This is the first in a series of guest blog posts in which members share teaching strategies and reflect on classroom experiences. In the following post, Malcolm Keating of Yale-NUS College shares his experiences using Classroom Salon while teaching Asian philosophy. Find all of the posts in this series under the category In the Classroom.
This semester at Yale-NUS College, I was a member of an instructional team responsible for teaching a course in our Common Curriculum: Philosophy and Political Thought (PPT). Perhaps unusually for many schools, the first exposure to philosophy that students have here at YNC is decidedly not Eurocentric. We begin with Chinese philosophy, move to Greek and Roman philosophy, and conclude with Indian philosophy. This course runs for two concurrent semesters: the first focuses on ancient and medieval thought, the second takes us up to the modern era. The instructional week begins with an opening lecture, which all first-year students attend, and then there are two seminar meetings, attended by smaller groups.
As one of the skills we focus on as a teaching team is close reading, I decided to assign students a weekly annotation. I used a platform which I’ve used before: Classroom Salon (CS). The CS platform is online and freely accessible, thanks to Carnegie-Mellon University. In this blog post, I’ll explain how CS works, how I use it for my class, and evaluate its pros and cons.
How CS Works
Students sign up for a free CS membership. This then lets them sign up for “salons” which are collections of videos, texts, and PDFs that they can annotate. In addition to the annotating ability, they also have the chance to comment on annotations. The idea is that this keeps the text (or video) central, unlike in discussion boards, but it allows students to engage with each other’s analysis. (See screen shots below.)
The platform allows instructors to download data for analysis into a spreadsheet, as well as to view analytics online. You can see, for instance, for a particular document, how often students are contributing, and who is contributing most. You can view conversations individually, rather than all of them at once next to the document. You can also look at analytics for a single student, such as which documents she’s contributed to most often, and how long her comments are, how many times she’s replied, and so on. This makes grading easier, if you decide to grade annotations (more on which later). It also gives you a sense of which students are really engaging with the texts.
How I've Used CS
In my class, I assigned my students a shorter section of our text each week that they had to annotate. Initially, the assignments were very open, and then we talked about what kinds of annotations they were making. The requirements were simply that they made three comments, asked three questions, and then gave replies to two of their classmates’ comments and two of their classmates’ questions. In addition, there was a thematic question each week that they replied to in a few sentences. As the semester went on, the students set these questions to prepare the class for the short discussions they each had to lead.
Depending on what the focus of their papers were (there were three course-wide paper assessments, each focusing on a different skillset), I adjusted the kinds of annotations they were required to perform. For instance, when we began to focus on argumentation, I asked them to identify reasons for claims, ask questions about how reasons were related to each other. The annotation process became pedagogically valuable when we came to reading some Indian commentaries on the Bhagavad Gītā—they were already familiar with the ways in which one might analyze a text, and they could understand what the commentators were doing.
Their last paper focuses on evaluation of arguments, with the possibility for some comparison between philosophers and traditions. I am asking them to select one text to annotate from the last three readings, based on which they will write their paper on. The goal is for them to see how writing a paper evaluating arguments from a text still begins with the close reading skills they learned early in the course.
The CS annotations have allowed me to do a number of things with in-class time. First, I sometimes have students talk about a conversation thread that occurs on the Salon. We can assess both the text and its arguments as well as the discussion students have about it. Second, I can see where students are having confusion—CS constructs a heatmap to show where the most comments are on a text. If there is a widespread misunderstanding, I can decide how to address it before seminar begins. Third, I have assigned in-class short writing assignments which extend the work they’ve done on CS.
Pros and Cons of CS
I will definitely use CS for one more semester, since I think it will take a few trials to work out all of the bugs in my use of it in the class. It has had some tangible benefits for me and the students. It has allowed the quieter students to feel confident about their voices. A few students have expressed to me that knowing others also have questions helps make them feel less worried about not knowing. CS is not only an incentive for them to do their reading, but it gives me confidence that they have read a section closely. I can see the kinds of reading they are doing and see where there are common misunderstandings—for instance, students all using “circular argument” in a certain (incorrect) manner, and agreeing among themselves that a philosopher is committing this fallacy.
The downside of CS is that it is labor-intensive. While the platform has a a lot of analytics you can use for assessment, it has some limitations. There’s no way that I can see for it to be automatically plugged into Canvas or Blackboard to generate a score. The raw data can be overwhelming if you aren’t comfortable with spreadsheet manipulation, and sometimes the breakouts of individual students and document analytics are unclear. There were times when the count of replies listed on the summary didn’t seem to match the count from the data download. Finally, students also cannot see the answers they write to the thematic question, which I found limiting for sparking conversation.
Too, while the students sometimes enjoy the experience of annotating, as the semester goes on it becomes more a task to be completed perfunctorily. To my mind, six annotations of one’s own and four on other annotations is not a lot—especially since in the course of reading, students ought to have formulated at least six responses to the text internally. However, not all students share this feeling. Next semester we will have more conversation about how many questions good readers have as they go along. Finally, as you might suspect, setting up the assignment with points per annotation requires me to do a significant amount of grading weekly.
Revised Approach to CS
Next semester’s plan is to tie the annotations more closely to writing assignments and class time. This takes into account some of the feedback I got from students about the platform (I gave them a survey tailored specifically to CS). While most of them rated the use of CS highly, some saying that it “revolutionized” their reading, and it impacted how they approached reading in other classes, quite a few of them found it disconnected from the classroom. While it is inevitable that, in a class with significant reading, not all of the reading will be discussed in class, I think I can use the CS annotations more skillfully. Here’s my plan:
Note: My use of Classroom Salon began in fall 2014 after I attended the AAPT/APA Graduate Student Seminar on Teaching and Learning in Philosophy in August of 2014. At that seminar I learned a lot from Stephen Bloch-Schulman on teaching reading, David Concepción on metacognition and reading, Andrew Mills on social annotation, and Donna Engelmann on self-assessment.
More Resources on Social Annotation and Teaching Reading
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Yale-NUS College, Singapore