Updating Close Reading for the 21st Century: It’s Genius!

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
And reached for a pen if only to show
We did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
We pressed a thought into the wayside,
Planted an impression along the verge.

– Billy Collins, “Marginalia”

When I taught high school and college, at the beginning of every academic year I handed out paper copies of Billy Collin’s poem “Marginalia” to my students. I used his ode to annotation as a provocation for them to “seize the white perimeter” of the page, to take both physical and intellectual ownership over the books that they were reading in my classes. I wanted my students to be engaged learners, actively questioning and conversing with the authors that they read. I knew it was those marginal engagements with books that had shaped my passion for reading as a student from grade school to grad school, as an English teacher, a doctoral student in English, and as a life-long learner.

This is nothing new. Students are asked to write in the margins of their books by teachers everyday, as both a means of improving comprehension and beginning to analyze texts. The Common Core Standards Initiative indirectly encourages the exercise by demanding that students “read closely” in its first “Anchor Standard” for reading.

Indeed, writing in the margins of books is an age-old learning practice. As Collins reminds us, “Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria” offered their reflections in the manuscripts that they were copying before the invention of the printing press. Today, though, Rap Genius is updating the educational exercise of annotation for the 21st century, transforming the margins of books into a social network; it’s Marginalia 2.0!

Though it began as a lyric website, Rap Genius distinguished itself from the beginning by allowing users to both read and write line by line multimedia annotations of their favorite songs. In a sense, the site always had a pedagogical mission, demanding that its users close read texts and compose arguments based on textual evidence, even if their object of study was popular culture. Users are, in fact, referred to as “scholars” on the site.

However, with the launch of several additional channels of content, including Rock, News, and Poetry “Genius,” Rap Genius is now expanding their basic annotation functionality to other genres of texts, from music lyrics to classic and contemporary literature to historical documents and current event sources. Moreover, the website is partnering with scholar-educators across disciplines to have students close read this content as part of their curriculum.

I started using Rap Genius in my classroom last fall after I had been playing around on the site all summer. It was the perfect procrastination for a hip-hop fan and English teacher — I had been annotating my favorite rap songs from when I was in high school in the 1980s and ’90s, but with the critical eye of a high school teacher. I quickly realized, though, that the site could be used in the classroom as a collaborative annotation platform beyond the poetic appreciation of rap music.

I added every text I was teaching that I could find online, cutting and pasting them into the website’s “Add new text” page. I asked that my students log into the site on a weekly basis and share their thoughts from their independent reading or class discussion as public annotations on the online texts.

The Great Gatsby was the first major work we uploaded and annotated. They worked together to create their own personalized and localized, annotated edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, researching and explaining unfamiliar terms and concepts, providing cultural and historical context, and discussing themes in the novel. The first chapter on Rap Genius now has over one hundred thousand views. As Rap Genius has gained well-deserved media attention for the cultural phenomenon that it is generating, my students’ work has been viewed and engaged with by hundreds of readers.

Now I am the “Education Czar” at Rap Genius, working with educators across the country to recreate and build upon my experience using the site in the classroom, to develop the “Genius” platform as an online social learning tool. We are already working closely with middle and high school teachers and college professors from a wide range of subject areas. From a 9th grade English class in Toronto, Canada to a biology lecture at the University of Texas at Austin, students are analyzing and discussing their course reading line by line, online at “Genius.” As they look up complex terms for definition, research historical allusions, and discuss textual themes, these students are empowered as active participants in their own learning and their marginalia is brought to the foreground in what is becoming one of the largest public digital humanities projects of its kind.

If you are an educator interested in using Genius in your classroom, see our “About” page by clicking on the “Education” tab at the top of any page on the site to learn more about Genius Education.

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