Leonie Kirchhoff, Miriam Lahrsow & Angelika Zirker, Tübingen University

Students frequently groan when they have to read poetry or historically remote literary texts.  A complaint like “That’s so difficult. I just don’t get what the author is trying to say” is a common reaction. In a peer-learning project at the English Department of Tübingen University in Germany, students realise that this difficulty may be overcome. The Tübingen Explanatory Annotations System (TEASys) has been developed under the supervision of Matthias Bauer and Angelika Zirker (Bauer and Zirker “Whipping Boys Explained”; Bauer and Zirker “Explanatory Annotation”). It has the aim to identify what exactly makes a text difficult to understand and to address these issues in explanatory annotations written by student peer-groups (usually consisting of 5–6 students). In the following, we will show how annotating Shakespeare’s sonnets, as an example of ‘difficult’ poetry, requires close reading, research, and writing skills (in our case, in a second language). All annotations are published to be used by readers of Shakespeare’s sonnets who wish to learn more about these texts and to understand them better. The digital tool allows for ongoing revision, as well as the structuring of information provided in the annotations. Student annotators meet regularly in class, but also do some of the work (such as research) independently.

Writing Component

Annotation, in-class, group writing, editing, independent research


Shakespeare, poetry, Early Modern, novel, drama

Group size

Max. 30

Level of Difficulty

Intermediate and advanced undergraduate


TEASys is a heuristic tool embedded in a digital interactive platform for annotation. It can be used for e-learning and classwork. Students can annotate poems afresh, or discuss works that have already been annotated and published on the system.

TEASys incorporates a classification system. Annotations are classified by complexity (from basic to advanced) and category (the kind of information provided). Each annotation addresses at least one of eight categories:

– Language: the meaning of words and phrases

– Form: the literariness of a text passage (e.g. poetic devices)

– Intratext: the relation of a passage to the rest of the text

– Intertext: references to other texts

– Context: background knowledge (e.g. historical, social, cultural)

– Interpretation: reflections on the meaning and effect of the annotated section

– Questions: unresolved issues and directions for research

– Textual Variants: different versions of the primary text

The interplay of categories allows readers to choose the level of complexity and category of information they wish to receive when trying to understand a text with the help of annotations (Bauer and Zirker “Explanatory Annotation”). Conversely, TEASys allows student annotators to reflect on whether they are providing facts or interpretations of a text, and how relevant their information is to understanding the text.


Instructors and students register on the Annotating Literature website [INSERT HYPERLINK: http://annotations.cbeuter.de/annotations/registration.php]. This allows them to add their own annotations and to become familiar with the guidelines of the TEASys annotation system. It is useful to scaffold the practical annotation with general and theoretical approaches to annotating literary texts (e.g. Battestin, Goulden, Jansohn, Small, and Wall).

1. Each group chooses a text, reads it and searches for words/passages they do not understand or that they deem problematic.

2. Each member of a group chooses a few words/passages of their text, conducting research to write first drafts of annotations.

3. The drafts are presented and reviewed in class.

4. The students use feedback to revise their annotations

5. (Optional) Further presentation/discussion on revised annotations.

6. Finished annotations are uploaded to the website.


TEASys has proved to be an excellent teaching and learning tool: instead of telling students what a text means, they are invited to make sense of it themselves and to make their findings accessible by publishing them on the project website. Seeing their annotations published online proves to be a motivation for students to elaborate on their annotations and revise them continuously (see Stroud 215). The different steps of the annotating process inform a scholarly approach to the text, helping students to reflect critically and ask questions that might not have come up otherwise. Using TEASys, students learn to scrutinise, research, assess, and interpret texts. The collaborative writing of annotations enhances an exchange of ideas among peers and encourages reflection on research methods. The skills acquired throughout the process provide students with an effective approach to literary texts in the future.

Receiving feedback by peers as well as the instructors at all stages of the process increases students’ awareness of the different aspects of close reading and academic writing. Students and teachers can mutually benefit from this process: the repeated feedback loops help teachers identify problems in understanding and document students’ approaches to a literary text. The digital annotation of literature is a sustainable teaching tool that increases understanding and fosters student motivation to work with difficult texts.


Sample Annotation: Shakespeare, “Sonnet 81”

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,

Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;

From hence your memory death cannot take,

Although in me each part will be forgotten.

The item “your memory” in line three was annotated as follows:

[Level 1]


“Your memory” is ambiguous here. It can mean (1) ‘people’s remembrance of you’ or (2) ‘your own memory of something/someone (i.e. of the speaker)’.

[Level 2]


The two meanings of “your memory” correspond to the first lines of the poem:

(1) If the speaker survives to make the addressee’s epitaph (l. 1), “your memory” means ‘people’s remembrance of you’.

(2) If the addressee survives the speaker (l. 2), “your memory” means ‘your own memory of something/someone (i.e. of the speaker)’. In this case, the addressee’s memory of the speaker will not end with the speaker’s death, because the addressee still has the poems to remind him of their writer.

Only as late as line five does it become clear that the first meaning is the most probable (“your name” will be remembered).

Works Cited

Bauer, Matthias and Angelika Zirker. “Whipping Boys Explained: Literary Annotation and Digital Humanities.” Literary Studies in the Digital Age: An Evolving Anthology, ed. Ray Siemens and Kenneth M. Price, Dec. 2015. DOI: 10.1632/lsda.2015.12

—. “Explanatory Annotation of Literary Texts and the Reader: Seven Types of Problems.” International Journal of Humanities and Arts Computing, vol. 11, no. 2, 2017, pp. 212-232.

Battestin, Martin C. “A Rationale of Literary Annotation: The Example of Fielding’s Novel.” Studies in Bibliography: Papers of the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, vol. 34, 1981, pp. 1–22.

Goulden, Lorraine D. “Approaches to the Contextual Annotation of Nineteenth-Century Historical Fiction: Constructing an Ideal Reader’s Response.” English Studies in Canada, vol. 27, nos. 1-2, 2001, pp. 141–163.

Jansohn, Christa. “Annotating as Cultural Activity or, Re-constructing the Past for the Present.” Problems of Editing, ed. Christa Jansohn, Niemeyer, 1999, pp. 211–23.

Small, Ian. “The Editor as Annotator as Ideal Reader.” The Theory and Practice of Text-Editing: Essays in Honour of James T. Boulton, ed. Ian Small and James T. Boulton, CUP, 1991, pp. 186–208.

Stroud, Matthew D. “The Closest Reading: Creating Annotated Online Editions.” Approaches to Teaching Early Modern Spanish Drama, ed. Laura R. Bass and Margaret R. Greer,  MLA, 2006, pp. 214-19.

Wall, Stephen. “Annotated English Novels?” Essays in Criticism, vol. 32, no .1, 1982, pp. 1–8.