21L.501 | Spring 2013 | Undergraduate

The American Novel: Stranger and Stranger

Instructor Insights

Digital Tools

In this section, Dr. Kelley describes two digital tools employed during the course.

In this course, we used two digital tools, Annotation Studio and Locast (PDF), which are open-source, free, and very malleable.


Students were required to annotate the texts we read using Annotation Studio, which is a tool that allows users to select text, comment on it, and then come back to it, find what they located in the text, revise their comments, and start building a paper from their annotations.

We imagined that while reading texts, students would use Annotation Studio to note, as one does with Post-Its or underlines, things they wanted to come back to. Using these early impressions, they could then develop their ideas and their papers. We sometimes asked students to use Annotation Studio in class, and we discovered that after these activities, students would sometimes continue using Annotation Studio to take notes in class. It became a note-taking tool for class discussion as well as for their first encounter with the text.

This semester was the first time I asked them to think about revising their earlier annotations. When they came back to revise their papers, they could return to their annotations and either add new ones or rewrite the old ones. I think of those as creative in the sense that they break up the linear progress towards the paper and allow students to revisit the text in different ways.

It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s really hard to teach students how to revise beyond very basic spelling-type fixes. It’s hardest for them to see the ideas or the text in a new way. Annotation Studio brings them back to the text since it’s there highlighted in yellow, and when they look at the words again, they sometimes see them differently. Part of what I try to do is add a little friction to their machine as well. Students want everything to go smoothly and linearly towards the end product, but I want to muck it up a little bit so they have to think harder.

Tools designed for literary texts are not necessarily exclusive to the humanities, but they open up possibilities that perhaps a tool designed for a science text wouldn’t allow. It’s very easy to turn it around and argue that humanities is just a soft science, or that it doesn’t use the same standards of proof. But I do think that in focusing on language and the underlying logic, you’re getting at something that’s different from the informational content and the results and the data.


We also used a tool called Locast, developed at MIT, which allowed the students to locate places on a map. I had already populated the map with all of the geographical references in Moby-Dick. The students’ job was to research one of the places that Melville refers to in the book and upload images, film clips, or text to the site on the map, and then present it to the class. During their presentation, they explained the significance of the location for understanding some passage or element in the text. This turned out to be incredibly useful for giving the students an anchor in a book that’s vast.

By the time this was all done, we had a student who really understood the Cape of Good Hope, and another who did something on Australia. Another student’s family came from the Isle of Man. There is one reference in the text to a Manxman, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that means he is an inhabitant of the Isle of Man. The student found out that it’s where a lot of fishermen come from, and that the whalers stopping at European locations might have picked up some of these sailors. The student gave a beautiful demonstration of this with pictures of the Isle of Man. It seems very remote from the text, but it turned out to be integral, to have tremendous relevance, and I was learning from this.

All these places are significant to the story in different ways. The mapping exercise allowed them to understand not only a factual element in the text but also a creative and composition one. It was a wonderful way to see how Melville wove these together to create meaning and to add layers of narrative to the story.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2013
Learning Resource Types
Activity Assignments
Presentation Assignments
Written Assignments with Examples
Instructor Insights