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Marginalia

A Reading Activity to Enhance Critical Thinking: Marginalia

This marginalia activity asks students to identify and label the moves they make while reading, thereby helping them to become more intentional, rhetorical readers. It moves away from information-getting toward the development of a readerly self-consciousness.

There are two versions, but both focus attention on the kinds of interactions we want students to be having with texts. 

Version one is done entirely in class and entails the following sequence:

  •  I pass out the chosen article so that students are seeing it for the first time in class, and I explain that we will be reading and making extensive notes in the text as we read. In addition, where they might ordinarily be inclined only to underline, highlight, or bracket a passage, I tell them instead to write out their thoughts about why they would have marked the passage. I tell them to write copiously.

  • I stop the group after fifteen or twenty minutes, and explain that we’ll go around the room with each person reading their marginalia aloud in the order in which the notes appear on the pages. I begin with my own, showing them that all they will read is their marginalia, not the text itself. As we go around the classroom, one person at a time, hearing only the marginalia with no explanatory comments (“That’s never happened to me . . . Dude you’re not making sense! . . . Not necessarily”), it becomes clear what a complex—and often comical—action reading really is. Because we haven’t finished the article, the primary focus at this point is not on whether students have identified the main ideas, claim, or thesis. Instead, we listen for the variety of reactions to the text and for the variety of places where there was confusion, all of which, I assure them, is perfectly normal for this stage of reading. The most important part of this early use of the activity is that it affirms for students that college-level reading is indeed not easy, and that they are not alone in their reading struggles.
  • The discussion that follows the reading of the marginalia is obviously context-specific, but in general, using the students’ notes as a guide, I ask students to comment on their reactions to the following:

-particular words and phrases (what connotations might these have for different readers?);

-their engagement level (what drew you in or pushed you out, did you want to keep reading, and why or why not?);

-their impression of  the author (do you feel that the author is “talking” to you or do you feel alienated, and why?).

  • I also ask students why a particular passage was difficult: was it because they weren’t familiar with some of the words being used, didn’t know the historical context being referred to, or just hadn’t yet read far enough into the article? I then ask what helped them understand a particular passage (was it because they could see a connection between this text and something else we’ve read, or perhaps because of the way the writer explicitly identified the structures of their thinking?). We talk about all of these examples in detail, always referring back to the text for clarification and analysis.

  • We then take another fifteen minutes to continue reading and making marginal notes. This time, however, rather than read the marginalia aloud, I ask students to get into small groups and use “Marginalia Checklist I” (see appendix A) to label their marginal notes. This inventory of the kinds of interactions readers have with texts is not exhaustive, but it is comprehensive enough for students to be able to categorize most of their own notes.

  •  That students work on this collaboratively is also important: they can compare and contrast both their marginal notes and what labels they would apply, together negotiating a more complex understanding of the purposes and functions of active reading strategies. When they disagree about the correct label for a particular comment, they have to grapple with what the categories actually do.

  • We then regroup to share observations, a culminating activity that allows students to see additional similarities and differences, to assess the other groups’ conclusions, and appreciate the mutually constructive roles of reader and text. While I have found that at least initially students’ marginalia tend to cluster in the first category, which is focused on content-based reading, students are increasingly able to use the other categories as the semester progresses. More importantly, they also begin to see that by using more categories, they come to a deeper understanding of the text.

Version two of the marginalia activity involves one stage done individually by each student outside of class, and then a second stage done in class as a group. I tend to do this assignment after we’ve done the first version at least once on a different reading so that students are already familiar with the terms, although using version two as an initial introduction to rhetorical reading can also be quite fruitful. When students have been asked to intentionally mark up a text using the categories in “Marginalia Checklist II” (see Appendix B), they engage in a reflexive reading process, one that explicitly asks them to self-monitor. This is a particularly useful assignment in cases where students might tend to see the text as “flat” and highlight or underline anything that seems important or interesting, but aren’t able to distinguish among major points, examples, or opposing views.

When I assign the reading, I require that students apply strategies from all four categories from the checklist. Then in class we discuss how these comments sound and function differently. 

 When used with a challenging text, the activity works toward the following outcomes:

  • it forces students to be more self-aware of what they do when they encounter difficulty;
  • it provides labels for the kinds of strong reactions that they may have to some of the content; 
  • it brings attention to moments when they were able to interact critically with the author’s ideas by bringing their previous knowledge to bear on this new text;
  • it encourages them to be more aware of the author’s effectiveness as a writer.

 The more students become familiar with these rhetorical reading strategies, the deeper and more engaged their reading becomes.

 Appendix A: Marginalia Checklist I

Examine each of your marginal notes and identify what function it is performing.

Does it identify:       

  • the main argument/thesis
  • a new point
  • an example 
  • evidence being used to support a point or sub-point
  • why the passage is important
  • a contradiction

Does it comment on (praise/criticize/question, agree/disagree with, or otherwise evaluate):

  • the author’s idea(s)
  • the author’s logic, examples, evidence
  • the author’s analysis
  • the author’s assumptions
  • the author’s methodology

Does it:

  • offer an alternative explanation
  • offer additional or contradictory evidence
  • pose new questions
  • react emotionally to the author’s style, tone, or substance?
  • make a connection with your extra-textual knowledge (or experience)

Does it in some way comment on or examine:

  • how the author attends to, or fails to attend to, readers’ needs (for data, for acknowledgement of differing perspectives, etc.)
  • the effectiveness of how the author responds to other scholars in the field
  • the scope of the author’s knowledge of the debate that he/she has entered
  • the author’s mastery of relevant scholarship
  • how the author establishes or undermines his/her own credibility
  • the author’s implied political stance and/or ideological grounding

Appendix B: Marginalia Checklist II

Read the assigned article, and as you read, rather than just highlighting or underlining, write notes in the margins of the pages (“marginalia”). Using the following list, make sure that you do at least three types of marginalia from each category.  You must be ready to read and share your notes in class, so write clearly and legibly.

Comprehension Notes are marginal comments that identify and summarize/paraphrase:

  • the main argument/thesis
  • a new point
  • an example
  • evidence being used to support a point or sub-point
  • why the passage is important
  • a contradiction

Interactive/Evaluative Notes are marginal comments that question, analyze, criticize, praise, agree or disagree with:

  • the author’s idea(s)
  • the author’s logic, examples, evidence
  • the author’s analysis
  • the author’s assumptions
  • the author’s methodology

 Extending Notes are marginal comments that go beyond the text and:

  • offer an alternative explanation
  • offer additional or contradictory evidence
  • pose new questions
  • react emotionally to the author’s style, tone, or substance
  • make a connection with your extra-textual knowledge (or experience)

Rhetorical Notes are marginal comments that examine:

  • how the author attends to, or fails to attend to, readers’ needs (for data, for acknowledgement of differing perspectives, etc.)
  • the effectiveness of how the author responds to other scholars in the field
  • the scope of the author’s knowledge of the debate that he/she has entered
  • the author’s mastery of relevant scholarship
  • how the author establishes or undermines his/her own credibility
  • the author’s implied political stance and/or ideological grounding