Bridging the Gap: Redefining Poe in the 21st Century Classroom

It is no mystery that high school students can struggle with understanding, let alone enjoying, literature from earlier centuries. The diction, structure, and even plot can seem convoluted, and the overall meaning of the work remains hidden. The creation of this particular annotated version of “The Assignation” by Edgar Allan Poe aims to eliminate as many barriers as possible for younger generations working with Poe in their English classes and beyond. Its production hinged upon a number of different factors that would make the reading experience unique and useful, ranging from the edition to even the page design.

To begin, my decision to annotate the 1845 version of “The Assignation” as opposed to its earlier counterpart, “The Visionary,” stemmed from a desire to ensure as much accessibility as possible. Poe’s earlier versions would be far less available to modern day readers due to his verbosity and heavier reliance upon obscure allusions. Through his revisions, “The Assignation,” as published in The Broadway Journal in 1845, shifted away from its original ostentatious intellectualism to a work of fiction with which 21st century readers may be more familiar.

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A Parody: Intellectualism in writing. [Source: larrycuban.wordpress.com/2015/03/22/cartoons-on-reading-and-writing/]
            After choosing an edition, I debated between a print and digital version. While digitizing works is unquestionably valuable for maintaining the legacy and increasing the sustainability of a work and its author, I believe that print versions offer the most benefits in an educational setting. Not only does it allow the student to physically interact with the text, such as underlining passages they would like to come back to or writing their own annotations in the margins, but I also believe the annotation process is more naturally suited to a physical page. In fact, studies show that students are both more likely to connect emotionally to physical texts as well as retain more information when the book is presented in a print format.[1]

Poe Sample Annotation
An Overview: Understanding Poe layout for “The Assignation.”

Keeping in mind the educational level of high school students, and how widely even that may vary, I tended to be cautious and add more annotations than have too few. For example, regardless of context clues, if a word was antiquated, I immediately included the definition in the margins. While possibly copious, these footnotes allow the reader to curate their own reading experience. For those who need it, the information is provided, and for those who don’t, the note still functions as a tangible reference point for future assignments or analysis. “The Assignation” was also heavy with mythological and other classical allusions, which I explained fully but concisely—keeping in mind the precious real estate of the margins.

This concept of allowing the reader to curate his or her own experience dovetails into my decision to use both footnotes and endnotes. There has been some amount of literary analysis about this story, which would be an important component to include along with the general annotations. However, given the amount of space I needed to fully develop these greater themes, and also knowing that many high school students may not even be interested in reading about it, I did not want to waste margin space by placing this information there. Consequently, I discussed larger themes at the immediate end of the work, so the decision to learn more ultimately falls into the hands of the student.

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A Closer Look: Endnotes provide additional information for students in a way that allows them to choose what they want to learn about.

Finally, I was especially conscious of the aesthetic of the layout, as the aesthetics of a book, website, or magazine improve one’s preference to read it. I wanted to create something that was visually appealing to draw readers in and separate it from the old book editions with which many students are familiar and even dismiss. The design also encapsulates the themes and feelings commonly associated with Edgar Allan Poe through the dark color scheme and the ink blotches decorating the page.

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A Closer Look: The color scheme, aesthetic, and layout aim to engage readers in an interesting, accessible way.

From a logistical standpoint, the color scheme also functions as a tool to increase the success of the annotations, as color contrast is proven to positively affect readability.[2] Not only are the annotations themselves a different, brighter color from the body text, but I also highlighted the corresponding word in the paragraphs themselves to allow for easier association and a more fluid reading experience.

On a grander scheme, this annotated version of “The Assignation” aims to keep Poe’s legacy alive through mainstreaming a work that goes beyond the popularized horror stories so many high school students read for their ease of diction and plot. “The Assignation,” paired with these annotations, will ideally provide a way for students to engage in a more profound way with one of the most influential authors in American literature. The annotations will unlock Poe’s rich vocabulary and brilliant use of allusion to deepen the meaning and significance of the story, thereby transforming it into a valuable resource that also peers into Poe’s intellect and his complex identity. By doing so, it will help students look beyond the dark, desperate caricature so often painted of Poe, and instead consider him in a more multifaceted fashion.

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Moving Away from Caricature. Thomas B. Welch and Adam B. Walter, portrait of Edgar Allan Poe. Steel engraving, 1844. From the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection.
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A Singular Identity. Barry Moser, portrait of Edgar Allan Poe. Wood engraving, circa 1990. From the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection.

 

[1] Crum, Maddie. “Sorry, Ebooks. These 9 Studies Show that Print is Better.” The Huffington Post. 27 Feb. 2015. Accessed 9 Apr. 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/27/print-ebooks-studies_n_6762674.html

[2] Hall, Richard H. and Patrick Hanna. “The impact of web page text-background colour combinations on readability, retention, aesthetics, and behavioural intention.” Behavior & Information Technology 23, no. 3 (2004): 187.

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