Often I turn to reading quizzes, book reviews, and exams to make sure students engage with books that I assign in my history classes. However, my own field of print culture studies and book history inspired me to try something new this semester. Since my undergraduate years, the history of reading has fascinated me. How do we recover a person’s experience of reading a book or other printed material? Can we even reconstruct those reading experiences when very few traces of evidence remain?
Book historians sometimes turn to marginalia to gain insight into reading in the past, reconstructing those experiences from the marks and marginal notes that readers have made in books. If those textual practices worked for people in the eighteenth-century, I wondered if they would work for students living through the twenty-first century digital revolution? So, I asked my students to write in the margins this semester to help them cultivate the habit of critical and engaged reading.
I used this new method in my American history survey, in a section that’s part of an inter-disciplinary, team-taught General Education course at my institution called Jumpstart Stage and Screen. In that class, I approach American history through theater and film. In our first unit on colonization, I assigned Camilla Townsend’s magnificent “Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma,” a work which relied on a combination of textual sources, oral histories, and archaeological evidence to relate the history of Pocahontas and the early colonization of Virginia from the perspective of the Powhatans.
The book is wonderfully accessible to first-year university students because the subject is familiar (Thanks, Disney?!) and Townsend’s narrative is compelling, but still most of my freshmen students have not read a historical monograph before. Perhaps one or two have read popular books of history, but not academic monographs written by professional historians. In assigning this book, then, I need to teach them how to read for main ideas and arguments without getting lost in all the details.
I used four different methods of engaging students in reading this semester. Students wrote marginalia, they kept commonplace books, in groups they did presentations based on individual chapters, and, as a final assessment, they designed memes based on the book. In this post, I’ll discuss the marginalia assignment. (I will probably discuss some of the others in subsequent posts.)
Here are the details of the assignment. First, I instructed students to sign their names in their printed books to indicate ownership. Second, I asked them to underline or highlight main ideas and passages of interest to them. I told them the key was to underline enough, so that when completing their other assignments, they could readily locate key information and insights. Third, I asked them to write notes to themselves or ask questions in the margins or on post-it notes.
I was impressed with the results. As with any assignment, student engagement varied. Some students added more notes than others, but overall the marginalia indicated that most had engaged with the book continuously from beginning to end. I suspect that marking their books helped students to maintain their attention while reading and that tracking their developing thoughts and questions in the margins proved to be a useful memory device. Their marks and marginalia illustrated their thought process and reading experience to me, something usually hidden from professors. This assignment turned out to be the equivalent of “showing your work” in math classes.
The individual nature of the marginalia helped me gain some insight into their learning experiences and personalities. Students noted what was old or new for them. In a passage discussing English colonization as a solution to unemployment and social disorder in the early modern era, one student wrote “like what I learned in high school.” Another remarked: “I’d never thought much about this before,” in the margins of a passage in which Townsend discussed her attempt to reconstruct the actual historical experience of Pocahontas.
Studetns’ marginalia even revealed how they had incorporated a reading by Daniel Richter from “Facing East from Indian Country” into their understanding. Students learned what was distinct and different about the Powhatan perspective from Townsend too. In learning about the matrilineal organization of Powhatan society and the power of women, for example, one student observed in the margins: “Whoa! Girls rule! (literally)” At one point, another student observed “In some ways the N.A. [Native Americans] were ahead of the Europeans. / I wouldn’t want the English there either if I were in the Indians shoes.”
As they gained new perspectives, many marginal comments were full of sarcasm, much of it directed at the English and John Smith. For example, next to one passage in which Townsend discussed English plans to exploit Indian labor, one student added: “no, really? The Indians didn’t want to be slaves to the English? How strange… (sarcastic).” Students also added acronyms in the margins from “lol” to an occasional “wtf.” Much sarcasm was directed at John Smith. Next to the famous engraved image of Smith, one student wrote “Disney made him hotter… just saying.” A few students remarked he was a creep or liar. “What a guy!,” another wryly said. The book definitely deflated Smith in students’ eyes. They were disillusioned with Smith’s creative myth-making in his “History of Virginia,” and his appropriation of the story of Pocahontas for his own purposes.
Disney’s film invariably provided an important reference point for the students. One student summed it up well in the margins: “so Disney didn’t make it up. They told the lie John Smith created.” At one point in the book, Townsend had written … “speak with their king just around the bend in the river.” (49-50) One student when reading this heard a song from the film in her head, as she wrote “just around the river bend,” bracketed by two musical notes. But, most students went beyond this by noting the points in which Disney’s version and Townsend’s book converged or diverged. Annotations like “This wasn’t in Disney” or “This is different than Disney” appeared frequently in the margins.
In the best notations, I saw the students following the story of Pocahontas along, their knowledge of history expanding as the story developed, They asked big and important questions in the margins such as “how does history develop into legend?” They noted key insights. In a section discussing the relationship between Pocahontas and John Rolfe, one student wrote: “Her love was a practical one, then, not a romantic one.”
Students knew in advance that I would be reading their marginalia. As I read through their books, I felt that the students were in conversation with me, teaching me about their learning and their reading experience. “I loved this chapter!,” one student noted at the end. “Kind of sad ending, but honestly I really enjoyed it,” another student wrote on a post-it note on the last page of the last chapter. Students led me through their journey in reading the book.
Ultimately, this assignment worked well and I would use it again in small to mid-sized classes without hesitation. Rather than assigning a book and quizzing students on it to make sure they read, I tried to turn a reading assignment into a reading experience. I liked that this took some pressure out of the reading experience for them. They did not have to memorize anything. They could work at their own pace. Moreover, a reading quiz would reflect my concerns and interests as the instructor, but students’ marginalia taught me about theirs.