Social Annotation: how to look at a cartoon

This week in class I’ve been using the social annotation software Talis Elevate with students to help them understand what ecofascism is and some of its key features. This is a very important thing to do early on in a module about the politics of nature because ecofascist discourses, as well as materials that might draw unknowingly on some ecofascist tropes, are very common when we talk about nature and landscape. I therefore always want this acvitiy to be almost the first thing we do, so students can recognise and critique far-right narratives as soon as they encounter them. Before delving into the specifics of the exercise, though, I want to acknowledge that it was particularly difficult to talk about the antisemitic elements of ecofascism this week because of the unspeakable, horrific violence taking place in Israel and Gaza. Antisemitism is always hard to talk about, as are the other topics we touched on in class including racism more broadly, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and eugenics. But it was particularly tricky at a moment like this. I will try to write about the charged nature of our classroom conversations another time, when I have had chance to sit with them. For now the difficulty is simply worth noting, so I don’t give the impression that technical fixes like Elevate can enable us to avoid the complexity of some of the conversations that we nevertheless must have.

Returning to social annotation, though, what Elevate does is quite simple. It allows students to click anywhere in a text or an image to create a pin, to which they can add a comment. Students can agree and reply to each other and I can see the conversation as well as judiciously replying or agreeing too. Nothing is anonymous, so it has the feel of a classroom conversation, but it enables students to engage with the image together and in conversation outside of the class.

In this instance, I put a cartoon on Elevate that had previously gone viral among nature-lovers and others on social media and asked them to note any key features, discuss what is going on, what political ideas are being advanced and whether the ideology underlying the cartoon has a name. In the previous week’s work, we had done a reading that touched on ecofascism, so it shouldn’t have been a new concept for most students in the group.

You can see the full exercise and how last year’s students did with it in this video:

The beauty of using a cartoon like this is that it is very concrete and students could pull out lots of individual features of the image from the whiteness and size of the family in the foreground to their heteronormativity; from the implicit racism and homophobia of ideas about ‘shrinking cities’ to the eugenicist implications of the anti-vaccine and mask imagery; from the ableist assumptions to the antisemitic coded langauge. Having noted all these individual elements before class on Elevate, the classroom discussion itself then enabled us to bring them together, to understand how ideologies contain lots of disparate ideas, tropes and discourses, that together produce a vision of the world, and to make sure we would be on the alert to any one of these problematic ideas in future by understanding how they link to all the others. In keeping with my overall focus on what I want students to be able to do as a result of the class, I hope they will be able to recognise, describe and challenge ecofascism in future and quickly understand that it’s not a good thing to ‘like’ or ‘share’.

I’ll write more about my adventures in social annotation later in the term, especially if they work out. (As you can see in the video, I haven’t quite cracked when and how to use it, yet.) Let us know if you have used it yourself and have any thoughts about when it is, or isn’t, useful.