Reflections on Teaching Moby-Dick Through Collaborative Digital Annotation

PALS warmly welcomes Nadhia Grewal to the site for a guest post on Moby-Dick. Grewal explains how she helped her students tackle reading the book through a digital annotation activity. Find other PALS Moby-Dick content here, here, and here.

In ‘Inventing the Nation: Mid-Nineteenth Century American Literature’, an undergraduate class in the English and Comparative Literature department, we examined nineteenth-century American literature from authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, and Henry David Thoreau. Throughout the year, I incorporated digital activities in and outside of class in order to build community and provide a useful resource to catalogue the day-to-day learning. For example, when studying Thoreau’s Walden, students created personal photographic reflections that they posted to the class Padlet. This was coupled with an in-class activity that began with watching two videos of Walden Pond from Christina Katopodis’ The Walden Soundscape that led to think-pair-share where students could tie together their responses to both the photographs and the video before beginning discussion questions. These two activities were used to prompt students to think creatively by creating a personal and communal experience that then lead to dialogue and reflection during the seminar discussions. Because of the success of these activities, I decided to further explore using free digital tools when tackling Moby-Dick later in the year.

How to approach teaching Moby-Dick?

Having taken this class myself as an undergraduate, I remember the anxiety induced panic that came from not only getting through the weekly assignments and reading but also from the final exam which counts for 50% of the final grade. Reading Moby-Dick towards the end of the year means that the anxiety keeps building. From the first weeks of the class students were already asking, “We are going to be reading Moby-Dick, right? That’s like 800 pages.”

After the Thoreau class, I knew that I wanted to make some of the in-class learning interactive. I, also, considered that interactive group work might assuage some of their trepidation about the book. And I hoped that group work would make Moby-Dick a more enjoyable and fun (dare I say it) experience.

Taking cues from Jesse Stommel’s ‘Hybridity, PT.2: What is Hybrid Pedagogy’ and Mitchel Resnick’s ‘Sowing the Seeds for a More Creative Society, my aim was to create interactive active learning opportunities in the seminar that could be continued virtually outside of class. So, for the final learning activity for Moby-Dick, I decided that the task would be to collaboratively digitally annotate a selection of critical extracts. I intended to broaden the conversations we were having by including critical texts for the students to analyze. 

Because of the vast amount of material on Moby-Dick, I wanted to narrow the topics of the critical extracts for the students. In order to do this, I needed to know specifically what my students wanted to explore. So, I created an online poll using PollEverywhere where I was able to ask them to consider the following questions: what theme /character/chapter of Moby-Dick would you like to cover in greater detail? and what questions do you have? The results from the poll provided me the information that they wanted to explore the parallels between Ahab and the whale, homosexuality and male eroticism, individuality and nonconformity, and the question of whiteness. One student astutely posing the question: ‘Why is the whale called Moby Dick?’

Using these results, I went on to construct a google doc with a focused set of critical secondary material. Because the students were also giving presentations, I did not have them create or add to the google doc prior to class. Along with the data from the poll, I also added in excerpts from: ‘Red Blood, White Bones: The Native American Presence in Moby-Dick’and Birgit Brander Rasmussen’s Queequeg’s Coffin: Indigenous Literacies and Early American Literature to add some interpretations that took into account Indigenous imagery in the text

The digital annotation task first began with a question guide from Robert Paul Lamb’s ‘Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish: Teaching Melville’s Moby-Dick in the College Classroom’. Lamb’s question guide visualizes thematic oppositions in the text and presented an opportunity for students to explore these tensions in Moby-Dick. Each student group was given a different color to highlight the chart with. They were also instructed to type in the color they were assigned. I first asked them to highlight three pairs of opposites that they thought were the most important in Moby-Dick. They were next instructed to highlight and annotate the pairs in response to these questions: Which ones does Melville deconstruct or uphold? and How is each set connected? They also were instructed to annotate by creating comments on the pairs they highlighted. Thus, they were pushed to explain why they highlighted a specific opposition.

See an example of a filled out question guide below. A sample blank question guide is at the end of the text.

The students were particularly motivated by the other students’ comments as they were added. They were very excited that they could see each other’s work in real-time. As I visited each group, the students were discussing what other students were highlighting and commenting upon the different perspectives.

After this part, students were prompted to choose a topic from the outline in the google doc. These were the topics that they brainstormed ahead of time that they might be interested in. The topics were matched to critical extracts which were posted after the question guide in the google doc. They were instructed to read through a critical extract in a similar manner as they did with the question guide. They annotated the extract comments and questions. I also sprinkled my own questions throughout the doc to further prompt them if discussion slowed.

What did students really think?

To get some idea of what the students really thought about the class I provided them with a survey where they could rate out of 5 if they were able to explore what they were interested in and whether the poll made them feel their learning needs were taken into account. Overall, the class gave a 4/5 to the experience. I, then, asked students to answer how the poll affected the class and if the tasks supported their learning. Despite one student declaring that it was difficult to answer since they did not like Moby-Dick, students commented that liked that they could revisit the google doc to re-read the comments and how it “lead me other interpretations and interests that in turn informed my own, allowing for a richer perspective overall”. They also felt that the poll, where they got to rate their interests, was helpful because it provided a structure to the session and encouraged preparation. This learning activity helped students see the novel in a different way and by making the activity interactive it also made the experience more fun. 

As I continue to reflect on and respond to this experience, the impact these classes had was clearly valuable to myself as an educator and to my students. I was able to get an insight into my students critical responses and empower them with tools to enhance their learning, which made for a rewarding teaching experience. My advice: start with free tools and listen to the responses from your students. Perhaps studying Moby-Dick can be seen as an opportunity rather than a chore. 

Nadhia Grewal is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Goldsmiths University of London. She has recently taught courses on nineteenth-century American literature. Her dissertation studies young adult perspectives on hunting, horror, and the environment in twenty-first century American and Native American literature.

Blank Question Guide

humans/naturecannibalism or capitalism/communalism
land (lee shore)/seameditation/action
individual/societytrue Christianity/sham Christianity
religion/economicscommercial desires/spiritual desires
head (thought)/heart (feeling)real nobility/social status
human society/the extra-human worldslavery/democracy
innocence/experienceowners (capitalists)/workers (producers)
isolation/communitythe “Me”/the “not-Me”
agent/principalnecessity/free will
marketplace/domestic hearthsubmission/independence
civilized hypocrisies/Highest Truthchance/necessity

Making Room for BIG Books

Despite what some students might think, a semester is really short!

All instructors know the feeling of wanting to cover more material than a semester can actually hold. As a result, perhaps especially in survey or genre courses potentially covering centuries of literature, we often opt to teach shorter-length works or excerpts from longer works. While this gives us the satisfaction of “covering more ground” and the assurance that students will (hopefully) complete assigned readings, doesn’t a BIG part of literary study involve reading BIG books?

While I don’t have a rigid definition in mind of what constitutes “big” or “long,” I generally mean works, usually novels, of 400+ pages.  I know people have different educational experiences, but when I reflect on both my high school and college careers, I realize I didn’t read many “big” or “long” works at all. It wasn’t until graduate school that I was regularly assigned long novels in my classes.

Throughout college, I found that most of my long novel reading was non-assigned. If my instructors mentioned important canonical works in class, I often made a point to find them in the library and read them during my free time or during winter/summer breaks. BIG BOOKs

There are certainly still self-motivated students who read a lot on their own time, but they’re not necessarily reading “big” books. Also, many students, despite the desire to read more, really don’t have the time to do so between taking classes or working.

If experience and training in reading “big” books is essential to the development of English majors, and average English majors can’t fit “big” books in on their own time, then it’s important to make room for “big” books in our courses whenever we can. I try to incorporate at least one long novel into each of my literature classes.

Of course, making room for a 400+ page novel is easier said than done, and both instructors and students have their concerns. While I speak on behalf of common instructor concerns below, I interviewed several former students who read “long” novels in my classes to get a better idea of their perspectives (I paraphrase much of their commentary below for the sake of format).

Instructor Concerns about Course Objectives: I have a lot of historical ground to cover, so can I replace several shorter works with one longer work and still convey historical developments? It’s also important for my class to convey stylistic range and authorial diversity, so can I really afford to sacrifice any voices?

My Response: Meeting course objectives is generally non-negotiable. In survey courses or courses where diversity is an essential objective, including a “big” book may not be feasible.  However, I usually only include one long novel per applicable class, so there is still room to include shorter length works and diverse range of voices.

Instructor Concerns about Pacing: How much class time do I need to devote to a long novel? How much reading can I expect students to complete for each class? Will my students even read a long novel through to the end?

Student Concerns about Pacing: How long are we spending with this huge novel? Will I have enough time to read, or will I have to skim? Will the language and style be readable or difficult? Will the subject matter be hard to understand? If we’re only spending two weeks on it, how much of the material will we actually cover during class? Is it worth putting in all the time to read a huge novel if we’re only spending a couple weeks on it?

Response: Several semesters ago, I considered including Moby-Dick in a genre class on the novel. A seasoned colleague told me not to bother. He said, “It’s too long and too old. No one will read it.” I think it’s unfair to assume that students simply won’t complete an assigned work just because it’s too long or too old. We all know that students don’t always complete readings, even when they’re short and contemporary.

Moby Dick

Upon talking to students, I’m most compelled by a frustration they share. Many students are not, despite popular belief, frustrated by a large quantity of reading, but by the disproportional amount of class time devoted to discussing a large quantity of reading. Students are practical about their time, and I can’t blame them. When students invest a lot of time in reading, they want to see a return on that investment by discussing material comprehensively in class. It makes sense that students will invest more in a text that takes up a month of class time rather than a week.  As my students explain, regardless of length, it’s frustrating to read something that goes unaddressed during class.

The ability to complete readings successfully is dependent upon slow pacing, which prevents students from rushing or skimming through a narrative and feeling “mixed up” or “hazy” on points during discussion.  When more class time is devoted to a work, students are not only more likely to finish reading but also to have a stronger comprehension of what they read.

Additionally, the students I interviewed expressed enthusiasm about having extended class time to think “more deeply” about a work, cover “more territory,” and explore “diverse perspectives” during discussion. Even in advanced classes where strong students could reasonably be expected to complete 200-300 pages of reading in a week, it’s unlikely we could do more than scratch the surface of those 300 pages in a week’s worth of discussion.

In matters of pacing, instructors also need to consider the language, style, and density of the material. For example, I usually spend four to five weeks on John Steinbeck’s 600ish page novel East of Eden, but I usually spend six to seven weeks on an older work like James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, even though it’s about 150ish pages shorter than Steinbeck’s novel.  While students find that Steinbeck’s narrative is written in readable and mostly conversational contemporary English, students find that Cooper’s long-winded language and convoluted writing style slow down the reading pace.

East of Edenlast of the mohicans

Instructor Concerns about Placement: Where should I position a “long” novel on my syllabus? Is it better to start or finish a class with a “long” novel?

Student Concerns about Placement: Will I have to read a “long” novel during the busiest parts of my semester? Will I feel overwhelmed with all the work I have to do?

Response: I have positioned long novels at the beginning (for reasons of historical chronology), middle, and end of courses, and my experiences have been most successful when placing long novels at the end of a semester. I discovered insight as to why through student interview. As I’ve already addressed, reading “big” books isn’t exactly common practice for most students, so seeing a “long” novel assigned in a class can be feel overwhelming and intimidating. Therefore, throwing students into the “deep end” of the “lengthy literature pool” at the start of the semester isn’t ideal.

Students also disclosed a preference for starting with shorter works, not only to build up reading “endurance” and confidence, but also to get comfortable with the dynamics of group discussion in a given class.  Students are usually comfortable with reading practices and class dynamics by mid-semester, but it’s best to wait until after the chaos of midterms to start a long work. Also, students noted that while they are busy at the end of the semester, most exams and papers are due after classes end. Slowly working through a long novel in the final weeks of a semester, therefore, can feel more “therapeutic” than “taxing.”

Instructor Concerns about Value: Will assigning a long novel be worth it? Will my students really gain anything from the experience?

Student Concerns about Value: Will reading a long novel be worth it? Will I really gain anything from the experience?

Response: When I asked students how they felt after completing a long novel, they agreed that the overall experience is rewarding.  One student noted, “I feel accomplished when I finish a long novel; there is some sort of pride rooted in the ability to complete a task that at first seemed daunting and almost overwhelming.” Another student noted, “After finishing a long novel, the initial feeling that follows is relief. Then, accomplishment–I actually completed something!…If a novel is special enough, something about me changes afterward.”


A BIG part of making sure a BIG book is a BIG hit is generating enthusiasm about the experience throughout the semester. It’s important for students to think of a long novel at the end of the semester as a “grand finale,” not a “final punishment.” Additionally, it’s important to stress that the group will work through the text slowly and that, as the instructor, you’ll be there to walk them through it all. These kinds of consistent prefatory remarks will help students feel (at least) a little better about a task that for many will be a totally new experience.

Do you teach “big” books? If so, what “big” books do you include in your classes? Where do you position them, and how long do you spend with them? How do your students engage with “big” books?