commentpress in the classroom 08.29.2007, 10:00 AM
posted by ben vershbow
So CommentPress is out in the world and continues to develop in small ways (version 1.3 was put out last week), but there are still only a few observable cases apart from our own projects in which it's been put to use. One thing we'd like to do with it is to set up a small library of public domain short stories, essays and poems for use in high school or college classes - ?CP is best geared for close readings and we're very curious to see how this might come into play in a pedagogical context. We'd offer this as a free service to any teacher who was interested in trying it out: basically, set up a dedicated installation with the desired text and give it to their class as its own social edition. Note: when I posted this earlier today I had said only high school. This idea is still in gestation and all our conversations up to this point had focused, somewhat arbitrarily, on a high school scenario, but commenters rightly pointed out that this should be open to both primary and higher ed, and so it would be.
We threw together a short list of possible texts which you'll find below. We can also see this being done with video clips where basically you break up a movie into small commentable chunks and embed them in place of a text. Granted, there are a variety of new video annotation tools hitting the web these days but nothing I've yet come across that does a good job of integrating comments by multiple viewers (anyone seen anything along these lines?).
Please shout out other appropriate titles and if you're a teacher who'd be interested in experimenting with this, or know teachers who might be, please forward this along. Also, if you have ideas or suggestions for how this service ought to work, we're all ears. This is just an initial floating out of the idea.
Swift, A Modest Proposal
US Constitution, Bill of Rights
The Magna Carta
MLK, Letter from Birmingham Jail (maybe not PD)
Lincoln, Gettsyburg Address
Harriet Ann Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Paine, Common Sense
Thoreau, Civil Disobedience
Montaigne, Of Friendship
Joyce, The Dead
Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener
Wharton, Roman Fever
Hawthorne, Young Goodman Brown
Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper
O'Henry, The Gift of the Magi
Jack London, To Build a Fire
Ambrose Bierce, Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
Stephen Crane, The Open Boat
Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart, Fall of the House of Usher
Washington Irving, Sleepy Hollow
Arthur Conan Doyle, various
Kafka, The Judgement
Tolstoy, Death of Ivan Ilych
Emily Dickinson, selection
Poe, The Raven
Blake, Songs of Innocence/Experience, selection
Robert Frost, from Boy's Will/North of Boston
Shakespeare sonnets, selection
(With poetry it would make sense to put comments on each line. I can imagine a nice edition of Shakespeare's sonnets working this way.)
jeff drouin on August 29, 2007 10:22 AM:
I've included CommentPress 1.3 in the WordPress package I created for the college I work at. I'll let you know if anyone uses it and have sent the URL for this post to the instructional technology fellows who collaborate with faculty.
Stephen Kelly on August 29, 2007 10:59 AM:
For another, AHRC-funded project, see:
R Barrera on August 29, 2007 11:21 AM:
Do a CommentPress version for Typepad. It would be offered by Typepad in order for ordinary people to avoid all this "installation" stuff.
Daniel Anderson on August 29, 2007 11:24 AM:
Sounds like a great idea. I did a wiki version of The Open Boat in class last semester and have done these things in the past with good success. I like the wiki approach because you can target comments to the individual word or phrase, so the idea of doing something with film makes sense for CP. In some ways, I think with these kinds of projects less can be more in that shorter works allow a richness of commentary to develop.
A good possibility from the list above is the Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. My recollection from working on a lit project a while ago is that the film version is in the public domain. I might be wrong, but I know I was able to use still images and don't think we had to pay. That film tracks the story in interesting ways, so some kind of hybrid might be in order.
It might be worth thinking about opening it to college not just high school. My sense is that lit studies in college can use all the transformative shots in the arm we can find as well.
Kathleen on August 29, 2007 11:34 AM:
I'd love to see this being used in a classroom, and I'm also interested in the application for libraries, particularly those that hold unique or rare materials. I've been playing with the idea that images of early works-- printed or manuscript-- might be scanned in and collectively transcribed and annotated via a tool like CommentPress. It would be a terrific way to aid scholarship and push resources into a venue more widely accessible.
That said, I'm eager to see how a high school/college social reading experiment would progress. I agree with the previous poster who suggested that university faculty might also take up the cause and be able to provide a testbed.
ben vershbow on August 29, 2007 1:56 PM:
Dan (and Kathleen),
I totally agree that we should open this up to college testers. No need to restrict this. For some reason, we'd just been brainstorming with the high school scenario but it was fairly arbitrary.
The wiki vs. CP question is a really tricky and interesting one and probably deserves its own post. The flexibility of wikis is of course their great strength but they're lousy reading environments. CP, while it's an inferior writing environment to a wiki, is I think better for reading/annotating and making the connections between text and commentary more accessible to the reader. A good example of where wikis break down as reading/commenting environments is the talk pages in Wikipedia, which are very poorly integrated with the main articles. Our original idea with CommentPress was actually to make individual words and sentences selectable for commenting, sort of like the tool the Free Software Foundation uses for revising the GPL. We decided that this was a little too powerful a tool for all but the most fiercely argumentative communities (law people could probably make the best use out of it). We were after all trying to explore new reading practices that were unfamiliar to most people and didn't want to make it too specialized or intimidating.
So we went with the paragraph as the default unit of discussion. There are dozens of problems with this, but in the end it seemed like the best blanket solution, offering multiple points of entry to the text without totally overwhelming the reader. When you think about it, though, there is something about the paragraph, in theory if not always in practice, that delineates one thought from another. Wasn't it Gertrude Stein who said that "a sentence is not emotional, a paragraph is"? That you write a paragraph because you feel like it?
Again, between wikis and blog-derived forms like CommentPress, I think you have to judge case by case which of these imperfect tools to use -- figure out the project's emphasis, whether it's simply a close reading of a text (CP), or more of a tweaking of the source code (be it Bierce or whatever, in which case a wiki might be a better bet). Of course wouldn't it be terrific if we could combine the best of both?
As for size, I agree less is more for your average project, though I do believe CommentPress could work well for even a book-length text. The key thing is that the readers need to be there. A social text is just a vacant lot until the community arrives, so a longer form project needs to justify itself with a dedicated community.
Daniel Anderson on September 1, 2007 9:05 AM:
Good questions about the level of granularity and its impact on reading. I've thought a lot about this in terms of conducting peer reviews of student papers. Focusing too heavily on sentence-level issues only short circuits the process. I've compared review modes using the Comment feature on MS Word vs sharing end comments in a discussion forum, vs paper and found that the middle ground does make a lot of sense in terms of providing feedback about the bigger picture.
I also like that you point out that its the social energy underneath that drives things. In teaching there is real leverage in having a group in place with motivation--the problem is that is extrinsic motivation in many case--grades. So, adding the public layer is really helpful in that it brings a complementary sense of creating something for others and, hopefully, internal motivation.
I'm doing these projects later in the term and will touch base with you more about it.
Nate Stearns on September 1, 2007 9:40 PM:
This is a great idea for AP Language and Comp classes where we naturally and habitually pick apart a wide variety of essays, histories, and journalism. Is there a way to get the plug-in for an edublogs website? If I were able to set this up I could imagine whole networks of overworked high school APers tearing apart, say, Thoreau's Walden or King's Letter from Birmingham jail.
Sally Northmore on September 3, 2007 9:27 PM:
What a cool idea. I've been investigating ways to incorporate online social media in the classroom for learners of english language -? specifically my French highschoolers. I think a lot of the literature listed above is well beyond their reading level, but some of the shorter pieces (poems, essays) might work. I'd also be interested in tackling translations, images, and music in a commentpress environment, although I'm not sure how I'd envision that... ideas on how to open it up to that?