A New Year, a Few Thoughts, and More Conversation

The Marginal Syllabus is moving into 2017 building upon a successful and meaningful first semester during the fall of 2016. Throughout the 2016-17 academic school year, the Marginal Syllabus aims to foster a participatory and open experiment in educator professional development through critical conversations about education and equity. The Marginal Syllabus primarily does so by convening monthly web annotation flash mobs. These flash mob conversations use the annotation platform Hypothes.is to provoke interest-driven discourse among educators and the authors of consequential and equity-oriented texts. This past fall we discussed digital redlining and information accessibility with Chris Gilliard (in August), curriculum design in a “writing race” course with Mia Zamora (September), critical and culturally proactive literacy education from Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen’s book Pose, Wobble, Flow (October), and the politics and contradictions of educational technology with Helen Beetham (November).

The next Marginal Syllabus conversation will occur this Wednesday, January 25th at 6p ET/4p MT/3p PT with Christina Cantrill, Associate Director of National Programs for the National Writing Project. Join Christina – and some of participants in her ED677 course at Arcadia University – in discussing via annotation the first chapter from John Dewey’s classic book The School and Society. Visit our resources for additional information, including directions for using the Hypothes.is platform and joining the public conversation. And in the coming months, anticipate additional updates about our developing collaborations with the National Writing Project and other NWP-affiliated authors.

As much as we’re excited about moving forward into 2017, the remainder of this post looks back at what happened during 2016. The following table provides some additional context and descriptive statistics that help to summarize Marginal Syllabus activity from this past fall. The table was put together over a month ago, in early December, so the total number of participants and annotations may have increased just a bit (such is the case with Helen’s post Ed Tech and the Circus of Unreason). Nonetheless, a few notable trends emerge from this data and provide useful reminders about the ongoing design and facilitation of Marginal Syllabus conversations via annotation flash mobs.

First, participation gets stretched over time. The term “flash mob,” by definition, connotes intense activity over a short period of time. In one sense, Marginal Syllabus annotation flash mobs echo related approaches to educator interest-driven and openly networked professional learning, such as Twitter chats (which occur at a designated time, last about an hour, and are facilitated following a set question-and-answer structure).

The activity of an annotation flash mob has also occurred for about an hour… kind of, but also not so much. Unlike a Twitter chat, participants have conversed based upon their availability, regularly annotating a text, interacting with the text’s authors and other readers, and receiving replies both prior to and after the designated flash mob. As noted above, sustained activity typically gets stretched across at least a few days (August seems to be an outlier, at least at this point). Given that annotation-as-conversation is anchored in an easily referenced source text (unlike the more ephemeral threads of a Twitter chat), our team is learning an important lesson about social annotation – such activity has blurred beginnings, remains open-ended, and there is no hard start and stop. To test a playful analogy, the Marginal Syllabus creates both the temporal conditions for a scrimmage (that is, people playing together at the same time) as well as the field upon which activity occurs (that is, the playground where people show up to play at varied and different times).

A second trend: We have had, on average, about a dozen participants each month, including k-12 educators and administrators, higher education professionals, graduate students, non-profit leaders, and others. With groups of this size regularly participating, focal texts tend to get pretty saturated with annotations and replies. This raises some interesting questions about facilitation, as well as what might occur over the coming months. What if closer to 20 people participated regularly, would that overwhelm the text and create too many incoherent conversational threads? On a related technical note, a big thanks to Hypothes.is for the recent updates feature which really helps people to manage the flow of information during a live event like our flash mobs. And what if our participation numbers grow to the point where a flash mob structure creates more noise than signal? In that case, perhaps we might shift to an “annotathon” approach that can be scheduled over multiple days, as modeled by Maha Bali and Nadine Aboulmagd during a recent annotation conversation grounded in Maha’s text about digital literacies. These are but a few questions, among many, that have emerged as a result of our ongoing activity. Perhaps regular participants might raise other questions you care to see our organizing team address – our thanks in advance.

And finally, something else that happened at the tail end of 2016: A conversation between Remi Kalir and Jeremy Dean about Web Annotation as Conversation and Interruption for the Journal of Media Practice. It wasn’t too surprising to see some regular Marginal Syllabus participants jump into that conversation, too, and our thanks for growing an important exploration of web annotation as disruptive media.

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 hypothes.is/welcome 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!

Introducing The Marginal Syllabus

I always enjoy the start of a new school year; it’s an exciting transition, a time to play with new ideas, launch projects, and (most importantly!) collaborate with – and learn from – other people. This year, I’m excited to help organize and facilitate The Marginal Syllabus in partnership with colleagues from Hypothesis and Aurora Public Schools.

Why this project? There are many reasons to create and curate an open and participatory space for educator professional development that (re)marks upon education and equity. There are also many people and influences who have helped create the conditions for us to plant this seed.

  • Educators like Paul Allison, and efforts like Youth Voices and Letters to the Next President 2.0, have helped lead creative and critical conversations via social reading and writing, many of which leverage web annotation tools.
  • Designers, educators, and scholars – all learners! – are regularly using web annotation platforms like Hypothesis to deepen equity-oriented conversation about, for example, the openness and ownership of school work, whose voices are included and listened to when designing learning, and how to define and critique disciplinary commitments.
  • Among some critical education communities, such as the Digital Pedagogy Lab (#digped), there is ongoing interest about – and commitment to – the ways in which our digital tools and practices support professional development in service of more inclusive and equitable learning.
  • In my own teaching, I have been experimenting with annotation flash mobs as a means to spontaneously – perhaps even playfully – leverage in/formal networks for more open-ended, connected, and interest-driven learning. Here’s one reflection on an annotation flash mob about online teaching and learning from this past spring.
  • Regularly scheduled Twitter chats have become an indelible staple of educators’ interest-driven professional learning. Yet the scale and speed of certain chats, alongside notable limitations of Twitter as a platform, have motivated some to consider other approaches to multimodal and networked conversation. The affordance of web annotation to ground such conversation in the margins of a shared text – and to also include text authors in the layered discourse – is a promising avenue to explore. Hence our approach to monthly annotation flash mobs.

In many respects, The Marginal Syllabus is a blank canvas anticipating unknown brushstrokes and emergent brilliance over the coming days and months. Most immediately, my thanks to Chris Gilliard for joining as our inaugural author. We’ll be reading and annotating Chris’ co-authored piece Digital Redlining, Access, and Privacy via Common Sense Education. You can learn more about Hypothesis, web annotation, and annotation flash mobs in our Resources section – we hope to learn with you this coming Wednesday!

– Remi