Thinking Together with Marginalia: A Reflection on Hypothes.is

Oct 30, 2021

By Danielle Taschereau Mamers

Reading can be a solitary activity—an interior conversation between reader and author. Often this conversation unfolds as marginalia. While I typically read with a notebook next to me, much of my thoughts and reactions to what I read are overlayed directly on the text. An underlined phrase, a scribbled connection, a stray exclamation point reflecting the thrill of being surprised (amazing!) or feeling righteously indignant (how dare he!?!). While I’ve experimented with the highlighting and comment features offered by different pdf readers, these have never felt as satisfying as the closeness of scribbling my reflections alongside the text that prompted them.

Marginalia has always struck me as a first space of thinking, a phase of early processing ideas that might later be shared in classroom discussions, my own writing, or casual conversations. In these spaces reading becomes a collective activity. But I had never considered the work of annotation itself to be a social project. Earlier in October, I had the pleasure of having my private world of pen and paper marginalia broadened by the concept of social annotation.

Introducing the software Hypothes.is, Arun Jacob facilitated the first CDHI Praxis Workshop of 2021-22: Social Annotation as Scholarly Practice. Hypothes.is is a social annotation software for collaboratively reading, commenting, and annotating online texts. Used through a Chrome extension or bookmarklet, Hypothes.is allows users to engage directly with all manner of digital or digitized texts—from websites to uploaded pdfs. While you can use Hypothes.is to make personal annotations visible only to the user, Jacob explained that the real magic is in its capacity to let a group annotate collectively. As Jacob led us through the process, the sample blog post we read bloomed with yellow underlines, comments, questions, and answers to one another’s queries in a matter of moments.

Screenshot from the workshop. On the left is a slide that reads "My resume of failures", on the right is Arun Jacob wearing headphones.

Once we had the basics down, Jacob shared a few different use cases with the group, including his own experiences. Along with being a PhD student in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, where he researches the media history of educational technologies, Jacob is also a social annotation enthusiast and has sought out different opportunities to experiment with the possibilities Hypothes.is offers for opening up conversations in the marginalia of digital texts. In his many experiments with the software, he has had a few social annotation flops, such as an annotate-along component to a digital conference. But the successes have been powerful ways of cultivating intellectual community and fostering open, accessible approaches to critical digital humanities scholarship. In addition to using Hypothes.is to engage undergraduate students and in research groups, Jacob initiated the popular #DHReads experiment with Andy Boyles Petersen (Michigan State University) and Hayley Stefan (College of the Holy Cross), which caught the attention of the Liquid Margins podcast.


If you missed Arun’s CDHI Praxis Workshop, please check out the presentation slides.


After the workshop, I had the opportunity to discuss Hypothes.is and the potential he sees in the software for creative and collaborative annotation experiments.

Danielle Taschereau Mamers: What initially drew you to Hypothesis?

Arun Jacob: I liked how accessible the technology was. In the same way that an onramp works, I was able to take the way I would usually talk to friends and family on social media and bring that to a scholarly text. The ah-ha moment there was how reading is in fact just a way of conversing with the author. That was a light bulb moment, the apprehensions and distance that I maintained with the scholarly text began to slip away. I could bring in other stuff I had seen/heard/read while reading the text to punctuate the text with this contextual information, or trivia, or side-bar comments, or reaction gifs. Hypothesis made reading fun and participatory and that was a big draw.    

DTM: Where have you seen Hypothesis work most effectively?

AJ: It works really well in small groups. If we bring Tuckman’s model of thinking about groups, (forming, storming, norming, and performing). I have found bringing in Hypothesis as a tool, to a group that has already got their groove work best. Introducing the tool via a low stake learning activity, where people who are comfortable help each other out. And from there we can move onto learning activities and reading early drafts together to talk things through and share those beta versions of their ideas.   

DTM: Do you have any advice for new users? How might we approach building social annotation into our research and/or teaching?

AJ: Check out genius.com! Have a look at how people are engaging with song lyrics. That’s precisely the kind of energy you can bring into a poetry class! Look at how fan communities pick apart texts, look at the care that goes into picking up nuances and clues from tv show episodes, games, movies, etc. Look at how spoilers are discussed in those online fan communities. There’s a particular kind of healthy banter that you get to see thrive there. That’s the phenotype you bring into the researchscape and/or the teaching and learning space. How do we curate and cultivate critical fandoms? The competencies, fluencies, and literacies on how to engage with academic texts is already there—the learners have got them! How do we use social annotations to enable code-switching in teaching and learning spaces? 

DTM: From your point of view, what is the most exciting thing about social annotation?

AJ: How we begin to use social annotations with different sort of texts will make for really interesting and engaging digital learning spaces and learning activities. Social annotations + video lectures will it easier for students to engage with material in a world saturated with asynchronous Zoom videos. I anticipate social annotation to be quite advantageous once AR/Augmented Reality apps get used in learning spaces, a museum exhibit walk-through with pop-up annotations customized for the user and curated by the communities of visitors will be something to look forward to. The capacities of the social web supercharging a learning environment, that hopefully gets to subvert the existing apparatuses of discipline and punishment.   

For anyone who missed the first CDHI Praxis Workshop, please check out Hypothes.is for guides to the software. The next CDHI Praxis Workshop on StoryMaps takes place on 24 November 2021, 3:00-5:00pm. For more information, keep an eye on the CDHI events page or our Twitter: @UofTDHN. To learn more about Arun Jacob’s research, visit his website or catch up with him on Twitter: @arungapatchka.

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