John Attridge, University of New South Wales


In this assignment, students in a third-year undergraduate course collectively produced an online annotated text of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Each student worked individually to produce four annotations to a randomly assigned chapter of the novel, and these annotations were posted publicly to an online edition that I created on WordPress, using a social annotation software called Students also wrote a commentary in which they reflected on the implications of one or more of the annotations for their understanding of the novel.

The assignment aims to develop:

+ experience with one of the tasks performed by scholarly editors, which students are familiar with through the scholarly editions they study during their degree

+ research skills, by requiring students to pursue an independent research task with considerable autonomy to choose their own focus

+ close reading skills, by requiring students to focus on particular textual details rather than more general observation


Undergraduate English instruction tends to focus on literary criticism, literary history and literary theory rather than the various activities that might be grouped under the rubrics of textual scholarship and scholarly editing. Yet, as Ian Small has argued, far from being “laborious, crude, and naively historicist,” scholarly editing and annotation in fact confront “a great many of the problems recently identified by contemporary literary theorizing” (Small 186). Moreover, the annotations that students are accustomed to find in the texts they are set to read rest on a network of methodological assumptions that tend to go unnoticed and undiscussed. This annotation exercise is designed to make students more conscious of this form of scholarly work and to prompt them to think about the choices that are embedded in the scholarly texts they study over the course of their degree.

Students responded creatively to this prompt and enjoyed the freedom they were given to choose the details they wanted to annotate. They also appreciated that the task produced a public digital object, which could potentially be useful to readers of the novel. One student noted in a course evaluation response that

“It enabled us to work on something that resembled a real world assignment, an editorial task that I could actually conceive myself doing one day if I were to work in publishing or the like”

(Anonymous course evaluation, 2021).  

As this comment suggests, annotation-based assessment can serve as an instance of what Grant Wiggins calls “authentic assessment,” anchored in “the kind of work real people do” (Wiggins 21).

In addition to the instructions appended below, students were guided in their choice of details to annotate by class discussion of the notes to Michael Anesko’s monumental Cambridge University Press edition of the novel. Despite the foreignness of the task, I found that, in practice, students experienced little difficulty in selecting appropriate details for annotation. The most significant conceptual hurdle was the fact that the annotations themselves were not intended to contain the kind of interpretation and analysis that most English assessments require students to perform. For the annotation part of the exercise—as opposed to the commentary—students thus needed to unlearn a habit that they were accustomed to regard as integral to the practice of reading in literary studies. Although I did not assign methodological readings in this particular course, and students reached a common-sense understanding of the explanation/interpretation distinction after considering examples of the former, there would be scope in other contexts to assign readings on scholarly annotation that address this question. One pertinent source in this connection would be Thomson 2020, which explicitly addresses the unstable distinction between explanation and interpretation.

Successful annotations provided factual information about topics including: works of art and other objects (e.g. Hansom cabs, Dresden-china); places; historical figures; and cultural practices (e.g. afternoon tea). Another suggested research avenue was James’s own career and some of the best annotations drew on criticism and resources like Henry James in Context to relate details in the text to James’s other works or his biography. For example, some students cross-referenced places in Portrait with James’s descriptions of the same places in other stories or in Italian Hours. Students also responded creatively to the instruction to look for details in the text that might not seem to require elucidation. One annotation, for example, productively contextualised Lord Warburton’s proposal in relation to a vein of nationalist disapproval in contemporary American culture towards marriages between American women and European men. While this information might be too granular and tangential to appear in an actual scholarly edition, I encouraged students to think laterally about what they might choose to annotate.

In terms of pitfalls that some students encountered as they completed the task, selecting a detail that was concrete enough to be explored in the space of a single annotation was one source of difficulty. Less successful annotations included ones that provided a necessarily superficial account of an overly broad or abstract topic, such as the British Empire, or ones that linked several related historical observations rather than investigating a single detail in more depth. At the other extreme, some students chose details that afforded little latitude for research and explanation, such as glossing foreign or unusual words – although there was room in the assignment to combine this more pedestrian kind of annotation with more original or creative ones.

The collective dimension of the task was popular, with one student commenting that

“I liked the group aspect of it! I thought it was fun to see what others wrote about, helped foster a sort of ‘learning community’ and wasn’t competitive as everyone had different chapters”.

(Anonymous course evaluation, 2021)

Researchers have noted that social annotation can foster the same kind of social interaction and collective learning as threaded discussion forums while at the same time foregrounding the text being discussed by tying comments to textual locations (Sun and Gao 77). The positive student response to the visibility of other students’ comments accords with the findings outlined in Clap, DeCoursey, Lee and Li, which emphasises that “students understood the annotation process as an opportunity to see what others are thinking” (305). It would be possible to further develop this collective dimension by framing the task as a group assignment, rather than a collection of individual research projects. A fruitful extension might also be for students to respond to the annotations made by another member of the class.

The commentary part of the assignment elicited some highly original responses, partly because students were obliged to focus on particular details and were deflected away from some standard English essay strategies. In general, the fact that the task differed significantly from common essay-based modes of assessment was positively received.

As the lengthy instructions below suggest, the unfamiliar nature of the task meant that more guidance was required than for a more conventional assignment, with regard both to the aim of the annotations and the research methods involved. There wasn’t space in this particular course to devote much class time to the practice of scholarly editing and annotation, outside of the bare minimum needed to complete the task, but as noted above, it would be interesting to integrate this assignment with readings on, for example, the history of annotation as a reading practice (see Barney 1991; Small 1991; Eggert 2012; Thomson 2020).

The application we used,, worked well. It’s free, easy to use and supports multimedia annotations, so students were able to post images of, for example, works of art and locations mentioned in the text. It’s easy to call up all of an individual’s annotations by clicking on their username and, although wasn’t integrated with the course LMS, it was not too onerous to have the annotations open in one window and the marking rubric that I created in another. I also use this software for some other purposes, such as making annotations during group activities in class, so students were somewhat accustomed to it when they completed the assignment.  

James’s The Portrait of a Lady is well-suited to this exercise for several reasons. James’s large oeuvre and the extensive secondary literature that exists on his work meant that students were often able to draw connections between Portrait and James’s life and other writings, including especially his own visits to places described in Portrait and references to those places that appear in other texts. The two readily accessible published versions of Portrait—the original 1871 text and the New York Edition—also meant that some students were able to discuss textual variants in their notes, although most students eschewed this form of annotation.

At the same time, this exercise could profitably be conducted on any out-of-copyright text or other text that exists in a publicly accessible online form. While “old” books and textual variants provide obvious fodder for annotation, the task’s core learning outcomes, including familiarising students with a kind of scholarly labour that is frequently overlooked in undergraduate instruction, could be transferred intact to other contexts. Although the historical remoteness of Portrait provided the basis for many annotations, it is easy to imagine students glossing more contemporary texts. Indeed, for a contemporary text, discussion around what might need to be glossed for a reader in ten, twenty or fifty years’ time might prompt useful reflection on the kinds of tacit cultural competence that students possess as readers.

Below are the task description and additional instructions that I gave to students, as well as suggestions for sources and research methods and a brief how-to for using

Task description, instructions and resources

This assignment has two parts: the annotations and the commentary. Students enter their annotations into an online edition of The Portrait of a Lady hosted on WordPress, using a free software called An information sheet about using is provided at the end of these task instructions.

Part 1. Annotations. 20 marks.

Make 4 explanatory annotations to the chapter you have chosen. 

Which chapter do I annotate?

You need to choose one chapter from two options that have been randomly assigned to you. The first option is from chapters 1-29 (column c) and the second option is from chapters 30-55 (column d).

It’s best to read your two options as soon as you can, so you can settle on one well in advance of the due date. Normally, you’d just read them as you read the novel, though you can of course skip ahead (spoiler alert).   

Any chapter in Portrait should provide more than enough material. However, if you read your two chapters and really feel that they won’t do, it is possible to change. In this event, you just need to let me know, and I’ll assign you another randomly chosen chapter.


Your annotations should elucidate details of the text or uses of language that might be unfamiliar to a contemporary reader. The basic model for this exercise is the notes that appear in “scholarly” or “critical” editions (consider, for example, the excerpt posted in the LMS from the notes to the Cambridge University Press edition of Portrait). However, you have a bit more license here than most scholarly annotators. You can annotate details that don’t necessarily require explanation, but that a contemporary reader might like to know more about, and you can also go into more detail in your annotation than a normal scholarly annotation would contain.

These annotations should be more factual than interpretive. Unlike in an ordinary close reading, the aim is not to make arguments about how the language works or to notice subtle nuances of meaning. You can use your judgment, but in general everything in the notes should be fairly objective, not dependent on your personal response to the text.

Often, you will want to say something about what this detail means in the context in which it appears in the novel. Use your judgment about whether this is necessary or not.

Length: Each annotation should be between 100 words and 200 words in length. Where appropriate, you can include images in your annotation.

What can I annotate?

Typically, scholarly annotations are about words that are used in the text or things that are mentioned in the text that an ordinary reader wouldn’t understand. Details that are often annotated in scholarly editions include, but are not limited to: historical figures and events; works of literature and literary characters; other works of art; places; things that were part of everyday life at the time which have become foreign to us, like, for example, technologies, currencies and forms of transport.

In this exercise, though, rather than just explaining details that otherwise would be unfamiliar, you can also provide further information about details that might on the surface be fairly clear. For example, the first sentence of The Portrait of a Lady mentions afternoon tea. An annotation might provide information about the ceremony of afternoon tea in England in the late 19th century.  

Everyday things and objects can make good annotatable details. If, for example, the text mentions an umbrella, you might want to see what you can find out about umbrellas at the time the novel was written, to see if this could provide a valuable annotation.

A different kind of annotation concerns James’s revisions to Portrait of a Lady for the 1908 NY Edition. Most of these changes are not very significant but if you find 2-3 notable changes, it’s OK to combine these together into a single 100-200 word annotation. The changes have been compiled in the Cambridge UP critical edition of the novel, edited by Michael Anesko.

Scholarly annotations sometimes explain a use of language or image that is difficult for a contemporary reader to understand. You’re probably familiar with this kind of annotation from studying Shakespeare, for example. In general, you should avoid this kind of annotation for the purposes of this exercise.

If you have other ideas and you aren’t sure if they’re appropriate, feel free to ask me.

Research: You can use any kind of source for this part. But it will probably be easier to produce more interesting and valuable annotations if you dig a little bit beyond the most obvious sources. See below for a starter list of resources to help with researching your annotations.

Works cited: Please include a list of the sources you have referred to at the end of each note. You don’t need to cite them in the text of the note, but make sure you don’t repeat anything verbatim – it must be in your own words.

Making valuable annotations

A good annotation is one that gives accurate information about a detail of the text in such a way that a curious reader’s understanding of the text is enhanced. 

For example, in Chapter 20, Mrs Touchett compares Isabel Archer to a Cimabue Madonna (a painting of Mary by the Italian painter Cimabue). This is an eminently annotatable detail! A good annotation might answer these questions:

Who was “Cimabue”? What are some of his famous Madonnas? What are the characteristics of his painting style and, relatedly, what is Mrs Touchett probably trying to say? It might also attach an image.

This would probably be enough for a good annotation. However, you can go further than this with your research, to produce an annotation that is even more valuable to the reader of this specific text. For example:

Does James refer to Cimabue in any of his other writings? Where and when might he have seen a Cimabue? Similarly, Mrs Touchett lives in Florence. Where could she have seen a painting by Cimabue? Or, more generally, was Cimabue a popular painter at the time that Portrait was published? Was he referred to often in literature or journalism? 

In short, a good annotation is simply one that chooses a relevant detail and provides accurate information about it, explaining, if necessary, what this information means for our understanding or interpretation of the text. However, you should also consider how you might tailor your research to make it even more valuable, as in the example above.

Part 2. Commentary. 20 marks. 1000 words excluding bibliography.

Write a commentary in which you develop the implications of one or more of your notes for our interpretation of the novel. By “develop the implications for our interpretation”, I mean reflect on how the detail(s) is/are connected to other related aspects of the novel and how and why this pattern of observations is significant – i.e. how it might inform our reading of the text, in large or small ways.

This brief gives you a lot of license in terms of what you write about. For example, if one of your notes concerns the phenomenon of Americans living as expatriates in Britain or Europe, you could use this as a platform to discuss this theme, which is evidently a big part of Portrait. This could be a very good commentary. However, you should try to find the most interesting angle you can, and this might involve choosing a detail as your starting point that is less obvious or less central, and which might open up a more unusual take on the text. 

You can base your commentary on a single annotation, but it might make for a richer or more complex commentary if you are able to discuss two or more related annotations.

Research for the commentary

You can use any sources you want for this part, both “scholarly”, as we say, and non-scholarly, as long as it’s trustworthy. At the same time, however, if you think that you are able to write an interesting commentary without doing any additional research (beyond the research that you have done to prepare the note), this is OK. 

If you refer to any sources other than the novel to prepare your commentary, you must include a bibliography

Research leads

These are some resources that might be helpful in researching your annotations:

Primary resources

Gale Newsvault (database). This is a newspaper database, including many published during the C19th. If you’re looking for contemporary references to something, you can try a keyword search and limit the dates to the period we’re interested in. You can also find some reviews of Portrait on here.

C19th travel guides could be helpful if you want info on a particular place from this historical period. E.g. Bradshaw’s Illustrated Hand-book to Italy.  Many of these are digitised on For example, here is a link to the 1895 edition of Bradshaw’s

Henry James, Complete Notebooks, ed. Leon Edel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987). Available from

Secondary resources

Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1985). A biography of James, which can be “borrowed” from There are other more recent biographies, but this one has the advantage of being remotely accessible. Consulting a biography could be useful if you want to find out whether or when James visited a location mentioned in the novel.

Elaine Freedgood, The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). This is useful background reading if you’re thinking about annotating a thing or object, and Freedgood’s examples might suggest ways of approaching for your annotation and/or commentary.

Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady, ed. Michael Anesko (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016). This critical or scholarly edition tabulates all of the changes that James made when he reissued Portrait as part of the New York Edition. It also contains very detailed informational annotations – it’s fine to draw on these in your own annotations, though I’d also like you to find things to annotate that traditional scholarly editions overlook.

David McWhirter, ed. Henry James in Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)This book has many short essays on various historical themes. It’s worth checking to see if there’s one on a relevant subject, like “visual art”, for example, or “telegraphy”.

MLA Bibliography (database). This database indexes literary research. If someone has written an essay on, e.g., “Henry James and Italian painting”, or “Rome in Victorian literature”, this might a good place to find information for your annotation.

How to sign up and use

1. To get set up, follow the instructions on the start-up page.

2. If you are using the “bookmarklet”, and not the Chrome extension, go directly to step 3. If you are using the Chrome extension, you need to change one setting. Follow the instructions on the page.

3. When you are logged into, you will be able to highlight text on the online edition of Portrait and make annotations.

4. When making your annotations, remember to either post them to Public (default) or, if you prefer, to the course group.

5. Please keep a backup of your annotations and draft them in a word processing program first, before pasting them into If you want to make your annotationsprivate until you are finished, you can do this by posting them to a new group that you create, with yourself as the only member. But if you do this, don’t forget to make them public before the due date!

Works cited

Barney, Stephen A. (1991). Annotation and Its Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Clapp, J., DeCoursey, M., Lee, S. W. S., & Li, K. (2021). “‘Something fruitful for all of us’: Social annotation as a signature pedagogy for literature education.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 20(3): 295–319. 

Eggert, Paul (2012). “The Hand of the Present.” Textual Cultures: Texts, Contexts, Interpretation, 7(2): 3–19.

Small, Ian (1991). “The editor as annotator as ideal reader” in Ian Small and Marcus Walsh, eds, The Theory and Practice of Text-Editing: Essays in Honour of James T. Bolton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 186-209.

Sun, Yanyan and Gao, Fei (2017). “Comparing the use of a social annotation tool and a threaded discussion forum to support online discussions.” The Internet and Higher Education, 32: 72-79.

Thomson, Tara (2020). “Annotating the Everyday in a Modernist Scholarly Edition.” Modernist Cultures,15 (1): 92-109.