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Graff, Ann-Barbara, Nipissing University, Canada,
Lucas, Kristin, Nipissing University, Canada,
Blustein, James, Dalhousie University, Canada,
Gibson, Robin, Nipissing University, Canada,
Woods, Sharon, Nipissing University, Canada,

NUScholar is an authoritative website and adaptive hypermedia learning environment where undergraduates are introduced to the complex processes of critical scholarly reading.

If Mark Bernstein is right that ‘The future of serious writing will lie on the screen’ (Bernstein 200): 2), then the future of serious reading is also on the screen. In this SSHRC-funded project called NUScholar, Drs. Ann-Barbara Graff and Kristin Lucas (Nipissing University), Dr. James Blustein (Dalhousie University), and student research assistants Robin Gibson and Sharon Woods (Nipissing University), are asking what digital media can do to support the acquisition of foundational academic skills, specifically active reading, annotating and critical thinking. Our objectives address the problems and practices of scholarly readers.

We are operating from two principles: (1) The act of reading is little understood. (2) Students have no idea what we are asking them to do when we instruct them to ‘read this poem’.

The activity of reading is a highly complex cognitive task, involving what Crowder and Wagner (1992: 4) describe as ‘three stupendous achievements’: the development of spoken language, written language, and literacy. Kneepkens and Zwaan (1994: 126) show that ‘In processing text, readers […] decode letters, assign meaning to words, parse the syntactic structure of the sentence, relate different words and sentences, construct a theme for the text and may infer the objectives of the author. Readers attempt to construct a coherent mental representation of the text. In this process, they use their linguistic knowledge (knowledge of words, grammar), and their word knowledge (knowledge of what is possible in reality, cultural knowledge, knowledge of the theme).’ While empirical studies of the reading of literary texts are in their infancy (de Beaugrande 1992), what is known is that reading is not simply a matter of recall, but a ‘complex cognitive and affective transaction involving text-based, reader-based, and situational factors’ (Goertz et al. 1993: 35).

For humanities’ scholars, the primary task is to determine how meaning can be attributed to texts (Dixon et al. 1993). Literary texts pose particular challenges as they rely on allusion, connotation as well as denotation, verbal and situational irony, metaphor and other figurative tropes, and an awareness of etymology and historical possibility. As Warwick observes, much digital humanities research is involved in ‘Digitization projects [which] have revolutionized our access to resources’ (Warwick 2004: 375). Beyond resources, there are 3-D graphical maps of Antony and Cleopatra, Flash animations like ‘What is Print?’ etc., which speak to the strengths of new media to visualize text in new ways. Our work differs from and complements such digitization projects because – avant la lettre digital – we use new media to enable the teaching and learning of core, traditional literary skills.

NUScholar addresses what digital media can do to support the acquisition of close and active reading skills and their cognate, annotation, in part by modeling a number of strategies and also providing, in the case of annotation, an isomorph to effective techniques used with paper (Blustein et al 2011: 252-259).

As to the second point, we accept that students do not have a reference for the task they are being asked to perform, i.e., actively read a poem or prose text to determine ‘how a text means’ in John Ciardi’s phrase. Critical reading is a complex task that does not have a single entry point nor only one path to success.  Because the acquisition of the requisite skills is an open problem (in the cognitive sense), readers need to acquire a wide variety of skills. 

Moreover, as the material encountered becomes more complex and as the expectations increase as one advances through a degree, readers must test those skills upon which they have come to rely. NUScholar uses adaptive hypermedia to assist students in their distilling and acquisition of the skills.  In brief, this poster shows how we are designing the system to support traditional literary skill acquisition by using an hypermedia platform.

Drs. Graff, Lucas, and Blustein are developing an authoritative website (NUScholar) that offers an adaptive hypermedia learning environment where students will be introduced to the processes of critical reading. The website, NUScholar (, includes instructional web videos, animations designed to demystify the task of close reading of poetry and interviews with writers (; it will eventually include an annotated and interactive catalogue of verse, annotation tools, and an editable glossary; it also brings together many resources and potentially points to other tools and projects. As an adaptive hypermedia for education, the design allows for the transfer of the burden to readers/scholars as they proceed through the site.  Eventually, scholars/users will be able to import texts in a variety of common formats (.rtf, .pdf, cut-and-paste), to use any of these features.

We seek to harness the power of digital media to demonstrate strategies of critical reading. The intent is similar to the ‘writing in plain sight’ exercise at Dalhousie University; where students watch someone complete a writing assignment “live” in order to demystify the notion that lightning bolts and magic are involved in writing to task or deadline and also Michael Wesch’s ‘The Machine is Using Us’ (final version) where students appreciate the power of digital media to provide visualizations of complex tasks.


de Beauregard, R. (1992).  Readers Responding to Literature: Coming to Grips with Reality. In E. F. Narduccio (ed.), Reader Response to Literature: The Empirical Dimension. New York:  Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 192-210.

Bernstein, M. (2009). Into the Weeds.  In M. Bernstein and D. Greco (eds.), Reading Hypertext. Watertown: Eastgate, pp. 1-13.

Blustein, J., et al. (2011).  Making Sense in the Margins:  A field study of annotation.  International Conference on Theory and Practice of Digital Libraries (TPDL). Published September 7, 2011.  10.1007/978-3-642-24469-8_27.

Ciardi, J. (1959). How Does a Poem Mean? Boston: Houghton/Mifflin.

Crowder, R. G., and R. K. Wagner (1992). The Psychology of Reading: An Introduction, 2nd edition.  Oxford: Oxford UP.

Dalhousie University.  (2011).  Writing in Plain Site. (accessed 24 January 2011).

Dixon, P., et al. (1993). The Effects of Formal Training on Literary Reception. Poetics 23: 471-487.

Goertz, E., et al. (1993). Imagery and Emotional Response. Poetics 22: 35-49.

Kneepkens, E. W. E. M., and R. A. Zwaan (1993). Emotions and Literary Text Comprehension. Poetics 23: 125-138.

MOMA  (2001).  What is Print. (accessed 24 January 2011).

Nipissing University  (2012).  Canada Council for the Arts Reading Series. (accessed 8 March 2012).

Warwick, C.  (2004).  Print Scholarship and Digital Resources.  In S. Schriebman et al. (eds.),  A Companion to Digital Humanities.  Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Wesch, M. (2007). The Machine is Us/ing Us (Final Version). (accessed 24 January 2011).