Annotation: Toward Resistance and Solidarity

An update on Marginal Syllabus activities is long overdue. Here are a few thoughts about what this emergent experiment in informal educator learning has done, where it may be going, and what some of us are thinking – particularly in a post-election context that demands critical thinking, resistance, solidarity, and activism. As a complement to this post, please read Joe Dillon’s rough thinking about annotation and online activism (Joe is a Marginal Syllabus organizer).

What has the Marginal Syllabus accomplished over the past three months?

The Marginal Syllabus has begun to:

  • Establish a community of practice that is driven by interest and curiosity;
  • Curate public conversations about education and equity that are grounded in texts and guided by experts; and
  • Leverage an open online platform (Hypothesis) and the social practices of collaborative web annotation as a sociotechnical learning environment for educators’ informal professional development.

Monthly annotation “flash mobs” are a hallmark of the Marginal Syllabus. These flash mobs are interest-driven conversations with educators and authors about issues of equity in teaching, learning, and education. For the past three months we’ve partnered with authors who are advancing necessary and critical conversations about digital redlining, emergent design, and critical literacy (these links will automatically open Hypothesis so that you can read – and join! – conversation in the text margins). Our thanks to the authors of these texts – Chris Gilliard, Mia Zamora, Antero Garcia, and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen. Moreover, during our August and September flash mobs, Chris and Mia joined in real time, providing a distinctive opportunity to converse with authors via annotation. We have had, on average, 12 people participate in each flash mob, including classroom teachers and university professors, school administrators and graduate students.

Regarding these flash mobs, we are excited to announce our November author and text! We’ll be reading and annotating Helen Beetham’s blog post Ed Tech and the Circus of Unreason on Wednesday, November 30th at 6p ET (Helen has graciously agreed to join us at 11p GMT – thank you!). Helen is an education consultant, writer, researcher and commentator whose work concerns digital capability, digital citizenship and digital wellbeing, the learning experience, and curriculum design. Prior to our next flash mob please visit Helen’s site and follow her on Twitter (@helenbeetham). And thanks Britni Brown O’Donnell for suggesting that we read Helen’s post and for making an initial introduction.

Where – and how – might the Marginal Syllabus expand?

In spite of our accomplishments, the Marginal Syllabus remains somewhat centralized. Of course it’s important to have a hub. And – by design – this site offers a curated and growing set of resources for others to access, learn from, and share. On the other hand, it is necessary to always question the organization and leadership of these conversations. As noted on our home page, this project draws inspiration from, and seeks to encourage, what bell hooks calls “the possibility of radical perspective from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds.”

So yes, monthly flash mobs will continue throughout this academic year. Please send our small organizing team your text suggestions, connect us with provocative authors, and challenge our blind spots and assumptions about the types of public conversations that are necessary in this historic moment. And yet, we also need to encourage new social and technical practices that are more distributed and divergent.

What might this look like? It may be reasonable to assume that if you have participated in a previous annotation flash mob, that if you are reading this post, and/or that if you are interested in public and creative acts of resistance and solidarity, then you may be inclined to read and annotate other texts of social and political importance. In the wake of the presidential election, perhaps you want to read and annotate:

Whatever you may chose to read, if you annotate a text with Hypothesis you are invited to include the tag marginalsyllabus. That’s marginalsyllabus (all one word), with no # (as when tagging something on Twitter). If needed, here is a tutorial on how to add a Hypothesis tag to an annotation. As an example, check out how the educator Kris Shaffer and his students have publicly annotated Edward R. Murrow’s famous “wires and lights in a box” speech, including the tag marginalsyllabus in many of their annotations (thanks Kris and students!).

Why include the tag marginalsyllabus when publicly annotating a text with Hypothesis? In the coming days we are going to update this site with a public aggregator that will pull together all annotations tagged with marginalsyllabus into an easy-to-read feed. Right now it is possible to visit the Hypothesis stream and filter by the tag marginalsyllabus. However, we’re going to create something like this “latest activity” feed that will feature information about who is publicly annotating with the tag marginalsyllabus, what text they are reading and annotating (with a link to the text), and the content of both the annotated selection and the annotation. We hope this encourages people to:

  • Annotate any text that they deem to be important, knowing that tagged annotations will subsequently appear in an aggregated feed;
  • Visit the feed to learn about other texts that people are reading and annotating with the marginalsyllabus tag;
  • Jump off to other texts that have been annotated and tagged as part of the growing marginalsyllabus; and
  • Expand conversation in the margins of multiple texts about divergent topics, concerns, and curiosities.

Stay tuned for updates, and please send feedback (or add atop this post via Hypothesis!). Reading and writing has long served as forms of creative resistance and solidarity. Let’s add public and collaborative web annotation to the mix. Do take care.

– Remi

Reflecting on Marginal Syllabus’ First Flash Mob

Last Wednesday, September 31st, about a dozen folks came together with Chris Gilliard – co-author of Digital Redlining, Access, and Privacy – to discuss the in/visibility of information, students’ access to equitable learning opportunities and experiences, and the various practices that either reify or attempt to circumvent digital redlining. According to Chris, digital redlining occurs when students are “walled off from information based on the IT [information technology] policies of her institution.” Given that The Marginal Syllabus seeks to advance educator professional development about education in/equity through the use of participatory learning technologies, it was apropos that we initiated our Hypothesis-supported annotation flash mob with Chris’ piece about digital redlining.

Why is digital lining consequential to conversations about equity in education? Consider this thread from the flash mob that begins: “Should education as an institution wall off anyone from information?”


This particular thread of conversation occurred among seven people – people who work in both K12 and post-secondary settings, and who voice both confusion and conviction – about the “thorny issue” of filtering, the limits of accessibility, and the complications of educators navigating divisive policy. Alternatively, consider a few other discussions related to digital redlining about openness and filtering, the accessibility of particular publications as sources of information, and the agency of librarians.

In this brief post, I’d like to share a few reflective thoughts about:

  1. How an annotation flash mob sparks conversation;
  2. What this flash mob taught about the process of facilitating such professional learning; and
  3. How the experience of organizing and participating in the flash mob informs questions about positionality and marginality.

First, and like previous flash mobs, our flash mob conversation with Chris occurred across many moments and platforms. This isn’t too surprising given that annotation – in whatever media – is a sociohistorical and situated practice, a conversation among many voices and ideas, directed as much to the past, or that which was originally written, as it is to the future, or what is sparked because of layered and growing discourse. Annotation is a social practice spanning space and time, as was evident by:

  • A few annotations (here and here) that were added as “seeds” prior to the start of the flash mob.
  • An impromptu Google Hangout organized by Autumm Caines of Virtually Connecting as the intensity of the flash mob waned. For another hour, a handful of participants had a meaningful conversation about Chris and his experience as an author, how we might improve the learning process for individual participants, and what notions of digital redlining mean to our respective work as educators.

  • Another Hypothesis reply just added to the conversation while drafting this post, over four days after the flash mob concluded! In this case, the conversation continues as participants share their thoughts about “interrogating and pushing back against uses that disempower individuals. Give[n] the widespread use (and opacity of that use) of tracking and analytics to power filtering, the onus is on people who want to use these technologies to demonstrate that they can use them responsibly.”

There is no single time or place that exclusively contains the activity of an annotation flash mob. Rather, there is a distinctive knitting-together of texts with readers and authors, platforms with people, and multiple perspectives that become stretched across a system of shared interest.

Second, this flash mob had much to teach The Marginal Syllabus organizers about the process of facilitating such open, networked, and participatory professional learning. We received the following feedback from participants:

  • Familiarity with the focal text is helpful when subsequent conversation inevitably intensifies, thickens, and becomes more complex. In other words, read the text prior to the flash mob!
  • It can be an overwhelming experience for the author, who might – as Chris noted in our Hangout – feel undue pressure to respond to every annotation. Not only does Hypothesis need a like button (!), discourse expectations can be noted more explicitly prior to the flash mob. This will likely help all participants, whether authors or annotators.
  • There’s much for individual participants to manage across multiple platforms – contributing Hypothesis annotations to the focal text, following related conversation on Twitter (via #marginalsyllabus), receiving Hypothesis notifications via email, and perhaps also following annotations tagged “marginalsyllabus” via the Hypothesis stream. Particularly for participants joining a flash mob for the first time, it is important to share strategies for successfully navigating this activity.
  • Depending on the flash mob size, might a Hangout run simultaneously, with the author viewing and vocally remarking upon annotation activity in real-time?
  • Given that controversial and consequential topics are sensitive to context, how can flash mob conversations remain relevant to various participants and audiences (i.e. K-12, post-secondary, professional roles), and how can subsequent discussion meaningfully extend back into workplace settings?
  • It is useful to quickly populate a focal text with rich conversation branching in so many different directions. Chris remarked that the conversations will be useful in shaping his forthcoming writing and research, and that the layered discourse can serve as a powerful teaching tool.

Third and finally, my personal experience helping to organize and then participate in the first Marginal Syllabus flash mob has continued to inform my own questions about positionality and marginality – particularly in open online spaces. When this project and website were first launched, we immediately received some Hypothesis annotations on the home page – they are encouraging, critical, a bit meta, and representative – in-and-of-themselves – of the type and quality of conversation we hoped to spark. That we draw inspiration from bell hooks appears to have also influenced, or at least helped to frame, Maha Bali’s recent blog post Reproducing Marginality. Read Maha’s post, and then swing back here.

In her piece, Maha reflects upon her own “position of power” at the recent Digital Pedagogy Lab Summer Institute. She deftly unpacks the affective qualities of participation while commenting upon the complexities of presence, listening, and “some ways people in power can reproduce the marginality of others.” Similarly, I aware that my position of power – in this space – shapes how conversations about education in/equity are named, organized, and facilitated. Moreover, I am exercising privilege in directing some of the ways in which participants come to make meaning about particular conversations in this space.

I’ll conclude by offering a few questions informed by Maha’s acute analysis, questions that are – I hope – relevant to educators working across varied settings, educators with broad pedagogical commitments, and educators who voice divergent concerns about educational equity.

  • Will The Marginal Syllabus do more than open doors?
  • How will this project work with the positionality of participants, organizers, and authors to shape meaningful conversation?
  • In what ways will this project listen to, care for, and support marginal voices?
  • How will this project leverage various manifestations of privilege for purposes that engender useful conversation about educational equity?

Your thoughts, questions, and critiques are very welcome.

How to Join an Annotation Conversation

This brief post describes how to join an annotation flash mob using the platform Hypothesis.

If you are new to open web annotation and want to join Hypothesis:

  1. We suggest you use Google Chrome as your browser
  2. Visit Hypothesis and select the red “Get Started” button (mid-page)
  3. Follow the instructions to create a free account (this requires that you chose a username and provide an email address) and install the Chrome add-on
  4. Also, at note how to toggle the annotation sidebar via a button in Chrome’s location bar, as well as the different types of annotation you can add to a text – including page notes, highlights, comments, and replies to annotations.

Complementing these steps, Hypothesis’ Quick Start Guide for Teachers is also quite helpful (and highly recommended as many people participating in The Marginal Syllabus are likely educators). You can also add links, images, and videos to your annotation.

While participating in a public annotation flash mob associated with The Marginal Syllabus, you are encouraged to tag your annotation marginalsyllabus (there is an area beneath the annotation editor to “Add tags…”).

And if you want to follow along without installing Hypothesis, then you can use a “via” proxy link to access a given webpage or text. Here’s the via proxy link for Chris Gilliard’s piece that we will be annotating on Wednesday, 8/31 at 6:30p EST.

Finally, it is very likely that Hypothesis annotation during a flash mob will spill over into other public forums, such as Twitter. Twitter conversations such as #digped, #connectedlearning, and #techquity are very likely appropriate hashtags to share and grow the conversation. And perhaps #marginalsyllabus will appear, too!