CMS.633 | Spring 2015 | Undergraduate

Digital Humanities

Instructor Insights

Annotation Studio

In this section, Dr. Kurt Fendt and teaching assistant, Andrew Kelleher Stuhl, share their insights about using Annotation Studio to promote collaborative close readings and to engage students in the digital humanities tool development process.

Using Annotation Studio to Promote Collaborative Close Readings

"Right from the start of the course, we tell students that we’ve developed Annotation Studio here at MIT, that it is still a work in progress, and that their feedback as end users, will shape its development."
— Kurt Fendt & Andrew Kelleher Stuhl

We use Annotation Studio, a collaborative annotation space developed by HyperStudio (the laboratory for digital humanities directed by Dr. Fendt), to promote close reading in this course. By using the application, students are able to see each other’s highlights and comments on texts as they read them. They are also able to use the application to respond to each other’s comments.

One of the texts we always read is Vannevar Bush’s (1945) “As We May Think.” The way students comment on this text is remarkable. We give them some hints about how they should structure their comments (such as the suggestion to comment on each section), but then we prompt them to think about the relationships they see in the text, the concepts that are laid out in the article, and what concepts have been realized since that time.

Fairly quickly, they become critical of the text and we encourage that. We don’t want students to position texts as objective or neutral objects. We want them to read critically. Annotation Studio helps here, because it allows students to create links to concrete websites, images, texts and other resources that talk back to the text, illuminate references in the text, or, in other ways, create more nuanced interpretations of the work. It offers so many ways for students to structure their readings and comments—and it’s all shared. Also, students don’t have to share all of their comments. They can share the comments they think are most relevant for the other students in the class. In fact, the ability to toggle between public and private modes of annotation—the ability to simultaneously mark up a text for one’s own purposes, while also marking it up as a social exercise—is something we think makes Annotation Studio a particularly useful tool. It’s truly a tool for collaboratively engaging students in close reading of texts.

Engaging Students in the Digital Humanities Tool Development Process

Annotation Studio also has a relatively new tagging feature. We’re still figuring out how people use it and what might be done with it. It was very exciting to see students figure out for themselves how to use tagging in meaningful ways. Without much steering from us, students honed a shared set of tags to something that seemed useful to them, and was small enough such that they all began using the same vocabulary and developing an internal scheme to organize comments from the group as they were added. They really engaged with the process; it wasn’t the instructors telling them what they needed to do. Their work with the tags was helpful because it meant we, at HyperStudio, could build on their work.

In fact, one of HyperStudio’s goals is to develop digital humanities projects that are closely tied to the needs of the end user. Right from the start of the course, we tell students that we’ve developed Annotation Studio here at MIT, that it is still a work in progress, and that their feedback as end users, will shape its development. We also share with the development group feedback about what we are learning, as instructors, about teaching with the tool. By using Annotation Studio in the class, students see, first-hand, how digital medias are developed and refined based on users’ experiences and needs. They learn the process of digital media development by being part of it.

We think there’s something really great about offering this course in the context of MIT’s maker culture, because students are really eager to work on projects that are still taking shape. Instead of being frustrated because they’re not using a well-polished tool, they’re excited to know that the issues they discover with Annotation Studio will be taken into consideration and addressed in future iterations of the tool. They get to help refine the tool, and this reflects how they make things with each other outside of the course. It’s the perfect incubator for developing digital humanities tools.


Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” The Atlantic 176, no. 1 (1945): 101-108.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2015
Learning Resource Types
Projects with Examples
Instructor Insights