Reading with Scientists: Annotate. Advocate.

by Abigail Droge
Published October 22, 2018

The version of Frankenstein central to the “Reading with Scientists” syllabus is “Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds” (MIT Press, 2017). Footnotes by multiple authors, some connecting passages to current scientific issues, others filling in literary or historical context, and still others posing difficult ethical questions or providing explicit moral counsel, are liberally sprinkled throughout the novel. In a Preface, the editors describe a collaborative process of annotation:

“We […] sent copies of Frankenstein to professors and students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and asked them to identify key terms and passages requiring elucidation and elaboration for STEM students from high school to graduate school. We received almost one thousand suggestions! And so the editorial work began in earnest. [….] [W]e vetted the lengthy list of suggested annotations and then solicited, assigned, collected, edited, amplified, truncated, massaged, and merged the annotations into the far-ranging critical conversation composing this volume. [….] The end result, we believe, is an edition of Frankenstein that incites a deeply engaging cross-disciplinary exploration […]” (xii-xiii)

Annotation thus becomes a tool not only for intertextual exchange, but also for interdisciplinary exchange. By inserting commentary into a narrative in a way that points outward towards other narratives – be they literary, social, or scientific – this edition of Frankenstein is able to engage multiple audiences in the pursuit of humanistic inquiry. Inspired by this editorial project, I’d like to consider annotation as a pedagogical method for humanities advocacy by sharing an assignment sequence that I have designed for “Reading with Scientists.”

In the first of two assignments, the “Frankenstein Review,” students had 500 words to write a review of three footnotes from our edition of Frankenstein. I provided the following questions as suggested brainstorming prompts:

  • What do you think is the editor’s goal in providing this footnote? Is the footnote successful in achieving that goal?
  • How does the footnote change the novel itself? How would you read this particular passage differently if the footnote were not there?
  • What new interpretations does the footnote make possible? What interpretations does it shut down or not address?
  • What relationship do you think the footnote creates between the reader and the text? What does the note assume about a scientific audience? What does it assume about a non-scientific audience?
  • Does your own educational experience prompt you to respond to the footnote in a certain way?
  • What relationship do the footnotes establish between science and literature? Overall, do you think the footnotes inspire collaboration between different types of readers? Are there any ways in which the footnotes might divide audiences instead?
  • What would you change about the footnotes?

The goal here is to prepare students to think of themselves as editors, capable of creating their own commentaries on literary and scientific texts. The assignment was an opportunity for students to examine how the editors of Frankenstein crafted their annotations and to reflect on what qualities they might adapt or change when given the chance. What are the most effective (or ineffective) ways to create dialogue between literature and science? During an in-class practice round, I broke students into teams and asked each team to choose a passage from Frankenstein that had a footnote attached in our edition. Students had to follow three mental steps: 1) Consider the passage alone; 2) Consider how the footnote changes the passage; 3) Provide a commentary on the effect of the footnote and discuss whether you’d make any changes. Teams then wrote their responses on the board and we came back together for a full class discussion of our findings.

The “Frankenstein Review” led the way to a second assignment, the “Reverse Annotation.” Here I asked students to annotate a scientific text with reference to Frankenstein and to reflect on their editorial strategy. The scientific text could be one from our syllabus (recall that we are alternating on Mondays and Wednesdays between literary and scientific readings – see this post for an example). Or students can choose their own (perhaps a textbook that they have encountered in one of their other classes, for example). This assignment essentially reverses the process of our Frankenstein edition: instead of annotating a literary text with respect to science, we are annotating a scientific text with respect to literature.

The “Reverse Annotation” consists of two parts. First, students must write five substantive footnotes for their scientific text. (We defined “substantive” as at least three sentences long.) In terms of formatting, I asked them to reproduce the scientific passage that they would like to comment on, and then provide their footnote directly below it, yielding five of these pairs total. We discussed the following points to keep in mind:

  • Consider your audience. It is up to you whether you would like to imagine your primary readers for this activity as a scientific audience or a literary audience (or some combination of these/some other category entirely). Would the educational background of the intended audience affect how you approach the exercise? Why or why not? What new understanding do you hope that your audience gains?
  • The tone of your footnotes should be professional and outward-facing. Remember, you are not writing for yourself, but for an imagined audience. Your goal is to help someone else to navigate a scientific text and to put it in conversation with literary concepts.
  • Make sure that you include Frankenstein in some way in each footnote. I encourage you to cite specific scenes, words, and phrases from the novel. The idea is that we are building a direct conversation between two texts from different genres. Assume that your audience is generally familiar with the story of Frankenstein, but that they will still need you to provide context for quotations.
  • Consider the relationship that you want to establish between Frankenstein and the scientific text you choose. Do you see Frankenstein as offering a corrective for issues raised by the scientific text? (For instance, if a textbook on genome editing reads as very positive, should Frankenstein step in with words of caution?) Does Frankenstein provide context for how scientific values are presented? Could narrative categories and strategies help us to understand something new about a scientific text?

In the second part of the assignment, students must provide a 500-word (minimum) commentary on the strategies that they used as editors. How did they decide which passages to put in conversation with each other? What was the most important issue for them to address and how did they do that? How did the texts illuminate or change one another through this exercise? I encouraged them to think back to their “Frankenstein Reviews” and to consider how they wanted to build from or change the editorial strategies that they analyzed there.

When I handed out the “Reverse Annotation” assignment sheet, we did a group practice round, focused on annotating the scientific readings we’d had for the day: excerpts on the ethical issues of AI from Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, Third Edition (Stuart J. Russell and Peter Norvig) and a chapter called “The Responsibilities of Engineers” from Ethics, Technology, and Engineering: An Introduction (Ibo van de Poel and Lambèr Royakkers). (Both are textbooks actually being assigned in UCSB science classes this fall.) The sample annotations that student teams came up with proved creative and illuminating and covered a wide ground. Some saw a supportive relationship between the textbooks and Frankenstein, with each providing notes of caution around scientific process. Others held Victor Frankenstein up to the standards of responsibility which the textbooks laid out for twenty-first-century scientists. An ensuing discussion about the increased bureaucratization of science and the resulting difficulty in ascribing blame to the multiple actors involved when inventions go wrong led us to consider a concluding thought experiment. What if Frankenstein had worked for a biotech company, which had employed him to make the creature? How might such a scenario prompt us to reapportion responsibility, if at all?

By fostering discussions across texts and across disciplines, annotation can be a powerful tool for humanities advocacy. The act of annotating allows students to find connections between otherwise disparate ideas and to communicate those connections for an external audience (i.e., not themselves and not me). By folding stories into each other, we can make the humanities (and the sciences) both more mobile and more porous: able to travel farther distances, and able to catalyze bigger conversations.


Russell, Stuart J and Peter Norvig. Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach. Third Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2010.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds. Eds. David H. Guston, Ed Finn, and Jason Scott Robert. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.

Van de Poel, Ibo and Lambèr Royakkers. Ethics, Technology, and Engineering: An Introduction. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

This post is part of a series about the ongoing UC Santa Barbara English course “Reading with Scientists: How to Export Literature.” For context, read more about the motivations and design process behind the course. 

The goal of the Curriculum Lab is to ensure a steady dialogue between research and teaching for the WhatEvery1Says project. For more information, see our webpage and this introductory blog post, and stay tuned for more Curriculum Lab posts throughout the year!