Dear Mike Furlough,
For our Intro to Literature class we read Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, a version of which you host in your online collection. Many of my classmates used your particular version from the Hathi Trust website to follow along with the story and complete their work. One thing that occurred to me was that since they were using your website to read the story, they were missing some important features that are available to students that had hardcopy versions and downloaded ebooks. The physical copies allow students to highlight passages and make notes in the margins in case a student finds something of note or wants to return to a passage. The ebook versions typically allow a reader to digitally highlight pieces of the story, place bookmarks to easily return to a passage, and sometimes even allow the reader to select and search for interesting things directly from the reading client.
Your hosted pdf version of the book does not allow any of this. The closest thing would be for the reader to manually type out bits from the story and search for the terms in another tab. A solution that we’ve been discussing in my class would be an annotated version hosted on your website. Having the story pre-annotated would enhance and enrich a reader’s understanding of the story, especially during passages that are difficult for them to understand. What’s more, having the story annotated and those annotations edited would ensure that when a reader is being challenged by a passage they can be sure that the information provided to them is correct.
Two different annotation categories were suggested in my class: Research annotations and Glossary annotations. Each one would provide context within the annotated passage that would help the reader understand the story better in different ways.
Research annotations are used for the more involved topics that a reader might require a bit more background on. They can be used to provide information on historical or cultural events/practices that the reader might not be too well-versed in. For instance, an American high school student reading Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls likely isn’t familiar with some of the contemporary context of the world the story takes place in. They might not know much about the Spanish Civil War, or the social hierarchy of rural Spain in the 1930s that influences how the characters treat and react to each other.
To help illustrate the need for these notes I’ve prepared some samples of both Research and Glossary annotation types. For a research annotation I wrote about Naxos, the school Helga is teaching at during the beginning of the book:
Back in the 1920s, especially in the south, there was a strong sentiment against the mixing of races. This sentiment lead to institutionalized segregation in the form of Jim Crow laws. Basically, the laws allowed individuals and organizations to discriminate against minorities by keeping them separated from white southerners, and thus prevented them from receiving the same benefits available to whites. Sometimes the laws mandated this segregation, such as in the case of public transportation and public schools.
Here, I gave a short bit of context for the rest of the annotation. This paragraph leads into the next, which provides a bit more in depth info:
Jim Crow laws have been on the books since shortly after the end of the Reconstruction era (1863-1877). They not only sought to separate white and black southerners, but to hobble any possible government funding of black public facilities like libraries and schools. As a result, black southerners were not permitted to attend most schools and the ones that were available to them were woefully underfunded, and so the average education level of the population was quite a bit lower compared to the whites of the time. This lack of education was part of a vicious cycle in some states: black schools were underfunded, so black southerners were less educated, so very few blacks were able to pass mandatory tests for voter eligibility, so very few blacks could vote in local and state elections, and so black schools continued to be underfunded.
The final paragraph ties it all together and provides context and analysis to the story:
As a response to the chronic underfunding of public schools for black southerners and the resulting lack of education and disenfranchisement, wealthy donors began to fund private, all black schools. Naxos is an example of one of these private schools. “On her side of the door, Helga was wondering if it had ever occurred to the lean and desiccated Miss MacGooden that most of her charges had actually come from the backwoods.” This passage suggests that a majority of the children attending Naxos are from less privileged homes and are there on charity scholarships, providing further evidence that Naxos is one of these schools.
Read all together, the annotation illuminates the nature of the school and its historical purpose. Annotations like this are extremely common in historical texts since most of the modern-day readers aren’t going to be well versed in the relevant time period or setting. The other category of annotations, Glossary annotations, are equally useful. Some of the words used in Quicksand are dated and not used very much anymore. The two examples I use for my Glossary annotations are “jade” and “goose-step.” A jade is a woman who is ill tempered or quick to change emotions, but outside of this book I’d never seen the word used in that way. It’s just not said anymore, outside of student papers and snobbish internet comments. Goose-step is a word I’d heard many times before but had never really looked into the definition for and it was surprising to see it used in reference to the student traditions at Naxos. While looking into these words I began to take on a better understanding of the passages I read.
All the research I did helped me appreciate the setting and the historical context of Quicksand. Being able to simply click on a link within the body of the text and find learn these things without having to sift through 5 different websites and using my school’s library services would have been much quicker and easier for me. Future readers would almost certainly appreciate having the work done for them, as well. I urge you to consider adding annotations to your website in order to enhance the experience of the students who rely on it. Thanks for your time.