Electronic Marginalia?

The term "marginalia" is often defined as "notes in the margin or margins of a book." I've been thinking for quite some time about the electronic version of marginalia, about the extent to which blogging can accommodate this kind of annotative activity on the part of the reader. The comments feature immediately springs to mind but how does it compare, one asks, to the process of writing notes in the margin, of underlining snippets of text, of drawing arrows and circling key words? Clearly, the definition of marginalia, or the art of leaving notes in the margins, should be expanded to include "the art of interacting with text." After all, those of us who scribble, do so because we find ourselves engaged with the text, because we find a need to comment or question. Notes left in margins are much more than mere notes. They are attempts to interact and engage with the text. They are attempts to start a conversation.

Writing in 1844, Edgar Allan Poe was fully aware of the value of, as he called it, "the picturesqueness of the numerous pencil-scratches":

I have been always solicitous of an ample margin; this not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of pencilling suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general ... the marginalia are deliberately pencilled, because the mind of the reader wishes to unburthen itself of a thought; - however flippant - however silly - however trivial - still a thought indeed ... In the marginalia, too, we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly - boldly - originally - with abandonnement - without conceit.

Having established a classroom blogging community, I now find myself writing comments in the "margins" of individual blogs. I do this for two main reasons. Commenting on the work of my students allows me to explore my own understanding of their texts and gives me a valuable glimpse into their writing practices, their competencies, and their understanding of the covered material. In addition, my comments are also intended to rouse these young authors, to encourage them to re-assess their work, to defend their position, to engage with their text and begin to perceive it as a cognitive tool and not, as is often the case, a mere assignment.

In an electronic blogging community, these "pencil-scratches," to use Poe's words again, acquire a truly communicative function. In an electronic community of writers we never talk "only to ourselves." Instead, our marginalia, our comments and trackbacks, are given a new function which enhances not just our own experience of interacting with a text but also affects the experience of the writer with whose text we interact. The margins where we “attach” our electronic marginalia belong to somebody else. Our notes are no longer written only to ourselves. As soon as they are finished, they become part of the learning landscape. The reader and the author become electronically linked, and the link itself, one can argue, can be just as helpful to the author as it is to the reader.

The electronic comments I post under my students’ work qualify as marginalia because they are written in response to the text and "attached" to its margins, so to speak. I believe that when students comment on the work of their peers or when they receive feedback, their understanding of their own writing processes expands. This is an important aspect of my methodology. It is important to me as a teacher who wants his students to become competent writers and critical readers. I would like them to interact with the texts, to become “footprint leavers” - readers who "use" texts rather than just read them.

But the electronic realm has its limitations. Can my students become "footprint leavers" if the texts they comment on remain visually unaffected by their writing, if the pixels stubbornly resist manipulation? They can add their words to the texts they are commenting on but they cannot make them part of the original text in a way that can visualy represent one’s interaction with the text. Electronic texts resist the type of layering that we can easily accomplish with a printed text and a pencil. We can annotate electronic texts only by linking.

What is missing from the electronic marginalia is the fascinating visual aspect of traditional marginal notes. It would be highly beneficial to have a visual representation of electronic comments and the ensuing correspondences. Unfortunately, we have not yet mastered the art of translating the “helter-skelter-iness of commentary” (Poe again) into the electronic medium. We can click on the connections we establish but the richness of the visual network of correspondences that our marginalia create continues to elude us .