Mark It Up: Faculty need to take some class time to teach students how to annotate a text.
As an undergraduate, I did not often annotate the texts I was assigned to read for class. Nor was I encouraged to. When I look back through the books I read as a freshman, I find they are utterly devoid of notations. A survey of my texts from sophomore and junior year yields a small amount of underlining and a few scattered notes.
I remember often being unsure about what constituted good annotation, so my initial forays felt forced and uncertain. Each sentence presented me with a conundrum: What should be noted here and what left alone?
I finally discovered the benefits of annotation only in graduate school. During the past six years of teaching literature and writing while working on my Ph.D. in English, I found that roughly half of my own students had no idea what annotation was, and most had no clue how to do it. I’ve gradually become convinced that a key way to help students improve their reading and writing is for faculty members to spend some classroom time teaching annotation (making notes anywhere in a text) and its first cousin, marginalia (making those notes in the margins).
Annotation is often the underemphasized link between what we read and what we write. Many high-school students never learn how to annotate because their cash-strapped schools do not allow them to write in textbooks that are reused year after year. (One wonders what the schools really have to lose; it might be interesting to see what generations of students would write and scribble in a single text.) Yet college professors often mistakenly assume that their students know how to annotate. Students are therefore caught in the gap between a high-school education that doesn’t permit annotation and a college system that assumes they already know how to do it.
Teaching annotation sounds formulaic and boring, a potential waste of an already too-short semester. But in fact, it can help students more deeply engage with a text, just as it can help teachers understand how different students read. Perhaps most important, it can train students to think about their own thinking.