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.