Reading with the Stars…and Scholarly Peers

There are fewer tools that actually build an archive of live interpretation—as opposed to facts layered and ready for interpretation–around a stable text.“  – Augusta Rohrbach and David Tagnani

That’s where an amalgamation of Highbrow and Voyeur would come in.  The argument against the incorporation of humanities in English literature courses is solid, mainly, that it distances the reader from the text and removes the qualitative perspective only possible through human interpretation.  To replace it are mathematical calculations such as those presented in digital tools like Voyeur.  The creator of Highbrow, Reinhard Engles, describes his developing program as an “experimental genome browser for literary texts.”  Now, friends, genomes are inheritable traits of an organism.  Disbelieving as I was, I turned to the video screen casts and the electronic organism known as Highbrow.

Engles has put forth a set of 5 different tutorial videos, within each are demonstrations of the texts that have been uploaded into the program for use.  As Highbrow is still in its developmental stages, there are yet only 4 literary texts and 1 video to choose from:

Dante’s Divine Comedies

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Multiple Works)

Shakespeare’s First Folio (no references yet)

The Bible (King James Version)


Here are the strength and weaknesses, problems I found while working with Highbrow, as well as a basic “how-to.”  To start with I will mention that I will not be working with the Shakespeare set as it is incomplete and does not show, to the full extent, the capabilities of Highbrow.

“An Interactive Deep Zoom Widget:”

Rohrbach and Tagnani admit in their post “Reading with the Stars: Teaching with the HIGHBROW Annotation Browser,” that although there are plenty of tools available to ‘aggregate and organize existing information for users to interpret,’ these tools more or less become a step between students and the text and distance them from the literature itself.  Students begin to analyze the calculations formed by tools rather than “build an archive of live interpretation” from the text itself.  From this predicament and the partnering of Associate Professor, Augusta Rohrbach; PhD student, David Tagnani and Engles himself: ‘Reading with the Stars’ was born.  In their Washington State University classroom environment, Highbrow became a way for students to build upon both their own thoughts and conceptions about a studied work as well as the ideas and commentary of their peers.  ‘Reading with the Stars’ allows for a class to break beyond the barriers of a physical classroom and allow a ‘relaxed academic’ (oxymoronic in the eyes of many scholars, no doubt) atmosphere housed in a vast digital realm.


Putting it Together:

Aside from providing a digital meeting ground under the pretext of a .. well, a text, Reading with the Stars/Highbrow also allows an exceedingly more organized method for students to collaboratively annotate, highlight and organize ourselves beside the literature.  On an average day a student carries around their own weight in books – the conditions of which are dangerously suggestive of a younger sibling having had at them with a box of stationary.

Only somewhat inconvenient for budgeting students, we cry out for an answer, and Highbrow provides:

Highbrow: a clean and tidy alternative – and more. Click here for Engles screencast on “Interactive Editing.”

The ability to add/subtract “tracks” and edit the names of groups (which, by default, are sorted in chronological order – for the OCD perfectionist in us all) provides a unique experience catering to each individual’s preference.  Highbrow has a clean-cut interface with relatively easy navigation.  Zoom in with the mouse wheel, tapping the arrow key, or simply clicking.  Zooming in on specific segments allows you to view segments from books, to cantos, to verses and line numbers (in the case of Dante’s Divine Comedies):

Once you have registered, you can add your own annotations right next to the elite.  There are over 288,000 “tracks” of commentary, broken apart by centuries by default. It is interesting to see what 7 centuries of annotation looks like alongside each other, which were more interested and which were less interested: 1600 (Clearly everyone was wrapped up in Hamlet.)



Now come the annotations! At first, I had attempted to deselect all commentators aside from the track labelled “English” (seemed like a safe bet) and although it did produce English annotations, this greatly decreased the amount of notes in the right hand column.

My focus aimed at Canto V of Inferno (one of my favourite cantos from my favourite comedy) I decided to play with the “search text” button. As previously mentioned, Engles has designed a very clean interface and so it is quite simply point and click on the blue link in the upper left corner and a window will appear like the one pictured below:

What shall we look for in Canto V?  “Love” of course, although when searching, I would point out that your searches are limited to text only (or so I was unable to disprove) and not to the commentary.  Once you have typed in whatever desired lines or key word(s) preferred, simply click “search.”  Whatever keyword was searched will create a new “track” next to whichever others you had previously selected to the right.

Imagine my surprise when my search for “love” in the second circle of “The Lustful” produced 0 results. 

Then it hit me.  Oh yes, that’s right, it’s Italian.

Unfortunately, my Italian isn’t that strong otherwise I would have added in my own commentary next to  Alighieri’s own blood – Pietro!  I would imagine that in the near future Engles will be hosting further collaborations with other teachers, classrooms and of course, doing his own weekly adjustments to his program.  That being said, I was disappointed that I could not work further with Dante as I absolutely adore the Divine Comedies.  I would expect more works of Shakespeare will be added at the very least, along with more literature and perhaps a translated version of the Comedies – as the original is difficult to navigate even with a translator.

As this was the only real let down of the program for me, any other “weaknesses” I could possibly comment on an intelligent browser such as this – still so young in development, are few:

  1.  I had noticed that while searching through the text and annotations, I had only the option of scrolling with my mouse/track pad.  This became awkward and occasionally inconvenient when wanting to scroll with speed and precision.  This however, turned out to be strength on the programmer’s behalf as I later found out he added a side-scroll bar into the Emerson text.
  2. Also, searching with the “search text” tool does not search through the annotations: the most unique and intriguing part about Highbrow.


“Immersing into Emerson”

Although I am admittedly, and quite ashamed, not familiar with much of Emerson’s work, I had a lot more fun experimenting with Highbrow at this point.  I also had a lot more opportunity to see exactly why Rohrbach and Tagnani were suggesting that fun in a classroom could be facilitated with Highbrow.  So too, could I juxtapose the use of  Voyeur with it, discovering that the tool pairing make up for many shortcomings of the other and complement one another nicely.

I did not figure out a way of imputing the annotations themselves into Voyeur;  the results of which would have been more than thrilling for me at this point.  However, alternatively, I input the entirety of Emerson’s  “Intellect” into Voyeur and produced the following the results:

It was interesting to see (note: the top right corner of the ‘Word Trends’ chart) the correlation of Voyeur’s trending of truth and the identical spike pattern formed when put into a “track” in Highbrow.  True, data is data, the solidification of cohesiveness between the tools was refreshing given the complications presented throughout Phase II.  A few tools disagreed with one another more than once leaving room for doubt about the effectiveness of one or each tool.  I returned to the Voyant interface and I noticed shortcomings about Voyeur I hadn’t picked up on before.  When coming back to Voyeur again after a long absence and recently experimenting with Highbrow, I found that the Corpus Reader is excruciatingly ineffective in comparison to that of Highbrow’s navigation and heat-map highlighting layout.  Side by side, Voyeur is obviously lacking however, that is just the Corpus Reader.  Voyeur obviously has visual advantages, as best exemplified in my blog post: Singing with the Gravedigger, over Highbrow many of which are not as effective as they could be with Highbrow without first extracting user commentary.  I would love to see how Highbrow could be further taken into the other tools of ENGL203 and how it could match up with the other tools.  The ability to calculate frequencies within the text to then correlate with Highbrow’s human annotations based on activity spikes.


Putting it into Practice: “Reading with the Stars…and Scholarly Peers”

Rohrbach and Tagnani mentioned that what gauged the most reaction from students was an amalgamation of peer interaction and the public stage of the web.  This excitement and student exchange was part of the framework of our own classroom setting in English 203.  At one point in the “Prof. Hacker” blog post, they mention – “Indeed, when our students at WSU found out that they could read comments from a group of students approaching the text from a different context, the excitement was palpable: they wanted to see what students from another school and another kind of class thought about the text.”  Attempting to set Highbrow onto a classroom was probably one of the cleverest things possible for its capabilities and emphasizes each of the strengths that I discovered in my journey with “Reading with the Stars.”  They are as follows:

  • As the writers of the aforementioned blog post eloquently put it, Highbrow is like “reading through the lens of established experts.”   How much more fortunate can any student get?  For academic writing, the ability to have elite annotations from several centuries, alongside hypothesis testing tools such as Voyeur, would improve the quality standard of essays, academic papers and critical thinking as a whole.
  • On top of that, and providing further fuel for student minds, Engles is an actively involved programmer.  Rohrbach and Tagnani proved this in their described discourse with the creator,  illustrating him as delighted to assist and collaborate with them in their effort to establish “Reading with the Stars” at Washington State University.  Engles’ Alpha 2 is a screen cast about the highly enticing concept (and his plan) to incorporate multimedia into Highbrow.  In short, and certainly not doing the theory justice; the video really is a must watch, he is attempting to add the interactivity of annotating into multimedia such as videos as well as adding famous artwork based on literature as new tracks or perhaps timelines.  The video demo is, of course, not without his signature organization strategy of cutting the whole into tidy segments.  Further adding to his dedication, and as a result adding to the strength of the browser itself, Engles mentions that he is devoted to “adding new features every week for the next few months.”
  • We’re not done yet folks!  Highbrow/Reading with the Stars also provides potential benefits for the educators!  Associate Professor Augusta Rohrbach says herself that in her own classroom: “There is simply not time for everyone to contribute every class period, and the less confident and more introverted students find it easy to just hide in the crowd.”  This becomes true for every class discussing a literary work(s) and especially when it comes to analyzing said literary text; tenfold in a humanities lab.  When everyone wants to speak and provide a lengthy explanation, only 5-10 out of 100 get to speak and the hesitant/shy students are left quiet in the back row with their potentially break-through ideas remaining unfulfilled or expanded.  With Highbrow and Voyeur, alongside perhaps a more textual based tool like Wordhoard or Tapor; students can collaborate and build a strong and thorough breakdown of a text using mediums that best suits how their thoughts progress.  As commentary builds on the ever-growing student tree of side notes – the more each thought fuels newer, deeper questions.  Where the previous problem was too many voices and not enough space, the issue evolves into a strength for the classrooms digital environment: the more the merrier.  With so many voices and thoughts flowing via annotations, and with the superior organization of text Highbrow offers, professors can keep “track” of it (pun intended) easily by monitoring separate student tracks and annotation spikes.  More information regarding this and other ideas can be found in Engles’ third installment of his screen cast tutorials: Alpha 3: Interactive Editing.
  • One of the comment reviews about Highbrow I agree with the highest enthusiasm is that of anonymous ‘Tim’ who says “[It] would be wonderful for Buddhist studies which has 2000 years’ worth of commentaries.” This is particularly exciting for collaborating with Voyeur as the view of ancient texts through the lens of modern digital tools would breathe fresh life and doubtless new perspectives for new and old generations alike.
  • Lastly, I would like to point out a particular strength that Highbrow had a high hand over all of the tools English 203 studied: text location and isolation.  The precision Highbrow has displayed remains unmatched by Voyeur and to the best of my knowledge, any of the other tools.  Highbrow, with greater ease than it would be to flip to a chapter in a print book, isolates precise segments (such as cantos and acts) from the rest of the text – ready for examination by eager students.

Highbrow combines both qualitative and quantitative information, whereas Voyeur expands on the quantitative.  As I mentioned in an earlier “Phase I” blog post Voyeur is mainly a hypothesis testing tool – putting words into math-like calculations which may then potentially be further speculated.  Highbrow/Reading with the Stars, as it is peer and comment based, is most likely most useful for hypothesis generating.  Together: THEY WILL BE VICTORIOUS (too much?)


The End?
I think the connected functionality of this program will lead to a more united classroom.  It could potentially further encourage layering peer thoughts creating one or two linear thoughts as opposed to a separated classroom movement. Although English 203 came together, and watching it come together was probably one of the most enjoyable aspects about blogging, I could see a place for Highbrow as an addition to any classroom rather than a replacement altogether. Blog posts would continue to allow students to freely express and layout their personal thoughts on a page, easily a necessity in this course; and Highbrow to draw out the introverts and build confidence in their ideas as well as shine a new light on the same text for everyone to realize ideas they didn’t know they had.  The next logical step for books is digital humanities, evidently, but we don’t want to lose our relationship with the stories, authors and text. Together, we make it stronger instead of simply replicating the effect of annotations by peer commenting and annotating.

With the addition of Voyeur, visual stimuli would undoubtedly lead “students to think more deeply about those passages, passages that they may have initially ‘took at surface level,’” (as one student had mentioned) – not unlike the realizations of our own humanities course by semester’s end.  Although Highbrow does not at first seem much different than our own classroom blogging method, the ability to annotate alongside the text increases the student relationship with the writer and text (much like writing all over our hard copies has done for us in the past) and decrease writer’s block intimidation and perfectionism.  It’s like building an anthology, complete with graphs, for future classes or perhaps assisting other classrooms and students across the world!


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