetings, several incorporated Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram into their final projects. All of these forms of communication, whether used instrumentally or aesthetically, provided opportunities to examine the production of value and leisure-labor blur, as well as the de-differentiation of labor and subjectivity in new flexible forms of production.

Relative to the students in the first version of the course, for whom I initiated the critique only in the closing reflections at the end of the term, students in the second version, for whom this critique was part of their curriculum, seemed unmoved by it. The first class was reflective about the critique; the second class seemed to ask: So what? Many of the latter stressed the convenience of working in groups using plural digital platforms, even when their communications and work unpredictably crossed well into the evenings and weekends. It is unclear what contributed to the difference in the responses, other than that, in general, the first class was more diversely digitally immersed and thus more attuned and invested in the implications than the second one. While student life is generally marked by fragmented time, the force of the critique relies upon students to imagine their indefinite futures structured by this de-differentiation between labor and affective subjectivity. Yet, this de-differentiation may be pervasive enough that it now appears neutral. If so, this neoliberal commonsense poses a unique challenge to animating this critique.

If flexible forms of teaching and learning respond to the demands of early twenty-first-century education by engaging emergent modes of communication and production, they also enact the “friendly” relations of power of those modes, which are affect-based and threaten to exploit students’ social bonds or to coerce students into performing bonds that they may not feel. Perhaps this critique of the pedagogy could be forceful if it were initially displaced from the students’ immediate experiences by putting the fictional novel and fan-fic writing exercises to use. Since the critique is also relevant to the protagonists in the novel S, it could be explored creatively through collective writing exercises that respond to key moments in the narrative. In a follow-up reflective exercise, students could be prompted to examine the similar structure of their own activities in the course. While it may seem counter-intuitive to build in a critique of pedagogy as it is delivered, it offers a rare experiential opportunity to examine contemporary neoliberal conditions that seem natural and convenient.


This work would not exist without the highly engaged students of the Digital Culture course. I wish to thank the University of Lethbridge Teaching Centre, especially Victoria Holec and Bernie Wirzba of the Learning Environment Evaluation Project. Finally, I am grateful to the editors and reviewers for constructive suggestions and feedback.


Abrams, J. J. and Doug Dorst. 2013. S. New York: Mulholland Books.

Berardi, Franco “Bifo.” 2009. The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy. Translated by Francesca and Giuseppina Mecchia. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Bishop, Claire. 2012. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. London and New York: Verso.

Booth, Paul J. 2012. “Mash-up as temporal amalgam: Time, Taste, and Textuality.” In “Fan/Remix Video,” edited by Francesca Coppa and Julie Levin Russo, special issue, Transformative Works and Culture 9. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/297/285

Coleman, E. Gabriella. 2013. Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Freire, Paulo. (1970) 1997. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Revised 20th-Anniversary Edition. New York: Continuum.

Giroux, Henry A. 1991. “Border Pedagogy and the Politics of Postmodernism.” Social Text 28: 51-67. http://www.jstor.org/stable/466376

Groot, Jorrit, Toni Pape and Chrys Vilvang. 2015. “Diagramming Double Vision.” Inflexions 8. Citations refer to pdf version. http://www.inflexions.org/radicalpedagogy/main.html#GrootPapeVilvang

Hadas, Leora. 2009. “The Web planet: How the changing Internet divided Doctor Who fan fiction writers.” Transformative Works and Culture 3. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/129/101

Harden, Joel D. 2015. “Learning without Sages?: Reflections on ‘Flipping’ the University Classroom.” In Neoliberalism and the Degradation of Education, edited by Carlo Fannelli and Bryan Evans, special issue, Alternate Routes: A journal of critical social research 26: 376-389. http://www.alternateroutes.ca/index.php/ar/article/viewFile/22327/18119

Hayles, N. Katherine. 2012. How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Holmes, Steve. 2014. “Rhetorical Allegorithms in Bitcoin.” Enculturation: a journal of rhetoric, writing, and culture 18. http://www.enculturation.net/rhetoricalallegorithms

Jenkins, Henry. (1992) 2013. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Updated Twentieth Anniversary Edition. New York and London: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry and Wyn Kelley, eds. 2013. Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom. Edited with Katie Clinton, Jenna McWilliams, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, and Erin Reilly. New York and London: Teachers College Press; Berkeley, CA: National Writing Project.

Lanier, Jaron. 2011. You are not a gadget: A Manifesto. New York: Vintage Books.

Manivannan, Vyshali. 2012. “Attaining the Ninth Square: Cybertextuality, Gamification, and Institutional Memory on 4chan.” Enculturation: A journal of rhetoric, writing, and culture 14. http://www.enculturation.net/attaining-the-ninth-square

Marazzi, Christian. 2008. Capital and Language: From the New Economy to the War Economy. Translated by Gregory Conti. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Marlow, Jennifer. 2012. “Wiki Wars: Conversation, Negotiation, and Collaboration in Online Spaces.” Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy 2. https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/wiki-wars-conversation-negotiation-and-collaboration-in-online-spaces

Mayorga, Edwin. 2014. “Toward Digital, Critical, Participatory Action Research: Lessons from the #BarrioEdProj.” Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy 5. http://www.jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/toward-digital-critical-participatory-action-research/

Shifman, Limor. 2014. Memes in Digital Culture. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press.


[1] Hadas has challenged the simple conflation of participatory culture and fandom by acknowledging multiple logics in fandoms. Notably, Hadas has observed a discourse of “organized-community” that appeals to “the rhetoric of private enterprise and stresses the importance of norms and standards” that stands in contrast to a discourse of “free-space” that calls for constructive and supportive contexts for production and mentorship (1.2).

[2] The second offering of this course included exploration of the similarities and differences between these strategies and academic conventions.

About the Author

Kimberly Mair is Associate Professor of Sociology and a Teaching Fellow (2016-17) at the University of Lethbridge, Canada. Her research is concerned with the aesthetics of communication and social theory. Her book Guerrilla Aesthetics: Art, Memory, and the West German Urban Guerrilla was recently published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.


Making Reading Visible: Social Annotation with Lacuna in the Humanities Classroom


Reading, writing, and discussion are the most common—and, most would agree, the most valuable—components of a university-level humanities seminar. In humanities courses, all three activities can be conducted with a variety of digital and analog tools. Digital texts can create novel opportunities for teaching and learning, particularly when students’ reading activity is made visible to other members of the course. In this paper, we[1] introduce Lacuna, a web-based software platform which hosts digital course materials to be read and annotated socially. At Stanford, Lacuna has been collaboratively and iteratively designed to support the practices of critical reading and dialogue in humanities courses. After introducing the features of the platform in terms of these practices, we present a case study of an undergraduate comparative literature seminar, which, to date, represents the most intentional and highly integrated use of Lacuna. Drawing on ethnographic methods, we describe how the course instructors relied on the platform’s affordances to integrate students’ online activity into course planning and seminar discussions and activities. We also explore students’ experience of social annotation and social reading.

In our case study, we find that student annotations and writing on Lacuna give instructors more insight into students’ perspectives on texts and course materials. The visibility of shared annotations encourages students to take on a more active role as peer instructors and peer learners. Our paper closes with a discussion of the new responsibilities, workflows, and demands on self-reflection introduced by these altered relationships between course participants. We consider the benefits and challenges encountered in using Lacuna, which are likely to be shared by individuals using other learning technologies with similar goals and features. We also consider future directions for the enhancement of teaching and learning through the use of social reading and digital annotation.


Though reports of the death of the book have been greatly exaggerated, reading and writing are increasingly taking place on screens (Baron 2015). Through these screens, we connect with each other and to the media-rich content of the Web. Within university courses, however, there remain open questions about appropriate tools for students to collaboratively and critically engage with—rather than just view or download—multimedia course materials. The most popular platforms and media are generic tools that are not specifically designed to support the learning goals of humanities or reading-intensive courses. If there were a platform designed specifically to support college-level reading, what features should it have? How would such a platform alter the teaching and learning opportunities in a college humanities course?

In this article, we introduce one such platform, Lacuna, and consider its impact on teaching and learning in a seminar-style literature course. Lacuna is a web-based software platform designed to support the development of college-level reading, writing, and critical thinking. Sociocultural educational theories locate learning in the behaviors and language of individuals as they become adept at participating in the practices of a particular community (Lave and Wenger 1991, Collins et al. 1991, Vygotsky 1980). In addition to providing access to educational content, learning technologies can be designed to make existing expert practices in the community more accessible to novices (Pea and Kurland 1987). In particular, the interactive features in a learning technology can be designed as an embodiment of expert behaviors—for example, the strategies that skilled readers use when they engage with texts, in both print and digital form.

The key example of an expert inquiry practice for our purposes is annotation. Annotation here refers to any kind of “marking up” of a print or digital text, including underlining, highlighting, writing comments in the margins, tagging sections of text with metadata, and so on. Annotation is a practice that may not come as naturally to college students as their instructors would hope. And even when students (and instructors) do engage in annotation, they may not be cognizant of how different kinds of inscribing practices on a text affect their learning.

On Lacuna, course syllabus materials are digitized and uploaded to the platform. These materials can be organized by topic, class date, and other metadata such as medium (text, video, or audio). When students and instructors open up materials, they can digitally annotate selections from any text. Annotation on Lacuna is a social as well as an individual practice, leveraging the participatory possibilities of web-based technologies (Jenkins 2009). Lacuna users can choose to share annotations with one another and hover over highlighted passages to reveal others’ comments or questions. Social annotation makes explicit and visible for students the broad array of annotation practices within an interpretive community such as a classroom and helps students co-create interpretations of texts. Students’ annotation activity on Lacuna is also made visible through a separate instructor dashboard, which helps instructors track engagement throughout the course (using D3.js dynamic javascript visualizations of annotation data). Finally, annotations can be connected across texts using the “Sewing Kit” in order to support intertextual analyses.

Since 2013, the technologists and researchers on the Lacuna team in the Poetic Media Lab have designed and developed the platform collaboratively with humanities instructors, based on the theories of learning and expert reading practices described in the following sections of this article. During this time, Lacuna has been used in over a dozen courses at Stanford and other universities, primarily in the humanities and social sciences. Across the courses, the primary authors of this article (Schneider and Hartman) have used ethnographic approaches, including classroom observations, student surveys and interviews with instructors and students, in order to understand the ways that Lacuna mediates relationships among course participants and course content.[2]

In this paper, our primary goal is to examine the shifts in pedagogical practices, and the related learning experiences, that are enabled by social annotation tools like Lacuna when in the hands of willing and engaged instructors. Learning takes place in a complex system of relationships, resources, and goals (Cole and Engestrom 1993, Greeno 1998). Across the courses which have used Lacuna, instructors have chosen to integrate the tool to various degrees. This was unsurprising, as decades of educational research have shown that introducing a new technology, no matter how well-designed, is an insufficient condition for change unless it is intentionally integrated it into pedagogical practices (Cuban 2001, Collins et al. 2004, Brown 1992, Sandoval 2014). In this paper, we present a case study of a course taught by Amir Eshel and Brian Johnsrud, the co-directors of the Lacuna project, which exemplifies the classroom dynamics that become possible when social annotation is woven into the fabric of the course. While Eshel and Johnsrud were the original designers and first users of Lacuna, they were not involved in the present analysis of their own teaching. Within the course examined in this study, we present the full spectrum of the teaching and learning experience, from the time instructors spend preparing for class to perspectives from the students.

A secondary goal in this paper is to introduce Lacuna to other practitioners and researchers who may be interested in using the tool. As a web-based educational software platform, Lacuna is licensed by Stanford University for free and open-access use. Lacuna is run on the content management system Drupal, and the Stanford Poetic Media Lab has made Lacuna available to download with an installation profile on GitHub. Like other learning management systems, such as edX or Moodle, colleges, universities, or other institutions need to sign an institutional agreement taking responsibility for their use of the software, and students and other users agree to the Terms of Use when creating an account. Lacuna is also an ongoing open-source development project. Collaborating universities, such as Dartmouth and Princeton, are currently building out their own features and contributing them to GitHub, so the platform has ongoing refinement based on code submissions from different partners.

Our final goal for this paper is to develop broader questions about and insights into social annotation practices that could apply not only to Lacuna but also to other, similar tools. We hope that some of these questions and insights will come from readers of this article who are themselves exploring the relationship of technology, pedagogy, and learning in the humanities. Our article opens by describing the design of Lacuna in great detail, and then uses a similarly detailed approach to analyze a specific use of Lacuna. In providing these “thick descriptions” (Geertz 1973) of both the technology and its use, we hope that our readers will have the opportunity to reflect on and compare their experiences, goals, and tools to ours. By so doing, we can increase our collective knowledge about the benefits and tradeoffs of social annotation in the humanities classroom, with implications for other reading-intensive courses beyond the humanities.

Annotation as an Individual and Social Practice

As a reader, annotation serves a very personal role—we make marks in the margin or between the lines as an extension of our reactions at the moment of encountering a text. Annotations are also part of our process in preparing to write a paper, a “scholarly primitive” which becomes a building block of our observations about texts (Unsworth 2000). Annotation is one of the central practices used for critical reading in an academic context, as we identify, interpret, and question the layers of meaning in a single text and across multiple texts (Flower 1990, Scholes 1985, Lee and Goldman 2015). In humanities and seminar-style courses, we hope that our students are actively reading by interacting with texts in this way. Focusing on specific parts of a work, and then articulating why the selected passage is interesting, important, or confusing, are essential steps for students in constructing their own understanding of a text (Bazerman 2010, McNamara et al. 2006). By externalizing their thought processes through annotations, it becomes more likely that students remember what they have read and gives them an artifact to work with later on.

With digital texts, annotations can be shared and made visible to other readers—annotation becomes a social act. While this may cause tensions with the personal nature of the annotation process, social annotation also opens up new channels for learning through dialogue and observation of others’ reading and interpretive practices. One hallmark of the humanities broadly, and seminar-style courses in particular, is the “dialogic” nature of the discussion: students are encouraged to explore multiple perspectives on contemporary issues and the texts under scrutiny (Bakhtin 1981, Morson 2004, Wegerif 2013). Each course member has the opportunity to use academic language and express their own ideas, leading to increasing command over new conceptual frameworks and allowing each student to participate more effectively in a “discourse community” (Graff 2008, Lave and Wenger 1991). The instructor guides negotiation between perspectives without insisting on consensus interpretations. Though there is little rigorous research on the impact of dialogic instruction in university courses, these principles have been associated with higher student performance in multiple large-scale studies of middle and high school language arts courses (Applebee et al, 2003, Nystrand 1997, Langer 1995).

With social annotation, dialogue moves from the classroom (or an online discussion forum) to the moment of reading itself. Multiple perspectives and voices become available on the text, both before the class meets and in subsequent re-readings of the texts. The visibility of these perspectives provides opportunities for students to engage productively with difference and reflect on their own practices. Through the dynamism of these differences emerges the co-construction of meaning, wherein the perspectives of each member, and the negotiations among these perspectives, contribute to a shared understanding of the meaning of the texts and topics under discussion (Morson 2004, Suthers 2006). A sense of my stance, my analyses, my strategies for dealing with difficult texts, can also become more salient in contradistinction to other visible stances (Gee 2015, Lee and Goldman 2015). The asynchronous nature of the online dialogue through annotations can also shift the dynamics of whose voices are heard within the discourse community of the class. Particularly when annotations are mandatory, even a typically quiet student or a non-native English speaker can use annotations to voice their perspective or to show to instructors that they are engaging deeply with texts and ideas.

Social annotation technologies like Lacuna have been an ongoing fascination of researchers and technology developers since networked computing became common in the 1990s. University classrooms were particularly fertile ground for experiments in social annotation, especially as computer science professors at the cutting edge of developing digital systems found themselves in the position of teaching undergraduates through traditional, non-digital means. For example, CoNote was an early social annotation platform developed over twenty years ago at Cornell (Davis and Huttenlocher 1995). Aspects of the interface design and students’ ability to access CoNote were, of course, a product of the time—annotations were only allowed on pre-specified locations in a document, and nearly half of the students used CoNote in a computer lab because their dorms were not yet wired for the Web. The anecdotal experience of these students, however, foreshadows our own design goals with Lacuna. Students successfully used CoNote annotations as a site of document-centered conversations and collaborations. Frequently, the students were able to help each other more quickly than the course assistants. Students also self-reported in surveys that they felt better about being confused about course topics because they could see through annotations that other students were also confused (Davis and Huttenlocher 1995, Gay et al. 1999). The major lesson from this early work is the potential for peer support and community-building when conversations are taking place on the text—at the site where work is actually being done—rather than through other means such a discussion forum. (See also van der Pol, Admiraal and Simons 2006 for an experiment demonstrating that discussions taking place through annotations tended to be more focused and topical, compared to the broad-ranging conversations on a course discussion forum).

Since the 1990s, a large number of social annotation tools have been developed, both as commercial ventures and as academic projects (e.g. Marshall 1998, Marshall and Brush 2004, Farzan and Brusilovsky 2008, Johnson, Archibald and Tenenbaum 2010, Zyton et al. 2012, Ambrosio et al. 2012, Gunawardena and Barr 2012, Mazzei et al. 2013; other systems, such as AnnotationStudio at MIT and MediaThread at Columbia University, have not published any peer-reviewed research on their platforms). Research conducted on these social annotation platforms has largely focused on the experiences of students or on reading comprehension outcomes tested through short reading and writing assignments. These results have ranged from positive to neutral (see Novak et al. 2012 for a meta-analysis), with major themes of students benefiting from one another’s perspectives, being motivated by annotating, and using annotations to guide their exam studying.

Other research has examined specific aspects of the social annotation dynamic in more detail. For example, Marshall and Brush (2004) examine the moment when an annotator chooses to share her annotation, finding that students chose to shared ten percent or less of the annotations that they made on each assignment. When students did choose to share their annotations, they often cleaned them up before making them public—transforming shorthand notes to self into full sentences that would be intelligible to others in the class. These moves demonstrate a level of self-consciousness about the other readers in the course as members of a group conversation. Of course, social norms for sharing online may well have shifted since the early 2000s when the study was conducted. Another key moment in social annotation is when a reader chooses to read someone else’s annotation. Wolfe (2000, 2002, 2008) ran multiple studies manipulating the annotations that students can see, with a focus on exploring the influence of positive or negative (critical) annotations. As would be expected, her subjects paid more attention to the annotated passages than the unannotated parts of the text. Moreover, with positive annotations or unannotated passages, students were more likely to focus on comprehending the text without questioning it. When faced with conflicting annotations on the same passage, however, students were more likely to work to develop their own evaluation of the statement in the text. The fact that annotations help prompt deeper responses to the reading was borne out in other studies on students’ writing from the annotated text. Freshman students who wrote essays based on an annotated text were more likely to seek to resolve contradictions in their essays, and less likely to simply summarize the text. In these studies, the presence and valence of annotations clearly altered students’ sensemaking processes and understanding of the texts.

Finally, from a pedagogical perspective, social annotations can open up new possibilities for instruction. While these possibilities are underrepresented in the prior literature, one exception is Blecking (2014), who used ClassroomSalon to teach a large-scale chemistry course. Her research reports that students’ annotations helped her and her teaching assistants diagnose student misconceptions and make instructional changes in response. In humanities courses where reading strategies are often an instructional goal, instructors can monitor students’ annotations in order to give direct feedback on students’ reading strategies and textual analysis. Instructors can, of course, also enter the dialogue on the text themselves, using annotations to guide students to specific points in the text. Additionally, social annotations can serve as an accountability mechanism for completing assigned reading in a timely fashion, because instructors will see students’ activity on the text and students will know that instructors can see this activity.

One might ask—as colleagues have asked us during talks about Lacuna—why there have been so many social annotation tools recently, and why we need another one. One major reason is that many of these tools have been used for STEM courses, with an emphasis on the question-answer interaction as students help each other comprehend concepts in the text. This type of interaction, with an emphasis on a single correct answer, lends itself to different interface interactions than the type of dialogic sensemaking in humanities courses. Even among tools that lent themselves to the goals of humanities courses, there appeared to be a lack of support for exploring intertextuality and synthesis. When the Poetic Media Lab first began designing Lacuna, there were no interfaces that allowed students to filter, order, sort, and group their annotations across multiple texts. Moreover, most existing digital annotation platforms did not have a way to conveniently make student activity throughout the course visible to instructors, as Lacuna’s instructor dashboard does. Finally, no platform that Lacuna’s initial design team surveyed included features that allowed students to write and publish work on the site. As discussed below, by including these features, Lacuna is designed to support an integrated reading and writing process, allowing students to sort, organize, and visualize their annotations, and then write and publish prose or media in the form of short responses or final papers, with a built-in automatic bibliography creator for materials hosted on the course site.

From a research perspective, prior work has included limited investigations about the day-to-day experiences of teaching with a social annotation platform, and connecting the experience of learners as a result of particular instructional decisions. Learning takes place in a complex system of relationships and resources (Cole and Engestrom 1993, Greeno 1998) and introducing new technologies can lead to unforeseen tensions as well as the expected opportunities. Understanding these dynamics in detail is vital for critically considering the possibilities and trade-offs in practice that social annotation platforms, like Lacuna, introduce. This is the goal of the empirical work presented in the “Teaching with Lacuna” and “Learning with Lacuna” sections, which follow after the in-depth introduction of the platform in the next section.

What Does Lacuna Look Like?

Lacuna is an online platform for social reading, writing, and annotation. Like Blackboard, Canvas, and other familiar learning management systems, Lacuna serves as a central organizing space for a course. Instead of hosting readings to be downloaded, however, Lacuna provides a set of shared texts and other media that students and instructors read and annotate together on a web-based interface.[3] In the vocabulary of software design, Lacuna has a number of “affordances,” platform features that create or constrain possibilities for interaction (Norman 1999). These affordances shape, though do not dictate, the central interactions of the digital learning process, namely learners’ interaction with content and interpersonal interactions among learners and instructors (Garrison, Anderson and Archer 1999; 2010).

This section introduces the reader to the affordances of Lacuna in terms of three central practices of humanities and seminar-style courses: critical reading, dialogue, and writing. Through literature reviews and conversations with our faculty collaborators, the project team identified critical reading, dialogue, and writing as vital to the humanities and thus a shared goal—explicit or implicit—of the majority of courses using Lacuna. As researchers and designers, framing the platform in terms of the major goals of the discipline helps us better understand what we might hope for in teaching and learning activities and learning outcomes.

Annotation as Critical Reading and Dialogue

As discussed above, annotation is one of the central practices that experts use for critical and active reading in an academic context. Research on the reading practices of faculty and graduate students has shown that these readers make arguments about the rhetorical and figurative form of texts, usually by connecting the text to other pieces of literature and theory. As they read, faculty and students annotate the text with observations about potential themes, building evidence across specific moments in the text (Lee and Goldman 2015, Levine and Horton 2015, Hillocks and Ludlow 1984). Learning technologies can be designed to embody expert practices in a way that makes those practices more accessible to novices (Pea and Kurland 1987), which is why annotation is central to the design of Lacuna.

Figure 1 below shows the annotation prompt that appears when a reader on Lacuna highlights a passage.[4] Readers may choose to make a comment or to simply highlight the passage. Lacuna instructors frequently require students to produce a minimum number of written annotations per week towards their participation score in the course.

This image shows the annotation prompt that pops up when a reader highlights a passage of text on Lacuna. Three lines are highlighted in blue, and the annotation prompt includes a text box that has been filled with the reader’s comment on the highlighted passage: “insights into human nature”. Below the text comment, there are four possible categories that can be selected by the reader to categorize her annotation activity: Comment, Question, Analyze and Connect. There is also a line for adding tags to the annotation, and a box that may be checked if the reader wants to make the annotation public to others in the course.

Figure 1: Selecting and Annotating a Passage on Lacuna


Lacuna gives students the option to keep their annotations private or share them with the class. When students choose to share their annotations, they are contributing to a form of online dialogue that can also be extended into the classroom (see figure 2). Readers can use the Annotation Filter to choose whether to see one another’s annotations. Faculty who use Lacuna often make note of students’ annotations and adapt their classroom instruction to meet students’ interests or struggles with texts. In the “Teaching with Lacuna” section, we will examine how this blurring of the line between the classroom and the online preparation space affected the experience of the instructors in preparing for and teaching one specific humanities seminar.

Screenshot shows three annotations on the same passage, from three separate students. On the text, the green used to highlight annotated passages is darker where more students have annotated. The reader has moused-over the highlighted passage to reveal the three annotations, which range in length from two words to multiple sentences. Two of the annotations are categorized as a Comments and a third is categorized as Analyze. To the right of the text appears the Annotation Filter box, where the reader can choose whether to see all the annotations in the class, just their own annotations, or no annotations. The reader can also filter by specific users, or specific metadata on annotations in the form of tags or categories. In this screenshot, “all” annotations are selected on the filter.

Figure 2: Multiple Students Annotating the Same Passage in Lacuna


One of the features that sets Lacuna apart from other social annotation platforms is the “Annotation Dashboard,” which provides an aggregate visualization of students’ use of the platform (see figure 3). The dashboard is updated in real-time and is interactive to allow for multiple ways of viewing the annotation data. Currently, there are three different types of analysis offered by the dashboard. “Filter by Time” is a bar graph that illustrates the relative number of annotations made on any given day of the course. “Annotation Details” shows via pie chart how many of each category of annotation there are, how long the annotations are, and how many of them are shared versus private. Finally, “Network” is broken down further into “Resources” and “Students”; this section allows instructors to see how many annotations each resource received and by which students.

In this screenshot we can see the instructor dashboard for Lacuna. The dashboard is split into three different areas. In the top-left area, there is a blue bar graph labeled “Filter by Time.” The y-axis is labeled with numbers of annotations and the x-axis is labeled with dates. This section also contains a “Reset” button and a “View all annotations” button. Below the Time Filter, in the bottom-left area, there is is the “Annotation Details” section. This contains three pie charts: “Category,” “Length,” and “Sharing.” Finally, on the the right-hand side of the screen there is the “Network” section, with “Students” on the left and “Resources” on the right. Student names are obscured in this screenshot to preserve anonymity. Selections made in the Time Filter and Annotation Details section will dynamically affect the data displayed in the Network section - for example, selecting only the dates of Week 2 of the course in the Time Filter will cause the Network to show only the annotations made during that time period. In the Network section, there are pie charts for each student and each resource showing the number of annotations that each student has made on each resource and the total number of annotations on each resource. There is also a web of connections linking the student pie charts to the resource pie charts to show the number of annotations a student made of a particular resource. One of these connections has been moused-over to reveal that the student has made 81 annotations on the selected resource.

Figure 3: The Instructor Dashboard on Lacuna, showing student annotation activity throughout the Futurity course


Each of the dashboard visualizations interacts with all of the others. For example, clicking on a student name in the “Network” section causes only her data to appear in all three categories. We can then see which texts a student annotated most heavily, how many of her annotations were highlights and how many were comments or questions, and when she did the bulk of her highlighting. Clicking the “View annotations” button not only tells us how many annotations she made in total, it takes us to a table in which we can view all of them. The dashboard therefore makes it quite easy to see not only if students have met a required number of annotations, but also which texts they have found most worthy of annotation, whether students are highlighting or engaging through commenting/questioning, and when students tend to do their reading. As we will see shortly, having this information has a significant impact on the instructor’s experience of teaching the course.

Annotation as Part of the Writing Process

Lacuna also includes features that position the annotating and critical reading process as part of a longer-term project of understanding multiple texts or writing a paper about them. Reading in humanities courses is usually part of an integrated reading-and-writing process, where students produce their own texts about the texts they have read or about the issues raised in the texts (Biancarosa and Snow 2004, Graham and Herbert 2010). Expert readers look for patterns, mapping out a text and drawing explicit connections to other texts they have read (Snow 2002, Lee and Goldman 2015). In Lacuna, annotation metadata allows readers to tag and categorize their annotation as a visible record of the mapping and connection processes (see figure 4). For example, readers can tag annotations with a particular theme or topic (e.g “World War II”, “definition”). Lacuna readers can also categorize their annotations by the activity on the text (e.g. as a “Comment” or a “Question” or “Analysis”). Through these tags and categories, Lacuna readers begin to develop a structured characterization of the text. Tags on Lacuna can be suggested by students, or pre-specified by the instructor. By using both open and pre-specified tags, instructors can guide students’ reading while still allowing students to engage in personalized processes of intellectual discovery.

The screenshot shows an annotation box that pops up when a user highlights a passage. The user is tagging the annotation with a tag that begins with the letters “con”, and Lacuna suggests “conceptual models,” “connected learning,” and “content” as possible tags to select from.

Figure 4: Tagging a Passage on Lacuna, with Auto-Suggested Tags


In addition to tags, critical reading in Lacuna is linked with the writing process through two features: Responses and the Sewing Kit. “Responses” are pieces of student writing shared on the Lacuna platform. Responses can be directly linked to the texts and annotations that they reference. Lacuna also lets students annotate Responses, allowing their work to be interacted with in the same way as the work of established authors that is hosted elsewhere on the site. Enabling student writing to be annotated and commented on also creates the ability for peer-review by other students or real-time feedback on student work by the instructor.

The Sewing Kit allows for the automatic aggregation and sorting of all annotations in one place. Students can explore the Sewing Kit based on tags or keywords and create collections, called “Threads,” of quotations organized by theme (see figure 5). Threads can be used by individual readers as a thought-space for initial analyses. They can also be developed collaboratively to compile passages and annotations from multiple readers that are relevant to a theme discussed by the class.

The screenshot shows a Sewing Kit “Thread” from Futurity, in which multiple student annotations on one document have been collected around a single theme of “Memory.” The authors of the annotations are different students (names are obscured to preserve anonymity). The Sewing Kit shows annotations according to five types of metadata: Author of the annotation, the Annotation Text (the actual annotation), Category, Quote (the excerpt from the document), Tags, and Annotated Document. The annotations are all from the same document (a piece called “Putting the Pieces Together Again.) The annotations shown in this screenshot are either Comments or Questions.

Figure 5: A Sewing Kit “Thread” from Futurity, in which multiple student annotations on one document have been collected around a single theme of “Memory.”


The Sewing Kit is one of the most unique features of Lacuna, with few equivalents in other digital annotation tools. From a pedagogical perspective, manipulating online texts in a way that makes the complementary nature of reading and writing visible can support increased metacognition about the relationship between reading, annotating, analysis, and writing. The usefulness of being able to sort and search annotations across many texts will be apparent to anyone who has ever had to organize a large amount of reading for a project. Moreover, the visibility of each of these steps on Lacuna can be used to assess students’ developing understanding of texts, as well as their skills in interpreting and arguing for a particular interpretation of a text.

The features of Lacuna were designed in accordance with the pedagogical ideals of the humanities classroom: close reading, the exchange of ideas through discussion, and analytical writing that is anchored in the text itself. It was the hope of the research and design team that Lacuna would encourage certain expert practices in student users. In the following section, we will provide an in-depth analysis of one use of the tool in a humanities seminar that was co-conducted by Lacuna Co-Directors Amir Eshel and Brian Johnsrud. In this analysis, we will consider in detail the impact of Lacuna on both faculty instructional practices and student learning.


This section presents two complementary perspectives on the integration of Lacuna into an upper-level literature course. First, we describe the faculty perspective and provide a snapshot of how social annotations can be integrated into a classroom discussion. Second, we describe the student experience, drawing on surveys and interviews with two students in the case study course.

Teaching with Lacuna

There is no single way to teach using Lacuna—or any social annotation tool, for that matter. Of the dozen or more instructors who have used the Lacuna at Stanford and other institutions, each has made his or her own instructional design choices about how deeply to integrate the platform into course activities. On the “light integration” end of the spectrum, some instructors used Lacuna as the equivalent of a course reader. In these classes, students were asked to read and annotate in the shared online space, but there were no clear expectations that they would interact with one another online through their annotations. There was also little acknowledgment of their online activities during class sessions. On the “deep integration” end of the spectrum, instructors read students’ annotations and responses in advance of class and integrated them into class discussion; in these courses, a minimum number of annotations per week were often expected and counted towards a participation score.

In this section, we will closely consider a “deep integration” course: “Futurity: Why the Past Matters”, co-taught by Amir Eshel and Brian Johnsrud, Co-Directors of Lacuna. The integration of Lacuna was evident both in how the instructors prepared for class and in activities and discussion during class. In many ways, “Futurity” exemplifies the ways in which social annotation tools like Lacuna can be intentionally used by instructors to create a more student-centered and learning-centered humanities seminar. By examining in detail the instructional and classroom experience in Futurity, we hope that our readers will have the opportunity to reflect on and compare their experiences, goals, and tools to ours.

The “Futurity” Course

“Futurity” is a comparative literature course deeply concerned with contemporary culture’s engagement with the past in order to imagine different futures. Focusing on specific historical moments of the last sixty years, the course topics explored the relationship between narrative, representation, interpretation, and agency. The course materials included fiction, non-fiction, film, television, and graphic novels[5], making use of Lacuna’s multimedia capabilities and allowing the class to consider how different media representations shape our understandings of the past.

Futurity was first taught using Lacuna in Winter 2014, using an early version of the platform. This article will focus on the 2015 iteration of the course, but it is worth noting that the 2014 version of Futurity played a crucial role in the development of Lacuna itself. Based on feedback from students, features which are often found in online and hybrid learning settings—a wiki and discussion forums—were eliminated in favor of discussion through annotation within the texts. The content of the course also shifted, based partially on the annotations left by students in 2014, which gave the faculty insight into which texts were most generative for discussion.

The 2015 course required 20 annotations per week from each student. This was reduced from the previous year’s requirements based on student feedback indicating that higher requirements led to annotating in order to get a good grade, rather than annotating as a way of increasing comprehension and engagement. The student population of the 2015 class was a small seminar, yet remarkable for its diversity of academic backgrounds and ages of students. Across 10 students, the course participants ranged from postdoctoral fellows in philosophy, to graduate students in comparative literature, to undergraduates in the interdisciplinary Science, Technology, and Society (STS) major, under which Futurity was cross-listed.

Integration of Lacuna into the “Futurity” Course

A picture of the Futurity classroom, taken by one of the authors (Hartman). Eleven students are seated around tables arrayed in a horseshoe fashion. They face a double screen at the front of the room. One screen has a PowerPoint projected onto it and one screen has Lacuna projected on to it. The instructors flank the screens, one sitting and one standing. Four students have laptops open, but all appear to be engaged in the conversation.

Figure 6: Teaching with Lacuna in Futurity. Lacuna is projected on the right-hand screen


One of our key research questions was how the visibility of students’ reading with Lacuna changed instructor practices. For Eshel and Johnsrud, a simple yet powerful shift was the ease of ascertaining which students had done the reading and how well they had understood the texts—questions which, as many instructors know, can consume considerable classroom time and assessment work (such as reading quizzes or short reading response papers). With Lacuna, the instructors could easily see whether students had annotated and how they had reacted to the readings. This meant that preparing for a class session of Futurity was significantly different from preparing for courses that did not use Lacuna. In an interview, Eshel noted that it made “class preparation and [his]… intimate knowledge of [his] students” much easier, and that the experience of teaching was intensified. Both Johnsrud and Eshel emphasized that having their students’ thinking rendered visible by the platform ahead of time increased their own engagement with the course. Students also appeared to be more prepared for class. This resulted, according to Eshel, in a “quicker pace” and in conversation that was “more intense and more meaningful.” Based on students’ annotations and written responses to the reading, the instructors were able to immediately dive into lecture or discussion.

Visible annotations also changed the focus of class preparation. Johnsrud described his and Eshel’s process of preparing for class with Lacuna as akin to drawing a Venn diagram, where one circle represented the students’ interests, as evidenced by annotations and responses, and the other was the topics that the instructors wanted to cover. Johnsrud and Eshel generally tried to focus the class discussion and any lecture material on the overlapping area. This approach could be challenging, however, simply for logistical reasons: the students in Futurity were just as likely to complete their reading at the last minute as any other group of students, which meant that not all annotations could be incorporated into the discussion. Other Lacuna instructors have dealt with this by setting a reading deadline twenty-four hours before class. In terms of topics, sometimes students’ interests and questions diverged from the themes that Eshel and Johnsrud wanted to cover. Incorporating students’ perspectives thus required considerable flexibility from Johnsrud and Eshel, as well as a willingness to cede some control of the classroom discussion agenda to the students’ questions or interests as reflected in their annotations.

Examining students’ online work in advance of class sessions was a task primarily taken on by Johnsrud and the course’s teaching assistant (TA). The TA would send emails to Johnsrud and Eshel that included information such as “hot spots” in the reading (that is, places where students had annotated heavily), trouble spots where students had visibly struggled with the text, interesting annotations or responses for starting a conversation, and overall trends he observed in their annotations. The TA frequently used the Sewing Kit to aggregate the annotations of multiple students under themes relevant to the course content, such as “Agency” or “Memory.” This took about 2-4 hours each week (the course met for 1.5 hour sessions, twice a week). Both instructors noted in interviews that such an approach could be demanding without a teaching assistant.

Eshel and Johnsrud also used annotations to get to know their students as readers and thinkers. Johnsrud said, “After Week 1, I could tell you so much about each student, how they think, what they struggle with, what kind of level they are at, that had nothing to do with any class behavior.” In order to bridge online and offline dialogue, Johnsrud or Eshel often focused discussion on a “hot spot” in the text, addressing overall themes in students’ comments. At times, Eshel or Johnsrud would ask a student to expand verbally upon a particular annotation they had written before class. Eshel and Johnsrud generally let the students know ahead of time if they were going to be using one of their annotations to generate discussion, so that the student did not feel they were being cold-called and had time to prepare a few thoughts.

These practices and their pedagogical outcomes are illustrated particularly well by a class session that took place on during the 5th week of the 10-week quarter. For this class, students read a 1989 essay about the dissolution of Communism. Although Futurity was primarily a literature course, Eshel and Johnsrud often paired a literary text with a theoretical one and pushed students to place the two texts in dialogue with each other. For this class session, students annotated the essay 164 times, with just over half of the annotations (92) including comments (the remainder were highlights, which are a signal of engagement with the text, but engagement that may be less reflective than annotations). In their annotations, students took issue with the author’s ideas, particularly as they related to class and race in Western culture. The students’ disagreement with the author led to particularly rich annotations. Two examples of such annotations include:

“This seems completely outlandish and impractical. I disagree with Kojeve… how can he theorize on such a ‘universal homogenous state’ when all of history is speaking against such a utopia. If one can even call it that; isn’t it our differences and varying opinions which make the world fascinating? His theory seems impossible” (Jenna[6])

“This is a highly debatable and suspect statement. I wouldn’t say that US society is a class-less society. Granted its’ [sic] class structure is different from the class structure of, say, India. But there definitely is a class system, which many individuals do not even want to acknowledge. Consider a city like Baltimore and how even its city planning is based on a class categorization.” (Amanthi)

Prior to class, Johnsrud and Eshel had agreed upon certain annotations and themes that they wished to address. They spent the first twenty minutes on a mini-lecture contextualizing the importance of 1989 as a turning point in the end of the Cold War. They then gave students five minutes to look over their own annotations, re-clarify their thoughts about the text, and come up with a few points they wished to discuss. Ryan, a doctoral student, chose to focus on an annotation he had written in which he questioned the author’s phrase “the end of ideological evolution.” Ryan expanded upon his critique of the phrase in class, and Eshel pushed back, asking if an argument that is “wrong” or inaccurate can yet be a productive tool. There followed a discussion between Ryan and Eshel not only about the author’s ideas, but also about how to discuss a piece of criticism that might be at once useful and problematic. Eventually, Ryan welcomed James, an undergraduate in Comparative Literature, into the discussion by way of one of James’s annotations that he made before class, and which Ryan had viewed: “James had a great annotation about that,” Ryan said. James picked up the conversation from there. In this dialogue, both the instructors and the students had an awareness of one another’s online activity, which was elaborated upon during the in-person discussion. As many instructors of discussion-based courses know, one of the most difficult aspects of discussion can be encouraging students to respond to each other, and not solely to the instructor. In this case, Ryan’s awareness of his peers’ ideas prior to entering the classroom encouraged him to expand the conversation beyond his exchange with Eshel.

In addition to encouraging responses and dialogue among and between students, deliberate integration of online discussion into the classroom also appeared to have a democratizing effect. Later in the discussion, Eshel asked Amanthi, a doctoral student in comparative literature, to weigh in on the discussion. Drawing on her annotations, Amanthi neatly summarized her three main problems with the author’s argument about the notion of socioeconomic class. Eshel responded by contextualizing the author’s remarks in terms of the time the piece was written. Both instructors had wished to address the questions about class raised by Amanthi in her annotations, and they were able to do this by asking her to expand upon her online work. While the instructors may have been able to bring the topic into the discussion without looking to a student, doing so served to acknowledge the work the students did while reading and emphasize that the discussion was a dialogue between equals with valid perspectives.

This particular in-class discussion illustrates a few of the practices of integrating social annotations into the classroom. By using Lacuna as a window into students’ reading, Eshel and Johnsrud were able to pinpoint the exact places in the text that generated the most frustration, confusion, or disagreement in their students. While they were not necessarily surprised by students’ reactions to the text, as they had taught this essay previously to students who found it problematic, they were able to use specific criticisms, attached to individual claims and sentences on the text, as a springboard for discussion. To get the conversation rolling, the instructors were able to call on students they knew to have annotated heavily and thought deeply about the text. Those students were, in turn, able to manage the discussion themselves, such as when Ryan asked James to talk about his annotation. Students whose comments built on their annotations were often succinct and articulate, perhaps because they were better prepared to contribute than they would have otherwise been. Finally, the integration of students’ online ideas into the classroom had an equalizing effect; although both instructors had points they wished to raise, they were able to do so by calling on students who had themselves already raised those points in their annotations.

This Week 5 class session also demonstrates a type of negotiation that can take place between the students’ interests and the instructors’ instructional agenda in classes that integrate Lacuna into the classroom conversation. Throughout the conversation, the instructors attempted to steer the conversation away from the shortcomings of the essay and toward the reasons they had had the students read it. Eshel noted early on in the discussion that, “A text like this is nothing but a tool . . . a tool we use to do all kinds of other things.” Eshel stated explicitly that he wanted the students to consider whether the author might be wrong and productive at the same time. But it was clear, from both the students’ annotations and the ensuing discussion, that many of them were resistant to this perspective on the text. The instructors acknowledged and built upon the work that students had done already, thereby creating more authentic dialogue; but the students, being aware of how much work both they and their peers had already done on the text, appeared at times to be less willing to follow where an instructor might lead them. While students’ initial interpretations of a text may also be codified before class with a print text, there is a possibility that digital and social annotation may prime in students more fixed interpretations before class. This trade-off between guidance and discovery will be discussed more thoroughly in the concluding remarks.

Learning with Lacuna

From the foregoing analysis, it is clear that instructors can deliberately leverage students’ online activity with Lacuna to promote intellectual engagement and dialogue within their classrooms. What is the online reading experience like for students? Across surveys of students in Futurity and six other courses using Lacuna (N=45), digital annotation with Lacuna appears to have both benefits and drawbacks. Here, we briefly discuss student survey results before presenting an in-depth analysis of one-on-one interviews with students in the 2015 Futurity course.

For most of the students surveyed, annotation was a familiar strategy which they used frequently, according to self-reported habits. When asked about their goals in annotating, students largely described using annotations to meet a particular goal, such as when they did not understand something as they were reading or to return to at a later point. They also used highlighting and underlining to mark parts of the text that they wanted to remember or which simply seemed notable for their language. When it came to the physical experience of reading and annotating, it is worth noting that over half of the students surveyed expressed a preference for reading on paper, citing eyestrain and the freedom to make multiple types of marks (such as lines, circles, or arrows) as the main benefits. But when comparing Lacuna to other digital reading experiences, students remarked favorably upon the ease of annotating, particularly in contrast with the poorly-scanned PDFs that they had encountered in other courses. They also appreciated the organizational benefit of all-in-one access to online texts.

It was social annotation, however, that emerged through the surveys as the most salient aspect of Lacuna, compared to both paper and digital reading environments. In open text responses describing their experiences, students reported an appreciation of the opportunity to hear one another’s perspectives and learn from one another as well as from the instructor. This was particularly true for less advanced students in courses such as Futurity, which included graduate students along with both major and non-major undergraduates. Students described that seeing others’ annotations drew attention to particular aspects of the text, clarifying aspects of the writing or helping them see what questions would be useful to ask of the text. In a course similar to Futurity, where the instructor frequently brought students’ annotations into class, several students commented appreciatively on the “continuity” between reading before class and the subsequent class discussion.

Survey respondents also emphasized that timing matters when it comes to the social experience. For example, one student said he was usually the first to read and comment, so he didn’t have the opportunity to experience others’ annotation unless he took the time to return to the text after class. On the flip side, one student honestly shared that he appreciated others’ annotations drawing attention to aspects of the text when he was reading last-minute before class. Multiple students preferred exploring others’ comments on a second read-through of the text, rather than the first, so they would have the chance to form their own impressions of the text. The annotation filter in Lacuna facilitates these modes of reading, allowing students and faculty to choose whether to see no annotations; only their own annotations; selected users’ annotations; or annotations from everyone in the course. (See figure 2, above.)

Surveys can provide a high-level perspective on the experience of a group, but interviews accompanied by work products—in this case, annotations on Lacuna—are a powerful research tool for going more deeply into the nuances of an experience. Reflecting the emphasis on social annotation in the surveys, the following section draws on interviews with two students in Futurity, “Jenna” and “Allegra,” in order to explore the processes by which social annotation creates opportunities for peer learning. Jenna and Allegra were selected to be interviewed as part of a larger research project looking across multiple courses using Lacuna. Based on recommendations of faculty and their observed levels of platform and classroom engagement, we felt that Jenna and Allegra were representative of students who were highly engaged with the course and the platform.

Exploring Social Annotation from the Student Perspective

Jenna and Allegra were both seniors at the time they were interviewed. As humanities majors, Jenna and Allegra were experienced annotators, building on years of instruction in high school and use of annotation in previous undergraduate courses. With Lacuna, however, they each noted that the platform allowed them to annotate more extensively than they were accustomed to doing on paper. The “endless” virtual margin and the speed of typing meant that for both students, the material features of the platform augmented aspects of a pre-existing individual practice. Even more salient, however, were the ways that the platform created a stronger sense of community and new opportunities for social learning. Jenna eloquently expressed the connection to other course participants that the platform enabled her to feel: “It’s like all of our head space is kind of in the same area. […] I’ll just be like oh, this is what Amanthi was thinking when she read this part. How interesting, it’s a Sunday afternoon and we’re both reading this. […] It’s like there is constant fluidity, between when I’m in class and outside of class.” Just as the instructors sought to connect online and offline activity, students like Jenna were making these connections themselves.

The collegial nature of the course community appeared to be a crucial element for supporting peer learning. “I have learned just as much from my peers in the course as [from] my instructors,” Jenna noted at two different points in her interview. She described social reading as an additive process, where her own understanding of the text was enhanced by the perspectives of others: “That’s the beauty of it. It’s because we have all of these minds bringing together these very fragmented understandings of the text. Then it just only adds to yours.” Pointing to examples from the course, Jenna clarified that these “understandings” can be references—to a film or to a Bible passage, for example—as well as interpretative statements. Moreover, each of these understandings, including her own, is incomplete – “fragmented” across multiple annotations and across multiple minds. Together, however, they represent a more complete understanding of the text than a single reader would be able to generate by herself.

Unpacking the social annotation process that enables this more complete understanding, however, reveals multiple opportunities for an individual to engage socially, or alternatively, remain solitary in their interpretive process. As explored in the Marshall and Brush (2004) research, the first decision in social annotation whether to share at all. For some students this appears to be a more sensitive issue than for others, with concerns about looking stupid—or, as expressed by some graduate students in surveys and informal conversations, the fear of not looking sufficiently clever and impressive. But as the quarter progressed in Futurity, sharing was the norm, rather than the exception. This was due in part to the default setting of “public” on annotations, which meant that students needed to check a box to intentionally opt out of sharing each time they hit “save” on an annotation. Over time, students also had more practice exposing their opinions without negative feedback. Another incentive may have been the instructors’ use of annotations and students’ written responses in the classroom discussion. As Allegra noted, “It definitely feels good [when they mention my annotations in class]. They acknowledged that you did a good job […] and they also teach the class, like, in accordance to some extent with what you said about the text, which is also really cool.”

Other reasons that students shared their annotations were because they “didn’t care” (Jenna) if someone saw what they wrote—perhaps a typical perspective from the social media generation —or if they had a specific audience in mind. In particular, our interviewees looked for opportunities to provide new information that would enhance the reading experiences of their peers. Allegra explained that she was far more likely to annotate rather than highlight if she was pointing out something that was not “obvious” in the text, such as references to outside texts or events: “[W]ith the Mrs. Dalloway annotation, for example […] I felt the need to point that out to people who might not have made that connection.” Allegra exhibits a relatively high level of awareness of what her peers are likely to know, as well as what kinds of insights count as novel rather than rudimentary. Jenna framed her contributions in a slightly more personal and conversational way. In her interview, she gave examples of annotations that felt important for her to make public on texts that she “disagreed with,” noting that she “really want[ed] people to know” about this opinion so it would “add something to the class discussion.”

The second aspect of social annotation is choosing to read others’ annotations. In the interviews, it became clear that in the dialogue taking place through social annotation, not all utterances are necessarily “heard” by others. If the student is reading early in the week or in the hour before class, there will be a different version of the text with different amounts of annotations available. Moreover, the annotations which are at the time of reading available can be shown or hidden using filters on the text. Then, even if the reader chooses to show annotations with the filter, it is up to that reader to read any particular annotation by hovering over the text to show the annotation. Finally, once an annotation is read, the reader may choose to reply to it or make another note in parallel—or, they can simply notice what the other annotator has written and then move on, rather than actively engaging with it. Each annotator has their own preferences about this, which may also vary by text. Describing their approaches generally, our interviewees had slightly different perspectives. Jenna reads others’ annotations when she gets “curious about what other people wrote on a given page, […] I try to do that pretty often.” Allegra said that she “always makes sure to click ‘all annotations’ [on the filters], when I’m reading so I can see what people have said already. That often informs the way I look at things in the text.” From these students’ experience, it is not clear whether different strategies for reading others’ annotations would be more or less effective for different kinds of texts, or for interpretive practices with different goals.

In discussing what made a “good” annotation, Jenna and Allegra generally focused on the informational content and novelty of the annotation. As an example of a beneficial annotation, Allegra pointed to an annotation on Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, in which Jason had noted that McEwan is “orientalizing” the word “jihad,” creating distance between the reader and Arabic culture. “That wasn’t something I had thought about,” she explained. Jason’s interpretation added another lens for Allegra to analyze the work being done by the text and the choices made by the author. Even though the annotation was not addressed directly to her, it was another perspective that she could build on in her own interpretation of the text. Sometimes, however, Jenna and Allegra did not view other students’ annotations were not as particularly useful. For example, Allegra described somewhat disparagingly the “pointless,” single-word annotations that some students made, which were a reaction to the text without adding specific analytical detail. Jenna exhibited a similar response to “obvious” annotations, describing “a couple of times where people have been, like, this is a recurring trope, and I’m like…yeah. You didn’t need to tell me that.” Nearly in the same breath, however, both Allegra and Jenna acknowledged that others in the class could have benefited from the annotations that they did not find personally useful at the time. Jenna noted, for example, “Maybe for other people, they didn’t think of that as a trope […] So, it could definitely help someone else.” The unique knowledge and interests of each annotator, who are each readers of one another’s annotations, means that it may be difficult to find annotations that are useful to all readers—a challenge not unique to social annotation but shared with all annotated editions of texts.

With these examples, a vital aspect of social annotation becomes evident: the act of annotating has multiple goals and as a result, there are multiple ways to understand whether annotation is a productive utterance in the online discourse community. Social annotation is a way of reading simultaneously for oneself and for the community. The individual reader, traditionally ensconced in a paper book, thinks entirely of himself. With social annotation, a diverse audience emerges—an audience including an instructor who is in a position of evaluation and other students who can be “told” new information. Moreover, both instructors and students are fellow participants in a dialogue which can be carried out in class as well as online. Finally, the reader is also an audience member herself, for the performances of others in her class. The mental model of the activity of social annotation, then, is multifaceted, requiring a level of self-awareness (and other-awareness) significantly beyond that of being a private reader.

Concluding Remarks

By equipping learners to engage individually and collectively with texts across media, Lacuna and other social annotation platforms are designed to encourage critical thinking and sensemaking, skills which are at the core of disciplinary work in the humanities and vital to 21st-century citizenship. Critical reading has long been a hallmark of the humanities and a skill which the traditional seminar has sought to foster in its students; however, the practice itself has often been all but invisible to instructors. By transforming reading into an activity that is done socially, rather than in solitude, Lacuna created a bridge between the physical classroom and online reading space in Futurity.

Social annotation in the Futurity course allowed the instructors to get to know their students better and to incorporate student perspectives more fully into the dialogue of the course. By glimpsing their peers’ interpretations of a text during class preparation, students were able to start engaging in dialogue before they entered the classroom. They became more comfortable with one another and had increased opportunities to learn from each other as well as from the professor, developing a multi-faceted perspective on texts. These changes in instructor and peer learning practices appear to have created strong student investment in the course and more authentic dialogue during class discussions. The social annotation affordances of Lacuna rendered students’ reading visible to instructors and other students, and thus expanded the dialogic space of the course.

But dialogue isn’t always easy. Social annotation appears to create new demands on students and instructors alike to negotiate one another’s perspectives and reflect on the goals of their participation and practices. For students, this negotiation and self-reflection largely takes place during reading. Encountering a chorus of voices on a text means that these voices must be sorted through, accepted, questioned, or ignored. Being a member of that chorus means constantly choosing whether to sing or be silent. These choices build on skills that students have likely have developed through in-person discussions, as well as pre-existing solitary reading strategies, but combines them in new ways. In educational research, this type of self-monitoring and intentional use of resources is known as “self-regulation” (e.g. Bandura 1991, Schunk and Zimmerman 1994). Self-regulation is a relatively sophisticated set of competencies, which must be taught, practiced, and discussed. Similarly, social annotation is an activity which will likely function best when self-reflection about the practice is encouraged and there are ongoing conversations in a course about how to best engage in it.

Instructors working with social annotation tools like Lacuna are presented with the opportunity to incorporate students’ interests and struggles with texts into teaching, which can include the potentially discomfiting need to cede to the students some measure of control. Even if faculty are comfortable with this, it highlights the tension that must be negotiated between the desire to allow students the space for intellectual discovery and the desire to guide their learning along a pre-specified path. While the tension between student-led discovery and instructor-led guidance is present to some degree in any seminar, pedagogical opportunities to support discovery are heightened by the ways that Lacuna makes reading practices and student voices more visible on the text itself. To balance these goals, instructors who use Lacuna, or similar software which emphasizes student perspectives, would be well-served to reflect on their desired learning outcomes for the class and adjust their use of the platform accordingly. Such self-reflection is also useful when considering how much time an instructor wishes to spend combing through student annotations for use in the classroom; student annotations are effectively an additional text that an instructor needs to prepare each week, and the learning goals of a specific course will dictate how much time an instructor will wish to spend preparing that text.

Generally, the influence of Lacuna on the course dynamics of Futurity appeared to be positive. We observed and heard about high levels of student preparedness, active reading habits, and deep engagement in course topics among both students and instructors. While these changes were certainly shaped by the design and affordances of the platform, they cannot be regarded as given for all users of Lacuna or other social annotation tools. It is likely no coincidence that, of the dozen or so courses that have utilized Lacuna in recent years, the course with the deepest integration of the platform was the only one in which Lacuna was used two years in a row. The lessons learned from the first year of teaching were critical in shaping both the technological changes made to the Lacuna platform and the ways that Eshel and Johnsrud chose to leverage the platform when they taught the course again the following year. This illustrates the importance of intentionality, reflection, and iteration in both the design of the platform and instructors’ use of it—lessons which go beyond Lacuna and social annotation tools to learning technologies broadly. For designers, it is essential to think of instructional technologies as dynamic, rather than static; they must adjust to the pedagogical needs and goals of instructors. Instructors, in turn, must carefully consider how best to use a platform to achieve their goals. Thoughtful and reflective design of the technology, and thoughtful and reflective use of the tool in the classroom, are equally important to achieving a deep level of pedagogical impact.

Future Directions

Our case study has surfaced themes of authority, agency, and new forms of relationships in courses where technology makes student activity visible to instructors. We plan to investigate these themes further as we continue to research and develop the Lacuna platform and engage with researchers investigating comparable learning technologies. While the current study focused on classroom dynamics, a vital question that needs further consideration is the specific way in which student learning is influenced by the pedagogical moves that Lacuna enables. To pursue this avenue of research, we are in the process of developing rubrics for characterizing the reading strategies expressed in online annotations. Using annotations as evidence of critical reading and dialogic practices is an opportunity that is relatively unique to digital learning environments which capture traces of student activity. These data provide critical insights into student thinking, both on an individual and collective level, and can be used as a type of formative assessment for tracking learning over time (Thille et al. 2014).

At Stanford, Lacuna continues to be used for seminar-style courses similar to Futurity, as well as in courses in other departments and larger, lecture-style courses. Lacuna is also being used at a variety of other universities—visit www.lacunastories.com for a full list of our collaborators. Each of these collaborators are doing exciting work to make the platform their own. We are particularly pleased to be supporting local community college instructors who teach composition, as well as reading and writing courses at the basic skills level. In these partnerships, we are building on the insights from this case study and other unpublished case studies and observations. For example, we encourage active reflection about annotation practices and goals. This includes strategies for gradually increasing the level of integration of Lacuna into homework assignments and classroom activities, in order to give both instructors and students the opportunity to adjust their habits.

In our current research and partnerships, we continue to iteratively refine the design of Lacuna, while building our theoretical conceptions of the co-creation of meaning through social annotations. Throughout this work, we seek to support learning and instructional practices in a way that balances the strengths of participatory digital media with the strengths of in-person human interactions.


[1] Note about authorship and affiliation: This paper presents a case study of a course taught by Amir Eshel and Brian Johnsrud, the co-directors of the Lacuna project in the Poetic Media Lab. While Eshel and Johnsrud were the original designers and first users of Lacuna, they were not involved in the present analysis of their own teaching. Rather, all interviews, surveys, and classroom observations—as well as the subsequent analysis of that qualitative data—were conducted exclusively by the primary authors (Schneider and Hartman). As members of the Poetic Media Lab, Schneider and Hartman are participant-observers who have served as instructional designers to help instructors plan their courses and have analyzed research data to contribute to the ongoing improvement of the platform. This level of involvement is typical for researchers in the “design-based research” paradigm of the learning sciences (Brown 1992, Collins et al. 2004, Sandoval 2014). Some level of bias is inherent in participating in and observing a project at the same time. Nevertheless, in any form of participant-observation, it is always the hope that any considerations that may be overlooked due to close proximity is more than compensated for by the first-hand observations of practice that such inquiry affords.

[2] Please see note 1 above on authorship and affiliation to learn more about the participant-observer relationships of Schneider, Hartman, Eshel, and Johnsrud to the analyses presented in this paper.

[3] The site can also be used for films, videos, audio, and images. The vast majority of media in the course syllabi of our faculty reflect, however, the traditional focus of the academy on written texts. To reflect this trend and maintain clarity in our writing, we will use the term “reading” throughout the paper. But when we say “reading,” note that these claims may be equally important for viewing, listening, etc.

[4] Figure 1 and other screenshots in the paper are from the version of Lacuna used in the case study course described in this paper. The most recent version of Lacuna refines the privacy settings for annotations to allow readers to only share their annotations with an instructor or to share annotations with a specific group of peers, in addition to keeping annotations private or sharing them with the entire class. These changes were made in response to feedback from students and instructors who wanted more fine-grained control over who could see their annotations.

[5] A common question about Lacuna is the copyright status of materials. Lacuna supports the uploading of any digitized course or syllabus material, such as text, images, video, or audio files. As with any Learning Management System (LMS)—such as Canvas, Blackboard, edX, etc.—instructors are responsible for the copyright status of materials they upload. With each upload, instructors are asked to indicate the copyright status of the material, such as open access, Creative Commons, limited copyright for educational purposes, etc. Because the platform has secure logins limited to students enrolled in courses, instructors at Stanford have had a good deal of success getting free or reduced copyright fees for course materials that do not fall under fair use for educational purposes. Publishers seem particularly accepting to digitized materials on Lacuna because they are not easily downloaded and disseminated as PDFs, which is the way that many other LMSs deliver content.

[6] All student names in this article are pseudonyms.


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Zyto, Sacha, David Karger, Mark Ackerman, and Sanjoy Mahajan. 2012. “Successful classroom deployment of a social document annotation system.” In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp. 1883-1892. ACM.


Lacuna was built in the Poetic Media Lab, a digital humanities lab in Stanford’s Center for Textual and Spatial Analysis (CESTA). The platform’s development was overseen by Michael Widner, and conducted by him and a number of undergraduate and graduate research assistants at Stanford, with occasional assistance from external developers and project collaborators. The Lacuna project has received funding from the Wallenberg Foundation and the following departments and offices at Stanford University: the Vice Provost for Online Learning; the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning; the Dean of Research; the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education; the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages; Stanford Community Engagement grants; and the Robert Bowman Denning Fund for Humanities and Technology. Additional support for Emily Schneider was provided by the Lytics Lab and the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Stanford Graduate Fellowship.

About the Authors

Emily Schneider is a doctoral candidate in Learning Sciences and Technology Design at Stanford. She is the Director of Research and Pedagogy of the Lacuna project and a co-founder of Stanford’s Lytics Lab. Her work focuses on the design and evaluation of interactive online learning platforms. Currently, she is developing “critical reading analytics” for identifying and supporting the strategies used by learners when they critically engage with digital texts. More broadly, she is passionate about collaboration, open educational resources, and striking a balance between technology-enhanced and human-centered learning. Emily holds a B.A. in English Literature from Swarthmore College.

Stacy Hartman received her PhD in German Studies from Stanford University in 2015. Her dissertation explored the subversion and disruption of readerly empathy in post-1945 German novels and films. More broadly, she is interested in the relationship between reader and text, and in the ways in which readers construct texts both singularly and socially. It was this interest that led her to work on Lacuna as both researcher and instructional designer during her time at Stanford. Currently, she is a project coordinator at the Modern Language Association, where she works on initiatives related to humanities careers.

Amir Eshel is Edward Clark Crossett Professor of Humanistic Studies, Professor of German Studies and Director of the Department of Comparative Literature. His research focuses on contemporary literature and the arts, with emphasis on twentieth and twenty-first century German, Anglo-American and Hebrew. As the faculty director of Stanford’s research group on The Contemporary and of the Poetic Media Lab at Stanford’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), he is interested in the contemporary cultural imagination as it addresses modernity’s traumatic past with its philosophical, political and ethical implications. Most recently, he is the author of Futurity: Contemporary Literature and the Quest for the Past (The University of Chicago Press, 2013).

Brian Johnsrud is the Co-Director of the Poetic Media Lab at Stanford University, the digital humanities lab which initially designed and created Lacuna for academic and educational use. Brian received his grades 6-12 teaching certification, along with a Master’s endorsement in Library and Media Science for secondary education, and he has taught middle and high school at a variety of schools and educational settings. His doctoral research focused on how people engage with narratives across media in the 21st century.

Featured Image "Nucleus cochlear implant Graeme Clark" courtesy of Flickr user adrigu.

This Week: Issue 9 Submissions: Calling All Cyborgs!

Each week, a member of the JITP Editorial Collective assembles and shares the news items, ongoing discussions, and upcoming events of interest to us (and hopefully you). This week’s installment is edited by Carlos Hernandez and Tyler Fox.


Michael Chorost’s memoir Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human is no cyborg valentine to technology. Chorost describes how, after he lost his hearing completely in 2001, he decided to undergo a radical surgery that would install a computer interface in his head that would interact with a computer he clipped onto his belt. With these, he would be able to hear again.

Well, “hear.” The interface between hardware and wetware took a long period of learning and adjustment. At the beginning of the process, the world Chorost heard made different sounds altogether: “In my experience,” writes Chorost, “paper made sounds like blap, snip,and vrrrrr, and if rudely treated, szzzzz. It didn’t go bingggg” (73). Different software for his computer-alternative hearing offered varying affordances; in a way, he was able to choose how he heard, which on the surface might sound like a cyber-blessing. But when every sound is a simulacrum, an ersatz version of the Platonic ideal of what you think sounds should sound like, you too might say, as Chorost does, “the implant [was] a tool that would enable me to do something which resembled hearing. It would not be hearing…. How bizarre” (79).

Chorost’s hearing never returned to what it had been prior to its loss. But his computer-assisted audition gave him a kind sound detection, one that proved useful, emotionally satisfying, and in the words of the book’s subtitle, humanizing. His vision for what humanity’s future could be–it’s a hard-one dream, arrived at only after a long katabasis–imagines a Haraway-esque incorporation (quite literally) of technology into our lives:

“When I think of the future of human potential in a hypertechnological age, I imagine a generation of people who have been educated to focus intensely on the world of matter and spirit, while also using powerful tools for mediating their perception of reality. They will bond with machines, but they will not be addicted to them. They will analyze while looking at art, and laugh while reading computer code. They will make exquisite use of floods of information, while not allowing themselves to be stunned into passivity” (181).

But such a thoughtful, critical, considered and salubrious relationship to technology will not happen by itself. Quite the contrary: we can expect Facebook to continue experimenting on its users (and issuing apologies after the fact); governments to continue tracking us through backdoors they pay corporations to create for them; and untold numbers of companies to continue collecting, in ways ranging from ignorant to willfully irresponsible, massive amounts of information from its users, only to have it stolen by hackers–to draw only three examples from the inexorable flood of news reports emerging about how increasingly, and how thoughtlessly, we lead our cyber lives.

As educators, our greatest ethical mandate is to create an informed and thinking citizenry. JITP exists to help us meet that obligation. We focus specifically on the interaction between technology and education, drawing from the educational traditions of critical pedagogy, constructivism, and the digital humanities. We are devoted leveraging both theory (writ large) and experimentation to serve as the twin foundations for best practices in the class. You can read more about our mission here.

We invite you to join us. We have a number of different formats to which you may submit your work to JITP, ranging in length and levels of formality. Full-length articles are peer-reviewed, but we don’t stop there; putting our own theories into practice, we work closely with authors in a pre-publication conversation about their work that our authors have found enriching and beneficial to their intellectual work (and you can see here and here [for the latter, jump to around 22:20 for soundbite!]).

Issue 9 has no theme; we welcome papers from all disciplines and all theoretical/experimental approaches. We promise you a thorough review process, and we seek not only to produce the best possible scholarship but to benefit you personally as a writer and researcher.

At one point in Rebuilt, Chorost reminds us that even chalk is technology. If we don’t believe him, he challenges us to try making our own. To my mind, that moment serves as not only a piece of wit, but a call to action: we are always already awash in technology. As educators, our job is to think critically about the technologies we employ, and to help our students understand our technology-inundated world. That’s why JITP exists, and why you should write with us.

P.S. Here’s an interview Michael Chorost conducted with NPR about Rebuilt.


Stark & Subtle Divisions
Graduate students from UMass Boston curate an Omeka site on desegregation in Boston.

Gender Equality in Science
A recent study indicates that poor nations are leading the way in gender equality in science.

ECDS: 2016 Digital Scholarship Residency
ECDS is now accepting proposals for a 3-day digital scholarship residency at Emory University during the Spring semester 2016. Scholars from any discipline who use and promote digital scholarship methods in research and teaching are encouraged to apply.

Editorial Violence…

Lastly, HASTAC/Futures Initiative is offering an online forum and live-streamed workshop on “Peer Mentoring and Student-Centered Learning,” part of The University Worth Fighting For #fight4edu series. http://bit.ly/peer-mentoring The forum will be open all month, and our live-streamed workshop will be this Thursday @ 1 pm EST.


Featured Image “Nucleus cochlear implant Graeme Clark” courtesy of Flickr user adrigu.


Images are for demo purposes only and are properties of their respective owners. ROMA by ThunderThemes.net

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